During a summer vacation at Black Cat Island in southern New Hampshire, my friend Irma and I hiked the Mount Morgan & Mount Percival Loop trail. Located near Center Sandwich, New Hampshire, the 5.2 mile heavily trafficked loop is a favorite. The best time to hike is between April through October, according to All Trails. The wild flower bloom profusely.
Kayaking, swimming, biking, boating, hiking are just a few of thrills discovered during a vacation at Lake Winnipesaukee—Winnipesaukee translated from Abenaki means “beautiful water in a high place.” All I can tell you is that the landscape is pure poetry—a giant lake (New Hampshire’s largest) framed by the mountains and evergreen trees. The sight squeezes your heart like a tight hug especially early in the morning listening to the lonely loon call his mate.
Well naturally after being cooped up in my city condo since stay-in-shelter orders began in mid-March in Washington, DC, my spirit soared to spread its wings in “Dawn Land” (translation for Wabanahkik, the New England region home of the Abenaki Native American tribe that lived here.)
Mount Morgan & Mount Percival Loop
Irma suggested the “easy” 5.2-mile Mount Morgan & Mount Percival Loop hike, just 25 minutes by car from Moultonborough. Since we are early risers, we packed the car and left by 8:45 a.m.
Mask? Check. Back packs? Check. Bottled water? Check. Sun tan lotion. Check. Bear spray? Check.
Wait a minute. Bear spray? That’s right. This is Bear Country. Just one month earlier, Irma, her husband Rick plus her daughter Carla and niece Deborah encountered a bear while hiking in the mountains. It was a standoff luckily but who wants to dance with bears? (They also met a porcupine on the path.)
The trail is located near Sandwich, New Hampshire, a quaint country town that deserves its own visit.
The All-Trails app rates the Mount Morgan & Mount Percival Loop hike as “moderate.” We didn’t bother to read the ratings (4.6-stars hike) which added the adjective “strong” to moderate. Other hikers described as “definitely a workout,” “challenging but fun” and “a freaking blast.”
The recommended route is clockwise—which means climbing Mount Morgan first and then Mount Percival. We arrived early enough to snare a parking spot in the main lot, but there is a second (overflow) parking lot across the road. Both lots were nearly full before 9 am. Clearly Nature was a magnet, pulling folks out of their houses and into the woods.
The first two miles of our hike were a steady incline with lots of distractions including summer flowers, moss-draped rocks and pungent trees. Clearly the trails were well kept.
I was astounded when I came upon Nature’s Staircase complete with tree branches cut into log steps and buried into the hill. Rocks were molded around the log steps. We stopped half way up to just look back down the mountain at the groves of trees. Everywhere we saw the white birch (Betula papyrifera) which is the state tree of New Hampshire.
The intricate web of carved wood tendrils curled and encircled each other. It was propped high on the ground. Hard dirt was packed around a chunk of roots. Moss bloomed on the bark. Tiny green leaves popped up around the base. Irma and I stared in shock. Exquisite. Only in retracing our steps back down the path did we realize that we were staring at an uprooted tree with all its roots exposed.
Rot had not yet destroyed a single tendril of the underground branches of the tree. We could view closeup how this system anchors a tree to a long life.
After taking multiple photos, we continued our climb. Our destination was Mount Morgan but we didn’t realize that there were two forest entrances—path or ladders. Irma bravely went ahead of me. She called back directions as she carefully placed each boot on step.
The ladder “ascent” actually consists of two separate ladders perched onto the rock face that must be climbed. After Irma reached the top, I began the climb. I held onto each rung above me as I climbed up the two ladders toward the cave. Then I had to adroitly throw my leg over to the third ladder (located on the right) and heave my body over the rock to get a footing.
After climbing this third ladder, I would need to pull myself up onto a rock to enter into a dark cave to cross to the other side of the path. My breath was shallow. I was dreading falling. When I mistakenly looked down, I gulped.
Vertigo. Bad. Nope.
I stopped before this last step. Irma bravely ascended but chose to come back down the ladders to rejoin me. But if she had followed the ladder trail, she would have climbed through a cave to reach the summit.
We instead walked around the huge boulders to find the path up. Our reward was an iPhone moment—the panoramic view of the hazy blue lake country below framed by the blue evergreen forest and sapphire sky. Other hikers lazily propped themselves on the rocks to eat a snack and rest.
Irma and I navigated our way around the hikers who plopped down every where. Off to the side we found a rock ledge to pose (sans mask) for our “We Hiked To Mount Morgan” photo. I felt so proud as I surveyed the land below. One day earlier I had braved a 10-hour drive from DC to travel to New Hampshire. Now Irma and I had climbed what felt like the top of the world to see New Hampshire’s green-clad mountain ranges spread out below. Lake Winnipesaukee looked like a giant puzzle piece.
Reciting Dickinson Poem
I fantasized about the assembled hikers spontaneously sharing their favorite nature poems. I would have recited Emily Dickinson’s “Psalm of the Day.”
“A something in a summer’s day,
As sIow her flambeaux burn away,
Which solemnizes me.
A something in a summer’s noon, —
An azure depth, a wordless tune,
Transcending ecstasy . . .”—Emily Dickinson
The second part of our hike involved crossing the ridge to get to Mount Percival. It’s easy to get lost off the trail if you don’t follow the yellow “blazes” (trail signs). Now it was rock scrambling time; I was sorely missing my trekking poles. Thirty minutes later we stood atop Mount Percival, transfixed by the view.
We debated how we would descend with the dog Luna and her owners. Caves or cliffs? Luna ‘s owners chose the caves while we preferred the cliffs. (I get claustrophobic in closed spaces.) We had to climb back down from Mt. Percival (2,212 feet). After a short stop for a snack and a big gulp of water, we pulled on our back packs. We had a lot of rocks to climb down.
Irma and I both (erroneously) thought the path back to the car would be easier then the steep climb to Mount Morgan. Wrong! The word “cliff” is not interchangeable for “trail,” as we quickly learned, when we had to get on our butts to shimmy down a steep rock face or grab a tree branch to safely maneuver around rock ledges.
It was always glorious when we reached a few feet of grassy mountain trail. But mostly we had to scramble around a lot of rocks on our descent. Midway down we met our young friends and Luna. The 1-year-old Labrador retriever couldn’t safely manage the caves so they had to change route and lift her over the harder cliffs.
As we saw hikers below us, we promised them of the rewarding summit above. (And silently I thought how glad I was to be almost down the mountain.) Our “easy” morning hike had morphed into a morning-turned-early-afternoon adventure. I was reminded of 60 Minutes correspondent Andy Rooney who wryly noted:
“Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you are climbing it.”—Andy Rooney
Man did we climb hard today! When we finally emerged out of the scruff of trees, our car couldn’t be found. We had ignored the final direction to head back toward Mount Morgan and ended up in the Mount Percival parking lot. So we “looped” back up the highway about a quarter of a mile to the Mount Morgan parking lot to our Audi.
Irma’s toe was throbbing painfully inside her hiking book. My left foot ached from scrambling down too many rocks and hitting the arch to hard. But neither of us could say anything but “amazing” and “great.” Six miles and nearly four hours after we began our adventure, we had ascended two summits.
We learned you don’t get to see the full picture—the highest point on the mountain—without climbing (a lot). But that is the point about getting outside during this pandemic. Wear your mask. Keep 6-feet apart. But give your brain a break.
Hiking is a natural “pill” to ward off the anxiety and stress. My feet might hurt but my head is up in the clouds.
Smile of the Great Spirit
BTW another Abenaki name for Lake Winnipessaukee is “smile of the Great Spirit.” I honestly believe that I never stopped smiling during my 6-day vacation on Lake Winni’s shores, due in no small part to my host Irma and Rick’s hospitality. But I also have to credit the Granite State’s mountains. This city gal found refuge just as John Muir, the Scottish evangelist of spending time in Nature (and founder of the Sierra Club, promised.
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”—John Muir
Thank you Irma, Rick and the Granite State. The Great Spirit smiled on me.
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