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Bushwhacking Big Bickford and Scarface Mountains

Big Bickford Mountain Canister, 8-16-2013
Big Bickford Mountain Canister, 8-16-2013

I took off work on Friday and drove up to Franconia Notch in the White Mountains to bushwhack Big Bickford Mountain, a trail-less 3,000 footer that’s near the Eagle Cliff bushwhack I did in June. The weather forecast was for cool but sunny weather and I reckoned that a moderate bushwhack would do me good.

Hike Planning

There isn’t much information online about what to expect on this hike except a handful of old trip reports from a couple of hikers whose web sites I already frequent for bushwhacking beta.  That’s the allure of bushwhacking: given the lack of route information, you need to do a lot more of your own navigational planning up front and you can break out of the mold and take whatever route you fancy.

Based on their accounts, this was looking to be a fairly easy whack through mostly open woods with a possible extension to nearby Scarface Mountain. I’m picking off many of the eastern White Mountain 3,000 footers as solo bushwhacks, because I feel confident about doing them alone, and because I want to keep my off-trail navigation skills from getting rusty. It’s not so much the compass skills, but the more subtle terrain and foliage reading skills that I want to refine  for harder bushwhacks when I need to pick the most energy-efficient and least “painful” route through dense brush. That takes practice, practice, practice.

Possible Big Bickford Mountain Bushwhack Routes
Two Possible Bushwhack Routes to Big Bickford Mountain

Routewise – there seemed to be two possible ways to approach the summit along the Skookumchuck Trail. The northernmost route branches off Jordan Brook and heads east for about a mile following the contour to the summit.  A much shorter bushwhack would stay on the Skookumchuck Trail longer and head northeast at the closest point to the summit.

Considering both approaches, I liked the first one better, because there was a better chance I’d find the summit of the mountain on the first go. I’d be coming up close to the col between Big Bickford and Scarface Mountain, so if I saw sloping terrain to the north, it would indicate that I was between the two peaks. While shorter, the second approach might lead me to Big Bickford’s false summit which is a bit south of the main peak on a summit plateau. There’s also no telling the forest there would be like and whether it would full of blow down debris, that would make the walk to the real peak more difficult.

Based on my experience at nearby Eagle Cliff, I had a feeling that the woods below the summit would be fairly open on the west side of the peak regardless of the route taken. The grade is not very steep and there’d probably be room to maneuver around most obstacles.

Coming around from the rear eastern side of Big Bickford didn’t seem like a good option: too steep and probably full of blow downs, similar to what I’d found at Eagle Cliff.

I decided to have a look at the northernmost approach first and see how open the walking was. You can’t predict what you’ll find on a bushwhack, so it’s best to plan a few options.

Skookumchuck Trailhead
Skookumchuck Trailhead

The Bushwhack

I started the bushwhack at 9:00 am and headed up the Skookumchuck Trail from its Rt 3 trail head. The Skookumchuck Trail is an interesting way up to Mt Lafayette. It comes up the more-isolated, northern shoulder of Lafayette and bypasses the crowds at the Greenleaf Hut. Skookumchuck means “strong water” or “rapids” in some Native American dialects and probably refers to Skookumchuck Brook higher up the trail.

Freshly Painted Blue Blazes (Appalachian Trail)
Freshly Painted Blue Blazes (Appalachian Trail)

I passed freshly painted blue blazes on the trees. The Skookumchuck is a feeder trail to the Appalachian Trail which runs higher up along the Franconia Ridge and Garfield Ridge Trails.

Open Forest
Open Forest

It was very easy walking with open forest and while I could still hear the traffic noise off Interstate 93, it gradually diminished as I got father down the trail.

Jordan Brook
Jordan Brook

I soon came to Jordan Brook, which is where I wanted to enter the woods. I crossed it and started climbing uphill before recrossing the stream higher up because the going seemed easier. I continued uphill, periodically out of site of the stream but still within earshot, crossing back and forth over it periodically so I could follow it and maintain a reference bearing or hand-rail.

Logging Remnant
Logging Remnant

I passed this makeshift table, which I assumed is a logging remnant. There was plenty of evidence of logging and old logging roads or drags through the woods as I climbed. While you won’t see recent cuts on this side of Franconia Notch, if you hike around the northern side of Scarface and Little Bickford Mountains, there are many clear-cut zones in the forest canopy, (now grown over with brambles and hobble) where logging probably occurred in the past 10 years. You can see the logged clearings on Google satellite imagery for the area.

Western Flank of Big Bickford near Jordan Brook
Western Flank of Big Bickford near Jordan Brook

I kept heading uphill walking through open forest until I saw the terrain start to slope up steeply to Big Bickford Mountain.

Big Bickford and Scarface Mountains - Actual Route
Big Bickford and Scarface Mountains – Actual Route

I left the stream, which had started to curve more to Scarface Mountain than I expected. I’d crossed a few old dry streambeds on my climb already and reckoned that Jordan Brook could have changed course many times since my maps were first created. Many of the common maps used by hikers for the White Mountains aren’t based on up-to-date information, but can be up to 65 years out of date (or more.)

Steepening Grade up Big Bickford
Increased Slope  up Big Bickford

The increased slope confirmed my suspicions, so I left the stream and started climbing.

Understory Change to Dried Leaves As I neared the Summit
Understory Change to Dried Leaves As I neared the Summit

The understory changed dramatically as I neared the summit, changing from fern and hobble to dried leaves. I could start to see blue ski over the trees, so I knew I was getting close. The next challenge was finding the summit canister, which I guessed was on the northern end of the summit. Amazingly, I walked right up to it, passing through berry bushes in a fairly open summit area (top photo). The last person to sign in at the register had been there on 7-16-13, exactly a month before me.

From Big Bickford,  I took a compass bearing to Scarface, and headed northwest. The trees were pretty thick on the descent and I angled a little more west than I’d realized, nearly missing the col between the two peaks. Then I overcompensated and headed too far east by following what looked like an obvious herd path, but was probably a moose trail. There was a lot of fresh moose scat around. I realized my mistake when I popped out into a large clearing full of berry bushes, which on hindsight, was probably the site of an old lumber harvest.

Scarface Mountain Logbook
Scarface Mountain Logbook

I backtracked a ways and then headed south until the contour began to rise and I knew I was climbing Scarface. Finding the canister was easy and I signed it. The last person to climb the peak before me had been there on 6-13-13, nearly two months earlier.

From Scarface, I headed to Little Bickford Mountain (Bickford Mountain on the map), which Steve Smith suggested I climb since I’d be in the vicinity. It looked easy on paper. Hah!

West Side of Scarface Mountain
West Side of Scarface Mountain

The western descent off Scarface was very steep and gnarly. After trying to poke a hole in it and getting battered for my effort, I walked around it by heading south and then angling back north to compensate for the detour. It was still a slog down until the woods opened up at a lower elevation. Unfortunately, I’d lost my compass higher up when I was wrestling with that old spruce. It must have gotten torn off the lanyard around my neck. Bummer!

Cannon Mountain from Scarface
Cannon Mountain from Scarface

I didn’t have a backup compass, but I did have two electronic navigation aids, a smartphone and a GPS that I’ve been carrying around to test since June. Neither are as good as a compass for following a bearing, especially since I hadn’t programmed the route in advance. But, I could see Mt Cannon through the trees, hear the traffic from the Interstate highway below me, and knew where west was (by the setting sun), so I wasn’t that concerned.

But I gave up on Little Bickford  and concentrated on getting back to my car. In doing so, I took a long detour to the north of Little Bickford, before running into a wide snowmobile trail, which I guessed was the Heritage Trail. I followed it for 10 minutes back to my car.

The Heritage Trail
The Heritage Trail

The round trip time on this hike was a leisurely 6:30. Picking off these 3,000 footers is quite a lot of fun and I hope to visit a few more in the area before winter arrives. Next time, I’ll have a spare compass with me.

Recommended Guidebooks and Maps:

3 comments

  1. First of all, many thanks for including a link to my Blog report about bushwhacking in this vicinity. And secondly, I very much enjoyed your report about your adventure in this same area. As always, your account was well-written and contained just enough details and photos to be interesting and informative.

    John

    • John – I read your blog often for beta and because you seem to enjoy the history and beauty of these places as much as I do! I often feel like a time traveler when I step off a trail and head off into the unknown. At this stage, I’m really just trying to develop my own style for documenting these bushwhack hikes, based largely on your example, and Steve’s trip reports at Mountain Wandering.

  2. I was on Scarface this morning, and when I signed the register in the jar, the previous entry was from July, and mentioned that the canister bandit had hit Big Bickford. It was a short day, so I didn’t get over there myself.

    And yes, the moose trails on and around Scarface are pretty incredible.

    This weekend I did determine why nobody seems to approach Big Bickford from the North – basically the entire area east of Scarface Brook has been logged at one point or another in the past couple of decades. Ouch.

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