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AT Section Hike: Mt Garfield to Gale River Trail

Stealth Camp on Garfield Trail - White Mountains

I took Friday off from work this week and headed up to the Whites for some backpacking. It's been a few months since I had a chance to sleep outdoors and I was looking forward to tryng out some new gear in the late Autumn weather. My objective for the weekend was to bag Mt. Garfield (4,500 ft) and hike a few more miles of the Appalachian Trail.

As usual, I did a careful job preparing for this hike, studying my maps and guides and carefully forecasting the weather. Proper preparation is important up here, especially this late in the season, since we only have 11 hours of daylight. This really puts a hard limit on the number of miles you can do a day, even if you break camp at dawn and eat dinner after dark.

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I arrived at the trailhead just as the sun was rising on Friday morning, around 7 AM. I live 130 miles to the south, so this required a drive up before dawn, but I've been doing it for a few months, so I'm used to it. There was one other car in the parking lot, with a VFTT bumpersticker in the window and a portable refrigerator in the back seat. VFTT stands for Views From The Top, an online bulletin board pupular with very serious New England hikers and climbers, and one of my main sources for on the ground weather updates.

I packed up and got onto the trail by about 7:20 am. The summit of Mt Garfield is 5.0 miles from the trailhead with an elevation gain of about 700 meters. The trail starts out pretty easy and gets progressively harder as you approach the summit. The day started out sunny and I hiked the first 4.8 miles in almost 3 hours with a 25 lb pack. It was about 40 degrees outside, but I stripped down to a Techwick short sleeve shirt because I was sweating so much. At about 3,000 feet, heavy cloud rolled in smothering the mountain and I was forced to bundle up in my goretex jacket, hat and gloves. Visibility from there on out was awful for the rest of the day. So much for the sunny day that had been forecasted.

Two tenths of a mile below the summit, the Garfield Mountain trail intersects with the Appalachian Trail. At the trail junction, I turned left (north) onto the AT, to check out the Garfield Mountain campsite. To get to the campsite and a nice spring, you have to climb down a steep rocky slope, and then back up another to get to the campsite which is perched on the side of the mountain just below treeline. I'm sure the views are nice but visibility was about 25 yards when I got there.

Foot of the Garfield Mountain Trail

I explored the campsite area which is quite large and has a lean-to, a composting privy, and 7 large tent platforms. There wasn't a soul up there. The weather forecast called for 50 mile per hour winds that evening, and I decided that I really didn't want to spend it here, so I kept going and hoped to find a better stealth site with water on the trail. On the way up Garfield, I had seen some excellent sites at water crossings and figured they would be nice if I decided to come back down to a lower elevation for the night.

From the campsite, I continued north on the AT for another 2.1 miles until the junction with the Gale River Trail. Before I set out, I did not have any idea about how hard this section would be. It looked like a pretty flat section on my topographic map.

My first surprise was the waterfall. This is an 80 foot cascade that you need to climb down. There are lot of handholds and footholds but it is not for the faint of heart. The rock is very wet, water is cascading down right next to you, and the cloud was so thick I couldn't see the bottom. I can assure you, I was not thinking about the office!

From there, the trail was surprisingly difficult and slippery. I had to do a lot of scrambling and it took me a full 2 hours to do the 2 miles. When I made it to the junction with the Gale River Trail, I took a 10 minute break and turned around and walked back the way I came! But climbing the waterfall was a lot easier than descending it.

I filled up my water bladder at the spring at the head of the Garfield Campsite trail spur and noticed that my platypus bladder was leaking badly. I was purifiying my water with an inline Aquaguard Eliminator, which was working quite nicely, but the inside of my pack was soaking wet. Luckily I use a plastic bag as a pack liner, which kept my gear dry. I also had a spare bladder along with me, intended for storing gravity filtered water in camp, that I was able to use as a replacement bladder. That's the first time in a long time that a platy has died on me.

I had a quick snack at the spring, and then hiked back up to the Garfield Mountain Trail Junction. At the junction, I turned left (west) and continued up the the Garfield summit. It's hard to explain without a map, but the AT follows the trail here over the mountain, down, and then up to Mt Lafayette and the Franconia Ridge Trail, which I had climbed over the summer.

I encountered some ice on the short section to the summit, but didn't put on any additional traction although I had brought a pair of microspikes with me. When I got to the top, visibility was down to 10-20 yards and the winds were whipping. I zipped up in a hurry and got back down below treeline to warm up.

South Branch atthe foot of Mt. Garfield

Despite the absence of a view, I was still very happy to make this ascent. It's my 30th peak on the White Mountain 4,000 footer list and the last of the high peaks on the New Hampshire Appalachian Trail. I'll still be back again for better views since I need to still fill in the 2.7 mile gap from Skookumchuck Trail to Mt Garfield before I completely finish the section between Franconia Notch and Crawford Notch. While filling in these little sections is maddening, it gives me a great excuse to drive up to the Whites week after week.

By now it was about 3:15 pm and I needed to start thinking about a campsite with darkness approaching. I decided the best bet was to head back to one of the streams I had crossed earlier in the day and so I hiked down the mountain for 2 hours and found a nice stealth site near the intersection of Scarface Brook and South Branch. I pitched my Scarp 1 by nightfall at 5:45 PM, had a nice meal, and settled down for the long autumn night.

This was my first night in the Scarp 1, a new 4 season tent made by Tarptent, and I was eager to see how it would perform in colder weather. I'll write a longer review later this week, but that first night was a dream. It rained and it was windy, but I was high and dry all night and didn't experience any internal condensation, despite the fact that I was camped right next to a stream.

I was so comfortable and exhausted from my strenuous 14  mile hike that I gave myself a lie-in the next morning, sleeping 12 hours, and only starting breakfast by 9:30 am. I guess I'm ready to hibernate.

After a nice breakfast and some excellent Starbucks Via instant coffee, I hiked out to my car and drove to my next adventure of the weekend, but more on that later.


  1. It always feels great to get out and camp after a prolonged gap. Looks like you thoroughly enjoyed your jaunt and the chance to test the Scarp.

    I will look forward to your review of the tent as I have been following other people's comments on it and am awaiting the new version with the longer fly before committing to buy it. In the UK, a longer cut fly is a necessity as we make condensation for fun over here :)

  2. I had a grand time – really nice – and I hope to get out again real soon, despite the fading daylight.

    The Scarp was great – I'm just about to start writing a review now. But I guess I've never understood the need for a longer fly to reduce condensation. I've been meaning to ask Martin Rye about it. I've always thought that the short fly is what lets air circulate in the tarptents and dry them out. I like the original cut as it provides a low enough vestibule to dry gear but still maintain good airflow. Uh..maybe I should save this for the review.

  3. Two things.

    First off, what makes the Scarp a 4 season tent? I have a Rainbow 2 (3 season) along with a second insulation layer that hangs on the inside hooks. I've actually used it in late fall / early winter and it worked well (~20F at night).

    Secondly, I recommend Nescafe to the Starbuck's Via coffee. It's cheaper and tastes better. You can buy it in any grocery store in the same little tube packets, or a large container of Crystals to put in a ziplock bag (saves garbage). I recommended this on the gearflogger post about Via too

  4. The big difference are the external poles. The scarp as two optional poles that can be used to withstand heavy snow or high winds. One could also argue that the built-in in vestibules and extra venting on the top of the tent are winter features as well although it's kind of pushing it a bit. — Of course, I plan on testing whether I can use the scarp as a winter tent, so we'll see.

    Oh and regarding the Via – I drank the Italian Roast flavor on my trip. Absolutely fantastic.

  5. Hi, Phil,

    The "surprisingly difficult" Garfield Ridge Trail is absolutely my least favorite in the Whites. Can't get a stride or rhythm of any kind going, lots of very rocky ups and downs (extreme even by Whites standards), and precious few views or points of interest. It just goes on and on and on…. One of those "let's get this over with" slogs. Sorry you didn't get the payoff of the great view from Garfield.

    Really enjoy the blog. See you on the trail!

  6. Mark – it was fun in a way and provided a very good reason to pay very close attention to my surroundings. Another devil's playground is the Mahoosuc Range north of Gorham, NH. There's a lot of good scrambling up there too.

  7. basically we get condensation whether the fly is lifted or dropped but the blustery rainy conditions we get very very often needs a longer fly to cut it out.

    I've had loads of condensation on my tarp on many occasions so the shorter fly is not really helping in the UK conditions. Its better to go for winter-proofness and warmth with teh longer fly if that makes sense

  8. it does make sense – I was hoping to address the higher cut fly issue with low snow walls as windbreaks this winter. But now you have me wondering whether my other winter tent – a single wall Black Diamond First Light made out of EPIC, which is fairly breathable, might not be a better choice for the Challenge. The problem is that I don't have the vestibule and adding it will push my tent weight higher than with the Scarp. Maybe I should just switch tents half way to find out!

  9. I'll note that I'm planning on using my Rainbow 2 this winter (with the added insulation wall), so I'll look forward to your report for comparison.

  10. Enjoyed your write up. It made me feel like I was there. Don't you hate it when weather doesn't cooperate? I bet it still felt good to be there non the less.

  11. I'm glad I was able to give you a feel for the place. You're right, being there was great, even with the chancy weather.

  12. Thanks for the details on your section hike (especially the waterfall!). You mentioned you camped on the Garfield Mtn Trail near the intersection of Scarface Brook and South Branch.

    On my AMC map this intersection occurs north of the trailhead. Did you instead mean the intersection of Thompson and Spruce Brooks? Just checking, as I intend to camp around there and am not familiar with the area.

  13. Nope – meant exactly what I said. I use a different map.

  14. I just did pretty much the same hike last week and had no idea when I picked it looking at the maps how tricky it was going to be. I hiked in Garfield, dropped my big pack at the campsite, hiked past Galehead Hut up to South Twin and back to the campsite with a small daypack and made it to Garfield summit for sunset. The next day I did the waterfall a 3rd time and hiked out on the Gale River Trail which is MUCH prettier than the Garfield Trail if you are ever up that way again. ~22 miles overall in 2 days. And they were tough miles!

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