Last week, I finally finished section hiking all 161 miles of the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire. Now that it’s done, it’s hard to believe that it was only 161 miles. I’ve probably hiked twice that just to reacquire the AT each time I bag a section of trail. I’ll have to add it up sometime.
My last section was a mere 2.7 mile stretch from the summit of Mt Garfield (4,500 ft) to the Skookumchuck Trailhead (4,660 ft) on the north shoulder of Mt. Lafayette (5,260 ft.). It was definitely one of the more difficult sections of the AT that I’ve hiked in some time.
The route for this hike was 15.4 miles round-trip, but it would have been difficult to do this late in the year if I hadn’t backpacked in the night before and camped 1 hour below the Mt Garfield summit.
By then there was a pretty good blow moving in from the west and I was concerned about whether the temperature would drop to freezing. I had been expecting better weather for Sunday, but the evening has not been unfolding as forecast and all bets were off for the following day.This wasn’t that easy. Garfield is a very steep, heavily forested mountain and there aren’t many flat areas that aren’t densely wooded. I found one, not to far off from the trail and squeezed my MLD Duomid in between some trees. Just in time too (5:40 pm), because the sun set shortly afterward.
I cooked up a hot meal with Packit Gourmet’s Spicy Red Beans, Rice, and Sausage and ate my fill. This is a big dinner with 1060 calories, but I’d already done about 13 miles of hiking that day already and I was feeling a little chilled. By now it was getting real dark and I thanked my stars that I’d brought along my Ursack Bear Bag and didn’t have to throw one over a tree in the dark. That never ends well.
I got into my Duomid, changed into my clean sleeping clothes and snuggled up into my 50F degree Montbell Thermal Sheet and my bivy bag. I’ve been using the Monbell, which is a 13 oz. 800 fill goose down sleeping bag this summer and have been pleased with it. The question was whether I could take it down to a 30F degree frost at night. I recorded a journal entry and fell asleep immediately.
The Final Section
When I woke the next day, I checked the mini thermometer I keep attached to the back of my pack and it read 50 degrees under my tarp. I hadn’t been cold all night. It was a gray, cold morning however.
I had a hot breakfast, drank most of my remaining water and broke camp by 7:30.
I reached the summit of Garfield by 9 AM but, as usual, the summit was socked in by fog. This was the 3rd time I’d climbed the peak, which has a distinctive anvil shape when seen from a distance.
From the summit, I descended to the south onto the Garfield Ridge Trail and began the last section I needed to finish New Hampshire. The descent was steep, which is notable because I’d have to climb Garfield again later in the day on my hike out. At the bottom, I refilled my reservoir at Garfield Pond, a beautiful alpine tarn at 4,000 feet. The water has a lot of organic sediment in it so I had to be careful about not stirring it up.
From here, the Garfield Ridge Trail continues south toward Mt Lafayette, which is a formidable peak, and should be climbed cautiously regardless of the season. It and most of the other peaks along Franconia Ridge were socked in by low level cloud all day, but that’s ok because I didn’t have enough daylight to reach the summit of Lafayette and hike out.
There are also a series of hills between Garfield and Lafayette that are somewhat maddening, and certainly exhausting to climb up and down, along the way. They don’t look like much on the topo, but they are larger than life on the ground.Instead, my destination was the Skookumchuck Trail junction which intersects with the Garfield Ridge Trail, about 900 feet below the Lafayette summit, well above treeline. To get there from Garfield, you need to hike over a rocky and muddy trail which catches the abundant rainfall that falls along the ridge.
I eventually made it to the Skookumchuck by noonish, and promptly turned around to get back below treeline. Up to this point in time, my pace had been 1 mph which gives you an indication of the roughness of the trail.
Once I’d made it back into the trees, I boiled some water and had a double Starbucks Via to warm up and supercharge my hiking speed. This helped perk up my energy levels and I made it back to the summit of Garfield once again in just 2 hours.
By then the summit had finally cleared and I was able to see into the vast Pemigewasset Wilderness at the foot of Garfield and some of the southern peaks on Franconia Ridge. Autumn has definitely arrived in the White Mountains but we’re still a few weeks away from peak leaf-peeping season. At this point, the leaves of birch trees have started to go yellow, but the maples are still green.
From the top of Garfield, I still had to descend and hike another 4.8 miles to my car. I got down in about 3 hours and drove home to Boston, smelly, muddy, and content.