Ossipee – November 26, 2011 – Turtleback Mountain (2,203 feet) lies within the 5,288 acre Castle in the Clouds Conservation Area in the Ossipee Range. Before this Monday, I had never been to its bare summit. Now, I want to bring all my hiking friends there.
Why haven’t I been there before, since I’ve been to all the surrounding peaks? In the past when I glanced at a map of the Ossipee Range, the only trail that went to its summit was the long and tedious Turtleback Mountain Trail — actually an old carriage road of the Thomas Plant estate — that started next to Shannon Pond at Ossipee Park, and wound its way endlessly up switchbacks, passing a half mile spur trail to Turtleback’s summit, and continuing another three miles towards the summit of Mount Shaw. Going that way was a seven mile round trip to Turtleback’s summit, trudging on long switchbacks both ways. My eyes easily turned elsewhere on the map.
But my interest in Turtleback Mountain was spurred last week, when I wrote about another hike in the Ossipee Range: Sentinel Mountain (1,680 feet), located near Dan Hole Pond. After that hike I contacted the geologist Bob Newton, who described a hard igneous rock in the range called Moat Volcanics. It is a composite of basalt and rhyolite, and to keep things simple, is what remains today of the collapsed Ossipee volcano, active during the Jurassic period (200 to 150 million years ago). I knew that Turtleback Mountain had a unique feature in this kind of rock on its summit ledges, that was a must see.
Lately, like a squirrel gathering acorns, I’ve been gathering hikes before it snowed (as I write this on Friday, that is past tense). Last Monday I headed out for a mid-day hike up Turtleback Mountain. From Route 25 in Moultonboro, I turned on Route 109 south. In 2.3 miles I went straight on Route 171, and in half a mile, turned left up Ossipee Park Road. Just after the stone gatehouse, I parked in the hiker parking lot on the right. Then I continued walking down the road through the attractive meadow, bore right and just after Shannon Pond, walked off the road and across the grass to the beginning of the Brook Path.
I wanted to enjoy variety as well and a specific destination. After all, and especially on a hike, the path is the goal. The short Brook Path brought me down along Shannon Brook past a series of beautiful waterfalls, all named during the 19th century hotel era. Colorful explanatory signs in good taste were tacked to trees at each falls. The culmination, at the bottom of the trail, was the famous Fall of Song. From there, I crossed the bridge over the brook, and did a short steep climb up the slope to wide Shannon Brook Trail, which in the winter is a major snowmobile route over the Ossipee Range. I bore right, crossed a bridge over a brook and soon took a left on the Bald Knob Cut-off.
My plan was to hike up to Bald Knob, a rocky knob and panoramic lookout, then bushwhack up the rocky oak ridge above it for about three quarters of a mile to the summit of Turtleback Mountain. An interesting surprise awaited me on top of Bald Knob.
But back along the scenic and interesting Bald Knob Cut-off, I passed a ledgey area of rhyolite with a sign on a tree explaining columnar jointing, a process in the cooling of magma that creates hexagonal columns. A few broken six sided columns littered the ground behind the sign, and further back the jumble of ledge had numerous signs of columnar jointing. Certainly not as spectacular as more famous examples of columnar jointing around the country, such as Devil’s Tower in Wyoming or Devil’s Post Pile in California, this spot is still very striking.
At this point, I was actually on the lower slopes of Turtleback Mountain. Further up on the smooth rounded summit ledge of Turtleback, you stand on the flat surface of magma that cooled. Six sided cracks are visible beneath your feet. These look like the scales on a turtle shell, hence the mountain’s name.
According to Bob Newton, columnar jointing is formed by quick cooling. This cooling of magma from the outside-in causes shrinkage cracks to form, commonly in a six sided pattern. He compared it to cracks in drying mud. However, the smooth ledge on Turtleback’s summit was not part of the uniform surface of an old volcano as one might think. Bob Newton said that the Ossipee volcano collapsed inward. “Inside the ring dike,” he said “everything dropped down. Broken blocks rotated down as the fell.” Later, the broken pieces of this collapse were uncovered by erosion. Now, 150 million years later, we find peace and beauty perched in the middle of the ancient cataclysm.
One purpose of my hike was to go to the top of Turtleback to see these hexagonal patterns in the ledge. From the Bald Knob Cut-off, I reached an old carriage road which brought me to the bare summit of Bald Knob in a third of a mile. The view over Lake Winnipesaukee was great that day, and I lingered for a snack. When I turned to look up at the ridge that I planned to bushwhack, I happened to see a new nearby trail sign. To my surprise, it said Turtleback Mountain, half a mile. The sign pointed towards the ridge above.
It isn’t everyday you bump into a new trail in the direction you’re planning to bushwhack. I started up the trail, marked with red and white markers. Frequently it followed a deep rut which was obviously an old herd path. Many had gone this way before, even though there wasn’t a trail.
The next day I called Larry DeGeorge, 72, of Tuftonboro. He is the volunteer Property Adopter for the Castle in the Clouds Conservation Land. On just one sunny day — this past labor day — he and a small crew of volunteers built the new half mile trail from Bald Knob to the carriage road spur just below the summit of Turtleback Mountain’s summit. Following the old herd path, they placed signs and trail markers, cut brush, moved rocks and whatever else was necessary. Their one day’s work opened up a variety of new loop options for hikers wanting to visit the spectacular summits of Bald Knob and Turtleback.
Back on my hike, I quickly climbed the rocky oak ridge, reached the carriage road below the top of Turtleback and climbed up to the bare summit. Mount Shaw (2,990), the highest peak in the Ossipee Range, loomed large across a deep ravine. In the foreground of the same view, beneath my feet, dark hexagonal cracks covered the gray rock.
The afternoon was aging, and though it was mild and beautiful up there, I decided to head down. Instead of returning the way I had come, I decided to bushwhack down towards the switchbacks of the Turtleback Mountain Trail. Later, walking down through pleasant open woods, I crossed the carriage road many times, but persisted in a direct descent rather than the long switchbacks of the road. Quickly I was at the bottom, and walked across the grass of Ossipee Park to my car.