What makes Owl’s Head the Holy Grail of the NH48? For starters, it is set deep in the middle of the Pemigewasset Wilderness on unmaintained trails far from any parking lot, established campsites or huts and sits far off the beaten path of the many other popular hikes in this region. It requires multiple river crossings that can be seriously hazardous during high water. One has be prepared to spend a night in the backcountry OR be able to hike big miles to summit this mountain. The actual “trail” or “path” up Owl’s Head is basically a super steep exposed rock slide of sand and loose gravel and boulders that basically crumble under foot. Once you get up top, you are in the trees and have to climb over and under downed trees to find the summit cairn which has been moved in the last decade to the “true” summit making the whole trip .4 miles further than it already was. Because of all these features, Owl’s Head is often put off and left last on people’s list who are attempting the NH48.
After much perseverating over routes and options, Stud I finally came to the conclusion that we would attempt to reach the elusive Owl’s Head summit as an out and back 19-mile day hike in late summer/early fall when the water levels were low. This way we wouldn’t have to cross the rivers with full packs and just have a lighter carry overall. Typically I have zero interest in hiking big miles. For me, anything over 15 miles is what I consider big miles and I prefer a nice 8-12 mile hike in the mountains where I can have time for extended breaks to take in the forest atmosphere and notice as much as possible beyond the ground in front of me. I knew this hike would be hard and different from other hikes.
5e, Stud and I head into the Lincoln Woods at 7am wearing most of our layers and start hiking at a pretty good clip to warm up. We figure that we have about 14 hours of daylight and we guess that our hike will take about 12 hours. We have our headlamps, water treatment, extra food and all our essentials. We are hiking on an old logging railroad so the terrain is very flat and the leaves are just starting to change and it is magical. Our first 2 river crossing are over bridges and we scope the water and keep our anticipatory talk about the upcoming river crossings to a minimum but we know we are all nervous about them. We leapfrog with a few other hikers. Its a clear day and the parking lot had been pretty full but most hikers are not headed to Owl’s Head. That said, we are not the only ones on this adventure and we are relieved to meet others headed that way knowing we will not be completely alone out there.
The walk is lovely. A true walk in the woods. Unlike other hikes that just head straight up, we are hiking many miles over the course of many hours just to get close to this mountain. We reach the first river crossing and I feel super anxious. Stud rock hops across like its nothing and 5e and I follow suit. But I don’t feel relieved when I make it to the other side cuz I know there is more to come. We reach the next crossing. Same thing. And the next. By our fourth crossing we are cheering and finally feeling relief about the water. We keep our breaks short and eat often. We are walking and weaving along the river and its so pretty and peaceful and its flowing babble just lulls me into a rhythm. The few hikers we pass are very friendly and humble and the vibe on the trail is one that I really love. Owl’s Head starts to come into view on our right and we figure we must be getting close to the slide path that goes straight up it and we start to look for it knowing it may not be well marked having read this in the guidebooks.
We manage our last crossing just before reaching a pair of cairns marking the Owl’s Head Path and I consider them a threshold to this myth of a mountain. We pause and take a short break before heading up. We chug our water and refill our liters and have a last snack. As we start our ascent, I am very aware of how deep in the woods we are and how late it feels to just be starting up a mountain and how we’ve already been hiking for over 4 hours and the toughest part is yet to come. We reach the slidy stuff and each step up sort of slides back a bit. It is profoundly steep and the gravel and loose rocks crumble under foot and we are all scared. Stud panic hikes ahead and 5e expresses her fear just below me while I try to keep steadily moving up. We do our best to not loosen the rocks so that they don’t fall on each other but they fall everywhere. I grunt and laugh nervously and we encourage each other until alas we reach the top of the slide and find ourselves on more of a trail with more solid rock scrambles which are fun and a relief. The steepness starts to level out and we have entered the mossy greenery and we can see the blue sky start to peak thru the wind blown spruces ahead of us.
We climb over and under and around the downed trees towards the “new” summit and reach the cairn and it feels fricken awesome. It reminds me of how I felt when I reached the summits of Mansfield and Camel’s Hump on the Long Trail. I can’t believe I am standing on Owl’s Head. It is surreal. It feels amazing. We collapse and eat and chug water and then we are joined by another hiker who asks us if we would help him cheer for his friend who is coming along behind him. He tells us that this is his friends 48th and final mountain in completing his NH48 goal. We are pumped! We hear him coming and we all stand up and start clapping. He is shocked to hear us as we start cheering for him and I almost get emotional. He looks to be in his late 50’s and I find out later that he’s from NY and has been chipping away at the NH48 for the past 7 years. Its my first time being on a NH48 summit with someone celebrating their final peak and he is touched and humble about it. His friend’s final mountain is Madison and they plan to hike that the next day. We congratulate them and end our summit break a little early to give them some time alone on the summit.
Walking back Stud spots a big brown rabbit. Its was huge and hopping around on top of this mossy summit and something about that rabbit just really got to me. A message for sure. As we begin our descent down the slide trail we are pretty freaked out about going down but its okay. We slip and slide and we loosen rocks that knock each other behind foot and I even have a dramatic fall at one point but we are fine and we just take our time and talk each other down it and when we reach the bottom and cross back over the threshold between the cairns, we collapse by the river. We lay on the soft pine floor and chug our liters, eat snacks, refill water and rest. Its mid afternoon and we have a long hike out. We feel great and we manage to get across all the river crossings just fine. A couple hours later the light starts to fade and so do we. We are exhausted and things start to hurt. The last 2 miles are brutal and I just want to collapse but I just keep walking and we all start to just drag ourselves forward. I keep drawing my attention away from my physical discomfort and try to focus the trees, the river, the leaves, the beings and I a, so grateful to be on this land. I am delighted to see so much Balsam Fir.
We reach the suspension bridge at 6:30PM, exactly 11.5 hours later and we climb down underneath it to soak our feet in the cold river. I attempt to get all the way in but its too cold and the light is fading and I don’t want to get over cold. But I wash the dirt off my calves and splash water on my face and arms. We hobble to the car and change into jeans and flannel and it feels so good. We drive away from the Lincoln Woods as the sun sets over the misty blue mountains and we feel incredibly accomplished, exhausted, sore, and content.