The Belknap Mountains

Lakes Region, New Hampshire

All photos & text by Gale Straub 

Clean spring weather in New Hampshire begs a good hike. New England is reluctant to release winter and definitive spring is a true relief. The White Mountains are the obvious choice for challenging day hikes in New Hampshire, but even in May the 4000 footers are still capped with snow and it can be dangerous to head out above tree line. Sure, it’s doable – but it doesn’t feel like spring. The solution? A hike in the Belknaps.

The Belknaps look out on the Southern portion of the lakes region in New Hampshire. The elevation tops out at 2,382 feet (on Belknap Mountain) and the rest of the range is made up of Mount Rowe, Gunstock and Piper. There’s a large web of trails, so you can make up your own hike.  My small group was up for a half day excursion, but we still sought sore legs and some sights. We decided to take the red trail up to Piper Mountain summit and then cross over to Belknap via the Orange trail. My boyfriend was excited about Belknap due to the old fire tower at the top.

Historic Map from 1909 - Mountain Lookout service
Historic Map from 1909 – Mountain Lookout service

There are 16 fire lookout towers in New Hampshire. All but one are state owned. The first towers were built in the early 1900’s (1910) with plans for many more —–>

By 1929 the state operated 29 stations and there were additional non-state operated towers. The number has dropped over the years due to storms, upkeep, and necessity. Beginning in the late 1940’s, aircraft soared overhead, serving a quick sweep of fire-prone areas and replaced the need for old-fashioned lookouts.

Today, the remaining towers are manned during times of fire hazard in peak wildfire season (summer months). In order to bring more attention to the towers, the New Hampshire Division of Forest and Lands has started a tower quest program – hike up to 5 fire towers and earn an official Tower Quest patch, certificate and letter of recognition. The best part – an intangible awareness of the role the stations play in forest preservation and safety.

In the North Western area of the United States, you can also rent fire lookouts in off-peak season (mid November – mid May) from the US Forest Service. I think it’s a must-do for Jon and me while we’re on the road. Rustic conditions and panoramic sun rises and sets.  I can only imagine the quiet.

Because I lived in a city full time and worked in a cubicle, going up to New Hampshire (my home state) and stepping into the woods brings with it a touch of euphoria. Dry, uneven ground. Sticky tread on rock. Skinny trees covered in neon green leaves. Like a backwards fall, all light.

We hit the summit of Belknap, climbed up the fire tower and looked out at Lake Winnipesaukee.

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Invigorated, we delayed descent and headed over to the top of Gunstock Mountain. There we sat on a chairlift to contemplate spring.  Though we hadn’t gained a lot of elevation, the trail was steep and and quick. A reminder to not underestimate the lesser-known.