I spent 3 days in the Pemi in late October. Highly recommended, but you have to like mud, wet feet, and sub-freezing temps. As a bonus, you have the whole Wilderness to yourself. For Pemi fans, this post will be similar to the other ones. Why do I go back? Because its a Wilderness, and its only a 3 hour drive, and because when you hit the ridge, you can see pretty much forever. The hardcore do the whole Wilderness ridge trail as a 32 mile loop in one shot; I am not one of those people.
A note on the trails. For the longstriders used to doing 20+ miles a day, check your expectations at the door. These trails are no joke; elevation, rocks, mud, and short days cut your mileage significantly.
Day 1 – Arrival
I knew I had time, since my campsite was 8 miles of mostly flat in. So I arrived around noon, after taking a quick stop in Lincoln for lunch. It’s a sad, empty town in the season between summer and ski. It will probably be more sad, but less empty, when ski season starts, the resort is absorbing the town.
Arrived to a practically empty lot (what crazy person goes hiking mid-week when its going to be freezing? ), paid my $5 a day fee, and checked out the ranger station. It was closed, but had this grim posting on the door. I hadn’t really expected it to be this cold; the temperatures in Lincoln were going to be much nicer. Forgot about the altitude. Since this was ridge temps, I figured it would be warmer than this, but I knew I was in for a cold couple of days.
Crossing the suspension bridge, I got to the old railbed where the day hikers and leaf peepers go on their walks. A woman said to me “wow you look happy”, to which I replied, “It’s a beautiful day.” The trail goes for several miles along the old rail bed, complete with old wooden ties laid perpendicular to the trail. Nowadays they’re merely obstacles to walking, as their spacing isn’t quite right, and drainage; there’s always mud between them. People have widened the main trail by walking around them. But it’s always been like this, and it hasn’t gotten too much worse in the many years I’ve been here, so it must have reached a sort of equilibrium.
Entering the Wilderness
After a few miles you come to another big bridge, the very edge of the Wilderness (no improvements past the boundary, indeed no power tools of any kind, which makes trail maintenance more tricky.) By now I had left all the day hikers behind. This is about an hour from the parking area.
The trail was gorgeous. Lots of nice leaves, minimal mud, on-and-off sunshine, and no people. It was almost all straight, and almost all flat. The cool hiker kids call this “cruisey” trail. I didn’t see any animals except for 1 chipmunk. It was great to be in the middle of the Wilderness with realistically no other people around for miles.
The trail winds along the old rail bed (follow along on the map link above), crossing several streams, before reaching 13 Falls Campsite. The last stream is a ford, or at least was for me. This was the beginning of the wet feet phase of the trip (which only ended when I got to my car and took my shoes off 2 days later).
The camp area is kind of wedged in between the slope and the river, with hardened (dirt/stone) campsites, an ADA accessible (?) privy, and a caretaker area. Because it was a) raining and b) after the season and c) the ground was wet, I pitched the old Fly Creek on the platform. It started raining in earnest at about 6pm, which was basically sunset. The sun had dipped behind Franconia Ridge to the west long before, so it was getting cold. I bundled up, ate a commercial dehydrated meal (yummy, and a nice treat, but wouldn’t do it every night for $10+ a night), and hunkered down.
I was cold all night, I got up at about 2 and switched to warmer socks, and put my down jacket on.
Day 2 – Galehead
I woke up at about 6. My wet socks had frozen stiff in my tent. That made me feel slightly better, weirdly enough, because it meant it really WAS cold in my tent, and I wasn’t just being a wimp. Given the temps and the sight of snow on the high stuff, I knew that the trails would be icy. I hadn’t brought spikes with me, one of several planning failures, so I waited for the sun to come up over South Twin and Bond (check the map) to start heating up the trails. I knew that since the trail I was taking to Galehead was on the SE face of Galehead, the sun would it hit first, and by the time I descended on the SW side, the sun would have swung around. I pulled my frozen socks on, and stuck my feet in my frozen trail runners. Not nice. Breakfast was a Clif “goo” that had caffeine in it, along with a bagel & peanut butter. I figured this would power me for a few hours.
I got moving by 9, after talking to a guy who steamed in late under headlamp. He and a buddy were attempting the Pemi Loop in one go, but got blown down off the ridge by freezing temps and a tweaked back. They ALSO had no spikes, which they thought might have contributed to the sore back. They had been slipping and sliding.
Up the Twin Brook Trail to Galehead I went.
It was a grind, but a beautiful grind. 700 feet per mile is no joke. Before long I was hiking in just a shirt. My feet were numb for about the first 30 minutes, then were simply cold, then stopped being cold by the end of the first hour. It was probably 40 degrees at this point too. The weather was perfect though, no wind.
At the junction I hooked left and went up to the top of Galehead, which is one of the 4000 footers left on my list. Some of the joy of submitting was diminished by the hooting and hollering I heard down at the Galehead Hut, about a quarter mile away. The hut was officially closed, but the kids who run the place were doing cleanup, and the bathrooms were open. I figured it was some day hikers, who typically make a lot of noise.
The trail to the top of Galehead, from the junction, is only 0.3 miles, but it was closed in pretty tight with spruce, and snow-covered spruce at that. I got a little wet brushing through, and the trail itself was pretty beat up – more water and mud in my shoes.
Turns out it was the hut crew, making all the noise. Weak. But I was able to sit, like a human, on the front porch while I drank water and ate peanut M&Ms. I proceeded on about 50 yards to the intersection with the main ridge trail. In this area, the Appalachian Trail (AT) runs along the ridge as well, so it was a sort of homecoming. Since it’s the AT, and since the Pemi Loop is so popular, and since there is a nice AMC hut here, the trail itself was pounded. Massive erosion and mud pits. Good old New England hiking.
Two Canada Jays visited me while I was near the hut, but I didn’t get a picture. If it were other birds I’d assume they had been fed and tame, but Canada Jays are always super friendly, and not afraid of people. Either that, or every one I’ve ever encountered has been hand-fed by someone! I did hear two ravens soaring on the (relative) thermals. There’s something about that “croak” sound at elevation tells you that you’re home.
One thing I saw which was annoying is that the mileages on the signs is always greater than the map. I’m not sure which is right, but it certainly felt longer than the map. The trail heads almost due west along the back of Garfield Ridge, intersecting with the Gale River Trail. Around this point you could really hear the water roaring (and the “jake brakes” of trucks along I-93 WAAAY in the distance as well). Before you reach the Garfield Ridge campsite, the trail meets the Lincoln Brook Trail heading back down to 13 Falls Campsite; that was the way for me.
MUCH less beat up, and a lot nicer.
By about 1:30 pm I was back down at 13 Falls Campsite, averaging about 1.5 miles per hour. Not the speedy walker of the western trails, this was a humbling, back-to-Earth experience. I had some lunch (bagel and cheese), and took a break after crossing Lincoln Brook. This was another full on ford, not a clever rock hop, or balance beam on a wet log, you just have to stride right out into the water. Of course, there’s ways to make it less crappy and less dangerous, so you may not always go straight across, but the point is the same. Just do it, you’re going to get wet anyway.
To Owl’s Head
From here the trail curves west, then south, climbing to a height of land between Owl’s Head and Franconia Ridge. The trail SUCKED. The only people who take this trail are the masochists like me who simply want to cover every trail in the Wilderness. If you’re peak-bagging Owl’s Head (another 4000 footer), 9/10 you come from the Lincoln Woods parking area, using all the really nice trails. THIS trail, kind of connects nowhere to another nowhere, so it gets the minimum amount of maintenance (if any). Mostly the trail was a stream, and in many places just disappeared into the general wet mud. At times I had to either rely on what looked like old boot prints in the mud, or places where the bark had been worn off tree roots; clear sign that boots had been there. In this stretch of trail, I broke both my trekking poles. The poles with 1000s of miles on them, that had survived all kinds of conditions, been repaired, and had lived to trek another day. Was it their time? Or was this section THAT badass?
I reached the obvious, unofficial trail to Owl’s Head by about 4:30pm, roughly according to plan. I was cooked. Legs shaky, getting sort of “hangry” at things, and really quite hungry. There’s no official camping nearby, but rumor had it that there were campsites near the trail. Turns out that there were, many of which were “brushed in” by rangers to keep them from being used. Proper Leave No Trace etiquette dictates that you camp 200 feet from water or trails. This would be tricky in this area because it’s basically a ravine. The river and trail go along the bottom, and there’s not much on either side. I kept going down the trail a bit, and found an area where there were 2 campsites NOT brushed in.
I chose to believe that the USFS rangers were turning a blind eye to these; better the devil you know, etc. etc. Its almost an intractable problem; people are going to camp there, so do you choose to accept the impact by containing it, or do you try and ban it outright, and fight a perpetually losing battle? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
It’s a beautiful area, and the trail (while gross) was great – total isolation, the smell of pines, sound of rushing water, just really wonderful. It kind of reminded me of parts of the Continental Divide Trail, the northern half of Colorado, when I was just completely alone. Sort of a Jeremiah Johnson feel.
Mac and Cheese for dinner, plus PB right out of the jar, plus a Clif Bar, plus more peanut M&Ms, plus some cheese from my cheese block. Like I said, really hungry. But, I could tell it was warmer, so I hoped for a good night. I got into my quilt, read for a little bit and went to sleep by 7:30. At about midnight it rained for an hour or so, but otherwise I slept like a log.
Day 3 – Owl’s Head
I wanted to get home by dinner, for several reasons, one being that I only had food for lunch. I did some quick math and estimated that I needed to start hiking by 7. Owls Head was a steep, uphill grind on a non-official trail, aka “herd path”, and descending is often slower than climbing. This is because if you slip while climbing, you fall forward on your face; if you slip while descending, you go head-over-heels down the mountain and die. In any case, I knew I had to start hiking in the dark. Even if the sun was up, it would have to climb above the Bonds on the east side of the Wilderness, and then Owl’s Head itself (since I was on its west side). So up at 6, breakfast and packing up under headlamp, and I got to the obvious-but-unofficial trail at around 7. Breakfast was hot chocolate and a peanut butter bagel.
The trail follows a slide for about 1/2 the way up, then slabs across and side-hills up to the ridge where it kind of disappears among a handful of false summits. It was gnarly. Slithery wet rocks on sand, at a rate of about 1500 feet per mile, or more. But it was nice to get to the top, take my jacket off, cool down, and eat snacks. Another 4000 footer off the list. Sadly no view, which explains why its not a popular mountain. If it DID have a 360 degree view, it would be epic, the entire Pemi Wilderness would be spread out before you.
I just thought this worn and weather-beaten log was cool.
Legs shaking and half-cooked from the 2 mile up-and down, I took a decent break at the bottom. From here it was only 6.5 miles, all downhill and mostly flattish, to the car. Except for the 9 separate stream fords of course. None were hard, and all but one were only knee high. One was a genuine crotch-tickler, I had to put my phone in my pack. The water was also pretty darn cold.
Still, despite the cold water, the trail had its rewards. Down in the valley, it was still Fall, and as I descended I got back into the maples and things got pretty colorful. I met a few people coming in, 2 lady hikers who were going to do Owl’s Head, and a guy who passed me with no time for chitchat.
The whole Wilderness area used to be logged heavily; the reason its a protected Wilderness now is that sometime in the old days, when there were dozens of lumber camps working the slopes, the whole thing burned. It was so catastrophically bad that the people around the area managed to get the whole thing protected. You can still find old equipment along the trail, and I’m sure if you bushwhacked off-trail, you’d find a lot more stuff. Lots of big steel things laying around.
The trail that wraps around Owl’s Head eventually ties back into the Franconia Brook Trail, and at this point you’re back on the superhighway.
I stopped for lunch at the last bridge, and after that had a bit of a wash. In the pic below, the big boulder in the lower right shields you almost completely from the bridge, AND has a nice little pool behind it. Off came all the dirty clothes, into the river they went, and then back on, slightly cleaner and much wetter. Fortunately it was warm enough out, mid 50’s, that I didn’t freeze wearing wet clothes. They soon dried as I got walking again.
This is a great swimming hole area. I think in the summer the bugs might feast on you, but if its warm enough, definitely get in the water. There’s some big pools right after/under the bridge.
A final picture of the river from the suspension bridge, and I was back at my car at 1:30, right on time. It’s like I knew what I was doing!
I checked in at the ranger station because it was open, and I saw woodsmoke coming out of the chimney. I spoke with a nice volunteer there who told me they no longer keep stats on how many people come in, where they hike, etc. Apparently nobody does anything with that information. You’d think they would.
So long Pemi, I might be back, but I might go tackle some other peaks first!