Looking Down at the Smile of the Great Spirit

Conway — July 28, 2008 — I was in Moultonborough the other day, and wanted to do a hike in that neck of the woods for my column this week. It was warm yet the humidity wasn’t bad, so vistas would be good. We had done some kayaking on Squam Lake the evening before as the full moon rose above the water, and I tried to think of a Lakes Region hike with views that might approach that level of beauty.

The best I could come up with was Mount Roberts (2,582 feet). Located in the magical Ossipee Range, the 2.5 mile Mount Roberts Trail climbs up through a wonderful variety of terrain to a partial northern viewpoint at the summit. The best views are towards the west from the ledges on the way up, where Lake Winnipesaukee and the surrounding mountains spread out below you in blue/green splendor. This hike is a good example of the old wisdom saying: “The path is the goal”.

Mount Roberts is located in the 5,400 acre Castle in the Clouds Conservation Area, purchased by the Lakes Region Conservation Trust (LRCT) in 2002. To get there, turn off Route 25 in Moultonborough and head south on Route 109. In 2.3 miles, continue straight on Route 171. In another half mile, turn left onto the road for the bottling plant (note signs), and ascend this bumpy road up past the stone house at the entrance to the castle property. Just after a cemetery on the right and before the gate, park in the dirt lot on the right.

To get to the trailhead from there, walk on the road past the open gate through the flats of Ossipee Park and bear left at the T. Where that road splits, bear left and walk uphill past the large stable. Cross the field beyond the stable to an obvious opening in the woods, where a sign on a tree indicates the Mount Roberts Trail.

Some of the temporary signs put up by the LRCT, though accurate and comprehensive, have begun to deteriorate, and some are missing. The trails, however, are in fine shape. After entering the woods, the Mount Roberts Trail winds up a fine example of a carriage road, built after 1913 by Thomas Plant, who employed a thousand workers to build the house and grounds of Lucknow, later called Castle in the Clouds.

Swinging back to the edge of the field above the stable, the road turns and continues upwards through the woods, and becomes a narrower trail. In about three quarters of a mile, it reaches a side trail on the left to Sunset Hill, a ledge overlooking the lakes, and forerunner of views to come. The sign for the lookout has been removed from its wooden backing, so bear left at a blank wooden sign on a tree, and walk out to a viewpoint that Plant’s guests once reached by carriage to watch the sunset. This lookout is a worthy destination in itself.

From there, the trail climbs north towards Roberts Ridge through an attractive open oak forest, and soon the first ledges are reached, and the watery views to the west begin, and only get better as you climb the ridge. This week, blueberry patches heavy with ripe fruit covered the ground between the gray ledges, and the single flaming orange blooms of wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum) were scattered about the blueberry patches, completing a wild color scheme.

I also enjoyed the view south from the ledges over the green western slope of the Ossipee Range, which dropped down from Mount Shaw, the range’s highest summit, past shady ravines and down to the cultivated flats and out to Lake Winnipesaukee — the Smile of the Great Spirit. The white wakes of barely visible power boats crisscrossed the lake like water striders.

After the uppermost — and most spectacular — view on the ledges, the trail enters the woods and continues up to the ridge top, where it turns right on an old summit loop on one of Plant’s carriage roads. The summit lookout is just a small ledge on the northern side of the loop, where you look north over the trees to the White Mountains. The LRCT had once placed a profile photo on a board there, with all the names of the peaks to the north. But it was gone, and it was good to just sit there and eat some leftovers, and drink deep from my water bottle.

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