July 25, 2015.
Big change in plans today as I was planning to head to Caribou Mt in Maine. However as I was heading up the valleys were in the clouds for most of the way. On Route 3 above Franconia Notch I could see Jefferson and Washington were not in the clouds. Along Route 115 the clouds were still hanging in the valley and along Route 2 as I was still making my way to Caribou via Gorham. But passing by Appalachia I decided to change my plans and head up Howker Ridge Trail to Madison in hopes of getting an undercast. Seeing Jefferson and Washington out of the clouds from Route 3 really drove this change in plans. The rest of this hike I would just wing as I go along.
Off and walking at 6:40 as I move along hoping to get above the cloud deck before it burns off. I haven't had a real good undercast since my memorable hike up Washington back in March of 2012. Crossing the Presidential Range Rail Trail and I am in the woods after parking off Dolly Copp Road. The trail splits at the junction where Randolph Path leads all the way up to Edmands Col below Jefferson. The woods are misty and the beginning of Howker Ridge Trail is an easy trek shortly reaching Bumpus Brook.
Climbing beside the brook and somehow I miss the junction with Sylvan Way. Up where the trail passes out of private property the signs are a good ten feet up in the tree. Not sure if this is due to sign thievery or snow depth in the winter but they are the highest I have ever seen a trail sign. Just past the junction and down below is a spot on Bumpus Brook known as Devil's Kitchen. It is a spot along the brook with steep walls and I do not see any way to get down there.
Passing the junction with Kelton Trail and that is for another day as a few minutes later the trail dips down to cross Bumpus Brook just below Hitchcock Fall. It is not a very impressive waterfall and the crossing is quite easy as the water is low even with the rain from last night.
The trail starts to climb steeply and switchbacks up to a spot where there is a spur trail down to a spot called the Bear Pit. Reaching it and it is large pit created by the surrounding rocks and about fifteen to twenty feet deep.
Back to business as I keep climbing hoping to get above the clouds for a good undercast. Only problem is as I am getting higher I'm still in the clouds. Something is very wrong and I am beginning to regret my change in plans. The trail continues its steep climb up and unceremoniously I pass over Blueberry Ledge where there are no views and to be truthful I am not sure where that spot is since it is so inconspicuous.
The trail offers brief respites as it levels off for short sections but for the most part it is a steady climb. I make it to the first Howker and it is nothing to marvel at as there are trees all around and the skies are white. At the second Howker I resign to the fact that this is not going to be an undercast as Mother Nature has tricked me into coming up here. The cloudless peaks of Washington and Jefferson I saw on my drive up were the tease that changed my plans and now she is laughing at me.
I make it down off the boulder of the second Howker and the trail leads down a bit when my foot slips on a root and I go down hard on my butt. My arms are covered in dirt and thankfully the only casualty is my right pole. When I fell it stayed planted and gripping it to break my fall...well suffice it to say it twas a little bent out of shape like my attitude. Finding a couple of limbs I used them to help straighten it out as much as possible. Just ahead is a decent sized ledge I needed to clamber down and do so without incident.
A few minutes later and I reach the junction with Pine Link Trail and the two trails coincide for a short bit before splitting off. Up at the third Howker and I take a break as I am now officially in the clouds and it looks like the norm for the rest of the day. I sit there and watch the clouds blow through and wonder what is ahead of me.
Another tricky section coming down off the third Howker and then back to climbing. I make it to the split where Pine Link heads to the right and Howker Ridge Trail leads off to the left. About ten minutes later and I am standing on the fourth and final Howker enjoying the inside of the cloud views!
Finally I am at the tree line I feel humbled as there is definitely not going to be any undercast today. I go from cairn to cairn making my way to Osgood Trail.
Ten minutes before the junction and there is hope as a patch of blue sky opens up to my right. It lingers long enough as I make the right hand turn onto Osgood and slowly climb up the couple of tenths to Madison.
Making my way around the crag just below the summit and any hope the clouds were going to blow out are dashed as I can just barely see Madison up ahead. A few minutes later and I am standing on the rock marking the high point of Madison.
Parking my butt on the rocks for some food and water and for a few minutes I have the summit to myself. A group comes up from the hut and a lone hiker comes up from the same direction as I did. For another brief instant it looked like the clouds were going to part but as quickly as it opens it closes again. Twenty minutes later and I head off down the Watson Path. It is a boulder field like anything else up here but the cloud deck makes it more tedious as I have to slowly pick my way down following one cairn at a time.
I let the lone hiker pass as I don't want to feel rushed by having him behind me. The rocks are sometimes stable but there is always a few that rock as you step on them throwing off my balance. I pass by the junction for Pine Link and the other hiker turns onto it to return to wherever he came from. Just pass the junction and there is a crest where the views down below are starting to open. I can even make out Route 2 down below. Two ridges over Crag Camp sitting high on its perch can be seen.
Picking my way down and I can see where I need to get to just off of Route 2 on Dolly Copp Road. Looking ahead I know the trail has to make it down into the valley ahead of me.
After some relentless boulder hopping the trail finally makes it to the trees and it is a steep descent. I think I have found a trail I really do not like as it is steep and eroded in sections. This was definitely not a good idea to come down this way but I needed this trail for my redlining.
To compound my dislike for this trail it is only 1.2 miles from Madison to Snyder Brook and it took two hours to get here. I can not remember the last time I have moved this slow. All I can say is I made it down safely and in one piece as reaching Snyder Brook is a welcome relief. The rest of Watson Path after the brook crossing is a piece of cake compared to what I just descended. At Valley Way I contemplate turning around and heading back to the junction with Brookside.
I decide to head down Valley Way instead letting the conditions and trails get to me. A hundred yards down I stop and recollect myself and turn back around to take Brookside trail down. Running next to a brook I can only hope I do not regret this decision because usually trails next to brooks are bouldery especially where I still have some elevation to lose. Immediately the trail is rough as I make my way down and then it gets a lot better.
I reach an unnamed waterfall and then Salmacis Fall. I would almost bet there is a better view of Salmacis but I do not have the ambition to go in search of it.
I pass by Kelton Trail which connects back over to Howker Ridge Trail. The trail through here is much more pleasant as I am surprised by the terrain.
The brook crossings are uneventful and at the last one I pass by Randolph Path and make it back to the bottom section of Valley Way. Just before Appalachia I turn onto the Presidential Range Rail Trail (yes a mouthful) for my return to the parking lot.
I run into an obstacle a few minutes up the trail as the bridge across the brook is out and I mean out. The whole bridge is sitting on the side of the trail.
Down the gravelly embankment and then back up the other side to continue down the straight old rail bed. It doesn't take long to reach the parking lot and then a short trip up to the viewpoint off of Route 2 as Madison and the Howkers are now out of the clouds.
On a better day I would have appreciated Howker Ridge Trail a lot. Today was just the wrong day to head up there and no matter what the conditions are I can't see anything about Watson Path I would like. Done and never to return.
Final numbers: 9.7 miles, 10 hours and 5 minutes.
Redline Miles: 8.5, Total to Date: 880.8