Trail: Ethan Pond Trail (AT) – Willey Range Trail
Distance: 5.4 miles out and back
Time: 4-6 hours
If you’re looking for an easy winter 4,000-footer, then Mt. Willey probably is not a good choice. You’d be much better off going with the neighboring Mt. Tom, which many people combine in a three-summit traverse with Mt. Willey and Mt. Field. Unfortunately we got a late start and didn’t have enough daylight hours to make it across the ridge to Mt. Field and back, so this ended up being a one-summit hike. Despite the short distance to the summit, sections of the ascent are extremely steep and very tricky to maneuver when covered in snow and ice. Regardless, we were looking for a challenging hike, and that’s exactly what we got from Willey.
The hike begins at Willey Station Road just off of Route 302 in Crawford Notch. The first 0.3 miles from the parking area follows the road before reaching the train tracks where you come to the beginning of the Ethan Pond Trail. You will then follow the Ethan Pond Trail, which also happens to be the Appalachian Trail, for 1.3 miles before reaching the junction with the Willey Range Trail which will take you the final 1.1 miles to the summit. Stretches of the Ethan Pond Trail are very steep but the terrain is not particularly challenging. On the day we hiked, the snow was well-packed so microspikes got the job done and snowshoes were not necessary.
Once you reach the Willey Range Trail, the hike starts to get treacherous. It is only a 1.1 mile push to the summit but it felt more like three miles at the pace we were traveling. We were hiking with a one-year-old puppy who flew right up the trail and kept looking back at us wondering why we were taking so long…which wasn’t great for our confidence. There is a series of ladders/stairs that help you traverse the most dicey sections of the trail, but they were mostly covered in a thick layer of ice at this point in the year. Despite the ice, the ladders were actually not the most difficult part of the ascent. The steepest ice-covered sections of the trail where there were not ladders to aid us were actually much more difficult.
The official summit of Mt. Willey is marked by a cairn but is surrounded by trees and has no real views. However, there is an overlook off to the right just before you reach the summit and the views of Crawford Notch are not too shabby…
Most avid New Hampshire hikers are familiar with the scavenging gray jays that frequent Tom, Field, and Willey. The moment we reached the summit, there were two jays waiting for us to open our bag of trail mix.
One of the many perks of winter hiking is the ability to slide down the snow covered trails and get back to your car in record time. With the exception of the ladders and some very icy/rocky sections of the Willey Range Trail, we slid down on our butts for the majority of the way to the junction with Ethan Pond Trail. We flew down the mountain. The trail is so steep that it was difficult to stay in control while sliding, so slide at your own risk.