I'd put off Owls Head for long enough: As the least accessible and least scenic of New Hampshire's 4000 footers, it would be easy to keep pushing a trip to this peak off. The problem with this is that it ends up being the peakbagger's equivalent to leaving the brussel sprouts for dessert -- something which I didn't want to have happen. So... I chose the US July holiday long weekend of 2009 as the weekend where we would have our serving of "White Mountain brussel sprouts". (No offense to those of you out there who find brussel sprouts yummy)
For those of you who don't already know, Owls Head is a 4021-foot completely-wooded peak stuck in the middle of the White Mountain's Pemigewasset wilderness. It is surrounded by a ring of many other [much nicer] 4000-footers, with two curving valleys that separate it from them. And, here's an interesting (but dubious) distinction: Owls Head is the only NH 4000-footer that is not visible from any public roadway. It is quite hidden away.
The most common access to Owls Head is via the Lincoln Woods trail, which leads up from the Kancamagus Highway not far east of Lincoln, NH. The Lincoln Woods trail eventually reaches Franconia Brook, a large tributary of the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River. From here, the route goes north, then heads back west along another sub-tributary, Lincoln Brook. After many miles/kilometres of walking, the start of a well-defined herd path is reached on the west flank of Owls Head. This herd path leads up an old slide and then through forest to the summit. Total trail distance is 18 miles / 30 kilometres. Long!
Not relishing a mind-numbing 30-kilometre trudge with few views, I did my research and came up with several ways in which we could shorten the round-trip to Owls Head. Firstly was the fact that the Lincoln Woods trail is a former railway bed, and is therefore broad, wide, and gently-angled. And also, open to mountain biking. If we brought the bikes along, we could substitute about 5.5 miles / 9+ km of hiking for biking. And it doesn't take too long to bike 5.5 miles. Secondly, there are apparently a couple of bushwhack routes along the way that cut about 2 to 3 or so miles (4 to 5km) off of the round-trip distance. Worth it! And finally, it is possible to bushwhack up the opposite side of Owls Head from the herd path, cutting another potential 2 miles. So, theoretically, we could whittle the total distance down to 13-ish miles (22km) -- and with a good chunk of that on a bike. (update: it was pointed out to me that for official peak-bagging purposes, using a mountain bike along the Lincoln Woods trail is not permitted)
And so, with Mountain bikes in tow, we (Jenn and I) headed down to the Whites on a [July 4th] Saturday night, admiring all of the fireworks as 9pm rolled around. We made a quick camp at one of the free sites along the Tripoli road south of Lincoln, noting the large number of "party-camps" that had been set up to celebrate the holiday weekend. Fortunately, we got a quiet unused spot to ourselves and settled in for the night.
Lincoln Woods Center
The weather in June and July of this year had been exceptionally wet, and we had picked perhaps the first non-rainy weekend-day forecast in perhaps a month. It was obvious that everything was pretty waterlogged, and we worried a little about high stream levels. In general, I find that the brooks and streams in the Whites can be quite a handful, especially when they are running full tilt, and this hike had several crossings along it's itinerary.
The next morning, we drove the short distance to the Lincoln Woods visitor center -- the start of our hike. The morning was dry but cloudy; although it would be nice to have some sun, what I wanted most for this hike was dry conditions, and so far, so good. We got the bikes ready, locked the car, and set off up the Lincoln Woods Trail at 6:30am.
I'd heard that some remnants of the railroad along the Lincoln Woods Trail still existed, but I hadn't realized how much. There are large sections where many railroad ties remain, and they aren't flush with the surrounding ground. Makes for rather uncomfortable mountain biking. Fortunately, there was often a small width of trail outboard of the ties, and so we tried to stick to this as much as possible. The grade itself is generally very gentle, allowing for steady progress on a bike. It took us less than half an hour to cover the entire 2.8 / 4.5 km distance to the end of the bikeable portion at Franconia Brook.
Old Railroad Grade
After locking up the bikes and changing into hiking boots, we started off along the trail to Franconia Falls (of the three possible ways to get up to the Owls Head slide, I chose the Franconia Falls trail + bushwhack option). This trail is the start of one of the shortcuts I mentioned at the beginning of this writeup: rather than crossing the bridge at Franconia brook, then taking the Franconia Brook Trail up the eastern side of Franconia Brook, we chose to follow the trail along the west side of Franconia Brook to Franconia Falls. Then, we would bushwhack along the western side of Franconia Brook and southern side of Lincoln Brook until we joined up with the Lincoln Brook Trail. This would cut off at least 1 mile each way. (essentially, this shortcut cuts out a sizeable amount of unnecessary east-north-then-back-west trail-walking).
Things were pretty straightforward along the short 0.5 miles of trail to Franconia Falls. The falls themselves (more cascade/rapids than falls) were quite impressive, and definitely showed that the area's rivers and brooks were running at a high rate of flow. We were doubly glad of our shortcut today, since it meant we'd have to make two less crossings of these somewhat intimidating-looking rivers!
End of Trail
Beyond Franconia Falls the maintained trail ends. We continued on, following a faint herdpath. For a while, this was followable, but eventually I lost it, and we endured a good half-mile of nasty wet bushwhacking. Eventually we lucked back on to some faint herdpaths, which gradually improved in quality until we finally emerged at the Lincoln Brook Trail just upstream from having completed a crossing of Lincoln Brook. I marked the worst part of the bushwhack with a waypoint on my GPS and took note of other potentially better routes that I would try on the return bushwhack.
Starts off ok
Now back on maintained trail again, Jenn and I made good time. The Lincoln Brook trail ascends at a very mild grade, and is generally in good shape over most of the length we covered. Unfortunatly, the excessive rain of the past month did create numerous areas of wet, muddy, and flowing water on the trail.
Lincoln Brook Trail
Eventually we reached the first of a few crossings. These involved some western tributaries of Lincoln Brook, and even these were tricky to cross without getting one's boots wet. The final crossing, of Lincoln Brook itself, was definitely not going to be done without getting wet. Fortunately, we were high enough up in the Brook's drainage that the flow and depth weren't too bad. We took off our hiking boots and carefully waded across a slower spot in the rushing stream. The bed of the brook here offered decent footing and good grip, and was not deeper than 2 or 3 feet in any spots, and we made it across in good shape.
Perhaps half a kilometre after this, we reached the start of the herd path leading up Owls Head's West flank. To mark the spot, there are some logs arranged parallel to one another on the ground, and there is an arrow blazed into one of the tree trunks above. Look for this about 500 to 600 yards beyond the Lincoln Brook Crossing (or examine my pictures [further below] or my GPS waypoint!).
Even side crossings tricky