Trail Trials: On Smarts Mountain, in a through-hiker’s wake

  • Of the Appalachian Trail's 2,190 miles, about four of them will cover the distance from the Lambert Ridge trailhead to the summit of Smarts Mountain in Lyme, N.H.

  • Woodpecker damage on a tree along the Lambert Ridge Trail on the way to the summit of Smarts Mountain in Lyme, N.H., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020.

  • Heading down from the summit of Smarts Mountain, hikers have the choice of the Lambert Ridge Trail, right, or the Ranger Trail, left , to return to the parking lot for both routes in Lyme, N.H.

  • Words of wisdom cover the top of the door to an abandoned ranger cabin near the summit of Smarts Mountain in Lyme, N.H., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020.

  • The fire tower atop 3,238-foot Smarts Mountain in Lyme, N.H., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. The tower affords hikers panoramic views and is open to anyone willing to climb its steps.

  • A log staircase sits below a set of iron-bar steps on a portion of the Appalachian Trail below the summit of Smarts Mountain in Lyme, N.H., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020.

  • An abandoned facemask hangs from the branch of a tree along the Ranger Trail in Lyme, N.H., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020.

  • The 3,238-foot profile of Smarts Mountain hovers over Reservoir Pond in Lyme, N.H., on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/12/2020 9:36:50 PM
Modified: 9/13/2020 10:09:10 AM

I admire the through-hikers of the Appalachian Trail, although I’ll never be one.

The time has long since passed when I could commit the time and resources to go on a 2,190-mile walk in the woods. I’ve instead been honored to chronicle how a former Lebanon High football standout completed the trek, and I’ve watched from a distance as a former Valley News photographer did the same.

In lieu of the lengthy commitment required of a through-hike, I take the rare opportunity to cover bits and pieces of the AT. It’s what led me to try a loop route of 3,238-foot Smarts Mountain last week. The ascent from the trailhead on the Lyme-Dorchester Road is all AT, about 4 miles of it.

I may be committing just a few hours to the cause, but I like to think it connects me to the through-hiker in a microscopic way.

The vast majority of AT through-hikers travel south to north, beginning in Georgia in early spring with the hope of completing the trip in Maine before cold weather takes full hold by autumn. The most difficult terrain comes in New England, especially in the White Mountains, with long stretches above the treeline accessed only through lung-stretching ascents and joint-jangling descents. The through-hiker saves the best, or worst, for last.

Smarts Mountain is something of an outlier. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to identify from any Upper Valley byway; you have to take a deep dive into the woods, to Lyme’s Reservoir Pond, to see it, and even then it doesn’t call attention to itself.

Underestimate it at your peril.

The uphill portion of a Smarts Mountain hike on the AT begins as the Lambert Ridge Trail, and it smacks you across the face right from the start with a steep mile-long rise. You get some regional history within the first half-mile as the trail splits an old stacked-stone boundary wall. The path levels out after 45 minutes atop Lambert Ridge, which provides a lovely 180-degree panorama to the south and west that includes Green Woodlands and the gash of Holt’s Ledge, next to the Dartmouth Skiway’s Don Worden Schuss race trail.

From here, the ridge affords a leisurely set of uphill and downhill rolls, which allows you to pick up the pace and make good time. It lulls you into a false sense of comfort, however, as Smarts tests you with another mile-long staircase of rocks leading to the summit.

After 3½ miles, the AT unites with the Smarts Ranger Trail, the other route available to the mountaintop from the trailhead parking lot. Reaching the summit includes climbing two ladders — one constructed of logs, the other of iron bars drilled into the rock — before the mountain’s abandoned fire tower comes into sight.

The tower, which went out of use in the mid-1970s, remains sturdy and is open to visitors to view the surrounding territory over the trees that populate the summit. A former ranger cabin is a tenth of a mile farther down, and beyond that — along the Daniel Doan Trail — is the Mike Murphy Spring, named after the last ranger to occupy the edifice. (A trailhead sign recommends hikers not refill their water supplies from the spring; as it was, this summer’s relative drought left it dry when I arrived.)

In nice weather, Smarts Mountain is a good resting point for the through-hiker. Between the cabin and a nearby tent site, overnight options abound. A rustic privy is also close at hand; with most of its metal roof blown off, it’s seen better days.

A sign-in book awaits cabin visitors. And, as you might expect, graffiti abounds, although little of it objectionable (if you discount one rube’s edited attempt to defend the president). The words that most resonated with me were penned on a rafter: “Just Be Good, That’s All.”

The Ranger Trail provides an easier route home, the junction coming just past the half-mile mark of the downhill return. Beware the first 1½ miles, however; they are rock-strewn and can be slippery if wet.

It doesn’t appear to be a well-traveled or well-maintained path; I counted fewer than a dozen light blue blazes as markers, although there was little mistaking the route. Despite constantly having to break through cobwebs, the trail does get some traffic — a disposable facemask left on a tree branch provided the evidence. Grant Brook is probably lovely when filled with snowmelt; it drops into a deep ravine at one point along the way.

The AT portion of the trip was the highlight for me, and it added to a lifetime of meager mileage. I did a day hike between Woodstock and West Hartford with a Green Mountain Club group years ago. I’ve covered about a mile on either side of Mount Washington’s summit. I recall a short family trek on a portion of the AT in Shenandoah National Park as a kid. I’m up to maybe 15 miles altogether now.

Just another 2,175 more to go.

Greg Fennell can be reached at or 603-727-3226.

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