Updated: Nov 10
Last Friday, schools were closed and I was gifted some rare, one-on-one time with my teenager in the mountains. And although he realized about 20 minutes into the hike that maybe he'd made the wrong choice, "Oh right, I forgot that I hate hiking," he'd come back around by the time we reached the summit. He loves rock climbing and the top of Mount Chocorua is nothing but open ledge for scaling. Waaaaay more exciting to an active 15 year old than a walk in the woods.
All told, it was a great time for both of us and I was grateful for an entire day with Finn.
The last time we did this hike was in 2021. Henry and our dog joined us on that trip, and just about everything went wrong.
Read on for a story of panoramic views, cascading waterfalls, and a 100 pound dog that refused to budge somewhere near the summit.
Written in August, 2021...
This adventure was loaded with breathtaking beauty, mistakes made, challenges faced, and endless lessons learned. And I would live this day over again a hundred times. Mostly because I loved the time outdoors with my kids, where I'm able to be fully present.
The other reason is that working through fears and challenges in the wilderness - nothing makes me feel more alive. Watching my two boys solve problems on a hike, that is even better. When they were little, I was bribing them with skittles and witnessing trail-side tantrums. Now, they are bravely helping me find a lost trail and brainstorm ways to motivate a large dog to finish a hike. Now we are a team. It happens all of a sudden, don't give up.
Chocorua had been on my list for quite some time, so it seemed fitting for a birthday hike with Finn and Henry, who are more than happy to do my favorite thing with me on my birthday each year.
Little did I know when we ventured out at 7:00am on Saturday morning, that we would not return home until 7:00pm. I also did not know that we would end up climbing the mountain twice and that our seemingly tireless mountain dog would climb under a shady bush and refuse to move. I now understand why people have small dogs.
There are several ways to summit this mountain (as we later discovered), but we chose the Champney Falls Trail for it's waterfalls and the streams that follow the trail a good part of the way. The parking lot for this trailhead is located off of the Kancamagus Highway, also known as 112 west, in Albany, NH.
The trail is relatively flat in the beginning, but the climb becomes increasingly difficult. About 1.5 miles up, you will reach a sign for Champney Falls. Take a swim here, or wait for your return trip. We paused for a quick photo, then continued on our way...saving the falls for our reward at the end.
As we were climbing some of the wide, stone stairs frequently found on this hike, I made the comment that, "this is a great trail because there's no way you could get lost on it". Little did I know, that we would get lost later that day.
Lesson #1: Never, ever say "there's no way you could get lost" out loud.
Fun discoveries along this hike included: a couple of trees wrapped around a boulder (octopus style), lime green moss and streams literally everywhere.
As we got closer to the summit, we stopped at an overlook with large, flat rock and gorgeous views. Here we took a sit to have some lunch.
From the overlook, the trail switches back to the left and eventually leads to the more exposed, rocky climb to the summit.
Here is where you'll face your fear of heights, if you have one. My youngest son Henry does. As he looked ahead to the giant expanse of rock ledge before us, he started tearing up. He wasn't sure if he could climb the trail that appeared to drop off on all sides with nothing to grab hold of (no trees up there). The benefit of having a child with a fear of heights is that you forget about your own, because you're so focused on coaching them through theirs. And I did, and he did the climb...arriving at the top with nothing but smiles.
At this summit, you feel like you are on top of the world. A natural high like no other.
We sat at the top for a while and enjoyed another snack and made some friends who offered to take our picture.
From here, we felt accomplished and ready for the easy-ish descent back to our car. Just under 4 miles to go, all downhill. Piece of cake. Until it wasn't..
Once we'd reached tree line, we passed a sign with a large man standing in front of it. But who needs signs when the most well traveled trail clearly goes right? This is where there would be a record scratch and video playing in rewind, bringing us back to this sign so that we could go straight instead. That didn't happen, so we went right...almost two miles down the wrong trail.
Almost the entire way, the three of us were questioning this trail. It just didn't look exactly like the one we took up the mountain. We also had been traveling for a while and did not yet hear the sounds of the waterfall. Nor did we see any of the yellow blazes that led us up the mountain. Hmm...
Lesson #2: Always listen to your gut. If it tells you you're on the wrong trail, listen to it.
Finally, I decided to pull out my Garmen In Reach GPS tracker. Yes, I had that with me the entire time. Embarrassing, but true. I had decided once we reached the summit that I didn't need it anymore since, you know, "there's no way you could get lost on this trail". The hardest part was telling my kids that we had gone almost 2 miles in the wrong direction, which would add another 4 miles and 2 hours onto our trip.
Much to my surprise, they accepted the news calmly. Although we were all frustrated, we knew that getting upset and shouting profanities would not change our situation. So, we made the unanimous decision to head back to the summit and find the right trail.
After making this decision, we did run into several groups of hikers making their descent and learned that we were on the PiperTrail, leading to Route 16. We wanted the Champney Falls Trail, which would return us to the Kancamagus Highway and our car. Several of these groups offered to drive us back to our car if we chose to continue down this trail, but we declined. We had made a decision and were sticking with it. All of us, except for our dog Romy, who had crawled under a bush to shelter herself from the 80 degree temps, full sun and humidity. Ok, now, now would be a good time for profanity. Still, I knew that I had to stay calm if I wanted my kids to have any hope of getting out of there before sunset.
Romy was dehydrated, exhausted and stubborn. She refused to budge. Finn and I tried to pick her up, but it was awkward and a bit impossible considering her weight. We also tried to lure her onto the boulder we were attempting to climb by placing several goldfish on top of it. All to no avail.
Finn came up with the idea of a stretcher made out of some sticks and the boys' backpacks. I thought maybe I could send the boys back to the car and I could sleep on the mountain with Romy (although I didn't actually mention that plan out loud). Then Henry suggested we just start hiking and maybe she would eventually join us out of the fear of being left behind. This last option was the thing that got our big girl to move. When we heard her coming along behind us, we were all yelling with joy. It was a big win for us. Although we had miles to go, we knew if we could just get back to the Champney Falls Trail, the water would revive her.
It took us quite a while, but we did eventually make it back to that sign where we took the wrong turn. Yup, it did have an arrow pointing to the Champney Falls Trail, straight ahead and not to the right. This path was smaller and appeared less traveled. Although it quickly turned into the wide, clearly marked trail we were familiar with from our ascent. We also ran into several people who told us they had made that same wrong turn in a past hike. Later that night, my husband shared his own story about a high school trip to Chocorua where a group of students also made that mistake! And that was way before cell phones, so you can imagine what a debacle that was.
I'm not trying to redeem myself - this mistake was clearly avoidable if I'd been using my gps and looking at signs. But knowing I wasn't the first to make it did help soften the blow. It also leads me to the next lesson:
Lesson #3: Always read trail signs and look for trail blazes. ALWAYS.
We all seemed to get our second wind after returning to the right trail. Even Romy had a skip in her step. Eventually, we made it to Champney Falls where we cooled off and tried out my new water filter for the first time. We had run out of water at hour 6, so this brings me to one last lesson:
Lesson #4: Invest in a good water filtration system. I have the Sawyer mini water filters that fit right onto a Smart water bottle. It also comes with pouches. They're $24.95 at REI and won't add much weight to your pack. I carry mine with me on every hike now.
We made it back to our car, exhausted and happy. We had survived, had worked together and had created a memory that none of us will ever forget.
I plan to return to this mountain because it truly is a magical place. If you don't get lost, the 7.8 mile roundtrip hike should take you 4 - 5 hours. You could also just hike to Champney Falls out and back, which will take about 2 hours roundtrip. Whatever you do, just follow the signs, listen to your gut, and pack plenty of water. Maybe leave the large dog at home. Your call, your adventure.