Owls Head the Long Way

August 23, 2014.

After spending the last 4 of 5 weeks hiking on Mt Washington it was time for a break. I made the decision last week when we made it to the summit that I was done with Washington for the year. It had beaten me down and spit me out. It is time to move on and explore a different area. I also wanted some redemption for how I was hiking last weekend. Checking the water levels on the web for the Pemi and my decision was made, an interior Pemi Loop with a side bar up Owls Head. I have been up there before back when I was pursuing the 48 and now was a good time to return. I also needed to get the slide trail up Owls Head for my red lining and wanted to make sure that I actually made it to the high point the first time I was up there.

So the ambitious plan is to head up Lincoln Woods Trail to Franconia Brook Trail then onto Lincoln Brook Trail. Then an out and back to Owls Head return on the rest of Lincoln Brook Trail which puts me back onto Lincoln Woods Trail. If there is time at the end then I will make the short out and back on Franconia Falls Trail. Total trip will be just under 23 miles but the majority of it is flat.

I arrive early at Lincoln Woods as I need to make the most of what daylight there is. By 6:15 my boots are on the ground and I am motoring up the Lincoln Woods Trail. About halfway up I run into an older couple, Steve and Janelle, and I walk with them a bit as we exchange greetings. They are heading to Owls Head also but from the shorter more direct approach.

 

That is them in the right hand picture further ahead of me. I tell them of my plans and off I go knowing I can't hike at anyone else's pace today.

The Early Sunrise Through the Trees

Just before the bridge and I meet another couple, Charlie and Nancy, but they are heading to the Bonds trying to hook up with Hiker Ed. So at the junction with Franconia Brook Trail we part ways and I am on my own. The trail is quiet in the early morning hours and the pace is quick trying to make the most of these easy miles.

Franconia Brook Trail

Reaching a section of the trail that bypasses a beaver swamped area and I lose the trail in the tall grass.

 

I am not the first person to do this as there is a distinct path through this spot. A quick return the way I came and the trail crosses the brook which looks so obvious now. A little bit ahead and the rerouted trail merges back with the original trail. I make it to the junction with Lincoln Woods Trail and see the last person for a while as he turns left onto Lincoln Brook Trail. I pass by a beaver pond and one of the benefits of starting early is getting shots like this. The steam rising off the water as the first sunlight of the day hits it.

 

Franconia Brook Trail is another one of those old lumber railroads turned into hiking trails. For the most part it is a straight and level shot making the trip go quick. On a better day I would take my time as there at least seven old lumber camp sites along this loop. But I do not have that luxury to look around today as the miles are going to make for a long day.

 

I pass by Hellgate Brook and just beyond see the first sign of a possible lumber camp. Across the trail in between the abandoned railroad ties is an old metal pipe.

 

At the next crossing is Redrock Brook and the old stone abutments from the railroad days are still there.

 

The next crossing before reaching the first milestone of the day, Thirteen Falls Campsite, is Twin Brook. It is a quiet and melancholy place until I hear a group coming down the trail towards me. They must have stayed at the campsite last night. Shortly before reaching the junction and I hear Franconia Brook off to my left and can't resist checking out the noise. It is a pretty good waterfall/cascade and I am standing about midpoint. Again if I had the time to kill I would have made my way down stream below the pool at the bottom of the falls and gotten a better view.

 

I make it to the junction with Lincoln Brook Trail a total of 8.1 miles in just over three hours, a blistering pace for me. A short trip up to the Thirteen Falls Campsite as there are still some people sleeping in. Back down and to the ledgey crossing of The Franconia Branch where there is a look at the northern shoulder of Owls Head.

 

I have arrived to this area at the wrong time as most people are getting on the trail for the morning after camping out here. It seems everyone is heading down on Lincoln Brook Trail. I find it quite strange that this far in the Wilderness that there are this many people. I continue on passing feature after feature along this section of the brook. There are waterfalls and one spot that has the same features as the Basin. A pool like feature with the granite sidewall's carved out smooth and deep from the swirling water (probably during the spring thaws).

 

Will definitely have to come back to these trails on an overnighter to check out all the nook and crannies of this area. Today the goal is miles and trails. Crossing the brook for the last time and I pass the rest of the people at the brook. There is only one other person out ahead of me and I feel better getting away from the crowds. This next section of trail is supposed to be lightly used and according to the guide "difficult to follow". It is a very different trail on this side of Owls Head as it is much rougher. The trail slowly climbs up away from Franconia Branch and towards the deep valley between Owls Head and Franconia Ridge.

 

Forty-five minutes from crossing Franconia Branch and the trail opens up in a swamp/meadow like area and there obstructed views of Lincoln and Lafayette off to my right.

 

The trail becomes wetter beyond this spot but so far I have not had any difficulty following it. The trail is well defined and I continue to make decent time as I make my way to the next milestone, Owls Head Slide. Ahead there is evidence of recent trail maintenance as new bog bridges have been placed on the trail.

 

Just before reaching Lincoln Brook I continue straight ahead and realize that this no longer looks like the trail. I stop and look around and see no evidence of the trail and start making my way back until I see the spot where I made my mistake. The trail veered to the left at this spot and I missed the slight turn. Down I go reaching Lincoln Brook and the crossing is fairly easy as the water level is respectable.

 

Further up the trail and there is a washed out section of the trail. Eroded away perhaps by Irene three years ago.

 

It is after this that I begin to get a little nervous on whether I missed the junction with the slide trail. It is not an official trail as far as the Forest Service is concerned. And I have read reports that when a cairn is built marking the spot that they will remove it as it does not conform with the Wilderness Act. I saw a spot a short ways back that looked a little like a trail but wasn't totally convinced. I keep checking my GPS which is kind of funny because the trail is not on it. I did have the GPS coordinates of where the trail is and according to where the GPS said I was I am not there yet. But that is not always 100% accurate, there is a margin of error especially when I am this close to the trail. So I decide to go up a little further rather than turn back. Still having doubts I continue constantly checking my coordinates and soon I reach the spot that is quite obvious the place I want to be at.

Time for a break as it is fifteen minutes before noon. I drop my pack and sit on the log in the picture and enjoy an extra apple fritter I had bought this morning at Dunkins. Some water and a few other snacks and it is time to tackle this slide I have read so much about. The beginning is just the rubble from the slide and nothing different then some of the trails in the Whites. A few minutes later and the terrain changes as it opens up and is a combination of boulders and gravel. And steep!

 

A few minutes into the slide and a look over my shoulder reveals views of the eastern side of Franconia Ridge. Two months ago I was up on that ridge and all three peaks are visible from this vantage point.

Little Haystack, Lincoln and Lafayette

The big scar to the right of Lincoln is another unofficial way that some people come down of Franconia Ridge to reach the Lincoln Brook Trail to reach this spot. Further up the slide and another look back reveals Liberty and a zoom on the summit and there are hikers on the summit.

 

From the same vantage point and the always crowded Franconia Ridge with hikers on Haystack also.

 

And a pano of the whole ridge with Flume, Liberty, Little Haystack, Lincoln and Lafayette.

The slide continues up and a side shot from the slide showing the steepness.

 

On the way up the one person that was ahead of me after the last crossing of Franconia Branch comes up behind me. I asked her what happened to her and she got lost and it was in the same spot that I did above Lincoln Brook. Unfortunately she kept going instead of turning around. Finally the slide breaks out of the open and into the woods but the steepness does not give up. About an hour from starting up and I make it to level ground as I reach the old summit.

 

This spot was always accepted as the high point until a few years ago someone discovered there was a higher spot two tenths of a mile further and twenty feet higher. There is no official trail to the new summit but there is a fairly recognizable path and even though the book says it is two tenths it seems a lot longer. Just before the summit and who should I run into? Steve and Janelle, the first couple I met back at the beginning of the day, just leaving and heading back down. I really did not expect to see them again as I took the long way around and I think they felt the same way. Just over six hours from starting this long day and I reached the summit of Owls Head.

I look around trying to see if anything looks familiar from when I was here in February of 2012. Of course without the snow nothing ever looks the same. Time to keep moving and I make my way through the winding path back to the slide. I keep my eye open as I go wondering where the Brutus Bushwhack comes in (that is the way I came up the first time in 2012). I start making my way down the trail and just above the slide I catch up with Steve and Janelle. They are slowly picking their way down and I hang behind them. They offer to let me pass but seeing how she is coming down I can't in good conscience pass and leave them. I know it is going to slow me down but I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I ever heard of an accident on the slide and found out it was one of them. So I hang behind them the whole way down the slide making sure they make it the bottom safely. When we finally make it to my lunch spot it is 3:00 and I say my good byes and wish them well as I take off. It is not long before I reach another crossing of Lincoln Brook and I stop to refill my water. Rehydrated and still plenty of energy and I press on knowing I still have 8 miles to go from the base of the slide to the parking lot (not including the side trip to Franconia Falls). The trail is another old abandoned logging railroad bed and fairly flat with a few small rolling ups and downs.

 

I move along quickly and even the brook crossings do not seem so daunting as they usually bug me. Maybe it is because I am towards the end of my hike and the fear of slipping and getting wet do not bother me. I hop from rock to rock (editing this I noticed what I wrote inadvertently: Hops on Rocks) and make it across with ease. The last crossing at the Franconia Branch has me stumped for a minute as I scan the boulders looking for the best path. Off to my right I can hear some noise and down stream are two women out in the middle of the wide brook struggling to cross. I wonder to myself why they went so far down as I make it across unscathed.

An hour and half after getting off the slide and I make it back to the junction with Franconia Brook Trail where I was about nine hours ago. Still making pretty good time as it is 3.4 miles from the base of the slide to here and I am keeping under my usual thirty minutes per mile pace. Even making it down the Franconia Brook Trail and reaching the junction with Franconia Falls Trail goes by quick as it is just after five so I make the turn and head up the trail.

 

At the end of the trail there is a sign marking its end. This is a first for me in the White Mountains and only the second one I've seen while hiking. The other was on our trip in Arizona at the end of the slot canyon. Now the trail looks like it continues on but I'll save that exploring for another day. Starting to feel the effects on this long day I take a water and food break at this spot as it is still four miles to the end. Heading back down the trail and I check out all the spots that makes this sooo touristy.

 

 

 

The boulders at the upper end are huge and impressive and the smooth ledges down below are interesting as the water has carved out grooves and pockets here and there. But enough of this it is time to put an end to this hike and get back to Lincoln Woods Trail. As I approach the junction who should I see go by, Steve and Janelle! They are just as surprised to see me again as I am at seeing them. Feeling the issue with my right foot starting up I decide to hike out the last three miles with them and have a good conversation along the way. I find out they are hiking the 48 four thousand footers and only have a handful left. I am impressed at their determination as they live down by Fall River and are in their sixties. It helps to have someone to talk to on this last stretch and within an hour we are back at the parking lot heading our separate ways. This hike is my longest to date and another memorable one. I'll be back in this area again, when I finish my red-lining project, to explore all its history and hidden stories.

A final note in making sure I had reached the summit back in 2012. I compared my GPS tracks and I definitely made and even went beyond the high point. I can not attest that the cairn was there back then due to the snow but I was surely in that spot.

 

The left track is from this hike and the right track is from 2012. Below are the two tracks superimposed.


Final numbers: 22.9 miles, 12 hours and 30 minutes.

Redline Miles: 11.8, Total to Date: 555.1