1. ALWAYS TAKE THE OLD TOLL ROAD DOWN!
2. Any combination of trails that includes the Old Toll Rd. is likely to spare your knees. The trail up is not as important. I like the Spellman Trail. It fits all the hard climbing into half a mile.
3. NEVER, EVER TAKE THE SPELLMAN TRAIL Descending. You will complete your trip in an ambulance, and hobble around or crutches for weeks, if you ever recover from your head injury, that is. (I don't know this from experience, thankfully, and I never intend to find out.) This warning applies to any age, especially if you are in a hurry.
4. Cascade Link to the Red Spot Trail is slightly shorter, and almost as pretty for ascent. Cascade Link all the way to Pumpelly is worth the distance.
5. The best views descending, far and away, are from the Smith Summit Trail. You will have daylight even if you get a late start, since it descends the west side. And, since most times I meet NO ONE on this trail, you'll have all the blueberries to yourself. The views are spectacular, and it passes close to Monte Rosa, which is great for solitude. Has a photogenic weathervane, too.
6. Smith Summit, like most other trails, is not difficult to follow IF you always look for round white paint blazes and/or cairns. Expect to walk toward the edges of a lot of cliffs, and not see the way down until you peer carefully over!
Rules, no particular order:
1. Wear boots with ankle support, and synthetic, wicking fabrics, at least for your t-shirt. Wear long pants, to save the skin on your knees. Bring 4 or more pints of water.
2. Use one or two hiking sticks, or a CC ski pole. Even a tree branch is better than nothing. There are plenty of fallen trees along the Cascade Link, but, get this, none above the tree line;-)
3. Avoid any trail that begins with “White,” especially when descending. These are the trails that were rebuilt with tons of rocks, many many tons, to combat erosion. They are death to knees, and dangerous if you fall. Leave these trails to 20 somethings in sneakers. They are in a hurry. You are not.
4. STAY ON THE TRAIL. ALWAYS. There are dozens of trails. Do not make your own. You do NOT want to be rescued, you don't even want to hobble home in the dark. STAY ON THE TRAIL.
5. Never hop. Hopping is for frogs, and 20 year olds. You are neither, and want to be inches from any hard surface before you shift your weight towards it. Hard landings, and imbalance resulting from a hard landing, leads to the breaking of your bones.
6. Bring bug spray. Unless it has been very dry, you will need it. I was even attacked, once, on the Pumpelly Trail by one of the new Asian, day-biting mosquitoes. Yes, these pests with a striped abdomen have even found the paradise that is Monadnock Mountain.
Misc. comments on trails:
Sidefoot: a great alternative to White Arrow. Hard to find the beginning, then it's easy. It's a trail on earth, with grass and plants! Hardly any rocks! I've descended it once; never gone up because: a. it is not the Spellman Trail, and b. if I'm on that side of the mountain I go to Bald Rock, which it bypasses. Unless you want to take a crazy, up and down, zigzag sort of hike, which is fine.
The Spellman Trail is beautiful. My blog background is a view of North and South Pack Monadnock from about halfway up, looking toward Boston. Bring binoculars and you may see The John Hancock, Prudential, New England Life and perhaps downtown, on a clear day. These can also be seen from the summit, and the Pumpelly Trail. You do NOT need to brave the rigors of the Spellman Trail to enjoy a good view!
MY PERFECT HIKE:
Cascade Link/Spellman up
Smith Summit&Old Toll Road down.
The best views, and the best sunlight, and lots of time above the tree line.
No crowds except at the Summit.
3 miles each way, or about 6 hours on the trails, if you take long breaks and lots of pictures.
White Dot Trail to Falcon Spring (refill one water bottle here; I keep this for emergencies since AMC says don't drink any of the water. Falcon Spring comes from a pipe installed in 1995 and is far less likely to be contaminated than a stream. According to the park rangers(8/30/11), they drink from Falcon Spring all the time, but from NO OTHER source out on the trails.)
Cascade Link to Spellman Trail
Turn left at Pumpelly Trail, and walk for what seems like forever in Heaven (actually 0.7mi) surrounded by SPECTACULAR above the tree line views. Sneak up on the vultures at the pool halfway between the Sarcophagus and the Summit(I've never managed to do this)
At the cross marking the entry of the Red Spot from the left, just keep on hiking. You will see the cross on the horizon, and you will pass it on the left, after skirting the left side of a pool rimmed by cotton sedge.
(Use a map to navigate, not my rambling thoughts, of course)
The trail zigzags, and markers are fewer, near the top. Look carefully for cairns.
Bathroom breaks: use the woods. When above the tree line, on Pumpelly, there is a small valley with trees just before the final ascent. It is easy to get a hundred feet from the trail here and still find your way back.
From the Summit, turn right, looking carefully for cairns and signs for Smith Summit or "SS." You will be on the D/M trail for only a few yards. Keep looking for the SS white circles to the left or you'll end up hiking towards Mt. Washington in the far north. Take the Smith Summit, past many blueberry bushes (ripe from mid July and peaking in mid-August) toward Mt. Rosa. Climb it, or take a left at "The Tooth" for a shortcut to the Fairy Spring Trail. The Tooth is a VERY large glacial erratic, perhaps 15 ft. high, with a weird overhang. Another place where I flushed a large bird. Next time, I had my camera ready, but no bird:-(
The Smith Bypass is a shortcut to the Fairy Spring Trail; it goes left, under the overhang. Monte Rosa is straight ahead, to the right of The Tooth. Where the trails rejoin is easy to miss (no wooden sign; you may notice paint on a rock). The Fairy Spring Trail passes, get this, The Fairy Spring! And the walls of an early house by Fassett Brook. This trail, or the parallel Monte Rosa trail, which are the same length, brings you to a short, level stretch of the White Arrow Trail (an exception to my rule against Whites;-), and the site of the 1860-1952 Halfway House. This spot is peaceful, and also the next-to-the-last scenic place. If the sun is setting when you get here, you will not have time to reach the parking lot before dark; bring at least 2 flashlights just in case. A lightweight headlamp is an even better idea; it's also good for camping and cabin use. I follow the Old Toll Rd. down; I'm able to move rather quickly here; so quickly that I fear missing the well marked Parker Trail intersection to the left. The Parker Trail is slightly downhill or level, and leads to another beautiful view, both of a waterfall over the dam impounding the Poole Reservoir (aka Jaffrey Reservoir), and your last view of the mountain, perhaps with a reflection on the water. But if you are with someone, they may be in a hurry, so don't count on too many more pictures.
Speaking of hiking companions--know them well! Know their endurance especially. If there is any chance they will want or need to turn back, plan for this. (There is no good place to turn back on the Spellman Trail!) I suggest starting along the Parker Trail, then take either the Old Farm Trail or the Cliff Walk to Bald Rock. There is a spectacular view at the Old Farm/Cliff Walk intersection, and from Bald Rock itself. By this time you will know if a first timer is ready to go to the top. Don't force them, or yourself, for that matter. On Fathers Day, with my adorable daughters (both soccer players, one in average shape, one in "I jog 3 times a week" shape), we did the following from Bald Rock: Smith Connecting to Amphitheater (which has BLUEBERRIES in July/Aug.), a quick trip up Monte Rosa, then Fairy Spring to the Old Halfway House site, Old Toll Rd and Parker back to the parking lot. A slightly shorter trip would be to start 200 feet higher, from the western parking lot (no bathrooms) and take the Old Toll Road or the Halfway House Trail to the Halfway House Site. Then, you could either take Sidefoot/Amphitheater/Smith Summit or Fairy Spring to Smith Summit. This has the drawback of taking Smith Summit both up and down, which I've never done in 30plus hikes! The White Arrow is very difficult at the top. I wouldn't necessarily rule it out for "up" but as I said before, it is uncomfortable and slightly dangerous to take it down.
Once again, THE SPELLMAN TRAIL IS UNCOMFORTABLE AND DANGEROUS DESCENDING, and you lose the advantage of the views because you spend all your time dragging your chin over rock. It cannot be descended facing away from the mountain (unlike the Smith Summit).
. Follow a few simple rules, plan ahead, and you'll spend your time glorifying the God of all creation instead of worrying about your aching, painful knees. The saddest thing I ever heard while hiking (White Dot Trail), was one woman saying to another "I'll never ask you to do this again." It brings tears to my eyes even now. The one for her willingness to please her friend& go way beyond her comfort zone, the other for her guilt and disappointment. Monadnock Mountain is a beautiful, emotional place.
To end on a happier note, listen for kids at the summit announcing "I made it to the TOP"
May all your mountaintop experiences be so joyful.