Lakes of the Clouds Hut and Mount Washington from the Crawford Path, Labor Day Weekend 2015
After last Labor Day Weekend's romp in the Whites, a return visit was a no-brainer. This year, we decided to take-on another one of "America's Hardest Day Hikes"- the Pemi Loop. The loop name is an abbreviations of Pemigewasset Wilderness. To spare our screaming quads and aching knees, we broke the trip into three days and two nights. For good measure, we added an extra 15-miles of fun on the total trip. I once got called a "Peak Baggin' SOB", might as well live up to the name.
Last Sunday, I dug my NatGeo White Mountains map out of the gear closet, took a look at the route, and sighed with relief that we wouldn't be left trying to hitchhike after a grueling long hike. The traditional, clockwise Pemi loop traverses the Franconia Ridge, Mt. Garfield, South Twin, and the Bonds. It starts and ends at the Lincoln Woods Visitor Center off of NH112 Kancamagus Highway. Jordan and I opted to hike the loop counterclockwise and to include Guyot, Zealand, and North Twin Mountains. This sounded like added challenge enough. However, after a little coaxing via Facebook, some DCUL madmen convinced me to include Owl's Head in the trek as well. It would be a travesty to leave a lone peak out in the middle of a loop, right?
Matt "Prius" Scharf was kind enough to share his CalTopo map with me. (I downloaded Gaia a couple of weeks ago and have been underwhelmed with the functionality). I modified the map to reflect the CCW navigation of our intended trip. The route can be accessed via CalTopo here. NOTE: I have further modified the trip to more accurately reflect our trip.
Let’s set the record straight, we didn't day trip the Pemi Loop. We’re not that gluttonous for punishment. We did however, drive +500 miles to arrive at the Lincoln Woods Trailhead at 1:30 AM. With infinite romance, we dropped the back seat of my Crosstrek, inflated air mattresses, unpacked sleeping bags, and tried to catch a few zzz’s before daybreak.
Jordan and I hit the trail at 6:30 AM and almost immediately got sidetracked by the 0.8 mile RT detour to Franconia Falls. It was pleasant, but would have been even better at the end of a hot day. The first 6 miles of trail for this loop are almost laughably easy- converted rail trails, wide enough for a car and gently sloping. Then began the first part of what would be endless climbing.
By 10 AM, we were at the broad, exposed summit of Bondcliff. There is a small section of scrambling to reach the summit. From the summit, the trail ahead to Bond and West Bond is visible. In particular, I really liked West Bond as it afforded spectacular, up-close views of the exposed faces of Bondcliff. It also helped that West Bond was significantly less populated with other hikers than Bondcliff and Bond. The short out-and-back to West Bond also gives people backpacking the PLP opportunity to drop pack and trek out-and-back without the extra weight. Shortly after West Bond, there is a junction for the Guyot Shelter. We did not stop at the shelter, but a passing trail runner recommended the water source there.
Further descending from the shelter junction, is a well-marked junction of the Zealand Trail. The Zealand Trail is part of the Appalachian Trail and the white blazes emblematic of the AT pick up on this section. Again, with the 2.6 mile RT detour to Zealand, we opted to drop pack for our trek to the treed-in summit. A 0.1 mile marker sign to Zealand indicates you are almost at the summit. As Jordan and I approached the clearing, we walked in on the punchline of another hikers joke, "Does a bear shit in the woods? No. It shits in my driveway twice a week." #newhampshireprobs That joke was the highlight of Zealand. Until...we arrived back at the trail junction and ran into none other than Balloo.
Upon seeing that luscious beard and unmistakable visor, I excitedly said hello. Balloo smiled and was congenial, but clearly did not recognize me or Jordan. I don't blame the guy. By this point, it had been two months since we met and he had hiked close to 1,200 miles. I jogged his memory about meeting us on the trail in Southern Virginia when Jordan and I hiked with N'oreaster (a high school acquaintance of mine). His face immediately lit up and he informed us that N'oreaster was either a day ahead or a day behind him. I already knew this from Facebook as she had posted a picture of herself atop Mount Moosilauke. Jordan and I chatted with Balloo for about 15 minutes. He told us that he thought of us all through Pennsylvania because of the way we said "Duncannon." (We say it in an exaggerated, Medieval English accent). When another thru-hiker passed through and inquired whether Balloo would be taking the +2 mile detour to Bondcliff, Balloo, a soon to be 2,000-mile hiker, stroked his chin, and replied, "That's a little too rich for my blood."
From Zealand, we were back on the trail to South Twin Mountain which again, delighted us with expansive views. We opted to drop pack at the summit for the trek out to North Twin Mountain. The trek included a treed in PUD, but was pretty quick- about 40 minutes RT for 2.3 miles. Funny enough, a family that we passed on our way out to the summit was just arriving back at South Twin as we did. After checking his watch, the dad commented, "Wow! We really hammered out that mileage." One of his kids, a chubby cheeked, red head, proceeded to repeatedly tell everyone in the family AND on the mountain, "We hammered it!" Kids say the darndest things. Jordan and I headed for the descent from South Twin to Galehead laughing to ourselves. Little did we know, we were about to get hammered.
The trek from South Twin to Galehead includes a knee crushing descent. You know the kind- straight down with rock steps too big for comfort. I am certain that this section of the trail would have hurt even if we were tackling it with fresh legs. Jordan scooted down with seemingly few problems. I opted to more gingerly work my way down while fantasizing about glissading down the soon to be snow covered rocks. As the trail leveled out and then began to climb to the Galehead Hut, we passed a couple of established stealth camping spots. We were tempted, but needed to find a water source to rehydrate and prepare meals. Continuing on to the hut, we were able to fill our bladders with the cold well water provided on tap inside. Both Jordan and I agree that staying at one of the huts sometime as a home base for day trips would be really fun. However, after summitting Galehead- another treed in peak- we descended the gradual, packed dirt trail to Thirteen Falls Campsite.
Thirteen Falls is an AMC operated camping area. They charge a small per night fee per person to be able to use their tent platforms and to camp within 0.25 miles of their location. The rates were raised from $8/person to $10/person. For the second year in a row, we arrived at the campgrounds too late and were put in "overflow spaces". Read as: We paid to camp at a random spot on the forest floor near a water source. I'm not complaining though; sleeping on leaves, pine needles, and dirt is much preferred to sleeping on a platform constructed from two-by-fours. Nighttime was falling in the ravine, so we didn't explore Thirteen Falls much, but we did delight in a couple of bags of Mountain House Macaroni and Cheese on the banks of the brook.
Prior to bedtime, Jordan and I negotiated a 6 AM wake up time and a 6:30 AM start. Somehow, between deciding on a time to wake up and waking up a few minutes after 7 AM, I had forgotten to set an alarm. By the time we topped off our water and ate breakfast, it was already after 8:00 AM. Despite the late start time, we decided to hit Owl's Head. The trek from Thirteen Falls to the herd path for Owl's Head is easy, rolling hills. I can only imagine that the trek would be a really nasty slog with wet weather. Though boggy and mucky at points, the trail crosses several abundant water sources. When Prius suggested we include Owl's Head in the loop he mentioned that the climb was a herd path, not unlike those in the Adirondacks. As our mileage clocked upwards, I began scanning the adjacent treeline for an indication of a possible trail. Nothing. Then, we crested a small hill to see a cairn, a couple of inviting downed trees with hikers perched atop them, and a very evident trail up the mountain.
The 1 mile climb to the treed in summit is at many points literally an all-fours scramble. A couple of trail runners began the ascent ahead of Jordan and I and I took silent delight in how much the terrain slowed down their progress. I was dripping with sweat and moving at a good clip, but the climb was relentless. There is ~1400' of elevation gain in less than a mile (because the herd path flattens out along the top). Woof. Perhaps the only saving grace of the ascent is that turning around reveals an up-close look at Franconia Ridge- our afternoon destination. Once the trail leveled out, it was smooth cruising to the treed in summit. There is a great, established campsite within a quarter mile of the cairn marking the summit.
As Jordan and I were descending an older gentleman with a belly long gone to seed seriously inquired, between gasping breaths, if the view was worth the climb. I thought we were going to see a grown man throw a hissy fit when we informed him that the best views of the hike were already behind him. Further descending, Jordan and I were conscious of leaving sufficient room between eachother as every step on the scree sent rocks rolling and sliding. It became apparent more during the descent than the ascent that there are multiple paths winding to the summit. At one point, we separated a hundred feet or so to take separate paths. I crossed paths with a couple who were preparing to finish their NE 115. When Jordan and I reconvened, there were three older women ascending who stopped for a break to allow us to descend. The one woman, in the 60 seconds we were in proximity of her, must have warned us to use caution descending five times. This was the curse. Before we were out of the hens' sight line, Jordan's feet slipped on loose scree and his poles went flying. His whole body was on the ground sliding. The whole episode was only a couple of seconds, but tracking down where the snapped tip of Jordan's trekking pole had launched to took a moment. It turns out, Black Diamond trekking poles are not designed to bear the free-falling weight of a +200-pound man. Noted.
The remainder of the hike back to Thirteen Falls was mostly uneventful. Though, we did capitalize on one of the brook crossings to rinse off and filter water. Upon returning to Thirteen Falls, we quickly explored; the waterfalls there are awesome! There are a couple of perfect swimming holes within several hundred feet of the campsites.
The climb from Thirteen Falls back to the AT wasn't nearly as bad as expected. In fact, it was a slow, gradual ascent comparable to the descent into the campgrounds. Returning to the Appalachian Trail, the hike begins the serious climb up to Mount Garfield. I would definitely recommend stopping to fill-up water at the Garfield Shelter or at adjacent Garfield Pond as beyond this point, there is no water on the ridge. There was a decent water source running across the trail before turning off to go to the Garfield Shelter and Garfield Pond looked like a plentiful, reliable, and clean source of water.
The climb to Garfield was intense. Again, an all-fours ordeal, but somehow, it was seemingly less arduous than Owl's Head. The trail was dribbling with trickles of runoff and I suspect this section gets quite slicked over when temperatures drop. To Jordan and my immense amusement, we spotted a mom with her maybe 4-year old son descending the trail we were climbing. The four year old had a grin from ear-to-ear that would have made the Cheshire Cat look grumpy. Shortly behind the mom and son, was a long-haired dad with a kid-carry pack on his back. The carry pack was empty, but his hand was grasped around the first of a blonde haired two year old in pink and purple shoes and leggings. Again, her happiness being outdoors radiated. THIS, my friends, is good parenting.
Mount Garfield was a breath of fresh air from the viewless Owl's Head. The view is 360-degrees of White Mountain glory. The Bond Ridge and remainder of the Franconia Ridge are visible. There is the foundation of a structure at the summit. I presume it was at one point a fire tower. Trying not to dawdle, Jordan and I snapped a few pictures and continued on the trail. to climb the remainder of the Franconia Ridge. The trail below treeline on the Bond Ridge and the Franconia Ridge had loads of really cool mushrooms and fungi. I only wish I knew more about them to safely harvest some. Pictures will have to suffice. If anyone wants to take me 'shroom hunting, I'm there!
Franconia Ridge is similar to the Presidential Traverse in that it is totally exposed and absolutely breathtaking. We lucked out with awesome visibility. To the east, we could see the bowl made by the Bond Ridge and Franconia Ridge. To the west, eight mountain ranges deep, we could see the Green Mountains of Vermont. Ascending Lafayette Mountain in the late day meant we were enshrouded with that warm glowing sunlight of afternoon. A glider plane was lazily zigzagging overhead as we climbed. The climb was long and at points on flat, sloping rock faces. I was reminded of the Great Range in the Adirondacks. After some time, Jordan and I were certain the flattened crest we had landed on was the summit of Lafayette and the higher mountains that lay beyond were the rest of the ridge. We stopped, took photos, and housed a tube of Pringles while looking at the map. Given that Lafayette was the highest mountain in the range, we quickly realized we hadn't summitted. Onward.
Like with the Presi, Franconia Ridge was gorgeous and the peaks were pronounced, but the views all blend together. Unless I'm looking at my photo reel in chronological order, the view from Lafayette could be the view from Lincoln or Haystack. This is not to detract from the peacefulness and beauty of this trek. The early evening waned on as we made our way across the ridge. We encountered a thru-hiker, Broken Arrow, who was hiking the trail for his second time. Day hikers lazing nearby jumped to attention at hearing he was a thru-hiker and promptly gave him a couple of handfuls of Jameson nips.
Though Jordan and I had planned planned to stay at the Liberty Springs Campsites, we had discussed the possibility of pushing beyond the campsites, across Liberty and Flume to the Osseo Trail. The only real advantage of this would be a shorter hike to the car on Monday morning. Opting to save $20 and make the most of the day, we pushed forward past the trail junction for Liberty Springs. Timing worked out such that we caught sunset from Liberty and followed the trail to Flume in the crepuscular light. Coming off of Liberty, I was concerned we had descended the wrong foot path as we were no longer following the white blazes of the AT. A map check showed that the AT veered off the ridge at Liberty Springs. There were a couple of campsites between Liberty and Flume which could have been prime camping locations before or after sunset. On Flume, we flicked on our headlamps to better examine the map for possible camping locations. We debated eating dinner under the twinkling stars, but instead pressed on to find a place to camp for the night.
Within 0.5 miles of the summit, a seemingly flat spot off trail was visible and we claimed it for the night. After splitting a Mountain House Pasta Primavera decorated with some foil pouch tuna, we were happy to rest our heads and legs for the night.
Early the next morning we were roused by day hikers walking up the trail in the dark. We began the remaining descent of the Osseo Trail back to the Lincoln Brook Trailhead, but detoured shortly after beginning for an eastern facing "downlook". The spot proved to be a perfect perch for catching sunrise and the cherry on top of another great trip in the White Mountains.