Mount Madison & Mount Jefferson
(and attempted summits thereof)

Location: Great Gulf Wilderness, White Mountains National Forest, NH
Trail: Pinkham Notch to Mt Washington Rd via Old Jackson Rd (1.5 mi), then to camp at the Great Gulf Trail via Madison Gulf Trail (2.1 mi). From camp, 3.3 mi to Mt Madison via Osgood Trail, or 3.5 mi to Mt Jefferson via Great Gulf/Six Husbands Trails. Osgood Trail is steep, Six Husbands trail is even steeper. Both are difficult.
Maps: USGS 7.5 x 15í quad: Mt Washington  Also see the USFS White Mt map
Access: Start from Pinkham Notch, which is 10.5 mi south of Gorham, NH on Rt 16.
Fees: None (There might be a small parking fee, but I didn't make a note of it.)
More Info: US Forest Service
Weather: Recent and current weather conditions from the higher-elevation Mt Washington


August 15, 2007
Rain poured down in sheets outside the open windows of Momís apartment and I sulked. This was the day we were supposed to start our backpacking trip, and the weather had not cooperated. Someone didnít get my order for clear skies and sunshine, did they? I packed slower than usual, not looking forward to the long drive in the rain. We left Manchester at 8, and drove north on I-93 into the White Mountains. In an hour, the rain stopped, and the sun actually poked out behind ragged clouds. We stopped in Lincoln and bought a Mt Washington quad map at a small bookstore on Main St, then continued north to Highway 3, where we broke off and drove northeast to Gorham, then south on Route 16 to Pinkham Notch. A hundred cars were parked at Pinkham Notch, but we didnít remain there too long. We hoisted our packs under the increasingly-sunny sky and started hiking the Old Jackson Rd at 11:00. In fact, this was only Momís 2nd experience with a frame pack, and this one she had purchased at deep discount at an EMS used goods sale. It was grossly oversized for her. It was grossly oversized for me, too. She shouldered the hulking red pack as best she could, cinching the straps way down to improve the fit, even to the point where they couldnít be tightened any further. The hip belt, for example, was tightened to as small a circumference as possible, and still required her to wrap a sweatshirt around her waist to hold it up. This was a very big pack. We walked north under a canopy of maples and hemlocks with tiny flecks of sunlight splashing on the trail. I was wrong to have fretted about the morning rain, and I grew very happy to be on the trail again. 

The western woods are a whole different world than this. Iím used to the wide, open parks and thinly-spaced pines. The density of tree trunks here overwhelms the senses, and I was unceasingly surprised at how many streams we passed over. The AMC White Mt Guide definitively gives the distance to the Mt Washington Auto Rd as 1.5 miles, and we could hear cars laboring up the steep grade long before we crossed it. Continuing north, the Madison Gulf Trail took us into the Great Gulf Wilderness, a name I am very fond of, and into the bowl of the Presidential Range. The Great Gulf is one of the original wilderness areas designated by the Wilderness Act of 1964. Though the forest prevented seeing the full range all at once, I caught glimpses of Mt Washington, Clay, Jefferson, Adams and Madison to the west. All were extremely high, and unseemingly close. Another difference between east and west: Mountains in the east are packed very close together. Within a couple of hours of leaving Pinkham Notch, we reached the Peabody River, and the junction of the Madison Gulf and Great Gulf Trails. We retreated upslope into the woods and scouted for a campsite. I was thus exposed to another stark difference between east and west mountains: Flat campsites are very hard to find in the east! We looked for 20 minutes or so before settling on a decent but sloping area between two massive tree roots. It was a little small, but at least there were not trees poking through the ground, or giant boulders to contend with. We set up the tent and had a nice lunch. The sun was still out and the sky was an unbroken blue. 

Refreshed, I loaded my pack with only a few essential items, and we crossed the Peabody River on a suspension bridge and started up the relentless Osgood Trail toward Mt Madison. We passed an established camp that I hadnít known about that had nice, flat spots that were already claimed by about 6 tents all set up close together. Didnít look like my kind of camp, anyway.  The grade of the Osgood Trail was steep, and for long stretches untold thousands of boulders had been embedded in the slope to form a stairway. I am awed by the amount of work this must have taken. Many of the trails in the Great Gulf were cleared before 1900. In almost no time we were high above the valley bottom, looking down over a sea of green trees, with Mt Washington looming like a presence above all. I felt the humidity press in, and sweat dripped off my nose. The wildness of these woods is fantastic, and that old sweet taste of adventure came to me as I looked across the deep ranks of dark trees, clawing against eachother toward the light. In places along the trail the canopy was so thick that nothing grew on the ground at all. 

We passed only a few people on the hike, all coming down. Overall, it was very quiet and felt very deserted. The afternoon waned as we finally broke through treeline and began to enjoy unbroken views of the mountains around us. The trail continued for some time up through stunted spruce trees no more than 3 feet tall. I sampled some of the tiny blueberries growing in the rocks along the trail. Across Rt 16, we could see the timber-free strips of Wildcat Ski Area running down the mountain like rivulets of water. By 5:00, we were still ½ mile short of the Mt Madison summit, though it was clearly in sight, and decided to turn back to ensure we were at camp before dark. The walk back down was, naturally, very easy, and we made it back in about the half the time it took to get up. Thus it was that by 6:00, we were near camp eating dinner of lasagna and chocolate cheese cakeÖboth outstanding. Afterward, I pulled some water from the river and brought it uphill near camp and heated it up to provide a nice sponge bath that was required after the sweaty trek up the Osgood Trail. It was dark pretty early (8:15) in this eastern bowl, especially in the thick woods, and we were in the tent by 8:30. I was initially very hot in the tent, but within an hour, rain came and cooled things off. I slept fairly well, despite the sloping tent. 

August 16
I was vaguely awakened at 6:00 by Mom leaving the tent. I slept for another hour and then got up as well to join Mom down by the rushing waters of the Peabody River, the West Branch of the river, to be precise. We ate a cold breakfast of raspberry granola, and then took off west on the Great Gulf Trail under completely overcast skies. It was cool, and wet, and I slipped several times on wet rocks and mossy logs. Vibram soles are useless on wet logs. The path followed the south side of the river for a couple of miles, and we were treated to the constant rush of river water over boulders and logs, forming hundreds of tiny falls along the way. As the morning drew on, the sun came out in spots and warmed things up. We stopped frequently to sit on boulders in the river and enjoy the water show. By the time we reached the Chandler Brook turnoff, the clouds had rolled in heavy, and did not leave. About 2 hours after leaving camp, we started on the Six Husbands Trail. I was amazed at how many intersecting trails there are in this area. You really have to keep your trailmap handy or youíll miss your exit! We hiked up the narrow and apparently little-used Six Husbands Trail. Evergreen boughs, heavy with water from the nightís rain, brushed against my legs and arms, depositing the water on me and soaking me in no time. Before long, the trail became so obscure that we backtracked a little to make sure we hadnít missed a turnoff. The trail was only a narrow path that looked more like a natural drainage. We did, however, see that someone had recently chopped a few branches out of the way, so assumed we were still on the correct route. We reached a particularly steep rockface that had no way around. I shucked off my pack and carefully inched my way up the sloping rock face, a task that would be almost impossible with a pack on. At the top, I walked ten more feet and was confronted with another rock face with no apparent trail or way around the rocks. I was baffled. Mom was clearly not comfortable with pressing on, and frankly, neither was I. We agreed to leave Mt Jefferson for another day, and returned the way we had come. Looking through openings in the forest, we could see that the mountains were cloaked in heavy cloudcover anyway, so what would we have seen had we made it to the summit? 

We took a sidetrip up scenic Chandler Brook and took our time back to camp. When we arrived at 1:00, we snacked on granola and nuts, then decided to check out other camp opportunities since neither of us was thrilled with the sloping spot we now occupied. The Osgood camp across the river was more packed than ever, with more than half a dozen tents set up. The Osgood Trail is part of the Appalacian Trail, so I assume many of these tents belonged to through hikers. We had passed another flat camp area up the river on the Great Gulf Trail earlier, but it was right on the trail, and in the wrong direction of where we ultimately wanted to go, so we decided to take a chance and pack up and move  south. Packing up took little time, and we were soon heading back towards Pinkham Notch, eyeing the woods carefully for potential campsites (read: flat, no trees). We stopped often to scout the woods off-trail, but found no decent spots. I had never been confronted with such a problem while camping in the west, and I wondered how people deal with it. My own plan for dealing with it in the future is by bringing along a hammock to sleep in. OK, so we kept going, and going, looking, and going, and finally we were back at Pinkham Notch around 6:00 without ever having found any spot to pitch the tent. This wasnít planned, but what can you do? I asked the fellow at Pinkham Notch Info Desk if there were any places we could hike a short ways in and camp. He was decidedly unhelpful, offered no tips at all and his tone dripped with condescension at my even having asked. He even managed to work in a shot lecture about how the forest is overused and people donít treat it right, seemingly aiming it at me for wanting to camp somewhere. He shouldnít be working at an info desk if he has a problem with people hiking and camping in his beloved woods. By perusing a wall map of the area, I spied the big Dolly Cop campground just up the road. Car camping was not preferred, but it was at least an option at this late hour. We hopped in the car, drove up the road, and paid our $20 for a campsite which functioned fine for a good-nightís rest. The place was relatively full, but overall pretty quiet. Our camp was situated in the lesser-traveled tents-only section, with plenty of trees around. My only complaint was the strange fellow in the next camp who started chopping wood at 4:40 AM, a full hour before it even began to get light out. Fortunately, I was extremely tired, and was only awake for the second it took me to check the time. 

August 17
Up and packed by 7, we trucked on north and stopped for coffee in Gorham before heading west for Acadia National Park.

Mt Washington

Mt Madison

Mom on Mt Madison

Mom hiking down Mt Madison

Mom on the Peabody River bridge

Peabody River

Great Gulf Wilderness

Great Gulf Wilderness

Peabody River

Great Gulf Wilderness

Great Gulf Wilderness

Chandler Brook

Great Gulf Wilderness

Chandler Brook

Great Gulf Wilderness


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