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Trip Reports > Northern Presidentials

Fall in the Northern Presidentials

In September of 1994, I finally realized my goal of going on a multi-day, solo backpacking trip. Three years before I had climbed Mt. Washington via Great Gulf Trail, Wamsutta Trail, and the auto road (an April climb, plenty of snow, and the auto road was closed). Since that hike, I had been hoping to hike Great Gulf Trail again, it being, in my opinion, one of the finest lower elevation trails in the White Mountains. In August of 1995 I had day-hiked Mt. Washington and Mt. Monroe with a friend, and this left just the three northern presidentials (Jefferson, Adams, and Madison) to climb. I decided a three-day solo hike would be perfect, and on a sunny, fall saturday, I drove up to the Whites and parked at the trailhead of Great Gulf Trail.

At the time, I owned a couple of tents, a Eureka Alpine Meadows (an underrated tent, in my opinion) and a Eureka Cirrus (extremely lightweight two-man tent). Since I was backpacking alone, I brought the Cirrus, which is the smaller and lighter of the two tents. I had recently purchased a few pieces of equipment which I was using for the first time. Among them was a new sleeping bag, a Sierra Designs NorthernLite (0 degrees, LiteLoft); a new waterproof/breathable shell, Lowe Alpine Triple Point Ceramic; and a relatively new pair of boots, the One Sport Moraines.

Saturday, September 24 (4.5 miles). When I set out, the weather wasn't bad--high clouds, a slight breeze, and decent visibility. The hike up Great Gulf Trail was a pleasure, and was much as I remembered it from my earlier hike. The lower section of the Great Gulf Trail follows the west branch of the Peabody River. About 4 1/2 miles from the trailhead, Great Gulf Trail reaches an junction with Wamsutta Trail and Buttress Trail.. I had picked the area around this trail junction as my place to set up camp because I had camped there two years before at a well-established camp site along the river. These camp sites were gone now, replaced with a sign directing backpackers to a new tenting area on the opposite side of Great Gulf Trail. The new area was very new, no established campsites, and actually, no decent place to pitch even a small tent. After much searching, I finally found an area large enough for my tent, and I set up camp. As an aside, I'd like to note that I am among those who believe campsites should be in well-established areas and should not be periodically relocated. I believe it's better to "humanize" a small section of the wilderness than it is to constantly fight the battle of site relocation ir order to make an area appear pristine, when by the nature of it's usage, pristine is not an option.

During the hike, it became immediately evident that the One Sports were not as broken in as I had thought, and a fruitless search through my backpack brought me to the conclusion that my first aid kit was in the glove compartment of my car. I decided I'd say a little prayer to the gods of blister repair before I settled in for the night. While I was preparing my dinner, another backpacking party, consisting of three or four people and a dog, hiked into the area and began searching for tent sites. They never came close enough to my tent for proper introductions to be made, which was fine with me, and after dinner I cleaned my cook kit and crawled inside my tent to escape the mosquitos that had magically appeared while I was eating. The first thing I noticed, right off, was that a 0 degree bag is a tad warm for a late summer/early fall backpacking trip. But that's why they make zippers, and soon I was fast asleep, half in the bag, so to speak. I slept quite well, all things considered, although I did wake up at about 4:00 am to the sound of rainfall on my tent fly. Not being the worrying type, I rolled over and went back to sleep.

Sunday, September 25 (9.9 miles). I tend to plan my three-day backpacking trips around the idea of not moving my campsite, both because I lessen my impact on the environment by not camping in two different places, and because I'm notoriously lazy. Sunday morning I woke up, made a quick breakfast, and stuffed my daypack with everything I thought I'd need for my day up on the ridge. I was sporting a couple of nasty looking heel blisters from the night before, so before I made my departure, I wandered over to my neighbor's tent site and nicely asked her for a couple of band-aids. She was more than happy to oblige, and after I "needled" each blister and taped it down snug, I was pain free for the rest of my trip. My day's journey began by continuing up another mile or so of Great Gulf Trail until I arrived at the junction with Sphinx Trail. Along the way, I saw several camp sites that were vastly superior to the one I had chosen, but what else is new? At this point I had to cross the Peabody River, which was running high. The crossing was much more difficult than I expected, and the rest of the Sphinx Trail was tough, as well. Anyway, after hiking the length of the 1.1 mile-long Sphinx Trail, I found myself on the Gulfside Trail between Mt. Clay and Mt Jefferson. The Gulfside Trail, by the way, is also part of the Appalachian Trail. By now I had climbed to an altitude of about 5,000 feet and was above tree-line. The weather had degenerated considerably from the day before. It was raining intermittantly, and most of the ridgeline was immersed in a cloud bank that was being driven in an easterly direction by 25-30 mile per hour winds. Occasionally I found myself between clouds, so to speak, but most of the day, visibility was less than 50 feet.

The approach to Mt. Jefferson from the south passes through an area called Monticello Lawn, which is a relatively smooth, grassy plateau. From there, to get to the summit of Mt. Jefferson you must take the Jefferson Loop Trail, which branches off to the right of Gulfside Trail, climbs to the summit, and then descends the northern slope of Mt. Jefferson and rejoins Gulfside trail just south of Edmonds Col. Despite the marginal weather conditions, I passed several people who were either ascending or descending Mt. Jefferson. I noted that my new shell was keeping me quite dry compared to many of the hikers, and I was glad that I had brought it along. On top of Mt. Jefferson there was a brief break in the clouds, and I could see the ridgeline stretching out to Mt. Washington to the south and Adams and Madison to the north. It was the last decent visibility I would see during the day.

From Edmonds Col, Gulfside Trail continues north for another seven-tenths of a mile to the south junction of Israel Ridge Path, which is the sidepath one must take in order to get to the peak of Mt. Adams. I only saw two other people around the summit of Mt. Adams, but visibility was so nonexistent that there may have been others in the summit area. After hiking down Airline Trail from the summit, I rejoined Gulfside trail and continued on to Madison Hut, which is a little over a mile north of Mt. Adams. From the steps of Madison Hut I ate my lunch, and then I loafed around for a bit and watched a couple of hikers descend from the cloud that encompassed Mt. Madison. It was later in the day than I had expected it would be,and I was trying to decide whether to hike to the top of Mt. Madison or save it for another day. About the time the other hikers arrived at the hut I decided I'd go on up Mt. Madison, and I said a brief hello to them as I headed north on Osgood trail towards the summit. Round trip from the hut to the summit and back is just a mile, with about 560 feet of elevation gain. I was back at the hut in about 45 minutes, and after a quick consultation with my map, headed down first Star Lake Trail and then Buttress Trail to where it terminates on Six Husbands Trail, which was just half a mile away from my campsite. Just before I arrived back at my tent I had to recross the Peabody River, something I had not been looking forward to, but thankfully, the lower crossing was much easier to cope with than the crossing I had made earlier in the day.

I had gone through all of my trail snacks several hours earlier, and was ravenous. It was already dark, and I quickly made dinner and wolfed it down, got into my tent and was asleep before my head hit whatever sorry excuse I had for a pillow.

Monday, September 26 (4.5 miles). I woke up early in the morning, well before sunrise, and when I couldn't fall back asleep, I decided to break camp and head on out, despite the darkness. By the time I hit the trail the eastern sky was beginning to lighten, and the early morning hike back to my car, especially the first hour or so which was in semi-darkness, was perhaps the best part of the whole hike. There were no other people on the trails, and I stopped several times along the way to just listen to the river and look around and enjoy the scenery. By 8:30 am I was back and the trailhead, and the only thing left to worry about was deciding which restaurant in North Conway was to be graced with my presence for breakfast.

Total trip mileage, 18.9 miles



Copyright © 1996, David Lister

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Document last modified on Friday, 19-Jan-2007 07:26:47 MST.