Winter Hike the Hancock Mountains

Hike Distance: 9.8 miles round trip
Time: 6-8 hours
Difficulty: Weekend Warriors
Elevation: Mt. Hancock, 4,420 feet; South Hancock, 4,319 feet; elevation gain 2,700 feet
Recommended GearTrekking Poles with winter baskets or a Mountaineering AxeCrampons; Winter Hiking Boots or Mountaineering Boots; Alpine Snowshoes


Winter hiking Mt. Hancock and South Hancock via the Hancock Loop Trail is a long and enjoyable walk in the woods. Entirely below treeline with limited views, this ten-mile hike is a good choice when the open summits are enshrouded. Anyone not already familiar with the Hancock loop will want to consider the following factors before strapping on the winter hiking boots:

1. The approach is 3.6 miles before the ascent of either Mt. Hancock or South Hancock begins. If you’re an early riser who loves breaking trail after a snowstorm, grab the snowshoes and have at it! If that doesn’t sound like fun, then you might want to avoid this one the day after a storm. It will get quickly packed.

Hancock Notch Trail Winter
The approach to the Hancocks is long but mostly flat.

2. The hike encompasses segments of the Hancock Notch Trail and the Cedar Brook Trail, as well as all of the Hancock Loop Trail. The route to the loop trail is typically well packed and easy to follow, but if you’re the lucky one breaking trail, you’ll want to pay attention at the junctions to make sure you’re going the right way.

Cedar Brook Trail Sign Winter
Read the trail signs carefully as it could be easy to confuse the Hancock Notch and Hancock Loop options on the signs with a cursory glance.

3. There are several stream crossings. These aren’t a deterrent in the winter as they’re easy to rock hop, or are frozen over, but this is something to consider in the spring when water levels are high. 

Hancock Notch Trail Winter Stream
This stream was the trickiest of the crossings, and it’s an easy ford via a log above this pool.

4. The ascents/descents of the North and South peaks at either end of the loop are short but seriously steep. You’ll need traction and likely more than microspikes in most conditions. Winter hiking is all about conserving energy, so I utilized snowshoes with the heel bar up for the ascent and then switched to full crampons to avoid snowshoe-skiing on the descent. This strategy worked well for me, but on a well-packed trail day, you could easily view it as a crampon-only hike and keep the snowshoes in the car to save weight and conserve energy that way. To each their own.

North Hancock Climb
A shot of the steep climb to Mt. Hancock on a clockwise loop.

A mountaineering axe could be used on the steep sections of this hike, but I found trekking poles with winter baskets to be adequate. That said, the slopes on this hike would be a good place to practice mountaineering footwork and axe usage—just not self-arrests, too many trees!

In regards to preferred loop direction, I don’t think it matters. On a map, it’s 0.2-miles longer from the trail split to Hancock’s North Peak than it is to the South Peak; however, there’s easily 0.2 miles of casual hiking on the north ascent, so there’s no real difference in the steep portions. 


North Hancock Winter Summit View
There’s a good outlook just off the main summit; however, on this day I couldn’t see much past South Hancock as seen here on the left.

Thanks to @hiker_nate on Instagram for showing us there is a view from Mt. Hancock’s summit:

From the main summit to South Hancock, the ridge hike in between is 1.4 miles of wooded trail with no real views until a lookout below the South Peak. There’s enough elevation gain/loss between the two peaks for them to both count on the White Mountains 48 list, but it’s barely noticeable.

Hancock Loop Between Summits
A stretch of the Hancock Loop Trail between the summits.
South Hancock Loop Approach
A cool-looking corridor of trees just before Mt. Hancock’s South Peak.
Hancock Loop Trail Sign
As the sign says, it’s 1.4 miles of forested ridgeline between the peaks.
South Hancock Descent
The steep descent of the Hancock Loop Trail from the South Peak. As always, it’s much steeper than this image makes it look.
North Hancock Fir Macro
That’s it for this post — happy trails!
Posted in
New Hampshire, New Hampshire Trail Reviews, Weekend Warriors
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