Saturday, May 12, 2012

Hey, Somebody Get This Owl Off My Back!

When we first started hiking the 4000 footers five years ago I knew that we weren't ever going to finish the list, and there was one reason.  Owl's Head.  We loved hiking in the Whites and visiting beautiful peaks with amazing views.  Why in the world would anyone ever want to hike 18 miles through the forest and drag themselves up the steep side of a mountain to be rewarded with a view-less summit?  It really doesn't make any sense.  As the years went on and peaks continued to drop off the list I started to rethink things.  There were other mountains on the list that we never would have visited otherwise and we'd enjoyed each and every one in its own way.  We now had our sights set on finishing, but that one hike stood in our way.  The dreaded Owl.

Warning - the next couple of  paragraphs contain serious drama.  Feel free to skip them and go on to the hike.  I wish I'd done the same.

This spring we were down to 12 remaining peaks and I was determined to not make this the last one.  It was easy to find excuses to put it off though.  My friend Owen who was also working on finishing the list had contacted me during the winter and suggested that we try to share one of our remaining hikes.  The logistics didn't work during the winter and a couple of weeks ago he sent another message and said he was going to be home for the summer soon and was thinking about doing Owl's Head to get it out of the way.  I'd been working through some knee issues through the winter and it made a perfect excuse.  "We'll see Owen, but I don't think my knees have an 18 miler in them now".   Last week I got a note from another friend Kim.  They had a group of 5-7 going to Owl's Head on Saturday and invited us to join them.  It seemed that the Owl was calling.  Nat and I talked it over and I gave Kim the answer - "a definite maybe".  I wanted to put some miles on that ailing knee to see how it would hold up.  After a couple of days of long walks with the knee feeling pretty good I decided it was time to quit putting it off.  OK, we're in.

The next morning Kim told me that it looked like the hike was off.  A heavy rain in the Whites on Tuesday and turned the streams and rivers into rushing torrents and most of the group had decided to bail (no pun intended). I wasn't sure whether to feel disappointed or relieved.  I had read an Owl's Head trip report from the previous weekend that noted what the East Branch flow level was with a note that the crossings where rock hoppable at that level.  I checked the current flow on the USGS site and it was triple what it had been on Saturday!  OK, that's it - the hike is off.  Next morning I heard from Kim again.  Christine (whose dog Geneva was going to be finishing her 48) still wanted to go.  The water levels had started to go back down again and the forecast for the weekend was beautiful.  I called Nat and told her it was back on and to book a room.  A couple of hours later she sent me a copy of the confirmation from the Pemi Cabins which indicated that cancellations within 30 days gave no refund.  No backing out now...

 We headed up to New Hampshire on Friday afternoon and were greeted by a beautiful afternoon - better than the forecast had called for.  We stopped at the cabins, check in and dropped our things off and headed out to get in a little warm up walk to shake our legs out.  We wound up just taking a nice stroll on the Franconia Notch bike path from the Basin to Lafayette campground and back.  Blue sky, sunshine, wildflowers and cool breezes walking along the brook - just the way a spring day in the Whites should be.

The Baby Flume

Cascades above the Basin

Hobblebush beginning to bloom

Franconia Ridge from Lafayette Place

Trout Lily

We headed back to our cabin and sat on the screen porch over the Pemigewasset River with a glass of wine debating the options for dinner.  This is the first time we've stayed here and it's really a wonderful place.  The cabins have all been recently redone.  Nice pine interior, fireplace, kitchenette and lovely screen porch out back. (Dog friendly too.)  This could easily become our new home base for future hiking weekends.  After a nice dinner at the Woodstock Station (our favorite) we went to sleep to the sound of the river through the open window.  After a restless night I got up early and opened the curtains to find a brilliant blue and cloudless sky.  The temperature had dropped to 32 overnight and the cars were all covered in frost.  I thought of the rest of the group at the campground who were now trying to convince themselves to leave the warmth of their sleeping bags and felt a bit guilty.  After breakfast and coffee in the room we were finally packed up and ready to go.  No more putting this one off.

And finally - the hike

We met Owen in the parking lot at Lincoln Woods and the rest of the group arrived soon after - confirming how tough getting out into that cold morning had been.  We wound up with 7 two footed hikers and one four footed (Geneva).  A couple of others had decided that this was way too nice a day for Owl's Head and had gone to Franconia Ridge instead.  The walk down the Lincoln Woods trail in the cool morning air was nice and we enjoyed the conversation with new friends we'd just met.

Pemigewasset from the suspension bridge to start the day

Signs of the aftermath of Irene

Geneva enjoying the water

The Bonds rising over the river

Painted Trillium

We were soon at the Black Pond trail and headed out.  The air was beginning to warm but the breeze off the river was still cool and we hadn't yet seen a bug.  A nice start to a mud season day.  It was a nice walk to Black Pond and we were greeted by the views of what we had to look forward to later in the day.  Geneva also got her first 48 finisher reward of the day from Steve-o - Mr Squeaky Monkey.

Owl's Head reflection in Black Pond

Geneva meets Mr Squeaky Monkey

Hey Owen, wanna' play?

The Bonds over Black Pond

Owen capturing the views

After a quick break and some play time for Geneva it was time for the Black Pond bushwhack.  We headed into the woods armed with several GPS tracks that ultimately weren't very necessary.  Most of the 'whack is really just nice open woods walking and there are fairly obvious paths through much of it.  This certainly seems to be the most common approach to Owl's Head as almost every trip report that I found had used it. About a third of the way through we diverted from the normal 340 degree heading and went further west up to the 2000' contour and followed it the rest of the way.  This turned out to be a great option as it kept us above any water and mud at the lower elevation and ultimately dropped us at the Lincoln Brook Trail a couple of tenths beyond the usual exit.  The only tough spot we encountered was a section of thick spruce that we had to struggle through at the top of the slope on the exit, but it was only for about 20 yards and we were back in the clear.  About half way through the woods we flushed a grouse from her nest and found her large clutch of eggs - or so we thought at the time...

Heading into the bushwhack

Just a nice walk in the woods

Can't be bad - everyone's smiling

Grouse eggs?  Hmmm - maybe not

Geneva gets another reward from Hui Yeng - doggie trail mix!

Lincoln Brook at the exit from the 'whack

It was nice to be back on the trail again.  We stopped for a quick lunch break, but the first black flies of the day descended on us and we didn't linger for long.  Once we got moving and the breezes picked up they disappeared and we weren't bothered again until the bushwhack on the return trip.  The flow in the brook was fairly strong but didn't seem too bad for the crossings ahead.  We hit a few spots of pretty wet trail but had no trouble skirting them.  So far it was a great day!

Still a bit of strong flow

Nice to be back on the trail

A bit of soggy going but easy to get around

What a beautiful day to be in the woods!

The first short crossing of Liberty Brook was hoppable for most of us and a couple that didn't want to stretch too far took their boots off and waded it.  So far so good.

A bit of a stretch

OK Nat, where are you going to step next?

Ah, made it!

The final crossing of Lincoln Brook was a bit tougher and just about everyone took off their boots for this one.  It was an easy wade across and the cold water felt good on the hot feet.

Hui Yeng crosses the deep part

Go on in Nat, the water's fine

Taking the plunge

Not so bad

Ah, refreshing

Time to get the boots back on for the climb.

We got our boots back on and headed the last few tenths to the beginning of the slide path.  When we got to the cairn we were greeted by a dismaying sight.  This was apparently owl mating season and the summit was closed to visitors!  Apparently it was not a quail that we had flushed in the woods on the bushwhack, but a rare Ground Owl keeping watch over her nest.  How could this be?!?  Did we really just walk 7 miles to only have to stop short of our goal?  Was this some sort of cruel joke?

How can this be???

The group ponders what to do next.

And then we see it - a sign from above - we must go on!

We then saw the sign clearly carved in the tree by the Mountain Gods.  We must go on!  We promise to be quiet on the summit and not disturb the mating owls.  So up the slide we begin...

Owen and Geneva lead the way

Owen takes in the first views from the slide

Starting to get steep

Franconia Ridge - who said Owl's Head has no views?

Continuing the uphill slog

Owen and Geneva taking a little break

Getting even steeper now

Straight up

The middle section of the slide going over the ledges was great fun.  We were all tired at this point but there's nothing like a bit of scrambling to keep you on your toes.

A cairn along the slide

Back side view to Liberty and Flume

Hui Yeng takes Geneva's portrait during the break

Nat and I are enjoying the day!

The section above the slide was grueling - at least for me.  This is one steep climb when you've already got 7 miles behind you.  About 3/4 of the way up we passed a large group from the AMC on their way down and to our surprise one of the members was our friend Shelly that we see each year at Seek the Peak.  It's definitely a small world in the Whites.  My knees were holding out well and we all hauled ourselves up to the top and stopped for a well deserved lunch break.  We packed back up and headed over to the new summit, being very careful to tiptoe so as not to disturb the owls.  We ultimately never saw or heard them though and can only assume that the AMC group had somehow scared them away.  What a shame.  On the summit we all celebrated Geneva's 48 finish!  Steve-o had brought her scroll and there were more doggie treats (and chocolate chip summit cookies for the two legged crew).

On the perfectly good "old summit" - now another 1/4 mile to go

When we hit the monorail we almost broke out the microspikes but decided to brave it with bare boots and made it safely around

Franconia Ridge views half way between the old and new summit

Yay Geneva - you made it!

She looks happy to be finished

Steve-o presents the scroll

Christine with the proud finisher

To the victor go the spoils

Bondcliff peeking through the trees past the summit

Nat and I on Owl's Head for #37

Unfortunately all good things must come to and end and we soon found we needed to leave.  I had truly not been looking forward to the trip down the slide.  There were some pretty dicey sections that were fine on the way up that I thought at the time "I really don't want to go down this".  Steep downhills and bad knees are also not a match made in heaven.  We headed down, and as is usually the case for me, things were nowhere near as bad as I expected.  Those tricky spots from the way up didn't seem to materialize and other than some interesting nearly-controlled skids in sections of very loose scree we were quickly back at the bottom without incident.

What goes up must come down

One last break to enjoy the views

Geneva finds the first water at the bottom to cool off

We headed back down the Lincoln Brook trail, all very happy to be done with major ups and downs and looking forward to a long flat walk out.  We even were looking forward to the brook crossings and another chance to chill our aching feet.  We were all pretty much out of water as well and I had thankfully thrown my filter in the pack at the last minute.  Hui Yeng and Kim took on pumping duty and got us all refilled with nice icy water.  Thanks guys!

Nat can't wait to cool off before crossing

Easy going with practice

Uh oh - looks like a Squeaky Monkey-napping

HuiYeng and Kim on water duty

Glad those aren't any farther apart Steve-o!

Show off!

Nat takes on the deep way

After the Liberty Brook crossing we started debating the route back.  None of us really wanted to re-do the bushwhack, but with at least 4 significant crossings on the regular trails with boots on and off plus an extra mile or so we decided the 'whack was the lesser of the evils.  On the way out Hui Yeng had dropped a waypoint on the GPS and we used it to find our way back in.  Thankfully we took a bit different line back up the entrance slope and completely avoided the dense spruce at the top.

We're on the home stretch now!

Lots of cascades along the Lincoln Brook Trail

Hui Yeng leads a great line back through the bushwhack

We were all tired and the bushwhack seemed twice as long, but Hui Yeng led a great line through it with once again no water or mud issues.  We did meet a few friendly black flies this time who seemed to take a particular liking to Steve-o.  From all accounts none of us got bitten (although there were a few reported orifice invasions).  We were all really happy to see Black Pond again and know the we just had a flat walk to finish the day.

Geneva says "I'm done"


Fading light reflections of a great day

On our final break someone decided to rejuvenate Geneva by attaching Mr Squeaky Monkey to her back.  The trick worked and I think it actually rejuvenated us all.  Lots of laughter to fuel the home stretch.

I know he's back there!

If I could only reach!!  Hey, can someone get this monkey off my back?

A little monkey business 
(press play to see the video)

The final miles seemed long.  We were all tired and it was getting dark.  Part way back it started to lightly drizzle.  This seemed appropriate somehow.  It was about the only thing this day hadn't had.  Long miles, bushwhacks, wading water crossings, mud, monorail (avoidable), slides, ledges, sunshine, blue skies, breezes, bugs and mating owls - and now a bit of rain.  It was all good and the cool rain on our faces felt great.

Heading home on the Black Pond Trail

We walked in small groups and chatted during the last miles, which helped to pass the time.  When we finally reached the bridge at Lincoln Woods it was almost dark.  We finished at 8:23 - easily breaking the 12 hour mark by a full 7 minutes!  Back in the parking lot we dropped our packs, removed our boots to sooth our aching feet and had ice cold beers which somehow found their way into the trunk of our car.  Unfortunately Owen was driving back to Boston that night and didn't dare join us.  Next time.  To end the day we packed up and headed to G&H for some great post-hike pizza and reliving of the day.  Pretty much the perfect ending.

And so it's done - the dreaded Owl's Head is now in the history books.  The thing is, like so many other things that I've worried about before other hikes, there was really nothing to dread.  We didn't just survive the day - it was actually great fun (at least for me).  It was partly the hike - there really are many things to like about being out there - but it was even more about the people (and dog).  A great group makes for a great hike.  Thanks especially to Kim for inviting us, and to Hui Yeng, Christine, Owen, Steve-o and most of all Geneva for making this a hike that Nat and I won't soon forget.  Owl's Head really didn't in any way earn its reputation this time and maybe, just maybe we'll be back again someday...


The following maps are from a GPS track from wikiloc that we used as a guide.  It has the standard 340 degree heading through the bushwhack and not the higher line that we took and it only goes to the old summit (hope the person who did that hike isn't disappointed that it didn't count :)).

Topo route map

Aerial from the southeast

Aerial from the west

Aerial from the north


  1. A group of us with the AMC were up there the same day - I think we crossed paths just above the Brutus Bushwhack boulder. It was a gorgeous day!

    1. We did indeed. I was so surprised (and happy) to see Shelly in your group. We hadn't been in touch for quite a while. It was indeed a gorgeous day! Glad we were all out there to enjoy it!

  2. The group pondering what to do next made me laugh...everyone looks so sad and confused!

    1. And we were sad and confused - right up until we all broke out laughing! That's a hiking moment that I won't soon forget.

  3. Congratulations on bagging the Owl! Although it has a bad reputation (even among my own family), on a nice day like you had, it can be a great experience. Congrats to Geneva, too, looks like she thoroughly enjoyed her 48 finish!

    1. Thanks Summerset. It was definitely a great experience! These is no doubt that Geneva enjoyed the hike, but she was sure one pooped pup at the end.

  4. Awesome write up.

    So, if the AMC was leading a group up to the "closed" summit - who closed the summit?

    1. Thanks Scott. I'm pretty sure it was the WMSOP (White Mountain Spring Owl Patrol) that closed the summit. Apparently the AMC doesn't respect their rules. :)

  5. Nice job Mark, great pictures. We'll be up that way in a couple of weeks.

  6. Nice pictures Mark. Congrats on bagging The Owl! It's usually on our short list when deciding what to hike, but it never seems to make the final cut.

    1. Thanks Tom. I have to say that it's never been on our short list, but apparently it should have been. :) I do have to say that I'd suggest trying to do it with a bigger group. That really made the day for this one.

  7. Great write-up Mark - congratulations on getting the Owl off your back. I've found myself wanting to scale it more than do most fellow hikers. Something about its remoteness and quietude appeals. Not sure when I'll take it on, but I feel the pull of the Owl.

    Was it windy for you atop the ridge or ascending the slide, or did Franconia Ridge shield you? I went up the Ammo Trail that day, and it was quite windy from just above Gem Pool to very windy above tree line.

    Most everyone ahead of me had either done Monroe or turned around at the hut. The only few parties who had traversed W had done so from the north - one pair of young guys had bailed from a N-S Presi traverse at the Lakes hut due to the winds. All three parties who'd gone over the big guy said the winds were steady at 70 at the summit, gusting even higher.

    The winds I encountered at 4 pm at the hut were 50 mph sustained with 70-ish gusts - I was knocked over a couple of times on final approach. Thank goodness for the hut, which shielded me and gave me a nice respite. I donned my fall jacket, rain pants and winter toque for warmth, peeked around the hut's western side to check the wind and was rendered a flag or a balloon flapping in the gale - Jim Cantore, reporting live from the Lakes of the Clouds.

    Like those before me, my legs having gotten a bit twitchy on the final ascent and the winds menacing, I turned around from the hut and bailed on Monroe or W. Did leave the pack on a bench for a bit and sidle up the Crawford Path just past the northern Monroe Loop junction to take some snaps. As it was the 5083' I got to was my highest elevation attained to that point, and the Ammo was both beautiful - lots of falls running strongly - and the hardest trail I'd yet done.

    Was able to bag a big one this past Saturday by ascending Lafayette via OBP and Greenleaf, sustained well by the hut croo's awesome cookies and chicken vegetable soup. Though it was pretty hazy around 4 pm up there, the nearer views, including to Owl's Head and across the Pemi, were outstanding. I believe my next attempt on Washington, probably via the Jewell Trail, will be a success. Thank you so much again for sharing your great narrative and photos. Geneva, star of this show, looks like a very satisfied pup.

  8. Thanks for the comments Arkie. It was windy on the slide on Owl's Head but really just enough to keep the bugs away. This one isn't very high and is mostly wooded (except the slide) so you don't get conditions anything like Mt Washington or Franconia Ridge. Congrats on Lafayette. Franconia Ridge is my favorite place in the Whites. I never get tired of it. Good luck with Washington on your next try. Ammo and Jewell are a nice route. The east side trails are great as well. Find a good day and this is a fantastic hike from any angle!

  9. Thanks, Mark. I share your fondness for Franconia Ridge. Am contemplating a Pemi loop this summer, up the Bonds to the Twins and around to Franconia Ridge, maybe doing a bushwhack descent from Liberty to Owl's Head after doubling back from Flume (from elevation maps and Google Earth, Liberty looks like it has a shoulder that could work well for such a trip). Would involve bagging about a dozen 4K's in one three-to-four day trek, taking side trips to take in North Twin, West Bond and Zealand. We'll see if I can put a group together for it.

    Needless to say, I want to do Falling Waters, too. Might do an overnight A.T.-ish Loop around Franconia Notch, which would allow me to hike on the trail down from Garfield/Galehead to the beckoning Owl. We'll see.

    Speaking of which, I think it a bit of kismet that you did Owl's Head during their mating season. Bonus points!

    Arkie/Chris Stratton (Trail Name: Driver 8)