Squam Lakes on the Ledge Are at Your Leisure

  • South Peak in Ashland, N.H.'s Whitten Woods yields views of Big Squam and Little Squam lakes.

Special to the Valley News
Saturday, June 02, 2018

Happenstance happens while hiking. It can be quietly turning a corner and coming upon a feeding moose or deer. As Appalachian Trail thru-hikers know around northern New England and beyond, trail angels abound, perhaps offering food, a ride or lodging.

Sometimes, though, the trails find you.

Such was the case on a mid-May day with temperatures just above 60 degrees when I had business in the New Hampshire Lakes Region town of Ashland. Afterward, my wife, Jan, and I had planned to do a 5.5-mile hike in nearby Holderness that would have us using ladders and squeezing through caves.

But on the way over, we popped into the Squam Lakes Association just to see what there was to see, and that’s when we were first introduced to Whitten Woods. A trail brochure with clear directions and maps highlighted several properties, including the nearly 500-acre hilly parcel owned by New England Forestry Foundation and Squam Lakes Conservation Society. The area is managed by the SLA.

The handout foretold of two small peaks that feature nice views of Little Squam, Big Squam and the Pemigewasset River Valley.

We left and continued to Ashland. My wife took the car when I was working and upon my return told me of a surprise.

It wasn’t the appreciated decaf waiting in the car. Instead, she had passed the readily found Whitten Woods trailhead on Highland Street, a minute or so drive from where we were, and that’s where we went.

A hiker — protected from tenacious black flies with long pants, a long-sleeve shirt and head net — was finishing his trek, having walked each of the color-coded trails: red, green (South Peak Trail) and blue (North Peak Trail). Familiar with the relatively easy trails, he said the views were better from 1,364-foot South Peak than 1,137-foot North Peak.

When he returned to the trail to reconnect with his wife, who was behind him, we looked at the map at the kiosk and decided to hike to North Peak, then South Peak, covering more than three miles of trails.

The history of Whitten Woods was also there to read, the tale of local legend Reuben Whitten. The 1815 eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora had a severe global impact, resulting in the 1816 “year without summer.” Snow or killer frost was recorded in Ashland every month of that year, with crop failures the norm. Whitten’s higher fields and south-facing slopes yielded wheat, potatoes, apples and other produce that the family provided to neighbors “throughout the difficult year thus, saving many lives,” according to the literature.

We entered the hardwood domain that opened to foot travel in 2016 on a wide, one-time-working woods road amidst the calls of song birds and an occasional light breeze stalling the winged invasion. Soon enough, a new noise emanated, zinging zaps. There came the hiker and his netted wife, both swinging badminton-styled electronic insect zappers. We exchanged pleasantries as they returned to their vehicle, and I then wondered if just witnessed the birth of a new sport — paddle hiking.

Bird box, wild violets and well-placed trail maps along the way were part of the landscape as we passed the turnoff for South Peak and continued to the North Peak loop. We hiked it counter-clockwise, saving the best views for last.

Two outlooks served up first looks at the lovely lakes made famous in the 1981 summer classic movie On Golden Pond before we arrived at the viewless rocky summit with its blueberry patches. The Whitten way wiggled and narrowed there, edging down and up through an inviting birch canopy and widening out again as we retraced our steps to that South Peak junction.

Stone cairns stood guard on the upward march, an open pasture with rippling mountains on the horizon foreshadowing what lay ahead.

The South Peak vista, with its picnic table and visitors log kept in a plastic container, was a beautiful surprise, a delightful perch over a kingdom of forest, lakes and mountains.

The network is also used by trail runners, snowshoers and cross country skiers. In fall, without those black flies, it’s got to be even more amazing.

A South Peak only hike is about a mile-long, out-and-back venture. No matter how many steps you take to get there, Whitten Woods will wow you.

Marty Basch can be reached at marty.basch@gmail.com.