Stud and I park at the North Twin trailhead and get swooped up by Notch Taxi who arrives early and is super nice and drops us in Franconia Notch at the Whitehouse Trailhead where we walk north to pick up the Appalachian Trail. Its 11am and our packs are loaded with everything we need (and more) for a potential 3 night/3.5 day trip in the Pemigewasset Wilderness. We start our ascent up the Liberty Spring Trail gaining 2,000 feet of elevation in 2 miles until we reach the Liberty Spring Tentsite approximately 2 hours later.
We are relieved to get into this campsite early because there are just a few backcountry campsites that sit along the high peaks of Pemigewasset Wilderness where friendly AMC (Appalachian Mount Club) caretakers collect a small fee in exchange for a tent platform, a bear box to store food overnight, a composting outhouse, daily weather reports, and there is usually a water source to filter from. On sunny summer weekends these campsites fill right up and caretakers will fit upwards of 40-60 hikers into these sites. This is impressive considering that these campsites sit on a very steep mountain side pitches and there are only like 5-8 tent platforms at each campsite. These caretakers will find a spot for everyone and no hiker is ever turned away and even at capacity they don’t feel crowded. Some of these sites are directly on the AT (Appalachian Trail) so many thru hikers rely on them because there are very limited stealth campsites spots in the alpine zones of the White Mountains. Given the rugged terrain of these ridge lines, these campsites can be a fun place to connect with thru-hikers, weekend warriors, school groups and whoever else saw those same sweeping views and managed those same hard rock scrambles and long exposed ridge lines. Many hikers who come thru these sites, whether it be to camp or just refill water, will arrive weary and worn down by the terrain and in need of a witness. We witness each other, some more humbly than others.
The caretaker is this smiley tough woman and Stud and I connect with her immediately. She sets us up in what she calls “the penthouse” which is a tent platform high up and further off the trail and kind of hidden. We set up our tents next to each other filling the small platform and later we are joined by 2 young French-speaking young women who squeeze their tent onto a tiny flat spot next to the platform. We ask about eachothers days and Stud and I throw some water and snacks into a smaller day pack and head off to ascend Mt Liberty and Mt Flume. Its late afternoon and it feels great to hike without our big packs. The views are sweeping and the summits are rocky with many cliffs and many sunbathers. We relax on top and I pull out my new tiny binoculars that I acquired last week on a job helping someone purge their apartment. We admire the dozen or so mountains around us that we have summited over the last few years and study many dozen more that we have yet to attempt before returning back to camp and make dinner and then study our maps before crawling into our tents.We wake up early and are packed up and hiking north on Franconia Ridge in the cool morning processing about queer life, pronouns, gender, music, future goals, politics, the various organizations we associate with and all the things we like to process about in between eating candy and trail food. We pass many hikers. We stop to chat with some and not with others. Some of the bro-dudes mistake us for other bro-dudes and so we just kinda grunt back to them in our lowest voice and move along. But we welcome more conversation from the hikers who recognize us as the late-30 year old women that we are. One of these hikers says to us “Thank Goddess for this wonderful day!” and we fall in love with her and talk about her for the rest of the trip. We share this enthusiasm of being on such a beautiful ridge line and mostly avoid conversations about what lies ahead and whether its “good” or “bad”. People tell us what to expect and how much water to carry even though we don’t ask for this kind of advice. I don’t bother to mention that I’ve actually hiked this ridge before and I just respond to the various unsolicited advice with “cools thanks” and try to gracefully disengage. I’ve hiked enough to know how much water I need but the bro-dude-splanations still get to me and I fight hard not to internalize any assumptions other hikers may make about me and I notice that I care less and less with every year older I get. I decide I love being 39 years young.
Its a long gorgeous climb over Little Haystack, Mt Lincoln and Mt Lafayette. Its a mix of rock scrambles, long steep pitches, and short stretches of nice footpaths. Once we are up above 5,000 feet the wind picks up and I can no longer wear my hat and sunglasses for fear that they will blow right off me. The sun is bright and the wind is almost knocking us over. It is so intense so we don’t linger long on any of the summits. We take advantage of any wind breaks along the short slightly sheltered spots where we hunker down to drink water and eat snacks and relieve ourselves. Weary, we are eventually make our way up and over Lafayette and turning northeast along the Garfield Ridge. My eyes water and I blow record breaking 10 foot snot shots behind me into the wind.
As soon as we get back down below tree line we lay down on the trail on this boulder cliff and eat and drink and rest. Its not a good spot for a break but we have been pushing hard and have to stop. We push down the relentless descent and after hours and thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss we are back down in the pine forest. We find a perfect spot for an afternoon siesta. We take off our socks and shoes lie on a bed of soft pine needles elevating our feet of a log while eating salty crunchy things and bathing in the mountain breeze laughing about how tired we are. We see some hikers pass by who we camped with last night who we have been leap frogging with all day. Its a young woman and her father and they are thru-hiking the NH section of the AT and I am inspired.
Rested and restored we start our final ascent of the day up Mt Garfield which takes everything we have and when we get to the top we have the summit all to ourselves. We take our time up there soaking in the views of the long jagged ridge line we had just hiked. I look at Lafayette thru my binocs and see dozens of tiny silhouetted people up there. I could even see the Long Trail’s Camel’s Hump and Mount Mansfield. I think I could also make out Whiteface and Madonna Peak if I was correct. But Camel’s Hump is so distinctive and it was connecting to wave to some of my old mountain friends from over here. Its fun to know the mountains and name them off and see them from various sides.Next stop, Garfield Ridge Campsite. It feels late but we still get into camp early enough to get another awesome tent platform spot. This site also has a large lean-to and it fills up with AT thru-hikers. Our neighbors are the daughter/father hikers and we chat with them about their hike and its really fun to talk to them about the trail. We eat and crawl into our tents and sleep better then the night before.In the morning we are packed up and back on the trail by 6:45. We make our way down the almost comically steep cliff stretch of Garfield Ridge where I imagine the look on thru-hikers’ faces when they get to this spot…like how it this even a trail? Welcome to the White Mountains. We reach the intersection of Franconia Brooke Trail and make a decision about our next move. We had been strongly considering hiking down into the Valley and setting up camp at 13 Falls and then attempting to summit Owl’s Head via the northern Lincoln Brook Trail the following day. This is a remote stretch of trail that few people travel on and everything we’ve read about it says the trail is hard to follow and its easy to get lost. There are lots of water crossings and its a big day. While we have been enticed by it and read a lot about it, in the end we decided to stay on the ridge. After all the elevation gain and loss that we’d already done, adding more felt exhausting and we were losing confidence about that northern stretch and our (lack of) compass reading skills so we listened to our intuition and decided to stay up top and head towards the Galehead Hut for a big late breakfast break and take advantage the huts views, shady benched front porch, running water and bathrooms. After some coffee and oatmeal we stashed our packs inside the hut and took a spur trail out and back to the summit of Galehead Mountain. Back at the hut we each chugged a liter of water and sat with an older AT thru-hiker while she ate every leftover the hut croo offered her. One the hut croo cooks brought out a big leftover pot of soup with some bowls and we watched this hiker down like 5 bowls of soup and we felt genuinely relieved and happy for her. Hiker hunger is impressive and kind of fascinating. I was tempted by the soup but decided to leave it for the thru-hikers since our new plan would have us hiking out that afternoon which meant we’d get to eat whatever we wanted later.
We filled our waters and started up South Twin which is basically straight up and gains 1,200 feet of elevation in .8 of a mile. Its like a rock staircase and eventually we popped out on top and the wind wasn’t too strong and we were able to really enjoy this summit. I felt a little shaky and dug into my food bag no longer conserving for that extra day. We had been on this summit 2 years ago but it was so windy that we basically half jogged right over it on our way to the Twinway towards Guyot. But today, the day was young and we would be hiking out from here so we sat for a while and I pulled out the binoculars and we took in the 360° views all around.
We branched off the AT following the North Twinway Spur over to North Twin Mountain. This 1.3 ridge was simply a beautiful stretch of trail that went in and out of the trees passing thru fern fields and bright moss covered boulders and the blue sky and distant mountains were visible thru the scraggly mountain pines cooling us off with that mountain breeze coming in from all directions.We popped out on North Twin, our final summit of this trip, and went to a lookout to eat and drink. It was hot. The clouds started to gather and within minutes we watched the puffy benign poofs thicken into growing thunderheads. It was amazing how fast it formed. We couldn’t have been more grateful to be heading down and off the exposed ridges. We descended down the North Twin Trail down a steep gravelly slidy rocky path careful to not lose our footing. Our legs were tired and we slid down many big boulders on our butts until finally the trail mellowed out and we could actually hike and not just brace ourselves the entire way. We were maybe 2 miles from the car when we started hearing thunder like I’ve never heard before. It echoed down the mountains and we could feel it in the ground vibrating through us. As the sky darkened over various peaks and the thunder grew louder and stronger, we thought about the hikers we met and hoped that everyone would be safe. Then we had these huge river crossings. The water wasn’t very high and we could totally rock hop across it but it was a long stretch of many rocks to hop with some big hops over rushing water and between the grumbling thunder and some distant flashing in my peripheral vision it took so much focus and concentration to stay balanced on these rocks and not freeze up half way across or fall in! Finally we were done crossing the “Little River” for the last time and we cruised along very moderate (almost flat) stretch of trail until we reached the car.
We kicked off our shoes and just as we drove down Haystack road back to route 3, the skies opened and the rain started to fall. What timing. Things seemed to clear up as we rounded the bend into Franconia Notch so we jumped into Echo Lake at the base of Cannon and before changing into some dry cotton clothes we had stashed in the car. We discussed our lingering Owls Head Plan B which would be driving down to the Lincoln Woods, camping nearby, and then hiking Owl’s Head as a day hike the next day. From the Lincoln Woods, its an 18 mile round trip hike which is a LOT for us but the trail is easier to follow from that direction and its mostly flat until the final ascent and we wouldn’t be carrying full packs. But 18 miles is a LONG day for us. There is also a significant water crossing that can be sketchy especially with anymore rain coming overnight. SO we decided to post-pone Owl’s Head for another time and drove home stopping for some real food on the way. Owl’s Head, perhaps we’ll see in September.