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Mount Clay and the Great Gulf

The Great Gulf
The Great Gulf

June is the best time to climb the peaks in the Northern and Southern Presidential Ranges in the Whites. The days are long, providing ample daylight for big climbs and long routes, and sunny days are simply glorious. Some of my most memorable day hikes and backpacking trips have been in these mountains in June.

With good weather forecast last weekend, I headed above treeline and climbed Mount Washington’s northern shoulder, a peak named Mount Clay (5531′). Clay forms the western headwall of the Great Gulf, the deep horseshoe valley separating Mount Washington from Mounts Jefferson, Adams, and Madison in the North Presidentials.

Clay has been on top of my bucket list for some time, but I’ve had to abort hiking it a few times due to high winds or bad weather. It’s also on the Trailwright’s 72 peakbagging list, which I’m trying to make some headway on this year. One of the great things about the Trailwright’s list, besides being a real challenge to complete, is that it encourages you to climb trails that you’ve never been on before. The list only lets you count one peak per hike meaning you have to take 72 hikes to bag all of the peaks!

Mt Clay via The Jewell Trail
Mt Clay via The Jewell Trail

I’ve always wanted to climb Clay via the Jewell Trail which ascends Mount Washington’s west face, above the Jewell Spur Trail which I maintain as a trail adopter for the US Forest Service. It’s a moderately difficult climb with about 3,300′ of elevation gain, but I flew up it on Saturday, despite carrying extra water for the day (turns out there is spring on the western half of the Clay Loop trail, but I didn’t know that beforehand.)

The trail up Jewell is well graded but starts to get steep when you hit treeline. Looking back whence I came was an awesome site and reminded me of the similar looking Hunt Trail up to Mt Katahdin which I hiked it last summer and will be climbing it again in a few months with my friend Martin Rye from the Summit and Valley blog.

June and Steve lopping branches on the Jewell Trail
June and Steve lopping branches on the Jewell Trail

Of the different routes up to Mt Washington, the Jewell Trail is not really climbed that often compared to Lion Head or the Amonoosuc Ravine Trail because it is so unsheltered from the westerly wind and lands you in the middle of “nowhere”, aways distant from the summits of Mount Washington or Jefferson. That didn’t bother me though; I’m out to hike every route up these peaks. There is so much variety that I want to see it all!

Near treeline, I passed the J & J Trail crew which maintains the Jewell Trail, only to discover that John Gutowski is the forest service maintainer for this section. I met John almost a year ago to the day, on another glorious June hike and overnight on the Castle Trail on Mount Jefferson. He and his wife June, together with friends Mike and Steve were clearing water bars and cutting back the krumholz above treeline as part of their normal maintenance activities. This is hard work this high up, but they were doing an admirable job.

Despite hiking solo, I met still more people along my route including my friend Larry Takiff, who was out doing a one-day Presidential Traverse, and friend and Section Hiker reader Michelle Lawson. It’s a very small world above treeline.

Northern Clay
Northern Clay

Mount Clay has two summits, both on the eastern side of the Clay Loop Trail. No one really know which one is the higher of the two, so it’s customary to climb both! The actual climb up the tops themselves is a just minor scramble and I savored it, meandering between the peaks and looking deep into the Great Gulf and Spaulding Lake which is situated at the eastern base of Clay, about 1000 feet below the summits. There are still patches of snow on the east side of Clay, even this late into June.

After climbing the Northern Clay summit, I descended to the Sphinx Col trailhead at the base of Mount Jefferson. The wind really picked up and was gusting up to 40 mph, making boulder hopping a little unsteady at times. I have no idea how people walk up here without poles: I find them indispensable for balance.

Heading toward Sphinx Col and Mount Jefferson
Heading toward Sphinx Col and Mount Jefferson

I tucked out of the wind at the Sphinx Trailhead and had a spot of lunch before looping around the north eastern side of Clay and heading back down the Jewell Trail. The J & J crew had already departed and I didn’t see anyone else all the way back down the mountain.

Brilliant hike. If the weather cooperates, Mount Clay is an excellent destination and well worth the wait for a fine June day above treeline.

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  1. Nice looking mountains!

  2. Looks like you had a beautiful weekend for hiking! This weekend we were in the upper 80’s so it made for a toasty hike. Not to mention way too many biting flies (it is the midwest after all!) but that’s what makes it more challenging. Trying to tolerate the bugs. Deciding between short sleeves / shorts to stay cool, or sweat more but be protected from the bugs with long sleeves and pants. How are bugs up in the mountains by you this time of year as it becomes more wet and warm?

    • lovely pictures by the way. I always enjoy the scenery from your trip reports.

    • The bugs are definitely out. Black flies to be exact. I was up again in NH today for another above treeline hike and they were all over me because there wasn’t much wind. The first half of June is always bad. I always wear long pants and a long sleeve shirt when the bugs are out. It’s worth the sweat!

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