The last time I visited the Santanoni Range, it was March. After a massive snowstorm. That dumped a few feet of snow atop of an “already base of a few feet of snow”. We spent most of the day climbing up to Panther Peak and expending tons of energy attempting to break trail to Santanoni Peak…unsuccessfully. We gave it a valiant effort, we truly did.
So, on this past Labor Day Weekend, I would return to the Santas to finish what Mallory, her brother Parker and I started. I headed up to Newcomb on Friday night, with a long stop in Long Lake. A looooong, stalling stop. My original thought about car camping (aka sleeping in my car) at the trailhead was seeping words of fear into my brain. But I sucked it up and did it anyway. The temperatures dropped down into the 30s, which was slightly unseasonal for the beginning of September, but that’s the mountains for ya!
Ok. So. Car camping. Just as scary as sleeping in a tent alone. Just my opinion. Mainly because “the things that go bump in the night” and I still don’t see eye to eye. But “she who is brave is free,” right? Right. I was up at 4:30 a.m. and after much tossing and turning, figured I may as well get up. It was cold! But the forecast projected highs in the mid 70’s by afternoon. So dress for winter at the start of the hike and summer for the end?
By the time breakfast was finished and the mountain clothing dilemma was put to rest, I signed into the trail register at 6 a.m. A hat, fleece, puffer vest, gloves (with hand warmers) and I was off and running. Haha!!
The morning was filled with mist and magic. My mind drifted into thought about certain water crossings and rock climbing, wondering if I would be able to do this solo. The Santas were a snow-filled frozen wonderland last I visited. Water crossings were easily trekked across in snowshoes. Nevertheless, onward I walked along the gravel road toward the first trail junction.
My plan was to hike up the Express trail and ascend Santanoni Peak first. Then head down along the ridgeline to Times Square. There, I would tackle the so-called “dismal” Couchsachraga Peak. Then reclimb Santa (most of it anyway) and descend via the Express as well. Panther Peak was not in my original plan. I really did not want to hike out via the Bradley Pond trail. Been there, done that. Had enough of it the last time!
So, while I knew my knees would hate my guts on the way down the steep Express trail, it would be “shorter” in my mind. Anyway, back to the start of my story. Hiking. Thinking. Thinking. Hiking. The typical beginning of how solo hiking goes for me. My heart was trying to shake something fierce. Seemed that Demi serenaded my walking as the earworm in my head this time around, lol.
Talk that talk, baby. Better walk that walk, baby…
One foot in front of the other. Walk that walk, baby. Walk that walk. Yea, my mind was definitely doing its thing. But the weather was perfect. Clean, crisp air. The early morning fog lingering its beauty on the surrounding ponds. The first signs of fall saying good morning. My legs were still waking up themselves, however, excitement stirred inside.
The mud was not that bad this early in the morning, still fairly hard packed. I was hopeful. Ha! Walk that walk, baby…
Around the broken bridge, rock hopping across the brook…
and a few moments later, across the not-so-broken bridge.
A view from the dilapidated bridge.
I was pretty proud of myself for maneuvering over this one solo. I did have to lower myself and jump down off the end onto the trail in order to reach the stairs. #yupshortgirlproblems
As I trekked on, the sounds of water running down the Santanoni Brook permeated the air with “just breathe and relax.” I really tried to maintain a positive mind-frame, despite the thoughts I continually shook off. The weather was lovely and the sun was performing her brilliant show called “Spilling Through the Forest.” Exhale and enjoy the quiet whispers only the mountains can bring, Jen.
The trail looked completely different without 5 feet of snow covering it! Little foot bridges ran all along this portion of the trail, interchanging with small boulders and some long horizontal logs to help with the mud run off.
Ok, Santanoni Brook was magnificent! It pooled gloriously in sections as you walked along. Just magnificent.
I paused for a few moments, mesmerized by the swirling, whirling… until my mind gently reminded me that we had a long day ahead of us and not to dawdle too much.
Hues of blue caught my eye…remanents of summer clinging on this frosty September morning.
Honestly, the time passed quickly. I made it to the cairn leading to the Express in about an hour and a half. Stopping to eat, I chatted with an older gentleman who happened to be from around the same area as myself. He was only hiking Santanoni, and after our chit-chat, he went on his way. The weather was already warmer, therefore some layers had to go!
I absolutely loved the Express trail. A simple wilderness, with nothing simple about it.
The untouched feeling you get when hiking herd paths is one of my favorites. The Express was quite beautiful, the way it twisted, turned and ducked around the trail. I only had one misstep near the beaver pond. I was too much inside my head and had the “tunnel-vision-following-mudfootprints” vibe going. Then when the tracks turned older-looking, it was time to quickly backtrack and get back on track, so to speak!
Enormous, magical mushroom just waiting for me! Loved it! I’m sure there is a name for this one, or a book about trail mushrooms, or something? Definitely an odd fascination of mine.
Then it was straight up. I mean, you are basically climbing Santanoni so up is the only way to go! Walk that walk, baby. Still, there was so much to admire and love about this trail. I stopped for a breather when I reached the first lookout.
The ascent is much easier for me. I know I say that all the time, but it is true. For the most part, I can manage the rock slabs and scrambles just fine. Erosion was present so I had to tread carefully as to not cause anymore damage to the trail.
Pretty pink mountain moss…
Soon…this. Climbing up onto the boulder here towards the summit, the views were incredible. All of my favorites were waiting there for me to greet “Hello” and “Good Morning.”
It wouldn’t be a high peak climb without mountain sniffles. Always. Without fail. Mountain sniffles.
A quick walk along the ridgeline leads you right to…
the summit!! After 3 1/2 hours of hiking, I arrived at my 39th peak! (This was starting to get real now.) The smallest summit ever, but the best climb! It might even be the only summit the short girl had to crouch down to snap the picture! I caught up to the older gentleman and some others that sped by me on the Express trail. The weather had warmed up tremendously, reaching close to 70 degrees already! Nothin’ like wearing some Smartwool on a 70 degree day! Haha..sigh. My face was so hot!
I rested and refueled for 15 minutes or so, but being such a tiny summit space, I didn’t linger long as to make room for the arriving hikers!
I brought my friends along for the comeback and they approved of this peak as well! Hahaha! #jennyhumor
A few more from the junction before heading down the trail towards Times Square.
At the beginning of the descent along the rest of the Santanoni ridgeline, a first glimpse of the dirty dog, I mean, Couchsachraga Peak. Actually, in all honesty, I was in a good mood, and I was committed to giving ol’ Cooch the benefit of the doubt.
Again, I cannot reiterate it enough, I LOVED this trail! The hike down was easy and even easier on the knees. The trail was a soft pine bed and just lovely.
Some fall color caught my eye…
I suppose my hikes would go much faster if I refrained from stopping every 5 seconds to snap photos. But then again, the present moment is all we have, so why not savior every step and breath of it?!
More Indian Pipe.
Ok, so the joke on our previous Santas attempt was the “big boulder, sloppy cairn” perseveration by none other than yours truly! I like benchmarks and visual markers. So when we were valiantly breaking trail back in March, I continually repeated that Times Square was marked by a “big boulder and a sloppy cairn.” Never mind the fact that the cairn was buried until 5 feet of snow and the big boulder was barely peeking out!
This time, however, I exclaimed after 30 minutes of descending, “Oh my goodness, big boulder!!! HAHAHA!” There it was, with the rope and all!
Around this boulder, is in fact, Times Square. I didn’t take a picture of the sloppy cairn because there was a girl with her dog resting right next to it. I didn’t want to bother them!
Although this was a solo hike, I met some really good people on this journey. Chatting with various hikers does help with the mental stamina and just overall positive attitude. We all had a variety of ways to attack this range as well. Good people. The world is full of them, you just have to know where to look. 🙂
A look back to where I just came from! Amazing!
One more view of the Sewards before heading down, down, down to the infamous bog. My mind drifted for a moment about the next day’s adventure in the Seward Range. I was praying that the forecast would be wrong for that hike.
The descent from Times Square was fast! It was only 10 minutes to the bog. I remember thinking, only 10 minutes! The ascent back shouldn’t be too bad. Ha! Yea, ok. I’ll get to that in a minute.
The bog. The infamous bog. Honestly?? It wasn’t that bad! I’m fairly sure I’ve been in worse predicaments.
I figured the faster I went, the less chance for losing my balance. Like a tightrope walker? So I used my poles as depth checkers as I zoomed across that thing the fastest I could! Success!
And now…it was time to start the climb back up to Couchie. Walk that walk, baby!
More mushroom love….
Ok…don’t hate me for saying this, but I genuinely enjoyed climbing this little guy!
The trail was magical. Truly. Tons of rocks to “up and over!”
At noon, about an hour and 15 minutes since I left Times Square, there I stood at my 40th peak!! 40!! I couldn’t believe it. Beyond thrilled! This guy whose name mean “dismal wilderness” awarded me with my 40th high peak. Hard to hate ’em.
The summit was crowded, but it was ok. I needed to sit and rest for a bit. The weather was absolutely beautiful, that was true. But the short girl was overdressed for this weather. As I rummaged through my backpack, I realized my short-sleeved shirt was back in the truck. So suffer with Smartwool, I would!
And sit, I did.
I downed a Gatorade and some snacks, while just enjoying the sunshine. Breathe it all in and love it all out. There were congratulations from fellow hikers for making it to 40, as well as many others who were approaching the end of their journeys. Like I said, good people. The Santas were full of good people on this day.
Unlike myself, I imagined my friends would have felt rather chagrined with this peak so….they added their sentiments.
After resting, I wandered around to the other lookout, but it was packed with hikers. I decided to begin my trek back to Times Square.
A unicorn boulder…
Here’s what I remember from the “down and up” back…it was tough. It took me an hour and 15 minutes to return the junction. But it felt like death. Haha. Honestly, it felt a lot longer than it actually was…and for a little peak, he made you work for it! Not-so-Smartwool girl was sweating and dying a slow hiking death.
Well, maybe just a slow walking hurt which only lasted for about 15 minutes in reality, but still! Upon my return to Times Square, the girl with her dog were still there. I then found out she was just waiting for her boyfriend who was hiking Couch. She had already hiked it a few years ago, she said, and that she would rather wait the 2 1/2 hours for him than hike it again! Ha! #iconcur
We chatted for a bit while I changed into dry socks and rested once again. There would be many hikers passing through at this point. It was around 1:30 p.m I sat there, silently debating whether or not to revisit Panther and return via my less-favored Bradley Pond route. As I argued with myself in my head, I ultimately decided to stick to my original plan for once. I would head back up to Santanoni and descend via the Express.
It took me about an hour and 20 minutes to reclimb the peak..much longer than the descent. At 3 p.m., the junction for the Express trail was reached. I figured it would take me an hour and a half to get back down to the start of the trail.
A light ray of late afternoon sunlight spilling through the woods as I ducked back into the treeline.
This was around the time I began to get loopy. I was overheated and tired. The car camping restlessness caught up with me. We all know what happens when we are tired and loopy? Yup…wipeouts. A big one! I completely lost my footing and slipped on some mud coming down that eroded section. Ironically, this would be one of the few times I didn’t see anyone else. I was completely alone on the entire descent. (probably because the smart people didn’t descend this way!)
My elbow isn’t healed yet, even now as I write this almost 2 months later! It was a solid battle wound. Full of mud and blood. Sounds about right. But I still had much of the trail to go, so gingerly I went. Before doing so, I cleaned the cuts and finished the rest of the water in my bladder.
At 4:30 p.m., I arrived back at the cairn and stopped once again. I knew the rest of the trip wouldn’t be terrible, just long. Walk that walk, baby. In hindsight, I was not even that muddy. Probably the least muddy I’ve been in a long while during this hiking season.
I made good time and reached the junction for the road by 5:00 p.m. and signed myself out of this hike at 5:30 p.m.!
What an adventure! 11 hours of beautiful trail magic and endless wonder.
Here the profile from my Garmin. Looking at it now, it may have been kind of crazy to reclimb Santanoni, but I loved it just the same! Good ‘ol Couch in the middle there…low and slow.
I was grateful for this day. Even with my fall, pride swelled for what I was able to accomplish on my own. It was a brutiful day. I walked the walk because…
She who is brave is free.
And freedom never smelled so sweet.
Full of scrapes and sunshine,