Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Pemi (Pemigewasset) Loop (New Hampshire, USA)

A panorama view from the top of Mt. Lafayette (Day 2). From here you can see all that you have hiked, and where you still have to go.


To be honest, there wasn't all that much planning that went into this trip. On Thursday, I found out from my PhD advisor that my dissertation defense date that was scheduled for 3 weeks from today was moved back 5 months, and so I thought, why not go to the mountains? So, by the following day I had my bag packed, some dehydrated dinners prepared, and a car rented (I got a great last-minute deal online). As I had to return the rental car and be back at the office on Monday, I had to do the entire hike in 2.5 days... a bit rushed, but doable. It would have been a much more comfortable hike in 3.5 days, but 2.5 was definitely feasible.

Pemi Loop, Which Trail Is That?

As others have pointed out, the Pemi Loop isn't an actual trail per se, so there are no trail markers that say "Pemi Loop." The loop consists of the following trails (listed in the order that most people hike them) that happen to make a nice long 32 mile hike:

If you are a peak-bagger, this is definitely a nice loop to go on as you hit the following peaks (listed in order of the trails above):
  • Mt. Flume (4328 ft)
  • Mt. Liberty (4459 ft)
  • Little Haystack Mountain (4780 ft)
  • Mt. Lincoln (5089 ft)
  • Mt. Lafayette (5260 ft)
  • Mt. Garfield (4500 ft)
  • South Twin Mountain (4902 ft)
  • Mt. Guyot (4580 ft)
  • Mt. Bond (4698 ft)
  • The Cliffs (4265 ft)
With a quick side-trip you could also get to Galehead Mountain (4040 ft) between Mt. Garfield and South Twin Mountain; North Twin Mountain (4761 ft) isn't far away either. So, in the span of a couple of days you can visit a fair share of the Four-Thousand Footers (three of them being in the top 10).

If you haven't noticed, this trail is nothing but hiking from peak to peak along ridges. I believe that the total elevation gain adds up to about 9000 feet. To put that in perspective, Mt. Everest is 29,035 feet high and Base Camp is somewhere in the vicinity of 17,700 feet. So, during the course of the 32 miles you climb about 2000 fewer feet than when climbing Mt. Everest. Of course, that speaks nothing of the much, much (much, much) more demanding conditions found on Everest. In any case, if you don't much like hiking up and down sometimes very steep inclines, I would stay away from this one. Also, if you know you have knee problems, this one might not be the one for you... my knees generally don't bother me much, and it very well could have been the fault of my choice of boots, but by the end of each day it wasn't usually fatigue that made me want to throw my pack down and curl up under a tree (or rock on the ridge) but rather the pain in my knees.

How Do I Get There?

If you have a car, the easiest way is to get yourself to Lincoln, NH (right off of I-93), and drive along the famous Kancamagus Highway for 5 miles to the Lincoln Woods Trail Head (on the left).

If you don't have a car you can either try your luck with the Greyhound bus that stops off at Lincoln at 9pm once a day, or go with the Concord Coach Lines that is a bit more convenient (and cheaper) but has a much more limited route. Of course, you then still have to make your way to the trail head somehow.

Water, Where Can I Find Some?

There are a bunch of "official" places along the loop where you can refill your water bottles/hydration packs. Listing them in the order of the trails above, they are:
  • Lincoln Woods trail head
  • Liberty Springs Tent Site (a 0.3 mile hike down the Liberty Spring Trail from the ridge)
  • Garfield Ridge AMC Camp Site
  • Galehead Hut
  • Guyot AMC Shelter and Tentsite
Unofficially, (i.e. running streams, rivers) there is a stream at the start of the Osseo trail that is easily accessible. Also, once you hike down from the Cliffs, the Bondcliff trail crosses the Black Brook several times and then follows the Pemigewasset river until it links up with the Lincoln Woods Trial. If you take a look at the distances between the water sources, the most difficult part is between the Liberty Springs Tent Site and the Garfield Ridge Tent Site as you are without refilling sources for quite a while.

Where Can I Sleep?

Technically speaking, you can camp anywhere along the trail as long as 1) you are below the tree line (unless there is 2 feet of snow), and 2) not within a 1/4 mile of any AMC run hut/tent site or road. Also, if you are staying in the alpine zone, which is clearly marked on the trail, you have to use a stove to cook your meals. Since the rules can change it is best to check out the official rules from the US Forest Service here.

Although I can't guarantee that these clearings will still exist when you get there, there are a couple of clearings on the Franconia Ridge before you reach Little Haystack Mountain. As a matter of fact, I stayed at one of them that was just below the tree line and had a perfect view of the western sky. There are also some other clearings on the Garfield Ridge between Mt. Lafayette and Mt. Garfield, but there isn't much of a view (except for trees).

If you prefer more established locations, the tent sites charge (in 2011) $8 a night per person and provide you with either a wooden platform to pitch your tent or a wooden shelter to sleep in (Guyot Tent Site only). You also get the wonderful amenities of a water source and an outhouse (shall we say 5 stars, anyone?). The huts (Galehead Hut and Green Leaf Hut 1.1 miles down the Bridle Path from the summit of Mt. Lafayette) provide you with a bunk to sleep in, warm food, and access to clean water. Of course, they charge quite a bit more for all of this.

The Trip

Day 1
The day started with me strapping on my pack and biking 5 miles through the city to the car rental place (getting a car for $19 a day does come at a price of convenience). It turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year and by the time I got to the rental place at 8am, I was dripping with sweat -- what a great way to start. On the bright side, I had a 2 hour drive to cool down.

By a little after 11:30am I had paid my parking fee ($3 a day) at the Lincoln Woods trail head, filled my water bottles and was making my way down the Lincoln Woods Trail. The first thing that I noticed was the very annoying placement of wooden planks across the path. They are just far enough apart that it's hard to step from one to the next, but too close together to not have to step on them every now and then. Only later was my suspicion that these were railway ties confirmed when I asked a park ranger. It turns out that the Lincoln Woods Trail and Bondcliff trails (and probably other trails as well) were part of the logging industry in the past and there were railway tracks that were used to take the lumber out of the woods. As a matter of fact, you can still see old clearings where the workers slept, a single iron railway track, and an old metal railway car suspension along the Bondcliff Trail.

Unlike most people that go clockwise, I thought, I've already seen the stretch from Mt. Lincoln to Mt. Lafayette, so I'll hike the trail in the opposite direction so that I'll end with Mt. Liberty (actually, the last summit is Mt. Flume); thus starting with the Bondcliff Trail and ending with the Osseo Trail. The first 80% of the trail isn't bad at all -- there aren't any steep inclines and it's quite a nice walk in the woods. The trail does cross the Black Brook several times, so if it's been raining a lot, you might want to be prepared to get some wet feet. I ate my lunch (a very tasty peanut butter sandwich, and an even tastier Nutella sandwich) sitting in the sun on a rock in a dried up stream. By around 3:15pm I reached the top of The Cliffs and sat there soaking up the sun. I asked someone to take the obligatory photo of me standing on the cliffs, but immediately regretted it. Standing out on the ledge with nothing but sheer cliffs on three sides and gusts of winds blowing at 40 miles an hour wasn't all that great for my nerves (if you look at the picture, you'll clearly see I wasn't all that comfortable). I was most definitely very happy when I was able to gingerly turn around and head back to retrieve my camera from the other hiker.

I left The Cliffs a bit before 4pm and crossed over the summit of Mt. Bond and trudged in to the Guyot Tent Site sometime after 5pm. As it was a Friday evening of a weekend with nothing but sunshine in the forecast, it is an understatement to say that the campsite was full. I ended up sleeping in the wooden shelter/hut with 4 other guys (the warden just made all hikers that were traveling alone sleep in the hut to give the tent platforms to the larger groups). By 8:30pm, my stomach was filled with instant mashed potatoes, re-hydrated vegetables and chicken, and a nice cup of hot chocolate, I had read several chapters of Bill Bryson's "A Walk In The Woods" (yes, it's quite ironic that I was reading a book about hiking the Appalachian Trail while hiking myself), and was comfortably lying inside my down hiking quilt and counting some sheep.

Day 2

This was a long day, by the end of which I had been on six of the ten peaks. As usual, I was woken up by the morning light and was up and about before 7am. I enjoyed my oatmeal with bananas (that I had dehydrated for the trip) and a nice cup of hot coffee that I prepared on my new Snow Peak LiteMax canister stove (that worked splendidly). Amusingly, we had quite the collection of stove types between the 5 of us in the hut. One guy had a JetBoil canister stove, another had the MSR Whisperlite liquid fuel stove, and the other two shared a homemade alcohol stove similar to the one I used on my previous trip. If only we had someone with an esbit stove, we would have had pretty much all types of hiking cooking equipment.

After departing the camp ground, which was made quicker by the fact that I didn't have a tent to pack up, I quickly reached the summit of Mt. Guyot about half a mile away at around 8:30am. After crossing the nice alpine ridge between Guyot and South Twin, I made a relatively quick descent to the Galehead Hut where I re-filled one of my water bottles. I must say, the view from the hut was quite spectacular (I stupidly forgot to take a photo) as it is nestled between the peaks with a grand view of the entire valley. If it wasn't for the fact that I still had three peaks to climb I would have stayed longer than 15 minutes and enjoyed the tranquil surroundings.

The hike from the hut to Garfield wasn't anything spectacular. Not that it wasn't nice being in the woods, but the only time that you have a clear view of the peaks, you just realize how far you have descended and how far you have to climb back up. The fun part really begins about 100 feet from the Garfield Tent site. Why you ask? Well, because you have to climb what is probably a 100 foot "water fall" to get to it. Yes, it's pretty much straight up. I was definitely glad to be going up this pile of rocks and not going down. I was also very glad that it hadn't rained in a while and the water was a mere trickle… boy would this not be fun with completely wet rocks. The only consolation at the top was that I could re-fill my water bottles (for the last time) before reaching the summit of Garfield and continuing on to Lafayette.

By 1pm I had reached the summit of Mt. Garfield and was happy to extract my tired feet from their hiking boot prisons. I chowed down my two tuna fish wraps and peanut butter wrap, snapped some photos and was on my merry way. The first part of the Garfield Ridge Trail is very similar to the other wooded areas, trees on either side a dirt path littered with rocks both in front and behind you. Once you get above the tree line, however, you are presented with the spectacular view of the entire area (and gusts of wind up to 60 miles per hour). After some scrambling up rocks, chatting with fellow hikers (and petting their dogs), I finally reached the summit of Mt. Lafayette at a little after 4pm. I spent about half an hour on the peak talking to other people and just generally enjoying the warm afternoon.

Noting that I still had a couple of miles ahead of me, I lifted up my pack again and made my along the Franconia Ridge Trail over to Mt. Lincoln and Little Haystack Mountain. Apart from the approaches to the peaks to the two summits, most of this section is downhill as Mt. Lafayette is the tallest of the bunch (of all of the peaks on the Pemi Loop, as a matter of fact). This normally wouldn't be a problem, rather it probably would be a welcome change to most, but my knees were not feeling in very good shape. When I found that someone had left a wooden stick along the path, I was very glad to pick it up and use it as my walking stick for the rest of the way.

I recalled from my previous trip that there were a couple of clearings along the ridge right below the tree line after passing Little Haystack. So, I made up my mind that I wasn't going to walk the last 1.5 miles to the Liberty Spring Tent Site, but rather set up shop a bit early. The up side was that I didn't have to walk any farther, it was free, and that I had a fantastic view of the mountains on the other side of the valley. The downside, however, was that I only had half a liter of water left. Thus, instead of having what was slated on the menu for that night (mashed potatoes with re-hydrated tomato sauce and vegetables), I ate my following day's lunch instead (which, incidentally, was the same as the lunch I had not too long before). I did, however, heat up some water for a nice cup of hot chocolate that I enjoyed whilst looking out over they valley below.

Day 3

This is what I woke up to on Sunday morning. Not a bad way to start the day!
Unlike the previous day where I woke up before my 6:45am alarm, I actually hit the snooze button on my watch twice before getting up. With less than half a liter of water left I made myself a cup of coffee and decided that I was going to get water at the Liberty Spring Tent Site and then have my breakfast on top of Mt. Liberty. So, that's what I did. By 10am I had made my way down to the tent site, re-filled my water bottles, and had made my way to the top of Mt. Liberty. Although I had hoped to do the cooking right at the top, the winds were a bit too strong to make that a reality. Instead I took my food and mess kit down the trail a bit, heated up the food and a cup of hot chocolate, and hiked back up to the top and sat on a rock to have a glorious (albeit windy) Sunday brunch. (You can see me using the $1 Pot Cozy I made earlier)

The trip over to Mt. Flume was relatively quick, although there is an uphill section that seems to go on forever. Unlike most other parts of the trail where the uphill sections are of varying steepness, here it seemed to be a constant incline for a while. But, once you reach the top you are rewarded with the final view of the area before you descend for the last time back down to the Lincoln Woods Trail on the Osseo Trail. Of course, before you get to the Lincoln Woods Trail, you have to go down probably the steepest section of the entire 32 miles. But, before you worry, the maintainers of the trail (AMC) were kind enough to put in wooden steps that make it rather easy.

About a 1/4 mile before the Osseo Trail meets up with the Lincoln Woods Trail it follows a little stream. Although I didn't need it to get water, I did need it for a little cleaning. It was nice to be able to soak my feet in the cold water and wash the sweat off of my face and out of my hair before getting back to civilization. The last mile back to the parking lot on the Lincoln Woods Trail went very quickly as it is nearly flat (apart from those darn railway ties). And that was it, by around 2:30pm my pack was in the trunk of the car and I was on my way home. Although I was happy to be heading back to see my wife, I am definitely looking forward to when I get to go back.


  1. Thanks for the great post. My son and I will be doing some backpacking in the Pemi at the end of June and the info you have shared will be helpful.

    1. I'm glad to hear that it was helpful! I might be doing the Pemi again this year (but going in the opposite direction), so we might even cross paths.

  2. you mentioned "official" water sources. does this mean the water is potable (does not need filtering? thanks very much for the details.

    1. The water at the trail heads (usually at a vistor center) and at the "large" AMC huts like Galehead is potable. For the other locations (tent sites, streams, etc.) you are better off treating the water in some fashion. I happen to use a chemical treatment because it's small and light (

    2. Thank you very much. I am planning to do the loop on Saturday and this is very helpful.

    3. nice post! If you stop at Liberty Springs you don't "need" to filter it and I've drank at Guyot without filtering or pills also. Yeah Osseo is a relentless downhill at the end!

  3. doing the loop next Thursday with my husband and son. This was a nice read thanks!