A sunrise or sunset hike has always been on my hiking bucket list. I attempted a solo sunset last year, but let my fear get the best of me. It’s been a stressful year to say the least, and an incredibly stressful election, so when temps were forecast in the 70s (!!!) this weekend, I knew I had to try for a sunset or sunrise hike.
Right Turn was going to be up in the White Mountains and said she was planning on hiking Willard Sunday morning. Willard would be a great choice since I’ve done it twice before and it isn’t too long, too much elevation gain, nor too rocky. However, she was only available for a sunrise hike. Which meant I would need to get up at 2:30 AM to be able to drive there and hike up to the summit in time for sunrise. That just wasn’t happening.
After some sunset research, I landed on Monadnock. Rainbow was free for a sunset on Sunday. Perfect!
Mt. Monadnock is interesting in that it’s often referred to as one of the most hiked mountains in the world. It’s known to have been hiked since the late 1700s, and was written about by both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoroeau. It’s also a short-ish hike, at an easy to access state park. All of which make it very popular. And as a result, very avoidable by me. Unless it’s sunset! My thought being that it would be less crowded on a Sunday evening. I was halfway correct.
Sunset was at 4:33 PM. The hike is 4 miles long with 1800 feet of elevation gain, we figured two hours would be enough, and we met at 2:15 at the trailhead.
First lesson learned for a sunset hike, add in an extra hour. I’d much rather sit around at the summit waiting for sunset, than feel like I’ve got to rush up or I’ll miss it. We were making pretty good time at the start. Or at least, what felt like good time. However, we kept having to stop and let people go by who were on their way down. I assumed the crowds would thin once we got to the junction where the trail splits in two. One (the one we would take) was the recommended ascent trail as it’s steeper with some rock slabs and scrambles. The other is the recommended descent trail since it’s less steep. Apparently, no one told all these folks.
It was at this point one of the descending hikers told us “they closed the summit at 2:15”. Um, what? A few other people said similar as they came down. Since we had already spoken with park staff at the gate and we clearly declared that we were on a sunset hike, we continued on.
We then saw a summit steward. She said hello and kept going, but we chatted a moment. She asked if we had head lamps when we said we were going up for the sunset. We confirmed that we did, and she said we’d likely see some rangers who would ask again. We did. One ranger stopped us and asked if we were going up for the sunset and if we had headlamps. Again, we confirmed (and this is me, so I also had a backup headlamp and extra batteries/charger for both). Then just as we hit a particularly difficult (for me) scramble, two more rangers. They chatted with Rainbow while watching me struggle up the slab. I said, “please don’t judge my ability by this current moment”. It’s interesting (especially as a trailhead steward and knowing what they’re likely thinking) how to sound confident and capable, without sounding cocky. Anyone could get injured at any time, but you also want them to know that this isn’t your first hike and that you’re prepared. The older ranger looked a bit doubtful, but they (and we) continued on.
It may have been around this point that Rainbow asked if Monadnock meant “lots of rocks”. I said it if does, the full name would be “lots of rocks, but not really THAT much more than any other hike in New Hampshire”. It actually means “mountain that stands alone”, which is a lot less interesting.
After the rangers, we saw FAR fewer hikers, which was more like I expected.
We weren’t quite to the summit when sunset hit. I managed to capture this photo of Rainbow just before we stopped to admire the sunset. Luckily, the top of Monadnock is very open, so it didn’t matter that we weren’t at the actual summit.
After enjoying the sunset, we hustled to get up to the actual summit before we lost too much light.
One of the geo markers at the summit. The light changed so much based on the direction I was facing. The photo with two other hikers was north-ish, while the lighter one was east-ish.
Only four other people at the summit. We sat down for a quick snack, change of clothes, and to put on our headlamps. Yes, I said change of clothes. It was in the 70s on the way up and I was a hot, sweaty mess. Knowing that it was dark, and we’d be descending (typically less effort), I brought along a clean dry sports bra and shirt. Facing the sunset, I was indeed topless for a moment, which was actually quite enjoyable. (Two of the other hikers had already left, and the remaining two were behind me and uh, making out, so I don’t think they noticed.) I’ve changed on the trail before, but this was my first summit strip. hahaha
Headlamps on and the sky darkening, we began our descent. I assumed I would really struggle with not being able to see well. Less light would mean less depth perception. Something you really want when trying to step/climb down huge rocks. However, it was almost like blinders on a horse at times. With less to see, there was less for me to worry about.
At other times, it was much harder. On a wide trail, like this was in parts, in full daylight, you can assess, do I go right or do I go left, which side is easier? Since I really couldn’t see ahead of me, I had to just pick one. Occasionally, I’d look over and realize I likely chose the harder path. C’est la vie, I guess, that’s hiking at night.
I love this photo I took of Rainbow. It’s grainy and terrible because it’s taken with my phone, but you can see her legs in the light of her headlamp. And also the utter darkness between her and me. Once we got into the woods and couldn’t see any lights besides ourselves, I did find myself “beelining” to her a few times and had to focus on following the actual trail, not just heading for her light.
It was a harder hike than I expected. I thought a 4 mile hike without too much elevation and one of the most popular hikes in the state, would be “easy”. It wasn’t easy. And obviously, hiking in the dark made it a bit harder, when you have to focus and think about every step. The good news is that for the most part, my focus on stepping distracted from any fears of whatever I heard scampering around in the dark woods. I’m sure it was just a squirrel, right? Squirrels are nocturnal, right?
Back at the parking lot!
- Distance: 4 miles
- Elevation gain: 1800 feet
- Total Time: 5 hours 14 minutes
- Moving Time: 3 hours 55 minutes
This fascinates me, because we really didn’t stop long. One quick snack break on the way up. One quick break for sunset and another quick summit stop. Definitely not an hour and 20 minutes. We had to stop a LOT for other hikers coming down and I think that’s reflected in the difference between total time and moving (automatically calculated by my app) time.