|Beginning our Adventure|
Owl’s Head. Possibly one of the most talked about yet least enjoyed hikes on the NH48 list. The time had come for Paloma and I to tackle this hike. While this hike is certainly doable as a long day-hike, Paloma and I opted to split this hike into two days to make a weekend of it. We had initially considered hiking up to the 13 Falls campsite on the first day, then around the north-side of Owl’s Head to the summit on the second day before returning to the car, but decided we wanted more of a backcountry camping adventure. We instead chose to hike directly out to Owl’s Head, set up camp just before the slide, hike the slide, return to camp for the night, and hike out in the morning. This proved to be a great choice.
We set off on our adventure on Saturday morning at around 6:30AM. The ride up 93 was uneventful, per usual, until we reached the Concord, NH area and saw the remains of about two dozen pumpkins that appeared to have fallen off a truck earlier that morning. Welp, guess that was as good of a sign as any that autumn is here (my favorite season)! When we reached Lincoln, NH and merged onto the Kancamagus Highway we began to see some traffic for the Highland Games that were taking place at Loon Mountain – a giant Scottish festival complete with bag-pipers and whiskey tastings. There was something funny about seeing people walking along the side of the road wearing kilts and funny hats, but I will be honest it seems like a pretty awesome weekend! We got through all of the hoopla and arrived at the bustling Lincoln Woods Visitor’s Center at just after 8:30AM.
We made our final preparations and I spent some time adjusting my hefty backpack and began our hike at 8:47AM. We encountered a forest ranger at the trailhead who asked us a few questions about where we were headed and reminded us to camp at least 200 feet off of the trail, hang our food to deter bears from rummaging through our tent, and to leave no trace – all items that should be common sense to anyone hiking in the Whites. As we crossed the iconic suspension bridge over the Pemigewasset River the reality of the adventure we were embarking on truly hit me – I was filled with feelings of excitement, wonder and apprehension as we made our first steps onto the Lincoln Woods Trail.
|How Many Paces?|
The Lincoln Woods trail was a wonderful warm-up and allowed me to continue to adjust my backpack into the most comfortable position possible. This was my first time using this bag and first time hiking with quite a bit of additional weight. I was, after all, carrying: a tent, a sleeping pad, Paloma’s sleeping bag, my sleeping bag, 4 liters of water, 2 days’ worth of food, a mini propane tank and stove, a change of clothes, a rain jacket, flip-flops for the river crossings, a water filter, nylon rope to hang our food bag, a map, a head-lamp, two lighters, a knife, a compass and a mini cedar fire-starter. This trail was more or less completely flat and offered some beautiful views out over the Pemigewasset River. There were a few other people hiking along the trail – some just out for a quick day hike while others were hiking out with us towards for Owl’s Head or to the Bonds.
There were a few signs along the trail highlighting ways to stay safe in the woods – and I thought it was pretty neat that they placed a pair of signs two hundred feet apart so that you could pace out exactly how many steps you should take off the trial before setting up camp. I counted 74 paces. Before we knew it we passed by the Black Pond Trail (which offers a popular bushwhacking opportunity for those looking to shorten the trek out to Owl’s Head – but we weren’t equipped to try) and the Franconia Falls trail and officially crossed the bridge entering the “gateway” to the Pemigewasset wilderness.
We reached the point where we bared left onto the Franconia Brook trail, splitting off from the Wilderness Trail that led out towards the Bonds at 9:45AM. This section of trail continued to be relatively mild – only gaining a slight amount of elevation over its 1.7 miles. We were hiking at a decent clip but took a few minutes to admire some of the boggy areas off the side of the trail, hoping to see some sort of wildlife. Fail. We reached the junction with the Lincoln Brook Trail at 10:28AM – only 3.4 more miles till I could ditch some of my stuff! First though, we had to navigate ourselves across two major water crossings – first crossing the Franconia Brook, then the Lincoln Brook.
We took our shoes off to cross Franconia Brook, and the ice cold mountain water was quite refreshing on our feet. When we got to the other side though, we found ourselves a bit turned around, as there were a number of “could-be” trails veering off in different directions. Needless to say we chose the wrong trail, multiple times, and found ourselves backtracking after a few hundred yards in the wrong direction. Note: follow the orange hang tags on a few of the trees – they point you in the right direction! We got back on track after a few minutes and shortly thereafter came to the second crossing. This was a bit easier and we were able to rock hop to the other side without removing our boots.
|Home Sweet Home|
The Lincoln Brook Trail is a little bit rougher than the first two trails we hiked on, as it skirts alongside the Lincoln Brook with many pointless up and downs, wet portions, and washed out sections. Still, though, we were able to maintain a decent pace as at no point was there any big gains in elevation. The Lincoln Brook provided a nice soundtrack of rushing water to our hike. We encountered a few individuals along the way and inquired about potential “stealth” camping spots – all of them said there were plenty closer to the slide once we passed the final water crossing. We easily rock-hopped the final water crossing and began to look for a good spot to set up camp.
|Beginning the Slide|
We wanted to follow the 200 foot rule as best we could – unfortunately most of the nice spots we were passing looked to be well under that. Finally, at 12:45PM we found a spot off of the left side of the trail right on the shore of the Lincoln Brook that looked promising. We bushwhacked through the woods for 200 feet or so and came into the clearing – it was apparent that someone had camped there before as there was a make-shift log bench and remnants of a fire ring. The Lincoln Brook would provide us not only with a water source so that I could filter water for dinner, breakfast, and the hike out, but also some “white noise” to help us sleep. It felt great to get my pack off of my back and we took a few minutes to survey our new home for the next day to find a good spot to set-up our tent. We set up our tent on a nice flat spot, ate some lunch, and transferred some items to Paloma’s bag that we would take with us up the slide to the summit. We figured this way I could carry Paloma’s pack with only the essentials and she could carry nothing up the steep slide.
|Owl's Head Slide|
We left our tent at 1:40PM and began the final push towards the summit. Now, up until this point we were hiking on maintained, relatively flat trails for over 8 miles. That quickly changed as we reached the cairn marking the start of the Owl’s Head Path - an unmarked, unmaintained scramble up loose rocks, ledges, and giant boulders. There were a few people at the beginning of the slide eating lunch, gaining the energy needed for the final mile or so to the summit. We passed them and began the ascent. The first part of the slide is made up of tiny loose rocks and the trail is quite steep – I’d guess approximately a 60-70 degree angle. Fun! Every step you took up you’d slide down half a step. After this section the smaller loose rocks dissipated a bit and we came out onto some open air rocky ledges. You have to be careful of your footing in this section as the rocks are still loose, and at this point much bigger in size. Many times one of us would step on a rock only to have it slide down hundreds of feet below. Thankfully no one was behind us to catch on in the face!
|Summit of Owl's Head!|
This open section provided us with amazing views over the backside of Franconia Ridge, and we could see some people far across the valley hiking along Mt. Lincoln. No time to soak in the views, however – we were less than a quarter of the way up the slide. After skirting along the ledges the trail finally enters the woods, though it maintains its steepness. By this point our legs were shaking and we kept saying “how much further?!?!” Finally the trail began level out and we began the final push towards the summit. For those who are unfamiliar, up until around 2005 the summit of Owl’s Head was basically where we were at this point – close to the top of the slide. In 2005 it was declared that the “real” summit was actually about a quarter of a mile further, accessed by following somewhat of a maze through the woods. Whoever pushed the summit further away is a sick, sick person! We encountered a couple of hikers on their way back and they offered us encouragement that it wasn’t too much further.
|Paloma Coming Down|
At 3:10PM we finally came to the make-shift cairn in the woods marking the summit of Owl’s Head. I wish I had something good to say about the summit but in reality, it is just a pile of rocks in the woods with no views or ledges to relax on. Someone had scribed an “Owl’s Head” on a piece of bark and left it on cairn which offered us reassurance that we were, indeed, on the summit. Even though the summit was unremarkable, knowing the effort it took to reach gave Paloma and I a great sense of accomplishment. We were happy to be able to cross the Owl off of our list – both agreeing that this would probably be the first and last time we hiked it. We spent no more than 10 minutes at the summit and turned around. A word of caution to those hiking Owl’s Head – when you leave the true summit, for some reason the hike back the way you came is harder to follow – so pay attention on your hike up!
Going down the slide, while less physically exhausting, was still quite difficult as you have to be extra careful with your footing to avoid face-planting down the slide. Paloma deployed her usual “crab-walk” down the slide at some points to avoid falling. Also, don’t get too distracted by the views of Franconia Ridge that are now in front of you – pay attention to your footing! We were quite exhausted when we reached the base of the slide at 4:55PM. Time to return to camp and cook some dinner!
|Picante Chicken Ramen|
Back at camp I fired up our MSR Pocket Rocket stove to cook some Ramen Noodles. For those that haven’t had the Spicy Chicken Ramen – you are missing out. It absolutely hit the spot. Once we got our fill of noodles it was time to filter some water from the Lincoln Brook so that we would have ample water for breakfast and the hike out in the morning. This was my first time using the Sawyer Mini Filter that I bought, and boy, am I in love. I ended up drinking more water than saving but with a water filter and river – you can virtually never run out! After filtering our water it was time to hang our bear bag – basically making sure that all of the food we had brought with us was suspended from a tree away from our tent to deter bears from making an unwelcomed visit to our tent in the middle of the night. It also helps to keep smaller animals such as mice and squirrels out of your bag. I spent far too much time trying to get our nylon rope over the perfect tree branch, and even knocked over a massive dead tree in the process – thankfully it didn’t come crashing down on our tent.
Paloma and I both cleaned ourselves up in the river which was quite refreshing and I rummaged the woods for some sticks and kindling and built a small fire. We sat around the fire eating Oreos and hydrating before calling it a night at 7:45PM. What else were we supposed to do in the middle of nowhere once it became pitch black? It took some time to get comfortable and I finally was able to doze off around 11PM, only to be awoken at 2AM to the pitter-patter of rain on our tent. Thankfully we had put the rain fly on as shortly thereafter the skies opened up and it began to downpour. Save for a few wet spots at the corner of the tent, we stayed relatively dry and were able to catch at least a little shut eye. Our alarm rang at 6:30AM and boy was that too optimistic – we quickly agreed that we wanted more sleep and ended up waking up at 9AM instead.
|Long Hike Back|
The morning was spent drying off and packing up our tent and other supplies while eating some oatmeal and peanut butter and filtering some more water for the day. It was sad to see our adventure coming to an end but we knew we should hit the trail as we still had 8 miles to go back the way we came the day before to reach our car. It was 10:45AM when we began our trek back. The hike out was relatively uneventful and we were absolutely cruising. We did see some moose tracks but still no wildlife. I had mentioned to Paloma that I wanted a burger and fries once we got back to civilization and that gave us the motivation to kick it into a higher gear. We crossed the river crossings with no issue – thankful that the rain hadn’t made the river crossings more difficult.
By the time we arrived at the Lincoln Woods trail it was 1:10PM and the trail was filled with people taking advantage of the beautiful Sunday afternoon. Not going to lie, it felt quite manly to be hiking among these tourists with my massive backpack on. We passed the 200 foot pacing signs and I was only one step off of my calculation on the way out, 75 paces. We reached the lot at 2:00PM after taking an “after” photo on the suspension bridge. What an adventure it was! We quickly shed our gear and used the facilities before hitting the road for our ride back home.
On the way home we stopped at McDonald’s and ordered an embarrassing amount of fast food. Actually, scratch that – I am not embarrassed, we earned it! We reflected on how fun our weekend in the woods was. Even though Owl’s Head is a relatively boring mountain – the adventure of getting there, camping, and enjoying a weekend in the wild made it a great trip. I would definitely recommend this to anyone looking to escape reality for a while! Can’t wait for our next backpacking trip!
Trails: Lincoln Woods, Franconia Brook, Lincoln Brook, Owl's Head Path
Total Time (Not Including Breaks): 10:30
Distance: 18.2 Miles
Elevation Gain: 2,850