The Hancock Mountains are located in the Pemiwegasset Wilderness in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Before the construction of the Kancamagus highway this was one of the more inaccessible areas in the state, between Franconia Notch and Crawford Notch. The mountain was named for John Hancock, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. It is a popular loop hike today with a distance of 9.8 miles over both summits and an easy to moderate climb. South Hancock is the shorter of the two mountains at 4,319 feet and North Hancock is larger at 4,420. They rank as 21st and 26th on the New Hampshire list of 4,000 footers and are easily done together.
The Trailhead is located on the hairpin turn of the Kancamagus Highway just after the Hancock overlook. Parking for the trail is allowed at the overlook, there is a 3$ parking pass fee and no facilities. Keep your dog leashed at all times while in the parking area and crossing the road. The trail crosses the highway at a place with very limited vehicle visibility and at any time of year this is a very well traveled road do not take for granted that drivers will be paying close attention.
The Hancock Notch trail is easily reached at the beginning of the hairpin turn on the highway. The section from the highway to the Cedar Brook Trail is frequently used and easy to follow. The trail was constructed on a former railway so it is very well graded, wild and easy to walk. It follows a gradual approach to the North Fork of Hancock Branch stream staying on the North side of the stream and heading right. It can be easy to get turned around here, the remains of the railway cross the stream at a different location that the trail. The trail is located 100 yards upstream and across at a location of a former logging road. At times of high water this section of the trail looks more like a tributary of the stream rather than the trail because it is very compacted and can be full of water and mud. This trail descends and crosses three brooks in .01 miles before meeting the Cedar Brook Trail at 1.8 miles. This portion of the trail is pleasant and very easy to walk for people of almost any ability. Elevation gain over the 1.8 miles is only 400 feet so it makes for a pleasant hike in the woods for just about any person or dog.
The Cedar Brook Trail immediately crosses a brook and climbs moderately on the remains of an old logging road. There are several other crossings of the North Fork of the Hancock Branch, most are short and unless in spring or after heavy rain, relatively easy to cross. In .7 miles the junction with the Hancock Loop trail is found. The ascent over North and South Hancock can be made in either direction the summit of North Hancock is .7 miles from the sign and South is .5 miles. We chose the shorter distance of the right trail up South Hancock as our ascent.
The South link of the Hancock trail is strenuously steep; this was the first point in the day where muscles were tested. The trail is rough and contains lots of loose rock and scree so use caution not to slip. This section of trail was easy enough for the dogs, both were about to bound right up the mountain aided by their four pawed drive.
The summit of South Hancock is wooded and offers some limited views, through the trees. Straight ahead from the summit sign there is an over look which has a viewpoint East to the Sawyer River valley. That is a breathtaking view of the mountains of the Presidential Range far in the distance and the river and valley below. Eat your lunch of South Hancock; there is a colony of Grey Jays that inhabit the North Hancock summit. These friendly birds will sometimes land on hikers and are notorious for stealing food. So unless you want to be harassed while eating keep your snacks away from the birds. They are wild animals and should not be fed, even though it is a novel experience to have a bird land on your hand. Please respect their wildness.
The Link Trail connects the two summits of Hancock Mountain and is 1.4 miles long from South to North. It is generally broad, bumpy and is easy to follow. There are some minor ups and downs on the ridge but it was no hard terrain for the dogs or humans. It can be windy and cold. The ridge is exposed and subjected to blow downs so be careful with weather. Remember that exposure can be dangerous and always bring extra layers with you. Plan ahead with regards to changing mountain weather. The North Hancock summit is also wooded but there is a path that leads left 40 feet to for a view to the south of the Sandwich Range, and Osceola Mountain. If you do see Grey Jays do not let your dog go after them. Leash the dog and be careful to not allow them to accidentally put themselves in a dangerous place.
Descending the North Link of the Hancock loop trail is .7 miles back to the junction with the Cedar Brook Trail. It is very steep and rough. It can also be slippery if the rock is wet. The trail descends along the side of the Arrow Slide to a more even, gravely area. Use caution while descending, more accidents in hiking happen on the way down than on the way up. At the end of the North Link the trail reconnects with the Cedar Brook Trail. It is an easy and pleasant walk back.
The loop over both summits of the Hancock Mountain is a very enjoyable and easy to moderate hike. The lead in on the Hancock Notch and Cedar Brook Trail is incredibly easy for dogs and humans. There is plenty of water that you have access to for drinking, the dogs enjoyed splashing around in some of the deeper pools. At times of high water the Cedar Brook Trail may be more difficult to negotiate, so keep that in mind while trail planning. The Hancock Loop Trail is much more difficult and ascending either the North or South Link will be a steep challenge. Although for the total distance of this hike 9.8 miles only 1.5 of it is really challenging. That is the ascent up the summit of either North or South Hancock and then coming down. We chose to go up South and down North but it can be done either way. The views from the summits are both limited but unique and enjoyable and this is a good full day hike with two 4,000 footers.
Distances from Kancamagus Highway
Cedar Brook Trail 1.8 miles
Hancock Loop Trail 2.3 miles
South Hancock Summit 2.8 miles
North Hancock Summit Via Ridge Link 4.2 miles
Total of Hancock Loop from Cedar Brook Trail 4.8 miles
Total Distance over loop from and back to Kancamagus Highway 9.8 miles 2,700 feet elevation gain