A Family Adventure

Tyson, Emilie & Isaac

Caves on Monadnock

August 19, 2018
Emilie Phillips
Rock at junction of side foot path with cliff walk

“Is that the top?” Isaac asked looking up through the trees. “No, just a ridge,” I repeated. Shortly, our trail tee-d into the Cliff Walk trail. Tyson stopped there for a bio break. “Isaac, want to climb this rock while we wait?” The bottom of the rock had many fissures and steps making it easy to climb. When Tyson reappeared, we had reached the higher section that was mostly smooth.

“Have you planned your route, Isaac?” Tyson eyed the overhang at the top of the single crack.

“Yeah this is easy.”

Isaac tried a few moves on the overhang, then admitted to Dad that maybe his route wasn’t so good. I stayed below Isaac to spot him while Tyson climbed past and guided Isaac out of the alcove onto the outside corner. Isaac reached the top and declared to the chuckling hikers rounding the rock “We took the shortcut!”

Planning a route up the mountain

The Cliff Walk Trail joins the crowds of summit-bound people on the White Arrow Trail. At the first view, we stopped for a snack break. The summit wasn’t yet visible above the lower rocky shoulder.

“Do you want to hike to the summit on the trail,” Tyson asked Isaac, “or do you want to climb the rocks off-trail?”

“Off trail. Let’s climb more rocks.”

Tyson and I considered the expanse of slabs and fractured rock. We agreed on a plausible route: up the nearby slab to a fir tree, then across the ledge behind the tree until it disappeared around a corner. The rocks below the fir looked sheared off and possibly overhung.

Red mushroom

Isaac, who has complained about most hikes recently, was enjoying this one. That morning, we advertised kite flying and exploring a cave Tyson knew near the summit of Monadnock. Isaac picked the Old Halfway House trail from the parking lot, rather than the Old Toll Road. It would be more interesting, he said. We found mushrooms, a fly attacking a giant white caterpillar, and a praying mantis. Tyson dug out a stream which had leapt the banks of its water bar. Above the halfway house site, Isaac started a game of tag the blazes instead of grumbling at the climb. He won 20 to Tyson-9 and me-9. When we left the car, Isaac had said he wanted to fly his kite first, then explore rocks and caves. But now that he’d tasted some rock scrambling, he wanted more.

We climbed off the White Arrow Trail. A few passing hikers looked at us funny. I hoped none of Monadnock’s contingent of confused or lost hikers would follow us. We had already given directions to two groups earlier in the day. We walked up the slab. Above the fir tree, I discovered the shelf which looked flat from below, was a long flake tipped corner-up with a crevasse behind.

Tyson pointed out that he’d meant to traverse higher. I persevered anyway. We climbed down, then up, then traversed on a foot-crack. Isaac picked every excuse to climb harder routes. One time in particular, he climbed up a few feet when we said to go down. After we refused his protests for a rescue, he tentatively down climbed. Meanwhile, I scouted ahead.

Isaac in first hole

“There’s a hole up here,” I told Tyson and Isaac as they caught up, “It’s big enough for Isaac or I to climb down into.” I took my pack off and peered in with my headlamp. It looked safe enough. Isaac wanted to see too. And once he’d seen, he wanted to climb down into the hole.

Isaac handed me his pack and his hat. He was already scampering down the hole as I balanced his stuff on top of mine. “Do you have a plan for getting back out?” I called over my shoulder. “Yes. The same way I climbed down.” I’d seen the hole was large enough to fit both of us, and not too deep, so I didn’t have to worry about his exit plan this time.

Typical of the geology in southern NH and on Monadnock, this hole was formed by several blocks of schist pulling away from the main cliff. The bottom was filled with smaller rocks and dirt. Isaac asked questions about everything in our mini-cave. Then Tyson called out from above that he’d found more shafts and caves. Isaac quickly climbed out to go see.

Hat retrieval

By the time I emerged, I found Tyson lecturing Isaac. Isaac had knocked his hat off our pile of packs and it had tumbled four feet down into a hat sized hole. Tyson stomped off in frustration. I looked at the hat down in the hole. I looked at the shape of the hole’s rock walls. Then I sized up Isaac. “Do you want your hat back?” He nodded somberly. “Can you climb down head first into the hole, grab your hat, and then I’ll pull you back out by your feet?” He balked before diving in. Once he was committed, he efficiently worked his way down to the hat, and wiggled himself back up with some help. Hat retrieved, I buckled all our loose possessions to the packs. Now for more exploring.

Tyson showed Isaac a fissure through which he could look up between twisted rocks with one eye and see me sitting in a cleft running horizontally into the mountain. Then Tyson introduced Isaac to a vertical hole whose entrance was smaller than our first one. Once again, I found myself calling after Isaac to see how he would climb out if I couldn’t follow him.

Emilie entering second hole

I sat down and lowered my legs into this hole. My feet hit a block. I couldn’t get my feet around the block because my shins were pressed against the ceiling. So I climbed back out and rolled over onto my belly. Now my joints bent the right way, but I still had to hunt with my feet for a diagonal long enough to fit my leg bones. Once I had my knees past the block, Isaac guided me to foot holds.

This chamber didn’t have a proper floor. I saw water at the bottom of a crack below. Several small cracks disappeared off to the sides. One modest size shaft led twenty feet horizontally out to daylight. I let Isaac crawl out the shaft first since he was below me and closer to it. Then I wormed my way out. From the outside, I would never have guessed there was anything interesting inside that shaft.

Isaac would have kept looking for more caves, but we needed to leave for the summit if we were going to fly kites. We hiked up a slab so steep Isaac got nervous looking down. Then we scrambled over rock folds, eating blueberries where we found them. We finished by taking White Cross to the summit. Isaac flew his kite for a while, then it was time to return home.

Tyson descending at his pace

“Why can’t we go in the other cave Dad knows of? … Can we climb this rock? Why not?”

“It’s late. We need to go home and eat dinner.” Isaac’s smile had vanished and he was threatening a five year old melt down. “We can come back another day,” I reassured, “and explore more.”

“Next time”, Isaac said solemnly, “we should wake up at midnight so we have time to do everything. I’ll sleep in the car while you guys drive.”


By taking the Old Halfway House Trail and the Side Foot Trail, we avoided almost everyone on the mountain. Despite showing as a minor trail on the map, the Side Foot Trail was well maintained. On the way down, we hiked the Smith Summit Trail with a detour to Black Precipice. Tyson hiked out the road to save his knees. Isaac and I returned on the parallel Old Halfway House Trail, Isaac happily absorbing my undivided attention.

For more hikes with caves, see our Crazy Caves list.

All Photos

GPS Track