by Katie Salvatore
Mount Kearsarge stands prominently in the Lake Sunapee area, both geographically and emotionally. Its name is lovingly endowed on everything from schools to magazines to businesses, and it is rare to find a local who hasn’t hiked its slopes at least once. The ascension is almost a rite of passage for most of the youth and, for many, a hike up its trails is a walk down memory lane.
The first Europeans to see Mount Kearsarge are believed to have been members of a 1652 expedition from Massachusetts to find the source of the Merrimack River; they first recorded it on their map as Carasarga, derived possibly from the indigenous word meaning “Notch-pointed Mountain of Pines” (the notch is most visible from the Andover side).
After that it was recorded as Kyasarge, Chi a Sarge, and Kyar Sarga on town papers and maps in the mid-1700’s until finally appearing as Kearsarge on an 1816 map of Merrimack County.
The mountain became historically important when wood from its forests was used to build the USS Kearsarge during the Civil War, commanded by Admiral John Winslow. The ship and its crew earned fame during the decisive battle with the C.S.S. Alabama off the coast of Europe; its victory helped keep European forces from helping the South.
The Winslow House, a hotel, was built on the mountain and named in honor of the Admiral. Unfortunately, the hotel was abandoned after it proved unprofitable and was burned down, leaving only a cellar hole, which is still there today.
Later, in 1933, the land was donated by William B. Douglas to the State in memory of actress Katherine Raynor; the land next to it was already owned by the State and was combined with the hotel property to create Winslow State Park, on the North side in the town of Wilmot, in 1935. It has picnic tables, areas to play, and lovely views of Lake Sunapee, Mt. Sunapee, Ragged Mountain, and some of Vermont’s Southern mountains.
Two trails ascend from Winslow State Park: The Barlow Trail and the Winslow Trail. The Barlow Trail, marked with yellow blazes, is longer at 1.7 miles, but is an easier and more gradual climb; in some locations the trail has been shaped into steps. The Winslow Trail (marked with red blazes) is steeper and rougher- several parts involve scurrying up the bald rock- but is shorter at 1.1 miles. It’s common practice to climb up the Winslow Trail then down the Barlow. Just make sure to go down the same side of the mountain!
On the other side, the Southern side of the Mountain, is Rollins State Park in Warner. The climb from Rollins is comparatively easier than the hike from Winslow; this is because it used to be a road! In 1866, a charter was granted to build a toll road connecting Warner Village to the summit of Kearsarge. To build it, the Warner and Kearsarge Road Company was founded and construction began in 1873.
It reached within 44 yards of the summit upon completion. However, it was badly maintained, and was virtually impassible by the early 1900’s. Funds were raised by The Tory Hill Women’s Club in the 1920’s to repair the road and, in 1935, the Civilian Conservation Corps repaired the road to the Park and the half-mile trail top.
Rollins State Park is arrived at by that road and is home to the “Garden,” a wooded picnic area. From there Mt. Monadnock, the Merrimack River Valley and, on a clear day, the Boston skyline can be seen. In 1918, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests purchased the park as part of a 521-acre reservation and named it the Rollins Memorial Park after their founder, Governor Frank Rollins.
They added a shelter near the Garden for hikers, which became popular. The land was transferred to the state in 1950 so the state park could be established. Rollins has only one trail from the Garden to the summit: the 1⁄2 mile Rollins Trail, marked with white blazes, following the old road.
There is a fourth trail that ascends the mountain, but it starts farther away: the Lincoln Trail. This 5 mile hike- marked with white trapezoids- is part of SKRG, the Sunapee, Kearsarge, Ragged Greenway. It starts south of the golf course on Kearsarge Valley Road and traverses the northwest slope of the Black Mountains. It is a continuous 75 mile loop of trails around the Lake Sunapee area and, while it has its own separate trail that runs up the South side, the SKRG continues down the Barlow Trail on the North.
But whatever path you take, they all lead to the summit. In 1796, a forest fire burned it and exposed the soil to erosion. The footprints of glaciers are now visible: the carved groves in the granite, called glacial striations. Large boulders which were littered by the glacier can also be seen from the trails.
The top is occupied by a fire watch tower, which can be climbed partially for better views, and a cell phone tower, which can’t be. Lunch on the summit is a fun idea and there are tables to sit at, although the best views come from sitting on humps of granite with the land spreading out before you.
Remember to check and monitor the ever-changing New England weather when planning a hike. The trip can take five or six hours for amateurs or dawdlers, during which time a thunderstorm can roll in; a mountain top is not where anyone wants to be during one.
The temperature can also change drastically during the ascent, so be sure to dress in layers (a t-shirt, sweatshirt, and windbreaker is a good combination, depending on the time of year), in addition to wearing good shoes. As always, bring enough water, snacks, and whatever else you might need to keep you going and the trip pleasurable.
Admission into the park during the season is $4 for adults and $2 for children (ages 6-11); seniors over 65 are free. There should be a ranger to admit you, but if not then use the “Iron Ranger,” the self-serve pay station. The park is “in season” from May 17 to October 19, 8 am to 6 pm.
However, unless otherwise posted, the park is always open for use; during the off season and outside the hours the park is unstaffed and the gates, as well as facilities, are usually closed. In the off-season fees are not collected, although the climb is more treacherous. Exact season dates are subject to the weather, so be sure to check.
Hiking Mount Kearsarge is in so many ways a joy. It’s easy enough for beginning hikers to climb, and its importance to both our history and our lives today keeps us coming back for another visit to its familiar slopes.
Before you hit the trails check out our page of hiking safety tips.