Panoramic views and world-class fall foliage define Mount Willard, but this iconic hike has a darker history.
Mount Willard attracts thousands of visitors every year and is known as one of the most iconic hikes in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The three-mile hike and killer view at the end makes it popular for visitors and residents alike. But many who set foot upon the trail have no idea about the dark history involving the Willey family who once called this area home. Perhaps there is more than just wildlife living in these woods?
The hike up Mount Willard doesn’t have the typical boulder-scrambling, thigh-burning paths you usually find in the White Mountains. It can be attempted by most abilities and that’s likely why it’s so crowded here. That, and the jaw-dropping views looking south along the valley of Route 302. In the autumn, it’s hard to find a parking spot on the weekend but that doesn’t seem to deter anyone. Even just stopping to snap photos of the historic Crawford Depot that signals the start of the Mount Willard trailhead is worth the drive there. Hikers can stop here to use the restrooms or visit with the staff before they head up to experience the stunning vistas.
I arrive at Crawford Station on the eastern side of the railroad tracks around 6 pm. There’s plenty of cars along Route 302 as it’s a popular area to bag several four-thousand-footers. I cross the tracks, signaling the start of the trail. These tracks are part of a network of active train excursions that operate out of North Conway. The Conway Scenic Railroad has three types of adventures you can choose from including the Mountaineer ride which brings visitors to Crawford Station.
The trail veers left shortly after crossing the tracks with a sign indicating the way. After the fork, there are a few stream crossings which are easily crossed by a small jump or a bridge. I see a few hikers making their way down who happily scoot to the side to allow me to pass (remember, trail etiquette states that uphill hikers have the right-of-way). I give them a nod and a smile like I usually do and continue on my way.
What I don’t know at this time is that these were the last people I would come across for the rest of the trail. Seeing as it is close to 6:30 pm on a Thursday, most folks are heading back down. I wrongly assume that I’ll see more people at the summit with the same sunset dreams. There are no incidents on the way up the trail – just me and the birds and a few wind gusts. The trail is like a rollercoaster with several steep sections followed by flatter ground where my legs can chill.
At just over a mile, I arrive at my favorite part of the trail. In front of me, the trail narrows and is flanked by small birch and spruce trees. The trail is straight and gradually inclines before the summit up ahead. In doing so, it looks like a tree tunnel and always reminds me of some fantastical fairy realm waiting for me on the other side.
Today, however, is different.
Instead of the usual fun and happiness I feel when I reach this point, I get the feeling someone is watching me. The air stills for a few seconds as I look up into the darkening tree canopy. The sun is setting, casting shadows across the forest floor like arms reaching for their next victim. Perhaps it’s my creative mind at play…or maybe not.
I continue on and make my way to the summit. Surprisingly, I’m the only one up there where I wait for the sun to fully set. It’s not as glorious as I thought it would be due to a massive cloud layer pushing out any remnants of the beautiful colors usually associated with sunsets. I take a look around from the outcrop I’m sitting on and enjoy the views.
I feel the dew start to settle on my skin and know that it’s time to return to the car. I grab my headlight out of my pack and hit the trail for my return journey. When I get back to my beloved tree tunnel, something immediately feels off. Birds have stopped chirping. The pine needles have stopped swaying and the air drops to a frigid temperature. At first, I think it’s once again my imagination – I am in the middle of writing a fantasy novel and tend to over-embellish things.
But then I hear it.
First, the hairs on my arms stand up. It reminds me of the time I was caught above treeline on a hike in Colorado and lightning was about to strike. There is a stillness in the air and everything feels as if it is on pause. I’ve read enough fantasy novels to know: something is going to happen.
That’s when I hear it: laughing children. At this point, I am holding my breath wondering if it’s a trick of the wind. But I hear it a second time, now closer and coming from behind me. These aren’t the playful sounds you hear while kids play in your neighborhood. This is an echo of chilling proportions. It’s the sound of mischief—with a hint of evil.
It’s a sound I never want to hear again.
Whether I believe in ghosts is irrelevant. I am sprinting down the trail until I reach the trailhead, desperately hoping for signs of civilization. Any humans are better than the otherworldly creatures now stuck in my mind.
I finally get back to my car and my lungs feel like they’re about to explode as I bend over to refill them. I can’t pass out. Thankfully, there are plenty of cars dotting along Route 302 and I see a couple changing out of their hiking boots nearby. The sky is dark and so are the thoughts in my head. I don’t even think about loitering; I get the key in the ignition without a second thought for my sweaty clothes and restrictive boots. As I drive away from the parking lot, I glance in the rearview mirror, watching it get smaller and smaller. I don’t know what just occurred there but it is definitely something I will never forget.
The Hauntings of the Willey Children
After my strange encounter, I researched the area and found some fascinating finds. Mount Willard lies behind land once owned by the Willey family. In fact, their homestead can be found just over a mile from the Mount Willard trailhead. Willey House is where the family once lived prior to the tragedy that struck in the early 1800s.
Samuel Willey Jr., the patriarch of the family, moved his wife and five children into a house in the heart of Crawford Notch. He was a foreword thinker wanting to build an innkeeping business despite the area lacking tourists. He knew it was only a matter of time until people started visiting. Unfortunately, he never saw that dream come to fruition.
A year after their move, a massive rainstorm caused a landslide near their home. It concerned Samuel so much that he built a stone shelter immediately afterward. Not two months later, another bout of severe rain came flooding down on the White Mountains. The Saco River rose 20 feet in just a few hours’ time and many buildings (including Abel Crawford’s farm whom the Notch is named after) were destroyed. But when people came out to the Willey House to see the damage, they found the house still standing—and the family was nowhere in sight.
They eventually found the bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Willey, along with two of their children between the stone shelter Samuel had built and the untouched house. After seeing the unmade beds and things left askew in the home, people assumed the Willey family fled the house for the stone shelter to keep safe from the landslide. Unfortunately, if they had stayed in the house, they likely would’ve been fine.
But the eerie part in all of this is that three of the children’s bodies were never found. Rescuers assumed the bodies were buried well beneath the rubble of the landslide and were never recovered. Since that fateful day, the house ironically has seen a huge uptick in tourism thanks to the beautiful scenery and the lore of the home itself..
Many hikers encounter strange lights while walking the trails behind the Willey House, They’ve also heard sounds like the ones I heard up Mount Willard. Others report they were grabbed by an “icy shadow” and smelled foul odors that disappeared a second later.
You decide whether you are willing to brave the land known for the haunted Willey children.. Make sure to keep your eyes and ears open for anything unfamiliar in your midst. It just might be those children playing tricks on you.
Plan Your Hike
The hike up Mount Willard can be attempted by most novice hikers, even if it’s their very first hike. The three-mile, out-and-back trail is ideal for a quick hike with some stellar views.
Start Early or Arrive Late
This is one of those hikes that is busy from about 9:00 am until about 5:00 pm (earlier and slightly later on weekends). If you’ve ever been part of a conga line, you get the vibe—so be prepared. To avoid these crowds, go for a sunrise or a sunset hike like I did.
Heed the Weather
Even though Mount Willard isn’t above treeline like many of the surrounding four-thousand-footers, the summit is still exposed. Due to the nature of this valley, storms can roll in quickly and strand hikers at the summit. Keep an eye on the skies and turn back if the weather turns nasty.
Stay the Night
If you really want a leg up (physically and metaphorically), consider staying at the AMC Highland Center. Not only will you be able to roll out of bed and walk to the trailhead, but you’ll also get a great dinner and breakfast while you stay there. Plus, the Highland Center has the L.L.Bean Gear Room where guests can enjoy the use of any type of gear you might need for your adventure (free of charge).
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