A Quick Trip up Mt. Monadnock

Lowland forest

Rising to only 3,165 feet (965 m), Mt. Monadnock is one of the most frequently climbed mountains in the world. Located in southern New Hampshire, Monadnock is known as a favorite location among the transcendentalists. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote fondly of the mountain in “Monadnoc“:

Many feet in summer seek,
Betimes, my far-appearing peak;
In the dreaded winter time,
None save dappling shadows climb,
Under clouds, my lonely head,
Old as the sun, old almost as the shade.
And comest thou
To see strange forests and new snow,
And tread uplifted land?
And leavest thou thy lowland race,
Here amid clouds to stand?

Emerson would likely be impressed with the amount of winter traffic Monadnock sees these days. Trails are well maintained, wide, and accessible, with plenty of parking and facilities. Despite having a natural, undisturbed appearance, the ecosystems surrounding the mountain are in fact the result of dramatic human activity during the 1800’s that had a lasting impact on the landscape (more on that later). Regardless, Monadnock is ecologically, geologically and hydrolically important, and a range of New England species can be observed on its slopes.


Mt. Monadnock offers trails of varying difficulty, including connecting trails linked to other peaks in the area. For our short day hike, we decided to climb the White Dot trail, and descend on the White Cross trail. This was only my second time climbing Monadnock, and I wanted to check out the tree species near the summit, in particular. The weather was perfect, around 40F near the base, with clear blue skies. With the snow last week, we’d been told that the slopes were icy and likely to start melting mid-day.

Frozen stream

It didn’t take long for the sun to start warming things up. The thin ice covering the mountain streams had already melted by 10 o’clock. Only a half hour from the trailhead, we had already seen at least fifteen other hikers.

Fagus grandifolia (American Beech) juvenile with retained foliage

Near the base of the mountain, and up to around 2200′, the forests are a relatively homogenous community of American beech (Fagus grandifolia), red oak (Quercus rubra), and gray birch (Betula populifolia), and less commonly yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) with some striped maple (Acer pennsylvanicum) and sugar maple (Acer saccharum) saplings. The forest floors, dappled in sunlight, are home to ferns, mosses and shrublike vegetation including a number of ericaceous species. The beech above shows the characteristic retention of foliage (marcescence), which makes these golden saplings highly visible in the winter landscape.

Trametes versicolor (Turkey Tail Fungus) Betula populifolia (Gray Birch) with Piptoporus betulinus (Birch Polypore)

Birches are typically considered a pioneer species, appearing shortly after an area is disturbed, burned or clear-cut. Saplings shoot up quickly, and damaged trunks are mitigated by sending out basal shoots (suckers) and shedding dying limbs. Birchwood is relatively soft and offers little rot resistance. Because of this, it becomes a valuable source of energy for many heterotrophs, including the fungi seen above (Trametes versicolor top, Piptoporus betulinus bottom).

Birch with bark beetle galleries

This birch became host to some kind of bark beetle, and its larval galleries can be seen ringing the dead trunk. Typically, a tree is able to survive the destruction of some of its cambium, and will die back from whatever regions of the tree were reliant on the disturbed vasculature. The undisturbed cambium, and the associated vascular tissues, can go on living, although the dead parts of the tree will most likely become host to all types of pathogens. When the cambium is destroyed in a complete ring around the trunk, a process called girdling, the living tissues that support the upper tree are essentially severed, and the tree will die back above this point. In the case of the birch above, it seems that overzealous larvae destroyed too much living tissue for the tree to survive.

Betula populifolia (Gray Birch)

Higher up, in the sub-apline and alpine zones of Monadnock, the flora changes dramatically. The larger hardwoods disappear, and the birches grow much shorter. Monadnock has an interesting history in terms of human involvement in the landscape. Throughout the 19th century, the slopes of Monadnock, like many New England forests, were clearcut and burned to make way for pasturelands. The summit was repeatedly burned throughout the century to eradicate the wolves believed to be denning on the upper slopes. The destruction of these alpine areas also prevented the accumulation of the rich topsoils necessary for woody species to establish. Because of this, Monadnock has a false treeline, appearing at a much lower elevation than is normal for the region.

Picea rubens (Red Spruce) juvenile profile

Sub-alpine and alpine zones on Monadnock are dominated by red spruce (Picea rubens) which form dense, low canopies, preventing abundant undergrowth.

Picea rubens (Red Spruce) foliage with freezing damagePicea rubens (Red Spruce) dead foliage tips

On many of the spruces on Monadnock, we found dry, brown, dead foliage tips. The damage done to these trees is most likely the result of either the summer drought or the rapid freezing and thawing cycles of the past few months, which can be devastating to tender new growth.

Pinus strobus (Eastern White Pine)

Near the summit, I found a single white pine (Pinus strobus) among the mountain cranberry. With the fierce winter conditions and high exposure, it is unlikely that this pine will survive beyond its juvenile years. Species on the exposed upper slopes depend on rock cover, and often form stunted, contorted mature trees, or krummholz.

Mt. Monadnock alpine zone

By the time we reached the summit, the air was clear and the temperature was perfect. The relatively low, windswept snow accumulation left many of the low, scrubby plants exposed.

Juvenile plants and trail erosion

The importance of low-lying woody species, perennials and grasses can be seen near the trail edges, where roots maintain the structure of soils prone to erosion.

Animal prints in snow

I found footprints but couldn’t identity who had left them.

Snow melt

By noon, a significant amount of runoff was flowing down the sunny slopes.

Mt. Monadnock summit

The summit was clear and bright, perfect for lunch and a rest. I’m looking forward to returning once things start to green up. I’ll leave you with our last sighting, the rare mountain snowman (Homo chionus):


Thanks for reading,



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