"Don't worry, there's plenty of room"

Cohos Trail, Day One: Davis Path Trailhead to Stairs Mountain

As carless New Yorkers, the journey to the trail can sometimes seem as arduous as the trail itself.

Our first day on the Cohos Trail really began when we left our apartment in the early hours to catch the 2:40am train to Boston. We splurged on a roomette, because the last time we took the 2:40am train I couldn’t sleep very well, and E didn’t sleep at all, and we didn’t want to start the trail completely sleep deprived. It was my first Amtrak roomette, which was kind of exciting, although I simply don’t know about having a toilet in the same room as you sit and sleep. Instead of marveling at this distinctly unmodern (and extremely expensive) way of traveling, I closed my eyes to sleep as soon as possible.

We originally planned to catch a 10am bus to North Conway and grab a $60 cab ride to the trailhead, but somehow our train actually arrived early and we had the option to run to catch an 8am train to Franconia—which was closer to one of the hiker shuttle services I had texted for a quote. If we could get a ride from Franconia, we could be on trail hours earlier than expected, and possibly avoid hiking in the late-afternoon, early-evening rain forecast for the region. We made a split second decision and asked the Concord Trailways attendant to change our tickets, which he very nicely did.

All I wanted to do was go back to sleep but instead I frantically texted that shuttle service to see if they still had availability. I didn’t get a quick response, so I started Googling around and reassured myself there is a taxi service one town over from Franconia that could probably give us a ride.

The ride through Franconia Notch is stunning; we passed trailheads clogged with cars (it’s the Sunday before Labor Day). Still no response from the shuttle service, so I was twitchy and anxious. But the bus dropped us at a larger commercial crossroad than expected—there was a market and a cafe and sandwich shop and even a hardware or general store. We lugged our bags across to the coffee shop and E called the taxi service. (While planning this trip, I learned nobody would take my Kansas area code calls but they’d answer his Massachusetts number seconds later.)

To our surprise, they could pick us up in about 20 minutes. Relieved to have secured transportation, we bought coffees and a breakfast wrap to split.

In spite of a slight miscommunication with dispatch regarding which Notch we were headed to—we wanted the more distant Crawford Notch, not nearby Franconia Notch—and the subsequent price hike (to $120), we arrived at the trailhead hours earlier than expected. The lot wasn’t even half full, on surely one of the most popular hiking days of the year.

That’s part of the point; from south to north, the Cohos Trail strives to carry the trekker over and through some of the wildest and least traveled parts of New Hampshire. Even through the Whites, probably the most popular hiking region in the Northeast, it largely follows the (relatively) neglected and overlooked Davis Path.

After more than 12 hours of travel—by subway, train, bus, and taxi—we finally hoisted our bags over our shoulders and started the approximately 170 miles trek to Canada.

We chatted with a few dayhikers and a Forest Service employee on their way down the ridge; we learned that two other hikers are also headed to the campsite at Stairs Mountain. Given that it was the Sunday of a holiday weekend, we weren’t surprised. The others grimaced and made faces at the prospect but assured us the girls didn’t look like they’d bite. The Forest Service employee said, “Don’t worry, there’s plenty of room.”

The trail pitched steadily up for the first two miles, but soon delivered the goods.

Our first summit was of petite Mt. Crawford, at just 3,129 feet.

The view from Crawford is spectacular. After our thru-hike of the Northville-Placid Trail last year, which has no summits whatsoever, it was shocking, refreshing to be rewarded in this manner, just a few miles into our hike.

At the site of the old Resolution Shelter (since removed for safety reasons) we pitched down a steep, overgrown ravine in search of water; I would not recommend this to others. A “distressingly challenging run for water” is how I described it in my journal that night. Either fill your bottles at the trailhead from the Saco River, or have the sense (in wet seasons) to just walk a bit further on the trail, which will pass dribbles of streams (again, only in wet weather).

We also took the spur trail to the ledges on Mt. Resolution, although we didn’t bushwhack our way to the forested summit.

By the time we finally angled ourselves to our final destination for the day, the air was heavy and oppressive. The rain had held off to that point but not for much longer. We knew we were getting closer when we heard voices—very loud voices, in fact. My delirious thought at the time was the two girls at the campsite were cheerleaders, but it was much, much worse. It was six (six) other backpackers, coming from the north, turning into the side trail to the Stairs Mountain summit and the campsites there. Where we were supposed to camp.

I was stunned, horrified. They beat us by mere seconds. If only we hadn’t had to get water, I lambasted myself, if only I hadn’t had to go up Mt. Resolution, which we didn’t even technically summit. If only I was faster, stronger.

We followed them out on the spur in a daze. There were the two girls the others had told us about, with their two big tents on the right. And here were six other backpackers—possibly even SOBO thru-hikers—blithely and triumphantly taking every last smooth, flat, hard camping spot next to the little ledge of Stairs Mountain. I wanted to cry. I spared a glance at the view from the ledge, but foggy white clouds swirled and obscured most of the expanse below.

E and I fell back on the trail to discuss our options. The next campsite was three miles away, it was getting dark, and the sky had started spitting on us. We also had not eaten very much that day, and had barely 8 hours of sleep between us, if that. I was hungry, and furious, and disappointed, and sad. The smug, happy sounds of other backpackers settling in for dinner and sleep drifted back at us through the mist.

I simply did not believe that I could make the next campsite, and the trail pitched steadily down after this summit so finding a stealth campsite in the dark, in the rain, would also be a challenge. So we scouted a tiny, flat spot in the woods and I threw up the tent. Joining the other hikers out on the small, wet, fogged in ledge to cook seemed to me a fate worse than death so I persuaded E to let us break bear-safety protocol and cook in the vestibule.

Apparently in the year since thru-hiking the Northville-Placid Trail I had completely forgotten how to cook on a backpacking stove. I added the Knorr pasta side and the instant potatoes to cold water before turning on the stove, only to find the bottom started to burn before the rest of the food even gets hot. After trying and failing to persuade E to eat a lukewarm concoction of potato and crunchy pasta spirals, we take some of the mixture out, add more water, and finish cooking our dinner through.

Finally, after E scrubbed away the burnt mess and hung the bear bag, we settled in for sleep, which came for us both almost immediately, as the rain fell plunk-plunk on the tent.