All Work, No Views (The Willey Traverse)
Hiking an arduous route to three separate mountain peaks exceeding four thousand feet in elevation is enough work in of itself, but to do so without any real views is even more challenging, a task one must accept if covering Mts. Field, Willey and Tom (the so called Willey Traverse). A 10 mile-plus loop (if you throw in Mt. Avalon) covering three of the 48 New Hampshire four thousand footers, this hike is both physically and mentally challenging, much of it due to the lack of visual stimulation throughout the duration of the trek.
Starting out on the Avalon Trail (right next to the AMC Highland Center at Crawford Notch), the route begins like most other White Mountain climbs, through hardwood and rocky terrain that gradually gains more elevation (2,550 feet by the peak) over nearly three miles until reaching the Mt. Field summit (4340 feet), a largely innocuous cairn in the middle of small clearing surrounded by trees and smack in the middle of the Willey Range Trail leading to both Mt. Willey (south on the Willey Trail) and Mt. Tom (north on the Willey Trail) in the opposite direction. If time allows (and peak bagging is a priority), ascending all three peaks is well worth the trip, especially after trudging up to the Field summit, a climb which gets sharply steep around a mile and a half in, a climb often underestimated by those dreaming of the Presidential ascents which beckon just next door (the Presidential range is across the street from the Avalon Trail head).
This hike doesn't pay off with huge visual dividends and might actually disappoint some hikers looking for vistas and breathtaking photo ops, but the loop offers some low-rent gems for those who can look past epic visuals and appreciate smaller victories fueled by sheer endurance. Perhaps the best find on this loop rests not in the three 4K summits but in the impressive, underrated view from Mount Avalon (no slouch at 3442 feet), a side ascent en route to Field (and a relatively quick and rewarding climb off the Avalon Trail), which reveals an opening on top offering the best view of the Presidential range one will see all day along with a bird's eye view of the Highland Center and distant Mount Washington Hotel (with its red roofs serving as a colorful contrast to the landscape).
After a welcome break at Avalon's peak, it's back to the grind, ascending the last phase to Mt. Field before heading south to Mt. Willey along the Willey Range Trail, a trek which proves very demanding both technically and mentally as the trail becomes incredibly narrow (my arms were more scratched up from passing branches than any other hike I've done) and rocky with loose stones of varying sizes and dirt over sharply ascending and descending lengths leading to the Willey summit (4285 feet), another peak marked by an unspectacular cairn surrounded by trees and random unimpressed hikers on snack and drink breaks.
This isn't the type of peak worthy of victory beers but rather a quiet milestone one unceremoniously marks before moving onto Mt. Tom. It bears noting an impressive view exists some feet past the Willey summit, one which offers a wonderful panoramic vista amidst the crowded space and overlying trees rampant at the peak. On this day a particularly robust group of hikers dominated the space for viewing by parking themselves for a long lunch break, seemingly breaking the hiking social contract for enjoying sparse views at the top.
No matter; we trudged back on the Willey Range Trail (hitting Field again) toward Tom, a challenging route which ascends sharply to Field before offering a slight loping descent before elevating sharply for a half mile to the Tom summit (4051 feet) off the Willey Range Trail to the Mount Tom Spur Trail.
Again, no visuals to speak of on Mt. Tom's peak, as the reality of this peak bagging venture settles in and visions of level parking lots dancing in most hikers' heads. In many ways, the toughest descent is still ahead at this point as hikers face a direct, albeit sharp and unforgiving, descent down the A-Z Trail (a descent that goes suddenly ascends at one point before settling into a downward trek again) to the parking lot.
The constant for any hiker is the fatiguing descent after a long day of views and uphill climbs and this loop is no different, but the opportunity to gain three 4K peaks in one loop is too good to pass up and the task can be done in a relatively efficient afternoon on a nice day. The hike itself is a rigorous and physically rewarding one, the lack of views notwithstanding, and deserves respect from even experienced hikers as the terrain proves challenging and difficult the entire way, demanding both technical skill and cardiovascular endurance along the way with largely unspectacular sights to show for one's efforts. There aren't many photo opportunities on this loop, at least not in the league of the Presidentials or any other local peak. The reward of this hike is in the completion and satisfaction of knowing you spent a good afternoon in the White Mountains, hopefully bagging three 4K peaks while enjoying an underrated view atop Mt. Avalon along the way. This is a worthwhile loop overall, but one which will require some measured perspective and appreciation for the road less traveled. And one certainly less photographed.