Tuesday, August 8, 2023

The Willey Range

The Willey Range stands on the west side of Crawford Notch in New Hampshire's White Mountains. The range contains three 4,000 foot summits; Mt. Tom, Mt. Field, and Mt. Willey. as well as a couple of lower mountains. The Willey Range sees a fair amount of traffic from peakbaggers. Despite the peakbagger traffic, the Willey Range is literally overlooked and overshadowed by the Presidential Range on the other side of Crawford Notch. As a result, it seems like most people hike the Willey Range's highest peaks only out of obligation to climb the 48 New Hampshire 4,000' mountains.

I originally planned on hiking the Willey Range last September as part of a longer backpacking trip. Due to lingering rain, I postponed my trip and lost a day of hiking. As a result I skipped the Willey Range to save some time. After that trip I was down to my last five remaining of the 48 4,000' peaks of New Hampshire. Hoping to hike the last five mountains before I left the Northeast next year, I planned a trip to New Hampshire. First on my list, tackle the three 4,000 footers of the Willey Range. 

Not many people say much about the Willey Range's 4,000 footers, so I expected a mediocre hike as far as views and scenery. Nonetheless, I set off on the first day of August on a beautiful day. Unlike most hikes, I actually started this hike in the early afternoon, hitting the trail at 1240PM. This worked out well finding a parking spot as morning hikers started to clear and I found a spot right at the trailhead.

Before I hit the trail, I changed into my hiking clothing and shoes in my van. An extremely loud roar shook the area. An A-10 military jet flew through Crawford Notch. I missed it but a second one soon followed. The plane was extremely low to the ground before climbing steeply out of the notch. I always enjoy these experiences, holding a pilot license myself. Before I started hiking, they came back for a second low pass. Unfortunately I didn't have my camera ready

I began hiking from the trailhead on the Avalon Trail I passed quite a few hikers on my way up as the morning hikers were returning. The trail was fairly typical of the White's with a mix of rock and roots, but nothing too terrible. At a junction to Mt. Avalon I split off onto the A to Z Trail and made my toward the crest of the Willey Range.

Trailside mountain stream

Rooty and rocky trail

Nice trail work

Mossy root around a mossy rock

My first destination for the day was Mt. Tom. At the saddle of Tom and Field a marked trail leads .6 miles to the summit of Tom. Other than a few rocky spots, the spur to Tom climbs fairly gradually. A cairn marks the lackluster 4,051' summit. I followed a few of the herd paths short distance but didn't find much in the way of views other than obstructed peeks through the trees. The summit of Mt. Tom stands less than three miles from the trailhead, and by itself, is an easy climb.

Turn off for Mt. Tom

Small scramble on Mt.Tom Spur 

Summit cairn on Mt. Tom

With several more mountains ahead of me, I descended back to the saddle below Tom and joined the Willey Range Trail. From the saddle, Mt. Field stands less than a mile away. I was surprised at how gentle the climbing was enroute to Field. For the Whites, the trail was quite easy. The only challenge came during the last 100 yards below the summit when the trail climbed more steeply over rockier terrain. I reached Field in less than twenty minutes from the saddle.

Turn off from A to Z Trail

Trail enroute to Mt. Field

Just below the summit of Mt. Field

Summit cairn on Field

At 4,340', Mt. Field stands as the highest peak in the Willey Range, good enough to rank as New Hampshire's 23rd highest mountain. I didn't have great expectations for views on Field, but was pleasantly surprised by a couple of nice openings in the trees. One view looked directly towards the Mount Washington Resort near Bretton Woods. North and South Twin Mountains dominated the view to the west.

Looking towards Mt. Washington Resort

Looking toward the Twins

Not terrible views despite a treed summit

Most hikers to the higher mountains of Northern New England have been visited by Grey Jays at some point. At least one Grey Jay was hanging out in the small clearing on Field. I held out food but the bird seemed shy. A few times it flew towards me, but it didn't take my offering. After its last pass, it flew to the ground and started picking at someone's discarded toilet paper. It's probably for the better this particular bird didn't land on my hand.

I started the 1.4 mile traverse to Mt. Willey. I was pleasantly surprised by the numerous views as the trail descended from Field. The trail between Field and Willey takes on a more rugged nature. At times during the descent, the trail negotiates rockier terrain. The vegetation along the trail has started to encroach the trail in a few spots. Unlike the climb of Field that seemed to go by fast, the traverse to Willey seemed slow.

Carrigain and the Hancocks

Closeup of Carrigain

Dense woods between Field and Willey

After passing a couple of partial views, I reached the summit cairn of 4,285' Mt. Willey. While the summit itself lacks any scenery, I found descent views just below the summit that looked to the south. Mt. Carrigain dominates the view. Although I didn't go beyond the summit, after the fact, I read of potentially good scenery just beyond the summit to the south as well.

Willey's summit cairn

Partial views on Willey

Carrigain and the Hancocks from Willey


Looking towards Loon Mountain, you could just
barely see the ski trails

I retraced the trail back to Field. The return trip seemed to go by much quicker. I stopped to enjoy the views near Field once again. 100 yards past Field's summit, I turned onto the Avalon Trail.

Rocky workaround near Willey

Field through the trees

Loose section of rocky trail

Another rocky jumble along the trail

Back on Field

Franconia Ridge just barely poking out in 
the distance

The Avalon Trail descends at a good clip from Field. After a steep descent, it levels out before reaching the junction for Mt. Avalon. A fairly challenging scramble leads 100 yards to Avalon. The side trail to Avalon is actually the most challenging part of the entire hike. Don't pass this side trail up however. 3,442' Avalon has much better views than Willey, Field, or Tom.

Junction of Avalon and Willey Range Trails

Bog bridges along Avalon Trail

Turn off for Mt. Avalon

Rocky trail to Avalon

Scramble enroute to Avalon

Avalon's open perch offers unobstructed views across Crawford Notch. The Presidential Range dominates this view. Most of the range can be seen, including Mt. Washington. The cliff-strewn west side of Mt. Webster is probably the most eye-catching feature. You also take in a nice perspective looking south through the notch. There are also unobstructed views of back toward the higher mountains of the Willey Range.

Looking south through Crawford Notch

Mt. Webster

Closeup view south through the Notch

Mt. Washington and the  Northern Presidential Range

Shoulder of Willey

Ridge between Willey and Field


After enjoying the scenery from Avalon, I returned back to the Avalon Trail. The trail travels close to Crawford Brook. I heard a loud rush of water through the woods and followed the sound a short distance to the brook. A nice little flume 15 or so feet high, rushing into a small canyon caused the roar. I checked on a map and online and couldn't find the name of this waterfall. 

Junction of Avalon and A to Z Trails

Unnamed waterfall

Just below the flume I reached the Cascade Loop, a short spur off of the Avalon Trail. The loop leads to two more waterfalls, Pearl Cascade and Beecher Cascade. Both falls are worth the very short side trip.  After a tenth of a mile the loop rejoins the main trail.

Start of the Cascade Loop

Pearl Cascade

Pearl Cascade from further downstream

Beecher Cascade

After the Cascade Loop, I traveled the last half-mile or so back to trailhead. I reached the trailhead about 520PM. The total distance for the full hike is right around 10 miles. I couldn't have asked for a better day as far as the weather goes. The day was cool for August with no humidity and great visibility. The valley was only in the 60s with comfortable 50s on the summits.

Bright orange mushroom

Having not heard much about this hike, I didn't have much in the way expectations. I was actually pleasantly surprised by the this trip. There were more views than I expected from both Field and Willey. The terrain was generally easier than I expected for a 10 mile trip in the Whites. If you are plugging away at ticking off peaks on the New Hampshire 48, I recommend adding Avalon to a trip in the Willey Range. Avalon's scenery really adds to the experience. I also recommend checking out the Cascade Loop to the end of the hike.

While there are more impressive ranges in the Whites such as the Presidentials and Franconia Ridge, the Willey Range has its charms. The waterfalls and Avalon probably outshine the actual summits that most people are seeking, but it doesn't take much to add them on to your hike to get the most out of the Willey Range.  

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