Zeacliff Loop (July 16, 2011)

10 miles, 5 hours
I flew back from my vacation in France on July 15th and was on the trail the next day for an afternoon hike with Peter Wyatt. The Zeacliff Loop is a great choice for a half-day hike because it has a lot of diversity. We started on the flat Zealand Trail,which follows the Zealand River and soon opens up to beautiful views as beaver ponds convert the valley floor to a marsh (left). Past Zealand Pond we continued on the flat Ethan Pond Trail into the valley of Whitewall Brook, eventually reaching the intersection with the Zeacliff Trail amid a great slide from Whitewall Mountain opening up views of the valley (right). I could look up the slide to Whitewall Mountain (below left) and wished there was a trail to the top - one of these days I should just scramble up.
From there the Zeacliff Trail took us into the Pemigewasset Wilderness, where trails are supposed to be rough and obscure - and this one certainly is both. We started by going down steeply 200 ft. to the bed of Whitewall Brook (right). I remembered from my last hike there two years ago that crossing the brook required getting wet, but the trail crew had put some big boulders across the way for a dry crossing (amazing work - I'm surprised that the Wilderness purists allowed it).
From the brook the Zeacliff Trail climbs 1,500 ft in just 1.3 miles to reach the Twinway. It starts off ridiculously steep as it climbs straight up the valley wall to reach the ridge above the valley at 3,100 ft. It then turns right to follow the ridge along an easier grade in a birch forest. We noticed that all the birches were dead - what had happened? This allowed a lot of sunlight on the forest floor and the growth of large ferns that totally obscured the trail in places (left). In this manner we got to the base of Zeacliff and at that point the trail turned into a scramble up the cliff, with increasing views of the Pemi Valley below and the mountains to the south (right)
We reached the Twinway at the top of the cliff and turned right for a short walk to the Zeacliff vista. This is one of the finest views of the White Mountains and I was surprised not to find anyone there on a beautiful Saturday afternoon (indeed we hadn't seen anyone since leaving the Zealand Trail). We hung out for a while. At left is the view southeast showing where we had come from, across the Whitewall Mountain slide (notice the trail) and up the Whitewall valley wall (notice the dead birch forest). At right is the classic view from Zeacliff looking south. After we had our fill of views we hiked down the Twinway to Zealand Falls, where I took a nice dip in one of the upper pools that has a natural shower. We stopped at Zealand Hut where the crew was preparing dinner to tunes from a boombox (to enhance the wilderness experience) and back out through Zealand Trail.

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