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Crossing the East Branch Pemigewasset River

Mt Carrigan overlooking the East Branch Pemigewasset River
Mt Carrigan overlooking the East Branch Pemigewasset River

The East Branch Pemigewasset River (the Pemi) is the huge wild river that runs through the heart of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. I spent two days this weekend hiking its length starting at Lincoln Woods all the way up to its headwaters at Stillwater Junction searching for potential places to ford the river. There aren’t any until way upstream near Carrigan Notch, where the river is a fraction of its downstream size.

I concluded that the only safe crossing from the north side near the Bondcliff Trail to the south side is over the Thoreau Falls Trail Footbridge, which can only be reached with a bushwhack and two mid-size stream crossings. I half expected this, but I wanted to see it firsthand because many of the maps of the area that I own or have access to have out-of-date trail and bridge crossing data. This is a region of the White Mountain Trail System that I haven’t hiked much, so I wanted to make sure that some key assumptions in my White Mountain Challenge Route Plan were indeed valid, or even salvageable.

East Branch Pemigewasset River Footbridge
East Branch Pemigewasset River Footbridge on the Thoreau Falls Tr

My goal is to cross the Pemi from a point near where the Bondcliff Trail meets the river’s north side to the beginning of the Cedar Brook Trail, which is almost directly across the Pemi on the south bank. If you stick to the existing trail system, this requires a long 9.9 mile walk down the Pemi to the suspension bridge at Lincoln Woods and then back up the south side along the East Side Trail. That’s almost 2/3 of a full day on my estimated White Mountain Challenge pace, so a significant chunk of time and distance.

An alternative is to bushwhack about to the Thoreau Trail footbridge which I scouted this weekend. The length of this detour is about 3.5 miles with about 1 mile of easy-to-moderate bushwhacking. A comparison of the two routes is  shown below with the shorter bushwhack route in blue and the long Lincoln Woods bridge detour in purple. I wouldn’t recommend taking my bushwhack route unless you have previous off-trail hiking experience, wear protective clothing, and understand how to safely ford streams. 

Route Comparison
Route Comparison

There was a time when crossing from the north to the south bank of the Pemi near the Bondcliff Trail was easy. But several years ago, the Forest Service dismantled the two bridges which enabled a crossing here. Unfortunately, both removed bridges are still shown on the many White Mountain maps, including Caltopo, which is why the Forest Services has signs posted warning people about the closures at almost every trailhead in the White Mountains.

Bridge Removals
Bridge Removals

In addition to closing the bridges, the Forest Service ceased to maintain the trail which leads to them. But the trail is still passable, beginning at the point where the Bondcliff Trail turns sharply left away form the river and starts climbing north up to Bondcliff Mountain.

Trail Closure east of the Bondcliff Trail Junction
Trail Closure east of the Bondcliff Trail Junction

The first removed bridge crossed Black Brook, which is one of the feeder streams along the Pemi’s length. I suspect this bridge was part of a lumber railroad because the stream is crossable on foot with a little scouting as long as you don’t mind wet feet.

Decomissioned Black Brook Bridge and Stream
Decommissioned Black Brook Bridge and Stream
Beware of the missing bridge surface
Beware of the missing bridge surface

After you cross Black Brook, the old un-maintained trail continues east,

Closed Trail east of Black Brook Bridge
Closed Trail east of Black Brook Bridge

until you come to the old suspension bridge abutments and anchors. The Wilderness Trail and Cedar Trail junction are just across the river.

Site of the old suspension Bridge across the Pemi
Site of the old suspension Bridge across the Pemi
Old suspension bridge anchor
Old suspension bridge anchor

Continuing east past the site of the old suspension bridge foundations, my bushwhack turned into a proper off-trail excursion. After bashing my way along what looked like an old road for 100 yards or so, I dropped down to the north bank of the Pemi where the walking was more open. This is prime moose habitat with willow shoots sprouting up along the water’s edge.

North Fork Bushwhack and Stream Crossing
North Fork Bushwhack and Stream Crossing – Solid Blue line is Off Maintained Trails or Bushwhacking. Dotted Line is maintained footbridge and trail

I continued to scout for a water crossing across the Pemi, venturing out on the gravel bars alongside the river’s edge and fording over to islands in the river, but to no avail. I was looking for places where the river flattened out in between elevation drops and where the watercourse was broken up by islands or gravels bars that would reduce the flow into shallower, more manageable crossings. No such luck: this section of the Pemi is just too wide and dangerous to cross. I’m in awe of this river. I had no idea how big and mighty it is.

Walking along a gravel bar on the Pemi
Walking along a gravel bar on the Pemi
Easy bushwhacking along the river bank
Easy bushwhacking along the river bank

When I realized that there was no way to ford the Pemi itself, I decided to scout out North Fork, another mile or so east, one of the large streams that feeds the Pemi and drains the Bonds/Zealand watershed. A lot of the water that flows down the North Fork flows over famous Thoreau Falls, five miles north.

Confluence of the Noth Fork and Upper East Branch Pemigewasset
Confluence of the North Fork and Upper East Branch Pemigewasset

I bushwhacked up the west side of the North Fork, again using the gravel bars as a route of least resistance.

Scouting the North Fork
Scouting the North Fork

Until I found a crossing a few hundred yards upstream where the stream widens out and is shallow enough to ford safely.

Site of a Knee Deep Ford across North Fork
Site of a Knee-deep Ford across North Fork

The crossing was knee-deep in moderate current and the water was ice-cold. From here, it was a short, easy bushwhack through moderately open woods to the Thoreau Trail, which leads to the last remaining footbridge across the Pemi.

Bushwhacking to Thoreau Falls Trail
Bushwhacking from North Fork to the Thoreau Falls Trail
Saw cut on the Thoreau Falls Trail
Saw cut on the Thoreau Falls Trail

I knew I’d found the Thoreau Falls Trail when I saw saw-cut logs along the trail and a discernible treadway. From here it was a short distance back to the river and the last standing, but obviously rickety, bridge across a narrow section of the Pemi.

Thoreau Falls Tr Footbridge across East Branch Pemigewasset River (2014)
Thoreau Falls Tr Footbridge across East Branch Pemigewasset River (2014)

Rather, than looping back to the Cedar Falls trail junction which is part of my White Mountain Challenge route, I continued east along the Wilderness Trail toward Carrigan Notch to scout a second water crossing at Stillwater Junction. That was the start of the second half of this backpacking trip, which I’ll continue in a subsequent post.

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16 comments

  1. Very cool scouting expedition. I’m really impressed with all the research your dong prior to the White MT challenge. Better to do the leg work now, than find out 50 miles into the trip there is no place to cross the river.

    My buddies and I did a winter camping trip along the Pemi at Hancock campground. It’s really a magnificent river.

    • It was also great excuse to combine training and scouting trips. On this hike, I carried a bag of charcoal to bring up my gear weight! I must be crazy.

      Seriously, I was really impressed by the wildness of this area, especially further east along the Pemi. I had no idea that you could feel this far from civilization in the middle of the White Mountains. I’ll be back.

  2. Great write up and pics. Just curious, do you carry shoes for fording?

  3. That last picture is … um … interesting. Is the FS planning on letting the Thoreau Falls bridge deteriorate to the point where is comes down, and then not replace it?

    Also, do you know of any existing pictures of the old suspension bridge. That’s a neat little bit of history :)

  4. Philip, I got a lot out of reading your scouting report — detailed planning issues in preparing for a long distance wilderness journey and for the hazards of wild river crossings. I wonder if the state has coordinated with AMC or the regional Boy Scouts for bridge building programs in the area. What motivated the original bridge crossings at those junctions and why would the state abandon the continuing services?
    Thank you for a great read and many considerations for my own wilderness hiking in the Adirondacks, where there are also challenging wild river crossings.

    • Dan, it’s a US national forest administered by the dept of agriculture unlike the Adirondacks which is state maintained. The reason for the removal was based on lack of funding and to reduce overuse impacts. Though controversial, it is working.

      • I thought the bridge removal had to do with the fact that they were in designated wilderness areas. Am I wrong about that?

      • Same thing really. They’re trying to return the area to a low use (less impacted) wilderness state. This is standard Forest Service doctrine. As these structures age (shelters, bridges), they’re simply not replacing them.

  5. Hey Liz – thanks for posting that link. It was neat to see the progress … or would that be regress :)

    I think a trip into that area is in my future, Philip. I am looking forward to summer conditions when I find that I have the leisure (and the comfort-zone) for just wandering about, rather than staying on-trail and peak-focused. As always, you are an inspiration!

  6. As one who has done that too-dangerous Pemi crossing a couple of times, I can testify: it’s Too Dangerous! The first time was poor judgement; the second was stupidity. I won’t push my luck a third time.

    • I wondered if anyone had done it. I used to by a class 4 Whitewater kayaker and that river is a beast. I wouldn’t want to run it above the Lincoln Woods suspension bridge let along try crossing it on foot. Wicked rapids and current. Foot entrapment is a real possibility.

  7. I remember the railroad trestle you you have pictures of, and I suspect I have pictures of it too in my slide file. It was in much better condition in 1966 or so, and I think maybe the rails were still there. Am I correct in thinking that this old bridge is the subject of some major discussion as on one hand it is a historic relic which by law cannot be removed, and on the other hand is a non-native thing in a wilderness area which MUST be removed. My guess is it will stay as it’s too expensive to do anything else about it. And in my mind it is a bit of history which should stay put for those energetic enough to pass that way.

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