The Belknap 12

Ahhh, springtime in New England. The sun is shining, the crocuses popping, and the songbirds chirping. A sense of rebirth has thawed the icy grip of Old Man Winter as the natural world springs to life. Sounds about right for April, am I right? In a dream world, maybe. In reality, however, the sun hasn’t been seen for weeks, the crocuses remain buried under a foot of fresh snow, and the songbirds… well, the naïve ones are hunkered down indefinitely, and the smart ones have long immigrated to warmer and sunnier climes. The stray ray of sunshine is but the cruelest tease in the permanence of an unrelenting gloom.

As of mid-April, I can confidently say that spring has sucked big time here in New Hampshire. We’ve found ourselves trapped in a land where the sun never shines and nearly every weekend has been marred with some type of ghastly precipitation. Consequently, since hiking the Whites is largely limited to weekends for us, we’ve been correspondingly slow at working our way through the list of New Hampshire’s 48 4000-footers.

With cabin fever high and morale at an all-time low, I desperately searched for some trails a bit closer to home that we could crank out in a few hours at the end of a workday. We needed to be able to take advantage of the (maybe?) one afternoon a week where it wasn’t pouring, sleeting, toppling trees, or dumping a half a foot of late-season snow. After randomly stumbling upon the Belknap Range – and then discovering the trails were a mere fifteen minutes up the road from our rental – we thought it would make a nice little side project.

About the Belknaps

While they are technically ‘mountains,’ their height may challenge many people’s definition – or at least perception – of the word. The range’s twelve major peaks stand at a mere 1,700 to 2,400 feet in elevation. Admittedly, I soon found myself investigating the requisite height of a mountain. Much to my surprise, I learned that most geologists agree that a landform rising at least 1,000 feet (300 meters) does a mountain make. So there you have it… mountains. While the Belknaps may be squat and more akin to large hills, the humble mountains did provide the perfect opportunity to get outside, carpe solum, and keep our legs in shape for our larger White Mountain objectives.

Nestled unremarkably on the southwest side of Lake Winnipesauke, the Belknap Mountain Complex dates to around 160 to 170 million years ago. Volcanic in origin, this arc of diminutive knobs formed during the breakup of the supercontinent, Pangea, in the middle part of the Mesozoic Era.

The highest peak in the range is Belknap Mountain – standing at 2,382 feet and crowned with a fire lookout. The most well-known is probably Gunstock, home to one of New Hampshire’s 28 ski resorts. The summit with the best view is, arguably, Mount Major. While most of the Belknap highpoints never break tree line, Mount Major’s open slab of granite offers a gorgeous look at the islands peppering Lake Winnipesauke with the Ossipee Range peaks just across the lake. If you get the opportunity, Mount Major’s summit view is especially beautiful in the late afternoon hours and around sunset.

MountainElevation (feet)
Belknap Mountain2,382
Gunstock Mountain2,245
Piper Mountain (North)2,044
Mount Klem2,001
Mount Mack1,945
West Quarry Mountain1,894
Straightback Mountain1,890
Mount Rand1,883
Mount Major1,786
Mount Rowe1,680
Mount Anna1,670
Whiteface Mountain1,664

Hiking the Belknaps

While the mountains are small, the network of trails crisscrossing the range is quite impressive, with over 70 miles of maintained trails to explore. Moreover, the Belknap Range trails are interconnected in a way that creates countless opportunities for hiking. You can hike each peak alone or combine a half dozen in one outing. You can opt for a single-summit out-and-back or design a ten-mile loop with a few thousand feet of gain. And for those really looking to make a day of it (maybe as a training run for the Presidential Traverse?), it’s even possible to hike all twelve summits in one trip. Clocking in at just under 18 miles and 4,800’ of vertical, the Belknap Range Tour offers a rare chance to hike an entire mountain range in just one shot.

If collecting patches is your thing (it seems to be a thing here in New England), the Belknap County Sportsman’s Association also awards hiker achievement patches for completing the official list (above) of the Belknap 12. There’s no time limit for completing the summits, and you can choose whichever routes suit your fancy. The only requirement is that you reach the official highpoints of all twelve peaks. If you’re feeling even more ambitious, you can hike all 70+ miles to earn your redlining patch from the Belknap Range Trail Tenders (BRATTS), a non-profit organization that works hard to maintain this swath of forest.

Since they were just down the road from us, Sanchez decided she had to tag the dozen peaks. She had an absolute blast doing it, and went on to earn her Belknap crown in five outings – even nabbing a couple extra summits along the way for good measure (North Straightback and East Quarry). Since we typically had just two to three hours of daylight left at the end of a workday in early spring, our approach was to design trips that were around five miles. While there are numerous ways you can hike the range, this was our summit strategy:

Mountain(s)Distance (mi)Elevation gain (ft)
Belknap & Gunstock4.51630
Mount Rowe4.11090
Whiteface & Piper4.51320
Mount Major & Straightback5.41620
West Quarry, Rand, Klem, Mack & Anna8.62700

The stunted summits may not be the most epic hikes you’ll find in the area, but they certainly made for some great post-work outings for us. Additionally, if you’re new to hiking and don’t really know where to begin, the Belknaps make a great jumping-off point.

Bonus: Lockes Hill

While it’s not one of the official twelve on the list, Lockes Hill also makes a really nice little outing. Located at the western edge of the Belknaps, Lockes Hill is required if you intend to redline the range. Clocking in at just 2.1 miles with around 500 feet of vertical gain, the loop trail is a great option for beginners or those looking to enjoy a short walk. The circuit combines the Quarry and Lakeview Trails, and can be hiked either clockwise or counterclockwise (about equally steep in either direction).

At the top of the hill, there is a surprisingly nice look at Lake Winnipesaukee and a handful of White Mountain peaks, including Mount Washington. It’s a view similar to that atop Mount Major, just from a slightly lower vantage point. If you’re looking for some really nice light, aim for late afternoon or around golden hour as the receding sun bathes the landscape from the southwest. This has been our go-to spot for walking Sanchez after work and, as of mid-May, she’s already been up about a dozen times. If you’re looking for a scenic spot to celebrate, say, your 46th wedding anniversary, Lockes Hill is also perfect. We took my parents up here for their special day and they loved it.

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