On Friday, prospects for a hike up Mount Jefferson looked gloomy. The higher summits forecast called for steady 50 mph winds, with hurricane force gusts, and winter temperatures in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, as one weather system collided with another.
But by Monday, July 4, the winds had settled down, and no storms clouded the radar. A perfect day for climbing 5,716-foot Mount Jefferson.
The 2.5 mile Caps Ridge Trail promised a short but challenging hike to the summit, with hikers surmounting three rocky outcrops known as the Caps before continuing up the rocky slope to the Jefferson plateau. I knew the hike wouldn’t be a piece of cake, but we climbed up and over the three caps fairly quickly. Aside from the first cap, which begins with a tricky steep slab of granite, the three caps were fun to climb and not as difficult as I expected.
As we ate lunch atop the third cap, out of the summit wind but high enough to bask in the views of open alpine terrain and Mount Washington, we consulted the pages I’d copied from my guidebook, Smith and Dickerman’s The 4000-Footers of the White Mountains.
We felt energized and the day was young. What else could we do?
In the distance, about a mile away as the crow flies, the rock heaps of Castellated Ridge, known as the Castles, intrigued us. We consulted my Smith and Dickerman pages, which described a possible loop from the Jefferson summit down to the Castles, then across the lower mountain on the Link Trail back to the Caps Ridge Trail.
The language was slightly intimidating: the Link Trail was “extremely rough and tiring, making for slow going.” But we had the entire afternoon on a beautiful summer day. Hiking above treeline on the Castle Trail for a 1.5 miles down to the Castles would be amazing. When again would we have this perfect combination of weather, time, and opportunity? And how hard could the hike be, really, given that the hike up the Caps had seemed fairly easy (at least by White Mountain standards)?
So after a snack at atop the tallest of the three peaklets at Jefferson’s summit, we began to pick our way down the Castle Trail. “Trail” is a bit of a misnomer, as it suggests a path, while the Castle Trail is mainly a cairn-marked route across a jumble of lichen-covered rocks. But the lichen glistened green and the wide open skies made for a pleasant if nerve wracking traverse down the slope of Jefferson towards the Castles.
My teenage son scrambled ahead of us and I worried about a twisted ankle or full-on header (coming close to both myself), but I had to let go of those worries, assume all would be fine, and get online in the coming week to buy a New Hampshire HikeSafe family card. (Later, my son casually mentioned that he thought he had twisted ankle several times, but had shaken off the stumbles and continued).
On July 4, I expected crowds up high, but the mountains were open and empty, perhaps because of the weekend’s harsh weather. After we left the Jefferson summit, we didn’t see another hiker until we arrived back at the parking lot at Jefferson Notch Road. I suspect that the Castle Trail is not heavily used, because if it was, twisted knees, broken ankles, and hypothermia would keep New Hampshire’s search and rescue teams even busier than they already are. (Although, sadly, this past February, a search and rescue team had to carry out the body of a 54-year-old man who froze to death in Castle Ravine, just below the Castles).
Hiking down towards the Castles, I wondered if I had misread Smith and Dickerman’s language describing the 1.7 mile Link Trail that would take us back to the Caps Ridge Trail. Surely, “rough and tiring” combined with “slow going” had referred to the treacherous footing of Castle Trail, not the upcoming Link Trail. Or maybe the writers had gotten it wrong?
The Link Trail crossed the mountain through the trees and couldn’t be that hard. The thought of an easier trail ahead kept up my spirits as we continued to climb the Castles, shimmying down steep pitches and between rocks slabs (ironically, one reason we chose this trail was the opportunity to avoid hiking down the Caps).
After a half-mile, we came to the link with the Cornice Trail, another rough trail that leads back to the Caps. Still a mile to go to get to the Link Trail. Sigh.
In the distance, the three Caps looked like little bumps on the mountain. Below us, the Castles seemed to rise from Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
Finally, we reached the Link Trail, which HAD to be easier than the descent from the peak to the Castles. But it wasn’t.
My perspective was likely distorted by fatigue and expectations, but the challenge continued, unabated. Up and over rocks, across streams, including one that plunged over granite at a nearly perpendicular angle off the mountain (but easily crossed at a level spot a few steps up the trail), we trudged up and down through the woods, on a mossy path that served as a thin carpet over Jefferson’s rocks.
Finally, after one last uphill, we returned to the Caps Ridge Trail, much later in the day than we had planned (so much for the leisurely swim in the river, followed by a relaxing dinner, and a daylight ride home). Ours wasn’t the last car to leave the parking lot – maybe the third to last – and plenty of daylight still remained, but we definitely felt like we had hiked a long, long day, even though the total distance covered was only 6.7 miles (yes, less than seven miles).
My husband, son and I were all exhausted, but being a glass-half-full kind of person, I was glad we’d explored the Castles, both for the beauty and isolation of the open alpine terrain and for the lessons learned.
Namely, just because trails connect and offer options other than out-and-back doesn’t mean they are necessarily viable “loop trails.”
Of course, the experience of a hike depends a lot on expectations. We expected the Caps Ridge Trail to be an arduous scramble up slippery rocks. It was easier than expected. For the Castles, the reverse was true.
Hikers who want to experience the spectacular landscape of the Castles and undertake the hike expecting a long day of slow going will be rewarded great views in a lightly visited side of the Presidentials. I cursed myself many times on the Link Trail for pursuing this route, but I have no regrets–even though I won’t do it a second time.
Sources and resources
The Caps Ridge Trail begins at the height of the land on Jefferson Notch Road, the highest road in New Hampshire (closed in winter). The turn to the Notch Road is 3.5 miles down the Cog Railway Road, off Route 302 and near Bretton Woods Ski Resort.
A variety of other trails lead to the Castles from various other nearby locations, although if you study the map, you’ll see that all appear to be equally arduous. On NortheastHikes.com, Daren Worcester describes the Castle Trail hike to Jefferson’s summit from its origin on Route 2.
Read more of my posts about 4K hikes at my Hiking page.