Located just a hour’s drive from central Maine is an outstanding day hike called South Moat Mountain.

A three-mile hike to the summit of this nearly 3,000-foot mountain provides panoramic views of the White Mountains and the surrounding area. To its south, is the majestic Alpine-like peak of Mount Chocorua, and to the west are several four thousand-foot artes that arise along the Swift River. South Moat overlooks the Saco River and the Town of North Conway, New Hampshire, to the east, with the Cranmore Mountain Range and western Maine’s Pleasant Mountain in the background. But, on a clear late winter’s day, the most spectacular views are to the north, where the ice and snow capped Presidential Mountains tower commandingly over the north central New Hampshire region.

South Moat provides an excellent opportunity for less-experienced winter hikers to get a relatively benign taste of cold weather mountaineering. It is located just a few miles outside of the towns of Conway and North Conway, yet it provides an intermediate level hike in a wilderness setting with 360 degree views at the summit. After a snowstorm, the Moat Mountain Trail to the summit, with about 1,800 feet of elevation gain, provides a moderately challenging snowshoe. Further, the ledges at higher elevations and the exposed summit area may require the use of crampons. It is also possible to do a traverse of the entire Moat Ridge by following this trail.

The easiest way reach the South Moat Mountain trailhead from central Maine is to connect with U.S. Route 302 and then follow it north through Fryeburg and into New Hampshire. About eight miles west of the Maine border, Route 302 meets Route 113 and turns to the north.

Take Route 113 west for about three miles to the village of Conway. Then take the first right turn onto the West Side Road after the junction with Route 16. It is about three miles to a left turn onto Passaconaway Road (Some guidebooks refer to this as the Dugway Road). A trailhead maintained by the National Forest Service is on the right about four miles west. This is a new trailhead that is about a half-mile beyond the original trailhead that is described in most guidebooks and shown on most trail maps.

The trailhead provides parking space for about a dozen vehicles, but there are no toilets. There is a $3 per day self-pay parking fee. The necessary envelopes and a deposit box are provided. It is also possible to purchase White Mountain National Forest passes from the National Forest Service, and the National Park Pass with the Eagle provides for this fee.

The sign at the trailhead says that it is 2.7 miles to the summit of South Moat Mountain. Based on a recent hiking time, I suspect that it is actually a little longer. The first mile or so is obviously new trail. It is wide, well-marked and winds gently with a gradual upward slope through a heavily wooded area. However, there is a layer of loose topsoil on this new section of the trail, and I suspect that it is quite muddy when wet or during the spring thaw. There are two stream crossings in the first mile. The first could be problematic after heavy rains, as there is no bridge and no obvious means of crossing in deep water. In what seems to be a perverse contradiction, the second stream is spanned by what I dubbed the “Million Dollar Trail Bridge.” By hiking trail standards, it is an architectural masterpiece. It has two bridge length I-beams to girder it and cables are attached from the frame to large upstream boulders. If you survive the first stream crossing, then the second should be a cakewalk.

Once the new section of trail connects with the old, it begins to ascend more steeply. Here, the trail is neither as obvious nor as well marked, so hikers should remain alert. In a few spots, the footing is hampered somewhat by large rocks that are probably buried when snows are deep. As elevation is gained, the terrain is less wooded with open, steep ledges. During icy periods, or after snowmelt followed by freezing temperatures, crampons may be needed. Even during times when crampons aren’t required, it may be necessary to leave the trail and negotiate around partially iced areas of exposed ledge. While hiking north on the ledges, stop and turn around periodically to enjoy the views of the mountains and lakes to the south and west. As you continue to hike over the ledges, you climb above the treeline and then scramble over massive boulders to the summit. The views are spectacular in all directions. This is a great spot to take a break and enjoy lunch or a snack. If it is too windy, partial shelter can be obtained in the lee of the large rocks.

It is possible to do a traverse of the Moat Ridge by continuing north on the Moat Mountain Trail over Middle Moat and North Moat Peaks to the northern terminus trailhead on the West Side Road. However, this is about 10 miles and most hikers should allot a full day for this trek. There is a side trail called Red Ridge Trail that avoids crossing over the summit of North Moat Mountain, which is the high point on the ridge. Caution should be exercised when traversing the ridge, as it is particularly exposed to weather. When severe conditions are encountered, consider returning below the treeline and wait for a day with better weather. Shuttle arrangements should be made in advance of a traverse.

While a winter hike of South Moat Mountain is not as demanding or potentially hazardous as some of its taller neighbors, full consideration should be given to cold-weather eventualities. For a recent hike, we took lunch, extra food and plenty of water. Besides essentials such as a first aid kit, headlights and batteries, and a map and compass, we took plenty of extra clothing, including parkas and water resistant, breathable outer layers. We wore waterproof, insulated boots with gaiters and carried extra socks. Since it was sunny with temperatures in the lower 30s, we were able to hike in lycra leggings with shorts and poly tops and a windbreaker. We also carried mittens, hand warmers and balaclavas for head protection. We used sunscreen and sunglasses. For winter hikes, I also carry a bivy sack-style emergency shelter, which would be adequate protection for an overnight stay below the treeline.

Before venturing out on a winter hike in the mountains, even a relatively easy one such as South Moat Mountain, be sure to take basic safety measures. Never hike alone. Let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return. Consider any health issues that might put you or your group at risk. Check the weather forecast and plan your adventure accordingly. I have gotten into the habit of taking a cell phone. While I don’t think they should be used frivolously or as a safety net for making reckless decisions, they can be invaluable in a true emergency.

If you are relatively new to winter mountaineering and want an intermediate mountaineering experience consider South Moat. Further, it offers a year round hiking opportunity that is relatively close by in an excellent outdoor setting. After a day of hiking, there are many shopping and dining options in North Conway, Fryeburg and Bridgton on your return trip home.


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