A "photo hike" up Mt. Chocorua in the White Mountains

21st November 2017

People hike for all kinds of reasons. Some hike just to simply get outside and be in nature. Some people hike to "bag" a set of peaks on a list. Some people try to get their fastest time. I have had all of those mindsets at times. Now, a new challenge is to go back to some of the mountains I have hiked many times before as a "photo hike," one in which my goal is to tell a story about a place I know well.

For this post, I will try to tell the story of spring on Mt. Chocorua. Though only 3500' feet high, it is a very distinctive peak with a steep cone, exciting rock scrambles, and lots of history. Some claim that it is the most photographed mountain in the world. This mountain on the southeast edge of the White Mountain National forest is one I know well, having hiked it perhaps a dozen times, in all seasons and conditions. My most memorable hike was an early January trip in 2015 where I witnessed sunrise on the Swift River, hiked to the summit, kicking steps in the thankfully deep enough snow up the steep summit cone and enjoyed the views, while still being back home for 4 pm Mass. It was the kind of day that proves how special it is to live in New Hampshire. A place you can really live a full life. And boy was I thankful that day, for the first descent sized hike with winter and photo gear where I didn't have sciatica pain in 9 months!

Having many other such fond memories of Chocorua, I decided to return in early June of 2017 to capture the story spring unfurling on the mountain. The forecast was perfect for such an endeavor; cool and cloudy with hit or miss rain squalls. Yes, believe it or not, that is a perfect forecast for what I had in mind. From a photography standpoint, you need cloud cover to have even lighting for waterfall and wildflower shots, and the stormy skies added a sense of drama to the vistas that would otherwise be washed out in mid-day sun. I was really hoping to time the often fickle bloom date of the magenta rhodora right. I always have loved seeing these wild flowers, a rare kind of rhodendrum that is smaller in size and only found in northern New England or Canada. Emerson loved rhodora too, and wrote a famous poem about them.

The biggest downside to my plan was that I that only day I could hike was on a Saturday, a very busy day on this mountain. I had a plan to avoid crowds: start early and head straight to the waterfalls a mile and a half in, then head towards upwards to explore the mountains next to Chocorua (First, Middle, and Third Sister Mountains, and finally head to the true summit late in the day so my hike down would not have any annoying uphill traffic to keep passing. My plan worked perfect!

I had Pitcher Falls mostly to myself for an hour. Pitcher Falls is unique for New England, a slot canyon with a waterfall shooting off one of the walls with a photogenic tree in the middle that I caught in a vibrant state just after it leafed out this year:

Champney Falls is another beautiful one:

Moving at a slower erratic photo centric pace allowed me time to notice and capture tiny details in the stream above the main falls:

Once the first major wave of day hikers finally caught up with me an hour later it was time to leave the area and head towards the less crowded "Sister" summits.

It was wonderful to see details of spring along the way, such as hobblebush in bloom next to birch trees:

On the Sister summits, I caught many of the rhodora in bloom as hoped:

There were also a few photo ops for rhodora framed shots of Chocorua itself:

I also got to my wish of dramatic skies as the predicted rain squalls moved in from the west with the many of the White Mountains in view:

Hikers crossing Middle Sister's open ledges with rain squalls in the distance:

I hung out on each "Sister" summit for a while, enjoying pockets of solitude and calm confidence taking in the spectacle of the squalls in the distance. When I judged they were getting too close, I decided to head to the main summit.

The top of Chocorua is very distinctive and pointy. If you look closely you will see hikers that look like dots in this shot to give a sense of scale.

Of course, as soon as I stood on the narrow tippy top, the rain squalls finally caught up with me. Rain came down at a good clip. If there was the chance of thunder I would never have been so bold. I wasn't concerned however, trusting my experience and Gore-Tex gear. I put the camera away and put all of my focus on safely descending the now rain slicked cone. I opted to head down the Brook/Liberty trail side and then loop around on the West Side trail, a sheltered bad weather bypass around the cone through beautiful mossy spruce woods, to reconnect back to the Champney Brook Trail from whence I had originally come. I had relative solitude for the rest of my late afternoon descent, and the rain let up after only 30 minutes. Very pleasant!

To sum it up, the "photo hike" mindset and style allowed me to create and execute a creative idea and see things I might otherwise miss. The reward was to look a little longer and harder at reality and realize that even in today's world Truth, Beauty, and Goodness still (and forever will) exist, even more solid than the mountain upon which I stood that day.

A bonus on the drive home: hit or miss rain showers made me realize that if I stopped the car and looked east at the anti-solar point I might see a rainbow. I did! With Mt. Chocorua in the far left.

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