When I finally arrive at the rock slide, after six miles of hiking, I hear a tiny voice in my head: “Maybe doing this hike alone wasn’t a great idea.”
It’s not that the steep slide up the face of Owl’s Head is all that intimidating. I see that I will be able to pick my way up the scree and then find my footing on the rocks above. But here, at the bottom of the slide, I realize I am truly alone in the Pemigewasset Wilderness.
Although I often solo hike in the White Mountains, I am seldom alone; I am always crossing paths with other hikers. But today, after descending from Galehead Hut to Franconia Brook, I haven’t seen a single person since I met a small group filling their water bottles near 13 Falls.
I didn’t expect this valley to be so empty, especially during the first week in July. But maybe people don’t climb Owl’s Head on their vacation -– it’s not exactly the most glamorous of the 4000-footers. A flat-topped mountain tucked between and below the Franconia Ridge and the Twin Way and Bondcliff ridges, Owl’s Head is often the last 4,000-footer that hikers take on, because any way you slice it, reaching the summit is a long hike.
As a day hike, Owl’s Head is an 18-mile slog from Lincoln Woods. Hikers can break it up by camping at 13 Falls, or shave off some miles (but gain more total elevation) by hiking from Galehead Hut to Lincoln Woods, as I am doing today, but that’s still almost 16 miles (not counting the miles traveled in getting to Galehead, where I had spent a couple of nights).
But the forecast calling for severe thunderstorms and flash floods may also be responsible for the dearth of hikers. The storms arrived yesterday around 4:30 p.m., but I stayed dry, having arrived back at the hut just before the skies broke open, after a long day of hiking in which I climbed some peaks missed on earlier visits in this area (North Twin and West Bond). Today, water is flowing everywhere, as the mountains drain off the rain that soaked into the forest last night.
So far today, the sky is blue, with no threatening clouds. Having come this far, I am definitely climbing up the slide. The rocks have dried out, and I make it up the slide pretty quickly, then up more steep terrain before the grade levels out.
Owl’s Head was one reason I had never set my sights on completing the New Hampshire 4000-footer list until a few years ago. The length of the hike, the tree-covered summit, the lack of an official trail – it sounded like a lot of work for no rewards.
But here in the Pemi, I am discovering the joys of the Owl’s Head hike. Being alone in the forest is a little spooky but also thrilling. How often are we truly alone in the wilderness? The forest is lush and green. At the swampy height of land between Owl’s Head and Mount Lafayette, I encounter milkweed-like plants almost as tall as I am.
The squishy terrain is ideal moose country, but I haven’t seen any, or other wildlife, although I suspect black bears are lurking. But the dependable wood thrush has been keeping me company all day. Later, I see a grouse rush across the trail.
As I climb up the rock slide, Owl’s Head feels like its own little country, tucked between its taller neighbors. When I arrive at the ridgecrest, I enjoy wandering on the flat trail through the airy and open balsam fir forest.
My guidebook tells me that the true summit may or may not be marked with a cairn and a sign. For about a quarter mile, I follow the path as it meanders across the ridge. But a warren of trails wander off from the main path. I am cautious about losing my way, so after a few minutes, I give up on the true summit (I have seen one rock and then another, but no cairn and definitely no signs). I am also hyper-aware of the forecast and the need to keep moving.
My biggest concern is lightning. Once I am down the slide and in the woods, I might get soaked, but will be pretty safe, considering all the higher spots around me.
But then there are the brook crossings. When I hike alone, I am always learning more about being in the woods. Today I am learning that I did not adequately consider what I would do if high water prevents me from crossing Lincoln and Franconia Brooks.
The brooks could become roaring torrents if the skies dump a couple of inches of rain in an half-hour. Doing this hike today was probably not the smartest move, because I am betting on luck – that the storms will hold off – and I have no way of assessing my odds.
In my head, I formulate a plan. If I can’t make one of the three major crossings, I will hike back to Galehead Hut. Unfortunately, I have no way of relaying this information to my husband, since cell phone reception is completely dead here (not a surprise). Maybe it’s time to invest in one of those devices that sends text messages via satellite. My biggest concern is that my husband will worry and call mountain rescue while I am making the very long trek back to the hut.
What is most ironic about this isolation is that this patch of “wilderness” was once the center of a massive logging operation that left it for dead. If I’d been hiking here on a July day in, say, 1900, I might have encountered an excursion train full of tourists en route to one of the logging camps, where the visitors would eat pies and donuts and see the operation up close.
Summer was the “off-season” for logging, but men would be working in the vicinity, making repairs to train bed or tracks, or taking down structures in one camp for shipment to and reassembly in another, so that a new camp in an uncut swath of forest would be ready to host loggers that winter.
On some stretches of trail, I walk on the cross ties of the railroad that used to run along Lincoln Brook. The Pemi railroad beds were, structurally speaking, the best of the White Mountains’ logging railroads. Today they continue to serve as a solid foundation for trails. It’s hard to reconcile all this logging industry with the total solitude of today’s hike.
Hiking alone for 16 miles gives me plenty of time to think. Why is climbing Owl’s Head so important to me, that I would take on the risk of hiking alone?
Part of my willingness is that I don’t believe that hiking alone here is risky, even if it might seem so to other people. I’m not frightened or out of my comfort zone. The biggest risk is injuring myself and having no one to help me. But the most dangerous part of the trip, hands-down, will be the drive home.
Back on the trail after creeping down the slide, I have eight miles to go, with two more crossings on Lincoln Brook and one on Franconia.
At the second Lincoln Brook crossing, it’s hard to determine the safest route. I know the rocks beneath the water could be slippery. If I slip and get pulled down by the rushing water, I could be in trouble.
After evaluating the situation, I decide to make my way across at the widest part of the brook, where the water isn’t being pushed hard into narrow channels. If I slip, I might land on my butt, but I’ll be able to pull myself out of the water. Planting my pole to serve as a third leg, I step into the water. Not bad. I wade through the last section. It’s fine.
Should I wring out my socks? I decide to wait until the Franconia crossing, so I don’t have to do it twice in short order. These brooks are getting more full, not less.
When I arrive at the Franconia crossing, I see that I made the right call in keeping the boots on. I am definitely going in the water. If I was with other hikers, we might make a chain and help brace each other. But here I will rely on my pole. I plant it, and step into the water at the widest place, behind a row of water-covered rocks.
With each step, I understand that the brook is deeper than I anticipated, knee-high, not ankle-high; oops, thigh-high, not knee-high. But then I’m out of the water and on the other side, bushwhacking along the bank back to the trail. I’ve done it!
I still have a few miles to go, but I’m home free. If storms come, I may get soaked, but I don’t have to worry about flash floods on a crossing. After wringing out my boots and socks, I start pounding on the trail.
Around 6:15 p.m., three backpackers I meet on the trail tell me I have two miles of trail to Lincoln Woods. No problem — that’s an early morning walk before work. I skip over the decaying railroad ties and reach my car in 40 minutes. First task: text my husband to let him know I’ve safely arrived. Then off with the soggy boots.
It’s been 30 years since I’ve hiked 16 miles in one day. Feels good to know that I can still cover that distance. But I probably don’t need to hike Owl’s Head twice.
Instead, when I have a couple of days to myself, maybe I’ll go to a spa. But then I remember: Going to a spa is boring. Oh, it might be okay for an hour or two, to relax and recharge, but to hang out at such a place for an entire day – not my thing.
Of course, hiking 16 miles through the wilderness is not most other people’s thing–thank goodness!
P.S. It turns out that the most dangerous part of my hike was the drive home. The radio was buzzing with warnings of strong wind gusts, heavy rains, and flash floods. I had to pull off the highway near Plymouth and sit out part of the storm beneath an underpass with other cars.
Sources and resources
Gove, Bill. The East Branch and Lincoln Railroad. WhiteMountainHistory.org Great photos and maps of the railroad here.
Belcher, Francis C. Logging Railroads of the White Mountains. Boston, MA: Appalachian Mountain Club, 1980.
Additional 4,000-footer reports
If you enjoy this 4,000-footer trip report, check out some of my other posts: