Sunday, July 7, 2013

Cherry Mountain - Jefferson Notch Loop

I debated Sunday whether to join a group road ride or explore some new terrain in the mountains. The last road ride I did nearly resulted in casualties (story forthcoming), and the weather looked iffy up north. What to do...

I flipped a mental coin and headed north with my 29er hardtail. A short gravel grinder loop I've been aware of for some time needed a visit by the Hill Junkie. I searched far and wide to spice up the loop a bit. The seasonal mountain pass roads Old Cherry Mountain Rd and Jefferson Notch Rd weren't really enough by themselves to warrant a drive up. Various maps, forums and blogs mentioned ancient routes through the mountains north of Rt 2. It seems landowner disagreements may have cut off the primary through route through there and the trail fell into disrepair. Scratch that. Poking around in Strava, I noticed one of the riders that rode Old Cherry Mountain Rd also did a spur that when up much, much higher. I've gotten suckered by tracks like these before, where the track was actually a hiking track.

But no, it looked like three Strava users have biked up Cherry Mountain, or more properly, to the summit of Martha Mountain. There used to be a fire lookout at the summit, and the route followed the old wagon trail. A little more research showed the route is a popular snowmobile route and is maintained. Hmmm, wonder how rideable it was after all the rain? Was it fully overgrown, as most snowmobile routes become in the summer? I was going to find out.

I parked on Rt 302, just before Bretton Woods, at the base of Old Cherry Mountain Rd. This narrow dirt road is not maintained in the winter. It rises 700ft in 3.5mi with some moderately steep grades before descending to the Jefferson side. With no warmup, I hit it fairly hard.

At the summit, a barely-there gated road goes off the the left, which leads to the Martha Mountain summit. It didn't look good - steep, rocky, wet and overgrown. Once I got back under the dense canopy, there was a well defined singletrack weaving up the plush snowmobile corridor. Sweet! The next mile wasn't all smiles and easy spinning through. There were numerous wet spots, some very steep. A couple forced dabs. It could have been much worse though, as it hadn't rained in a few days. Further up, things stayed much drier but also got much steeper. The Garmin indicated 15-20% grade many times. I wanted a workout, and I was getting it.

Eventually the route hooks north and you start to see light through the trees to either side. The grade relaxes some. The trail was completely dry with a powerful aroma of balsam fir on the breeze. I passed the junction of Cherry Mtn Tr that comes up from Rt 115 at 2-3x the grade I was climbing, a much more popular hiking route. I knew I was close to the summit at this point, but I had no idea of the wall I was about to hit.

The final 200ft to the summit was a ball buster. I gave it my best shot, having no idea how long it would persist or how steep it would get. I did not clean it. Maybe on a really good day. I did ride it down. The summit was 2200ft above my car per the Garmin, climbed mostly off-road.  The summit has clearings in all directions. As I expected, extreme humidity and overcast severely obscured the views. I've read that this summit offers the best view of the Presidential Range. I'll definitely have to come back on a clear day.

There is another peak, lower, but more open just to the north called Owl's Head. I started hiking over to it but abandoned. I didn't want to break a leg up here. My MTB shoes were absolutely treacherous on greasy roots and rocks. The trail may be rideable but also not without risk.

The bugs were freaking nightmarish up top. No deer flies, but every other kind of flying pestilence under the sun was up there, including black flies by the millions, horse flies, mosquito, no-see-ems and more. I booked it back down. With deep ferns shrouding much of the trail tread, I didn't quite dare let my speed run out. Didn't want to wreck up here, as even though I told Cathy where I was going, she probably wouldn't be able to direct somebody to look here. I never saw another soul on this excursion.

Back on Old Cherry Mountain Rd, I bombed down the north side. Crazy fun on a mountain bike, but I would never want to head down that side on a road bike. Lots of super chunky gravel/rocks and rutted out areas. Stopped briefly to see if a couple on a MTB tandem needed any assistance. They flatted and had everything they needed.

I cut across on Valley Rd to Jefferson Notch Rd. Never ridden this bit of Valley Rd before. It offered some fine views of the Presidentials, with the Mt Washington summit nearly 5000ft above.

Jefferson Notch is a road I've ridden several times, always on a road bike. The gravel is good to fair most of the time, getting a bit loose in drier months. Wasn't going to set any speed records going up with MTB and 20psi in the tires. As far as I knew, it was still closed at some point from hurricane Irene damage. The north side was fully open, and I was surprised to not see any barriers up top. Don't even know what side was originally damaged. Both sides have streams alongside. It was fully open now.

Bombing down the south side was so much more fun on a MTB than road bike. Almost no speed checking was needed. Of all those times I rode with groups, saw the sparkling swimming holes below, thinking how nice it would be to stop and soak, well, that time had come. No group to worry about. You'd think with how warm it's been, the water would have been warm. It took your breath away, like snow melt cold. I bet it wasn't over 55F. Anyway, sitting 30 seconds in that will pull your core body temp down very quickly. It was nearly all downhill to the car after this, a great way to finish off a ride.

I finished with 34.4mi, 4600ft in 3.3hrs on the Garmin. This is a must-do again loop, maybe in the fall when leaves change and it is dry. I'm also eyeing a route to the top of Bretton Woods that would make a nice addition to this loop, giving something like 6000+ feet of climbing on dirt in about 40 miles.  I'll leave you with a photo dump from the ride in no particular order.

Cherry Mountain Trail, near summit

Jefferson Brook. Ice bath on slippery rocks. Almost went for a ride.

Heading south from Jefferson Notch Rd summit. That might be Mt Eisenhower in distance.

Highest "highway" in New Hampshire.

The Presidential Range from Mt Martha summit. Here are shots from a hiker on a clear day.

More of the summit trail.

Presidentials form Valley Rd

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