Hike: Southern Presidentials

Trail Report

Since March 2015 I had been commuting to work via my Surly Long Haul Trucker. Final, in March of this year I put a down payment on a Toyota RAV4 which gave me and my whole family a lot more flexibility around commuting and other activities. I also bought a THULE Spare Me spare tire bike rack, which I was excited about as it provides a lot of flexibility in my hiking. Bringing my bike with me on solo hikes allows me to do traverses rather than always doing a loop to hike. I decided to put this to the test by doing a traverse of the Southern Presidentials. Additionally, a few weekends prior I had wanted to hike Mount Washington and bailed on the idea because of the ice conditions. But this time I borrowed crampons from a friend to make it happen.

After leaving home at an incredibly early time, I swung by the parking lot on Clinton Road in Crawford Notch at 6:00 am. I ditched my pack in the woods and clambered back into my car. There were only two cars in the parking lot, so that was good.

At 6:30 am I arrived at Marshfield Station. The hiker’s parking lot at the Ammonoosuc trailhead was still closed, but with only two cars in the Marshfield lot there was plenty of room for more.

Bike on back of car

Maiden voyage of my new car and bike carrier

I hopped on my bike for the trek back to where I stashed my pack. The road leaving Marshfield Station had a dusting of snow on it, but I still had my winter studded tires on my bike. Clinton Road was open and snow-free, so when I got to the intersection with it, I turned left and headed into the woods. It was a very pleasant 5 mile ride with intermittent views of the surrounding area where trees had begun clearing. At 7:15 am I arrived back at the Crawford Trail parking lot. I walked my bike into the woods and locked it to a tree, changed into my hiking clothes and boots, and threw on my pack. It was overcast, in the high 20s, and no wind. By this time there were three cars in the parking lot and two small groups were getting ready to hike up the Crawford Trail.

Because I’m a White Mountains tracing freak, I hiked down Clinton Road to 302 and walked to the beginning of the Crawford Trail. I have done the Crawford Connector several times, but never the short distance to 302. I tried barebooting up to the Crawford Connector, but it was slow and arduous. I stopped at the intersection with Crawford Connector to throw on my microspikes and was able to pick up my pace and pass the two groups I saw at the parking lot. There was one scary spot by the Gibbs Brook where the ice flowed over the trail at a disturbing angle toward the rushing water below. It would have almost been worth the time to stop and put on the crampons, but I managed it with microspikes.

I got to the Mizpah Cutoff quickly and passed a solo hiker coming down and he mentioned how great it was above. Just after the Mizpah Cutoff there were large sections of trail covered with ice. Luckily this ice had water flowing through it, so it was soft.

Icy trail going through frost-covered forest

Iceflow in the trail above Mizpah Cutoff

I got to the junction with Webster Cliff Trail, dropped my pack and grabbed a CLIF bar and my camera to head up to Mount Pierce. I took two steps up the trail then decided to turn around and put on the crampons.

Boots with crampons attached

Time for the crampons!

With the crampons I felt much more secure with my footing on the ice. I had never worn crampons before, but I had tried them on the night before so I sort of knew what I was doing. The short hike up to Mount Pierce was easy and I reached the summit at 8:45 am. The weather was phenomenal. It was in the 30s, there was not a breath of wind, and it was undercast; something I had never experienced before.

Snowy peaks rising above the clouds

Undercast clouds below the Presidential Range

It’s hard to describe just how beautiful it was. The sky was bluebird, the sun shone fiercely and the rocks and trees all around sparkled with their crystalline coating. The proud mountains to the north jutted sharply into the air as if worshiping the sky above.

Frost and snow covered mountains and clear sky

Eisenhower, Monroe and Washington from Pierce; the goals for the days

There were some significant ice flows between Mount Pierce and Mount Eisenhower, but for the most part the trail was away from any slopes. I saw two pairs of boots prints, one going and one coming, presumably from the hiker I saw near Mizpah Cutoff. As I slowly made my way to Eisenhower (stopping to gawk at my surroundings often) I heard a helicopter coming and going. I decided it was delivering supplies to Mizpah Spring Hut and later confirmed such on Instagram.

I made the climb up to Mount Eisenhower’s bald summit at 9:45 am. The view was again breath-taking. To the northwest was a wide sea of clouds with scant mountain peaks cutting through the surface here and there. There was one other person on the summit, an older gentleman who headed back down to Crawford Trail soon after I arrived.

Stone pile rising above clouds

Eisenhower cairn above sea of clouds

To the southeast there were fewer clouds. The Presidential Range was acting like dam and blocking the clouds from flowing over the Dry River Wilderness. Below I could pick out the clear summit of Mount Isolation, it’s frost-covered surface glittering in the sun. Just the previous weekend (on the last full day of winter) a few friends and I bushwhacked to Mount Isolation and stood there looking up at Mount Eisenhower.

Mountain peaks and a single cloud

Mount Isolation from Mount Eisenhower

After another snack I regretfully turned my back on Mount Eisenhower (one of my favorites) and started the long trek to Mount Monroe. Once I got off the Mount Eisenhower Loop Trail and back onto the Crawford Trail I saw no more boot prints in the snow.

Snow, mountains and clouds

Junction with Edmands Path, no prints beyond here

As I slogged up the trail from Mount Eisenhower and toward the insignificant Mount Franklin, the wind switched to the South. This change in wind direction cause large puffs of clouds to settle over the trail. There were a few minutes where I was completely socked in and could not see the next cairn. But I was not worried as I knew I could stop for a few minutes and it would clear again.

As I approached Mount Monroe I took the Mount Monroe Loop Trail to the southern, sub-peak of Monroe. A lot of people bypass this peak and then bushwhack from the Crawford Trail at a location where it is close to the Monroe Loop Trail before the main peak. I don’t like doing this. I am really not comfortable with going off the trail in alpine areas and the desolate spot between the two peaks is one of my favorite in the Presidentials. For some reason it feels so lonely there.

Frost ground with mountains and clear sky in the background

Desolation between the Monroe Peaks

I started seeing lots of people as I got to Monroe. It seemed like most people were hiking up Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail to Mount Monroe, hiking to Mount Washington and then returning via Jewell Trail.

I struggled up the southern side of Monroe. The crampons were digging into my heals and my feet were wet from sweat. By the feel of it significant blisters had formed and popped on heels. When I tried on the crampons the night before they felt a little tight, but I decided not to lengthen them by a notch. A mistake. I got to the summit of Mount Monroe at 11:00 am. It was the only location where I actually felt the wind and it was there I spent the most time.

Mountains, snow and clear sky

Northern Presidentials from the summit of Monrow

I took off the crampons, my boots and socks and ate some lunch while my feet dried in the sun. I applied some moleskin to my heels and put on dry socks. At that point the breeze and cold was starting to outweigh the warmth of the sun, so I quickly put my boots and the crampons on and headed down toward Lakes of the Clouds. Knowing the cliff scramble that was required on the north side of Mount Monroe I was a little concerned with descending it. But, it turned out to just be a steep slope of snow that was easy to descend with the crampons.

Heading toward Lakes of the Clouds I entered the crowds of people hiking up from Ammonoosuc Ravine. There were families with ice climbing gear, couples eating lunch on secluded boulders, and serious hikers gearing up for Mount Washington. What was most spectacular to me was the iceflow cascading over the slope down into the ravine below. It had the cool blue tint that I associate with glaciers and made the hut seem like it was perched on the edge of the world.

Building on edge of mountain

Lakes of the Clouds Hut surrounded by blue ice

As I continued on, I paused at the Lakes of the Clouds to take in the wintry scene. The granite faces and distant krummholz reminded me of the blizzard my friends and I got caught in while hiking in the Emigrant Wilderness.

Frozen lake surrounded by granite boulders

Alpine Lakes of the Clouds

Beyond the Lakes of the Clouds was a giant ice slope that angled down into the Ammonoosuc Ravine below. The sun was hitting the ice and the surface was textured so the grip was very good, for this reason I was not too worried about it. I somewhat guessed where the path was so that when I got to the other side I wouldn’t be way off route. Occasionally I could pick out the bite marks in the ice from other hikers’ crampons. I then realized that the occasional rock sticking out of the ice or visible just below was the top of cairns marking the trail and I followed them to the trail on the other side.

Across the iceflow I hit the trail junction with Westside Trail and it was time to decide whether or not to hike Mount Washinton. My feet were very sore from the crampons and I was starting to feel exhausted. Looking up to Mount Washington, I knew I had to climb it. I’ve bypassed Washington before and regretted it.

I made the slow trek up to Mount Washington, stopping often to rest my weary legs. I met one person from Quebec doing a SOBO Presi Traverse. He had started at 4:00 am and had a SPOT and gear for camping overnight if needed. Since it was before 1:00pm and I had gotten to where we were at a normal pace in five hours, I let him know it was very doable for him to get down before dark. He was happy to hear so and took off at much more chipper pace than I could muster.

Long line of mountains

Looking back at the Southern Presidentials from the Mount Washington cone

I made it to the rockpile on Mount Washington at 1:00pm after dropping my pack at the junction with Gulfside Trail. There were tons of people at the summit and the Mount Washington Observatory’s snowcat rumbled by as I arrived. There were hikers arriving from north and south and skiers and snowboarders arriving from Tuckerman Ravine. All around us the towers were shedding ice and stretching in the warm Spring sun.

Buildings, radio towers and people at summit of mountain

People chillin’ on the Rockpile

I stayed long enough to take everything in and take a selfie at the summit sign.

Me at the summit sign

Obligatory summit selfie

I headed back to my pack, sat on a rock next to the trail sign and ate a snack. It was more peaceful than the summit and the view was just as spectacular.

Trail sign with mountains in the background

Snack time at the Crawford and Gulfside junction

From my private perch peering at the horizon, I noticed that I could see all five Vermont 4000 Footers.

Mountains on the horizon

Camels Hump on the left; Mansfield on the right

After my snack with a view I headed down the Gulfside Trail toward the northern Presidentials and the eventual junction with Jewell Trail. Mounts Jefferson, Adams and Madison looked less icy, but I imagined that their talus-covering was hiding all of the ice between the rocks.

Mountains and clear sky above icy trail

Northern Presidentials from Gulfside Trail

I got to the cog railway track and stopped to take a photo looking down the track. How much faster would it be back to Marshfield Station and my car if I could have somehow slid down the track?

Train track running down the mountain

Looking down the cog railway

Below the cog railway I came upon a section of trail that was solid ice at a very steep slope perpendicular to the trail. The slope slid to the east directly down into the Great Gulf Wilderness. I considered turning around and going off trail to get above the nasty slope, but I decided to trust the crampons. As I was crossing this dangerous section I stopped to look down the slope. I could see the forest 1000 feet or more below me, pure ice between. As I turned to continue the front tooth of my crampon caught the ice for a breath and I nearly emptied my bowels. I came no where close to tripping or falling, but my body reacted as if I had. A deep breath and I continued on without incident. At about 4:40 in the video below you can see the scary section of trail right before I started crossing it.

When I got to the junction with Westside Trail the ice was petering out, so I finally switch back to microspikes. I bypassed Mount Clay and came to the top of the Jewell Trail. There was a friendly fellow sitting there waiting for his friend, who was doing Clay before heading down the trail. I put away the microspikes and started down Jewell Trail.

Jewell Trail afforded some nice views of the Ammonoosuc Ravine and Mount Washington guarding above. It started off as a talus scree between shrubbery and transitioned into a trail through the woods. There was some ice and old snow in the woods, but I hit my second (or fourth, or fifth) wind and started jogging down the trail. I made good time and was at Marshfield Station sooner than I expected.

Mountain rising above train station

Looking up at Mount Washington from Marshfield Station

As I stepped over the cog railway tracks and into the parking lot a vehicle-based tourist asked me if I had ever been up there, pointing at Mount Washington beaming above. Without chagrin I told him I was just there a few hours prior. He seemed surprised, so I boasted a little and told him that I had hiked all of the mountains leading up to it that he had seen before driving up to the station. He said he could never do that. I held my tongue from saying that anyone was capable of doing it, if being fit and exploring mountains was a priority to them.

I got back to my car at 3:40 pm and man was I beat. I changed clothes in my car and headed to the Crawford Path parking lot to retrieve my bike from the woods. After I stopped at Starbucks in North Conway to get a coffee, I headed straight home.

The hike was so epic that I didn’t feel a bit let down that it was only half the Presidential Traverse. It was by far the best weather I had experienced on the Presidential Range, and the ice and undercast clouds made the whole trip otherworldly. What a great way to kick off the beginning of the 3-season hiking season.

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity
—John Muir


Video of Southern Presidential hikeVideo of Southern Presidential hike
Music from Free Music Archive: “Wash Out” by Broke for Free, “Through the Lens” by Andy G. Cohen

The Numbers

Trail map

Map of hike (interactive map)

Date Hiked: 26 March 2016
Temperature: 20-30°s
Trail Conditions: mud, black ice, blue ice, slushy snow
Weather: clear and sunny
Wind: light breeze from S

Highest Elevation: 6288′
Elevation Gain: 5500′
Distance: 13.9 miles
Book Time: 9:45
Actual Time: 8:25

Related Posts:
Hike: Mount Washington – 27 November 2015
2014 Presi Traverse – 30 June 2014

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3 thoughts on “Hike: Southern Presidentials

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