By Justin Shatwell
Assistant Editor, Yankee Magazine
Not a native New Englander, I never went on a childhood vacation to Mt. Monadnock. I first saw the lonely peak as a grown man when I moved to Keene a year ago. From a distance it’s a rare beauty — solitary and serene — and for a time I naively believed it would have the same qualities up close. But I soon discovered what every 12-year-old in New England already knows: Just like Walden Pond (and seemingly everywhere else Thoreau went for inspiration), Monadnock has become a major stop on the summer and fall tourist migration route.
Discouraged for a time by the rock concert-like parking problems at the base, I eventually learned the local tips and tricks that allow Monadnock to be simultaneously a roadside attraction to the many and a verdant sanctuary to the few. For all the school groups and tour-book gypsies, Monadnock is still a big mountain, and it offers plenty of quiet corners for those willing to search them out.
The trick is simply to not go where everyone else is. The main avenue of congestion on Monadnock is the White-Dot-up-White-Cross-down circuit frequented by those looking for the fastest and easiest way to reach the summit. Avoid this route. Although it’s filled with natural beauty, you’ll spend most of your ascent staring at the back of the same person you’ve been following since the parking lot. I’ve done this only once, and the entire time I had flashbacks of my childhood trips walking up the interior of the Statue of Liberty, cramped and single-file, praying to God the view would be worth it.
For a more peaceful afternoon, I suggest exploring Monadnock’s other, smaller peak. Instead of joining the long queue heading up White Dot, slip out the back of the parking lot and head down the Parker Trail. After a few minutes, you’ll find the Lost Farm Trail, a rugged but quiet connector to the Cliff Walk. This path is by far my favorite because, aptly named, it runs along the cliffs. Not only are the views breathtaking, they’re also unexpected. Out here you won’t find any masses of awestruck visitors blocking the path ahead with their cameras and camcorders spoiling the surprise. Instead, when you crest a large rock jutting out from the treeline and by chance turn around, the sweeping vista of southern New Hampshire will unfurl before you unannounced, and in one startling moment you’ll realize just how high you’ve climbed and be reminded of why you were hiking in the first place.
The trail ends at the top of Bald Rock, the mountain’s second-highest peak. The view from one side is as beautiful as you could ask for. The view from the other side is of a steady stream of tourists making the final difficult push to the summit. While some may feel a jealous urge to join them (there’s a connector trail for those who wish to), I sit with my back to the throngs, conceding to them the higher peak. They can be the kings of the mountain if they wish. For many visitors, this may be their only chance to do it. But for those of us who live here, constantly in the shadow of this humble mountain, the urge to conquer it wanes. Better to pass the day like Thoreau, without camera or agenda, wind whipping through your hair on a rocky outcrop, sitting in quiet communion with the behemoth, thankful for the chance to blend into such an elusive but welcoming wilderness.