Steep trails are not uncommon here in the White Mountains. Footpaths up many of the region’s higher summits have good long stretches of stiff, take-your-breath-away climbing. A few prime examples that quickly come to mind are the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail on the western slope of Mount Washington, the Twinway between Galehead Hut and the summit of North Twin, and the southern approach to Mount Willey in Crawford Notch via the Willey Range Trail.
These rough and tumble trails are not relegated solely to the 4000-foot peaks of the region, however, as many hikers can attest. And this is something I can personally avow following a fun and adventurous climb recently in the vicinity of Kinsman Notch.
My objective on this warm and sunny day was a high cliff overlooking the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forest’s Lost River Reservation. This narrow ledge, perched high above the Lost River complex of buildings and parking lots, is reached by way of the Dilly Trail, which climbs a respectable 700 feet in a just under a half mile. As signs at the base of the trail warn, this is not a footpath for the casual walker and should only be tackled by persons in good physical condition and with appropriate footwear.
Having climbed this trail just once before, that being some 20 years ago when my body was a bit leaner and my muscles and bones two decades younger, I remembered the trail as being steep, but not outlandishly so. That perspective has changed somewhat now that my middle age body has been put to the test of a follow-up ascent.
Leaving the Lost River parking lot at its northeast end just opposite a gazebo, the Dilly Trail (or Dilly Cliff Trail as it is also known) starts off innocently enough on mostly flat terrain. Just a few yards into the hike, the Society-maintained Kinsman Notch Trail— a self-guided, half-hour long nature walk— departs on the left. The main trail continues straight ahead and soon after crossing a small stream the climbing begins in earnest with the blue-blazed trail going over, through and around one large boulder after another. This, in fact, is not so much a walking path as an uphill obstacle/gymnastics course. If you are not pulling yourself up over one boulder, you are gingerly stepping from one exposed tree root to another, ever aware that your foot could easily slip. In places it took me two or three minutes to figure out how I was going to safely navigate my way through the maze of rocks and roots.
I can assure you that you use every muscle in your body as you carefully ascend some of the trickier spots along its course. This trail is the definition of hand-over-foot hiking, and while it was a lot of fun and managed to bring out a little of the kid still left in me, it’s obvious this trail is not for the faint of heart and that unless one is prepared for the many obstacles and hardships thrown in one’s way, it’s probably best to avoid this particular mountain-climbing route.
As I was in no rush to make the climb, it probably took me 40 to 45 minutes to reach the short side path that leads right to the cliff top view over the Lost River complex and the broad Lost River valley. Here I stopped and admired the view for perhaps 15 minutes, then had to make the call as to whether I would return by the same route, or continue along the Dilly Trail another 0.1 mile to its junction with the Kinsman Ridge Trail, which I would then follow south for 0.7 mile back to Route 112 at the height-of-land in Kinsman Notch.
This was pretty much a no-brainer as I was not keen on trying to make my way back down what seemed an impossibly steep (and probably dangerous) descent route. Considering the Kinsman Ridge Trail (KRT) was just a short walk further, with maybe another 150 feet of vertical climbing, this seemed by far to be the safer and smarter alternative.
Unfortunately, not all is as it seems sometimes in the mountains, and that was the case with the Dilly Trail extension, which has seen little maintenance over the years and apparently even littler actual foot traffic. With blazes now practically non-existent, and a treadway that has all but disappeared in the mountaintop growth, following the Dilly Trail to its junction with the Kinsman Ridge Trail was difficult and near impossible at best. At one point I actually lost the trail and spent close to fifteen minutes wandering around in the woods before finally regaining the path less than a hundred yards from its junction with the KRT. Curious to see where I’d made my mistake, I then followed the path back toward the outlook and eventually found the spot where I’d temporarily lost my way. Even then, staring ahead at where I now knew the trail went, it was obvious that the trail itself was not obvious, and that unless appropriate action is taken soon, others who try and follow this section of the path will most certainly meet up with the same problems I encountered.
Once on Kinsman Ridge, I proceeded north a short distance and stepped off trail briefly to check out a partial east-facing viewpoint that my longtime hiking cohort Steve Smith had mentioned to me the previous day. Reversing direction, I then proceeded south on the trail, which at this point is also link in the Appalachian Trail, and 30 minutes later I was back down to the highway, none the worse for wear despite the short but rigorous climb, a few dozen bug bites, and a severely sweat-soaked t-shirt.
Mike Dickerman is a longtime hiking enthusiast, award-winning columnist, and author or coauthor of nine books related to the White Mountains region of New Hampshire. He lives in Littleton.