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  • by Chris Stewart

The Moat Mountains - Taking a Closer Look at North Conway's Backyard Mountain Range

Each of the world's great cities has set aside a bit of undeveloped land where its citizens can commune with nature. New York City has Central Park, Paris has the Tuillerie Gardens, while Rome takes pride in the rolling green hills of the Forum. True, North Conway is smaller than any of these urban capitals, but it can offer its citizens and visitors natural attractions on a far grander scale than any city planner could imagine. After all, there's space for more than a hundred Central Parks in the North Country.

However, the great wealth of mountain peaks and forests available tends to cloud the picture. With so much to choose from, it's easy to overlook what is at our fingertips in favor of something more alluring and more spectacular on the horizon. To quote Lord Houghton: " A man's best things are nearest him, Lie close about his feet." In sum, the Moat Mountains - North Conway's backyard - have been short-changed.

Hikers and campers usually by-pass the Moats on their way to the Presidential Range and the other 4,000 footers to the north. Tourists save their film, preferring to take snap-shots on the drive through Pinkham, Crawford or Franconia Notch. Yet anyone who has hiked to the Red Ridge Trail to the summit of North Moat finds the end result well worth the sweat, and those who have paused at the Scenic Vista when the sun is setting know that the Moats have an attraction distinctly different from the other summits in the White Mountains.

In part, that difference stems from the Moat's geology which contrasts markedly with its neighbors. Millions of years ago, long before North Conway had two traffic lights, northern New Hampshire was the scene of spectacular change. During the Devionian Period of the Paleozoic Era - 300 million years ago - great pressures in the earth began to scrunch together the then flat sedimentary rock. Over time, this action "folded up" the land and created the White Mountains, much in the same way that pressing on opposite edges of a flat sheet of paper cause the paper to bow in its center. Eons later, following the polishing effects of glaciers, wind and rain, the White Mountains appear in their present rounded forms.

Since the Moat Mountains didn't begin to take shape until 100 million years after the Devionian Period, this range is considered a geological baby by contrast. Molten igneous rock masses from deep below the ground found a crack in the earth's surface and pushed up through it. This volcanic rock, which slowly oozed upward, gradually cooled to form the basis of the Moats. Still, the way the mountains appeared after the lava cooled was not what we see today.

Like the rest of the White Mountains, the Moats were softened and molded by the action of wind, rain and glaciers - which at one time covered the entire State. For almost a million years, great sheets of ice advanced and retreated, moving southward when the climate cooled and retreating to the north during warmer times. Luckily, this glacial age - known as the Pleistocene era - ended approximately 11,000 years ago, leaving the Moats looking almost as they appear now.

Rock hounds can still find evidence of the "extrusive phase" (when molten magma seeped from the earth) on the Moats. Ryolite, basalt, andesite, and other common volcanic rocks confirm the mountain's fiery origins.

In more recent times, the Moats have attracted hunters, trappers, hikers, and nature-lovers who have found an abundance of wildlife on and near these mountains. When early settlers first came to the area, and throughout the Colonial and Revolutionary Periods, the beaver trade played an increasingly important role in the area's economy. Since fashion in Europe required that the well-dressed man wear a beaver hat, these animals were highly valued for their pelts. For years trappers who combed the North Country in search of beaver found ample supply around the Moats as elsewhere throughout the region.

The name "Moat," in fact, is derived from the beaver who once thrived in these mountains. The numerous beaver dams blocking the streams on the slopes of the mountains created dozens of tiny ponds which were known locally as "moats." According to Robert and Mary Hixon's The Place Names of the White Mountains, a visit to the region was termed "going over the moats." Although the spelling of Moat has caused some confusion - since Albany's charter map in 1771 and The Geology of New Hampshire both referred to the mountains as "Mote" - the mountains still provide a home for beaver, deer, porcupine, raccoon, and other wildlife common to the area.

The long craggy Moat Ridge, rising above the Saco with its three peaks - North Moat (3,201), Middle Moat (2,760), and south Moat (2,772) - offers one of the longest open vistas in the White Mountains aside from the Presidential Range proper. Normally, the treeline in the White Mountains varies between 3,500 feet and 4,000 feet, depending on exposure, soil conditions, and local geology. The Moats, however, enjoy their unusual openness because of a fire which ravaged the mountain in 1854. In September of that year, flames burned off the evergreens on the top of the mountain, leaving an unnatural treeline at 2,700 feet. The result has been an unexpected and unobstructed spectacular view for any who climb to the ridge. As Daniel Doan, author of Fifty Hikes in New Hampshire, wrote, "I know a man who was hooked on mountaineering for life by the exhilaration that comes from a hike on the Moats."

Although hikers have the option of following several paths to the summit, one of the most popular routes is the Moat Mountain Trail beginning at Diana's Baths on the West Side Road. The path leaves from the upper end of the clearing close to the Baths following an old logging road for a half a mile. Here, at a fork where the Moat Mountain Trail branches off to the right, The Red Ridge Trail leads off to the left. Taking a right a this fork, The Moat Mountain Trail crosses a swampy area and continues for a mile on the south side of Lucy Brook.

The trail then turns sharply left, away from the stream, moving uphill, at the junction with the Attitash Trail (which continues straight ahead to West Moat). After a third of a mile of steady uphill climbing, the path emerges onto ledges - where the trail is marked by yellow paint - and continues upward through scrub trees to the summit of North Moat. Most hikers can reach the summit of North Moat - a 3 3/4 mile trip in less tham three hours. Most hikers also agree that while the Moats aren't as famous as other mountians, they have a charm all their own.

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