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Mt Washington and the Great Gulf Trail

The Great Gulf

The Great Gulf

The Great Gulf is a glacial cirque on the northern face of Mt Washington surrounded on three sides by Mt Clay, Mt Jefferson, Mt Adams, and Mt Madison. Drained by the West Peabody River, it is a wild place, but surprisingly accessible to those who venture a few miles up the Great Gulf Trail which runs up the middle of the valley. It is also home to some of the steepest trails in the White Mountains such as the Sphinx and The Six Husbands which climb from the base of the valley to the Gulfside Trail, the main ‘highway’ that connects all of the Northern Presidentials in one circuit route.

When hiked to its terminus, the Great Gulf Trail climbs from Spaudling Lake, a tiny pond at the head of the valley, up the headwall of Mt Washington, ending 0.4 miles from the summit, a bit before the raised tracks of the Cog Railroad. In that distance, it climbs roughly 1600 ft in 0.8 miles through a waterfall and over boulders and rocks loosened by avalanche activity. From a distance, the climb looks far steeper than it really is.

Spaulding Lake

Spaulding Lake

I climbed the headwall on Saturday morning, after hiking up to the Great Gulf + Sphinx Trail Junction on Friday afternoon and camping out to get an early start. When I awoke the next morning, the sun had turned the top of Washington and neighboring Mt Clay a firey red and the sky was clear. But, by the time I broke camp at 6:30 am, mist had filled the head of the valley and a light rain was falling. Rather than commit to a climb in bad weather – the forecast for later in the day was for rain after 2pm and high winds all weekend – I decided to hike up to Spaulding Lake and have a look at the base of the climb.

That’s when the mist cleared and I decided to go for it. There was no telling how long the sky would remain clear, so I pulled out my map of the Presidential Range and took a bearing of the route up. That bearing would prove very useful later.

Cliffs of Mt Clay

Cliffs of Mt Clay

At first, the climb was an easy boulder scramble. Some of the rocks were painted with a yellow blaze, but it was very intermittent. As I climbed higher a waterfall ran down the middle of the trail, and I had to cross back and forth numerous times. With the recent rain and the stream water, the footing was quite slick, still good footwork and a slow steady pace kept me moving up.

The Mist Rolls In

The Mist Rolls In

After I’d cleared the last of the cascades, I could hear the water flowing under the trail or what I assumed was the trail because the blazes petered out and there were no cairns. That’s when a big rock that I’d climbed onto slipped underneath me and I fell, tearing my pants and ripping up my knee a bit. The mountain bit me.

It wasn’t a bad fall, but I realized that I was climbing up a very dynamic rockfall that was moving around me as I climbed. I was at about 5,000 feet and headed left to get onto more stable ground. That’s when the mist blew over the headwall blinding me to the route forward and covering the adjacent cliffs of Mt Clay. Funny, I remember the horrible odor of the Cog Railroad exhaust wafting down the headwall to me in the fog.

Mt Washington Headwall

Mt Washington Headwall

I had a choice whether to try to climb down through the waterfalls or continue going up. It wasn’t much of a choice really. I had to go up. I was committed.

I had a bearing, so the question wasn’t whether I was in the right place or not, but where I’m come up over the headwall lip. I kept drifting left to get better footing and to climb around some large rock outcroppings in my path, but after a while I started angling right again while scanning up through the mist looking for cairns. There weren’t any. I’ve since heard they’ve all been swept away by avalanches.

At the Top of the Great Gulf Trail

At the Top of the Great Gulf Trail

As I angled right, I thought I could pick up the traces of mineral soil between rocks, which is usually a good sign of a trail, but none of them panned out. Then I saw a yellow blaze and knew I was on the right track. Soon after I saw what was obviously a sign ahead through the mist, and came over the headwall at the exact right spot, where the Great Gulf Trail terminates. Spot on. The summit of Mt Washington was a short distance away.

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12 Responses to Mt Washington and the Great Gulf Trail

  1. znara August 5, 2013 at 8:59 am #

    I did the Great Gulf Trail when I was a kid with my parents and remember, still to this day, its wild beauty! Fantastic photos!

    • Philip Werner August 5, 2013 at 9:46 am #

      Longer trip report to come – this climb was the beginning of two days of mostly whiteout conditions with occassional views. Had great weather the 1st day though hiking up to the base of the cliff – have to come back here for the incredible swimming holes and wildness. A true rain forest.

  2. Liz August 5, 2013 at 10:45 am #

    Nice. I am hoping to do this same trip sometime later this year. Are there decent campsites near the junction of the Sphinx trail?

    • Philip Werner August 5, 2013 at 11:26 am #

      Depends what you call decent.

      There are nice designated sites along the Great Gulf trail with good water, many with bear boxes that the forest service has set up. There are also less nice (in fact disgusting and heart-wrenching) non-designated sites higher up that are heavily “impacted” that are not 200′ from the trail. It’s a moral decision whether you camp at these or not. That said, I’m not going to tell you where they are because I want to discourage their use, but it’s pretty obvious if you walk up the trail and know where to look.

      • Liz August 5, 2013 at 11:32 am #

        Thanks. I plan to leave no trace. And build no fires. So sad when people wreck it for the rest of us.

        • Philip Werner August 5, 2013 at 11:34 am #

          Thanks for understanding. I know you.

          • Grandpa August 5, 2013 at 1:06 pm #

            When coming down the Bridle Path from Greenleaf Hut a month ago, just below treeline I saw some spots not five feet from the trail that had been used to camp. If you’ve already walked that far, another two hundred feet isn’t going to kill you. Another pet peeve is empty water bottles left on the trail. If someone can carry a full one a few miles back, they certainly can take a light empty out. I always come out of the backcountry with a bunch of other people’s trash.

          • Jason August 5, 2013 at 2:59 pm #

            Empty water bottles are something I really don’t understand. I section hiked the AT through New Jersey a few weeks ago and picked up several dozen of them along the way.

            So, back to the subject, if someone were to attempt a first climb up Mt Washington, which is the best (easiest/safest) route?

          • Philip Werner August 5, 2013 at 3:07 pm #

            I think the Jewell Trail is the easiest and it’s not crowded. You start at the Cog Railroad base station. Beautiful Trail – I used to maintain a section of it. The most popular route starts at Pinkham Notch up the Tuckerman Ravine Tr and the Lion Head Trail.

  3. Craig August 6, 2013 at 3:49 am #

    Hiked the Great Gulf trail three years ago in september. Very nice. Correct just like a rain forest !

  4. Liz September 30, 2013 at 10:49 am #

    We had an amazing trip this weekend! So glad to have read your report and know that looking for cairns on the headwall would be an exercise in futility. Amazing to see how much has changed in the two months since you posted this – many more colors on the slopes now, though I would say not peak foliage yet.

    • Philip Werner September 30, 2013 at 11:13 am #

      Glad it helped. Amazing weather this weekend. Did you see me waving at you from Imp face?

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