Late Winter On Owl’s Head!

Owl’s Head Mountain, Lincoln, NH. 2022-03-17. (Thursday)

Via Lincoln Woods Trail, Black Pond Trail/Bushwhack, Lincoln Brook Trail, Brutus Bushwhack. Approx 16 miles. 

60 dF +/- at the trailhead, 47 dF at summit, 45 dF +/- back at the car. RH ranged from about 45% to 55%. Winds were negligible breezes scattered throughout the day. Partly sunny throughout the day.

Trailhead: 1015; Summit; 1500; back at car: 1900. (8.75 hours.)

Much Melting in March. 

I really like Owl’s Head. Sometimes, as happened this time, the “wow, that was fun” shows up a day or three later. It’s a sublime experience. Painful at times, but what draws me back is how this mountain gently reveals its treasures on its own time. It’s not like standing on its neighbors, where you get fantastic views everywhere. I mean, if you miss the attraction of Lafayette on a cloudless day, most would say you did something wrong. Owl’s Head makes you look elsewhere for the “wow.” But when you find it, you’ve truly found something enduring. To say this mountain is the worst of the 48, the hardest, or something of that nature is to entirely miss the point.

Wintertime has its own magic. That is to say, if you’re outside, the weather is reasonable, and things otherwise going well, it’s hard not to have fun just at that. I found this out a couple years ago hiking nearly flat stuff like the Sawyer River and the Greeley Ponds trails. Cooley Hill was another good one. You don’t need a high peak with endless views. Owl’s Head is an object lesson in that very truth.

Logging

That said, although I was having a good time the other day, I know Owl’s Head in the warmer months too, when the trail itself can shine in ways that many others don’t. One of the big “wow” factors is the remains of JE Henry’s railways, which are in places you’d never expect. The history of the Whites is as influential to me as the mountains themselves. In the wintertime, you’re robbed of much of that… you have to look a lot harder for what little evidence you get. 

And yet, there’s still the knowing that logging was more a wintertime pursuit. It was easier going dragging gigantic sledges around across ice and snow, rather than dirt and rocks. So all the same, there was no shortage of wandering down the trail, thinking about that little fact, that makes you wonder a little more while you wander. 

Pacem

I hadn’t been out here in awhile, so the day was a glad reunion. I’m still trying to figure out why (and I suspect the answers will remain happily elusive) but there’s a strong sense of belonging for me when I tread on the Lincoln Brook Trail, even when I don’t achieve a summit. It’s weird, because on one level, I know that especially in the summertime, the crowds on Franconia Ridge are hardly more than a mile away as the crow flies. And yet, in terms of boots on the ground, the two points might as well be across the planet from each other. There’s a special quietude there for me. 

The differences between hiking in March and my last winter hike in February were striking. You can’t ever count on the weather, especially these days. I enjoyed conditions that were more suited for about four weeks from now, and that meant while I could dress much lighter (indeed, I didn’t wear gloves all day!) at the same time, the snow was very soft “mashed potatoes” underfoot in most places. The snow and ice crust was strong enough to support my weight, but even still, I postholed just enough here and there (and with absolutely no rhyme nor reason) for it to be annoying. And hiking down, more than a couple times, I found myself “skiing” unexpectedly in my snowshoes. But hey, the mountains are a package deal.

Important Note: While doing the bushwhacks allows one to skip several of the water crossings, there were still enough, and it’s not clear their snow bridges that I enjoyed will survive even two weeks more. (In fact, one that I’d used on the way up had outright melted away by the time I came back.) Trampers planning to do this hike should take extra care around any water crossing. As of this writing, melting is occurring at a fast pace, and many of the brooks are churning furiously and surprisingly deeply. Falling in can quickly become deadly. Use caution and keep a low threshold for turning back. The mountains will still be waiting for you when conditions are more favorable. 

So how’s the mountain itself?

One thing that stood out was the Brutus Bushwhack. The ‘whack was harder to follow in a few places, and in some, the presence of thick blue ice made progress up and down treacherous. It’s supposed to be an alternative to the fall-line herd path, but that trail is still crazy steep in many places. Just starting out, I gained 500 feet in the first half hour or so, and that’s one of the easier bits. Did I mention that it’s important to be open to the sublime in this hike? Don’t judge the mountain by a few feet of hardship. Give it room. Trust me on this.

The summit stands out for the fact that you get to the “top” of the mountain, and yet you still have to hike a significant portion on essentially flat terrain. There was no shortage of anticipation, and frankly, “I’d like to be done.” But in the spirit of Jack Kennedy, I once observed to a NHPR reporter that “we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” It wasn’t that long before the footprints I followed coalesced in a small clearing. Huzzah! 

I got back to the car thrilled to have re-connected with this special place. It had been a very long day, with many miles. Standing on Owl’s Head isn’t just an accomplishment on par with hiking any of the others on the four thousand footer list. Rather nicely, on my hike, I saw no signs of fresh tracks, barring my own on the way out. I had the whole mountain to myself, not meeting a single soul once I got off the Lincoln Woods trail. It was a day to myself, and I’m more than fine with that.

As always, stay safe out there.

Nuts and Bolts: Head to the Lincoln Woods trailhead. From points south, take 93 north to exit 32, and drive about five miles out of town. Once you cross the bridge over the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River, turn left into the parking area. The trailhead is over by the ranger station. I like the AMC’s map #2 for that area. 

Safety: It’s a long hike, so bring extras of everything, budget a lot of time, and expect little things to add up. A little extra time at this water crossing will mean a little extra time at the next one (it’s all the same water coming down). Tiny things add up to make you more tired than you’d expect. Be prepared to attenuate your trip, and don’t forget, as far in as you might get is as far out that you’ll have to hike to get back to the trailhead. Budget time and energy appropriately. 

There are no shortcuts to this hike, meaning even rescuers will have to come in to fetch you via “the long way.” One of the lack of shortcuts? Apart from the Black Pond Trail, there aren’t any blazes, and once off Lincoln Woods trail, there aren’t any signs. One might follow footsteps in the snow, but are you sure those footprints are heading in the right direction? Don’t be bold. Be smart.

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