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Day Tripping: A Fall Hike Up Mount Mexico

Thomas P. Caldwell - October 14, 2013





Big Rock Caves

The rock caves make a marvelous natural playground with plenty of tunnels to explore and rocks to climb over. The slanting boulders bring out the child in anyone, and Inga pretends to hold up the massive slab of rock.

Warm, early-October temperatures, along with foliage that in some areas was already spectacular, prompted us to take a Saturday morning hike in the White Mountain National Forest up Mount Mexico and down through the Sandwich Range Wilderness to the Big Rock Caves and Whitin Brook.

Our daughter, Inga, joined my wife, Lee, and myself for the trip which also included our three dogs, two backpacks, and hiking poles to help negotiate the steeper portions of the trail. Although the trail is moderate, there are a few sections that can be quite demanding.

To reach the Mount Mexico trail, we traveled Route 25 to Route 113, heading north toward Sandwich, then turning east on Route 113-A to Wonalancet. Once the road makes a sharp right turn in Wonalancet, it is a short distance to the parking lot on the right side of the road; the trail for Mount Mexico lies across the road, on the left.

We previously had hiked a trail on the same side of the road as the parking area, which is a pleasant, easy hike alongside a brook — perfect for a relaxing walk that will not require a lot of time, unless one chooses to linger and perhaps take a picnic lunch.

Our focus that day was a trail we had not completed before. Crossing the road to reach the trail, the journey began along a driveway that soon forks. There is a small, easily missed sign marked “Trail” pointing to the right fork, which leads past a house on the right. That is the beginning of the Cabin Trail which itself forks after .3 mile, bearing to the left. To the right is the Big Rock Cave Trail, which was where we were going.

Since one of our dogs is named Bear, we found some humor in the signs posted at the beginning of the Cabin Trail by the Black Bear Foundation, warning against trespassing by bear dogs. At the same time, we recognized the importance of protecting the habitat of the black bear which is losing territory to development with each year that passes — not a laughing matter.

Mount Paugus Cliffs

As the path descends, there is a view of the Mount Paugus cliffs through the early fall foliage.

Since we were alone on the trail and knew they would return when we called, we were able to let two of our dogs run free, chasing the scents and working off the excess energy from an hour-long drive from our home to reach Wonalancet. The third dog, a recent acquisition from a rescue shelter, had to remain on a leash, but she was eagerly taking in the scents and enjoying the outdoors.

The Big Rock Cave Trail soon narrowed and there was another sign indicating the start of the Sandwich Range Wilderness. The steady upward climb continued through mostly deciduous trees that were showing their fall colors. After a little more than a mile, the trail leveled off at the 2,020-foot summit. The views there were limited to the colorful trees, for the forest remained dense, but it was a pleasant area to hike and the level ground provided a welcome break from the climb we had just completed.

Soon the trail began a series of moderately steep descents as it continued to the boulder caves, at an altitude of 1,700 feet. Suddenly, there they were on the right: huge slabs of rock lying against each other to form arches and caverns — a natural playground that brought out the child in each of us. We scrambled over the boulders and under the outcroppings, ducking into the caves they formed and making our way through the tunnels to emerge under other impressive boulders. Our dogs found the entrance of one of the caves to be a perfect spot to lie down and relax while the humans played.

Finally satisfied that we had seen all there was to see at the Big Rock Cave, we continued down the path to Whitin Brook where the water cascaded over the boulders and formed small pools where the dogs cooled off and took care of their thirst.

While it would have made a great picnic spot, we decided to continue across the stream and along the trail on the other side, holding off on our meal until we reached one of the other stream crossings we had read about.

Whitin Brook

Reaching Whitin Brook, a small cascade and pool makes an inviting spot for a picnic before continuing along the trail.

On the other side of Whitin Brook, the marked trail continues straight up Mount Paugus, which reaches an altitude of 3,198 feet, but we took the unmarked but well-trodden Whitin Brook Trail to the left, circling around the base of Mount Mexico. Our hope of finding another good picnic spot along the brook faded when, after a few more stream crossings, the trail veered away from the brook and began climbing back up Mount Mexico. Once we were convinced there would be no better spots to rest, we perched on a fallen log and pulled out the food and water for a picnic on the side of the hill.

It was while we were resting that we heard a sharp whistle and soon a couple appeared with their dog — the only other people we would encounter on our journey. They had made a clockwise journey down from the intersection of Cabin Trail and Whitin Brook Trail, going in the opposite direction of our trek.

We continued up the trail, soon arriving at the most arduous portion of the hike, a steep, half-mile climb through a section of heavily damaged, wind-blown trees. Fortunately, the trailwrights in the area had used chainsaws to cut openings in the fallen logs so the passage was clear except for a few spots where it was necessary to duck under nearly horizontal tree trunks. There were plenty of places to pause and take a breather, so the climb was not as taxing as one might have thought.

Finally, we reached the junction with the Cabin Trail and turned left to complete our loop. The trail soon began a gentle descent that would continue the rest of the hike until we reached the beginning.

Blowdown

A path cut through an area of a massive blowdown presents a challenge as it climbs for about half a mile as it leads back to the Cabin Trail.

Tired but contented, we left Mount Mexico behind, happy that we’d had a chance for one final warm-weather hike this year.

Completing the 5.6-mile loop around Mount Mexico typically takes about five hours, with 3.5 hours of actual hiking and the rest of the time lost to cave exploration, admiring the scenery, and lunch. One needs to be relatively fit for the steeper portions but it is a hike nearly anyone can make if one takes it slowly and rests when necessary. Or simply hike the brook trail across the street and enjoy a day out in Wonalancet. 

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