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Backpacking a Pemigewasset Loop

Mt Lafayette (5260'), Franconia Ridge Trail
Mt Lafayette (5260′), Franconia Ridge Trail

A Pemigewasset Loop is a 31 mile loop hike in New Hampshire’s White Mountains that follows the ridgeline encircling the Pemigewasset Wilderness. The route climbs 8 four thousand footers with 9000 feet of elevation gain and has long stretches of above-treeline travel. You can increase the number of four thousand footers climbed by adding in a few side trips. I climbed one extra peak on this trip to West Bond Mountain, bringing my total to 9 or 10, if you count Mt Guyot which is not yet officially on the AMC 4000 footer list, but rumored to be be joining it soon.

  1. Bondcliff
  2. Bond
  3. West Bond
  4. South Twin
  5. Garfield
  6. Lafayette
  7. Lincoln
  8. Liberty
  9. Flume

The Pemi-Loop along with a Presidential Traverse are the two most famous hikes in the White Mountains, although there are many other challenging routes here that are just as scenic, but less travelled because they’re more remote.

Pemigewasset Loop (click for downloadable PDF map)
Pemigewasset Loop (click for downloadable PDF map)

I know some people who’ve hiked a Pemi-Loop in under 24 hours, a hike they say they’d never want to do again because it’s so strenuous. I decided to backpack it as a 1-nighter, and even that was a bit extreme. But no matter how long it takes you, hiking a Pemi-Loop is one of those routes you’ll never forget.

A Pemigewasset Loop Route Plan

  • Lincoln Woods Trail
  • Wilderness Trail
  • Bondcliff Trail
  • West Bond Spur
  • Bondcliff Trail
  • Guyot Shelter Spur (water)
  • Bondcliff Trail
  • Twinway
  • Garfield Ridge Trail
  • Franconia Ridge Trail
The East Branch Pemigewasset River at the Lincoln Woods Suspension Bridge
The East Branch Pemigewasset River at the Lincoln Woods Suspension Bridge

For this trip, I decided to hike the loop in a counter-clockwise direction, starting and ending at the Lincoln Woods Trailhead. I was on the trail by 8:00 am and strolled along the East Branch Pemigewasset River towards the Bondcliff Trail. It’s a 4 mile ‘walk in’ to get to the bottom of the Bondcliff Trail and start climbing.

Although I’ve hiked all of the trails on the Pemi Loop in the past, it’d been a few years since I’d been round this way. I’ve found that it takes me about 6 years to forget what a trail looks like, ensuring a constant source of rediscovery even when re-hiking trails I’ve hiked before. The White Mountains trail system is also surprisingly dynamic and changing, touched by the forces of nature and trail crews, which transform trails by chance or method over the years. In other words, there’s always something new to see and experience.

No Camping Sign
No Camping Sign – Does anyone read these?

However, what I found as I started up the Bondcliff Trail was a bit alarming. While there has always been some illegal camping in the Whites, in other words campsites that are adjacent to the trail and not 200 feet away from it, I was amazed at the number of new campsites that had sprung up on the trail. The problem is not localized to the Bondcliff Trail, but along all trails leading to the AMC 4000 footers, along the length of the Appalachian Trail, and within 1 mile of every White Mountain trailhead. I’m not exactly what can be done to reduce the aesthetic impact that these campsites have or if it will get a lot worse before it gets better.

I tried to focus on my hike. One of my biggest problems as a hiker is regulating my pace. “Slow down.” I said to myself, as I climbed. I always try to hike too fast on uphills, which leaves me panting. When I lead groups, I always try to sweep so I don’t have to set the pace.

Bondcliff Mountain - A sight that never gets old
Bondcliff Mountain – A sight that never gets old

The Bondcliff Trail starts at about 1800′ of elevation and climbs Bondcliff Mountain, Mt Bond, and passes near West Bond Mountain. All three are typically hiked together, although technically West Bond is considered an optional side trip on a strict Pemi Loop. I consider West Bond a must-hike whenever I’m in the neighborhood, simply because it has the best profile view of Bondcliff Mountain in the Whites. The highest of the three peaks is Mt Bond at 4690′, which also has tremendous views of many peaks, including Mt Washington.

I’d started my hike with two liters of water and expected to be able to resupply at one of the two streams, shortly before popping above treeline on Bondcliff Mountain. But both streams were bone dry. That was a nasty surprise. I was almost out of water and the nearest certain source was the spring at Guyot Shelter, some two miles distant. I thought about turning around because I knew I’d get really thirsty on the ascent of Mt Bond, but decided to wing it. I figured I could beg for extra water on Bondcliff Mountain because I was sure to run into someone. It’s a very popular mountain, even though it’s 10 miles from the nearest road.

Daisy and her friends gave me a liter of water on top of Bondcliff
Daisy and her friends gave me a liter of water on top of Bondcliff

There were only two people on the entire mountain top, which is a huge expanse of open cliff, when I summitted. “Excuse me,” I asked. “Can you spare a liter of water?” Daisy’s owners were more than happy to siphon a liter out of their hydration packs and into one of my water bottles. They’d spent the night at Guyot Shelter and had full tanks. We had a nice chat as we enjoyed the top of beautiful Bondcliff, one of the most majestic mountains in the Whites. This was Daisy’s 44th 4000 footer (out of 48) and she was the perfect host, expressing an interest in me but basically leaving me alone. The best kind of trail dog.

From Bondcliff, I climbed Mt Bond and took a break, chatting with another hiker who’d spent the night at Zealand Hut. I also chatted with some trail runners who’d passed me near the beginning of my walk. Here we were at the same destination, rabbit and hare.

Hiking along the top of Bondcliff to Mt Bond (right) and then West Bond (left)
Hiking along the top of Bondcliff to Mt Bond (right) and then West Bond (left)

From Mt Bond, I hiked the short spur trail to West Bond, before hiking down to the spring at Guyot Shelter to get fresh water. I drank a fresh liter on the spot to rehydrate and then filled up four more liters, enough to get me through to the next morning if I had to dry camp. It was too early in the day to stop and stay at Guyot and I wanted to get at least to South Twin Mountain, close to the halfway point of my loop, before sunset. I’ve dry camped on South Twin before and there are plenty of low impact places to stealth camp off-trail if you hike down the Southwest sub-peak. I mean really stealth, far from the trail, and not visible to anyone.

Mr Bunny and Lucas on Mt Guyot
Mr Bunny and his hiking partner on Mt Guyot

I left Guyot Shelter and climbed back up the ridgeline with my 8 pounds of water. No fun. It was a short hike to Mount Guyot (4560′), a 4000 footer, which is not on the four thousand footer list. It’s a treeless bald dome, named after Arnold Guyot, the first person to create a map of the White Mountains. There I ran into an old friend, Mr Bunny. I haven’t seen him in a few years, but we weren’t that surprised to run into one another on a Monday on Mt Guyot! The White Mountain hiking community can be like that.

We parted ways and I headed up the Twinway to South Twin (4902′), which is also a sizable peak. I was hiking a bit faster than I expected and summitted at 5:30 pm. Rather than dry camp, I decided to descend another 3/4 miles to a spot near Galehead hut where I could camp. The wind had been blowing pretty hard all day and I figured I’d be a lot warmer in dense forest than up near the summit of South Twin.

I ate a hot dinner and put my feet up for the night
I ate a hot dinner and put my feet up for the night

The next morning, I popped into Galehead hut to refill my water bottles (anyone can do this for free) and spoke to a few thru-hikers on the porch. There are a lot of thru-hikers still coming through New Hampshire and I probably saw two-dozen more throughout the course of the day. All super nice, humble people who I enjoyed speaking with.

The previous day had been a strenuous hike, taking 10 hours with 14.75 miles of hiking and 4700 feet of elevation gain. I knew that the second day would be tougher, but I didn’t really understand just how tough it would be. My goal was to hike from Galehead hut over Mts Garfield, Lafayette, Lincoln, Liberty, and Flume before descending back down to the East Pemigewasset River and hiking out to my car in Lincoln Woods. I’d also need to carry an extra 2 liters of water from Garfield to Flume to avoid hiking down Franconia Ridge to resupply my water, since it’s dry. Worse comes to worse, I figured I could hike the last three miles of the route in the dark with a headlamp, if needed, because it would be the easiest segment of the day, below treeline, and headed downhill on an easy trail. I figured I’d be able to finish the loop if I made it to the summit of Lafayette by 2:00 pm, so I set out and hoped for the best.

The first 3 miles took me 3 hours to hike. The section of trail from Galehead to the summit of Garfield is one of the toughest sections of the new Hampshire AT in my experience, and includes climbing a waterfall on Garfield, just below the spur trail to the Garfield Lean-to. I took at break there at the spring and loaded up on the extra water I’d have to carry the rest of the day.

Looking at the back of Franconia Ridge and Mt Lafayette, Lincoln, and Liberty from a ledge on Mt Garfield
Looking at the back of Franconia Ridge and Mt Lafayette, Lincoln, and Liberty (right to left) from a ledge on Mt Garfield

While I was processing my water, I chatted with two thru-hikers, Chuckles and Laughs-a-Lot, who’d been roommates at U of NH, and had been thru-hiking together since April 7th.

At one point Chuckles asked me, “Do you have any safety?.”

“Safety?”, I replied. “What’s that? Weed?”

He replied, “Yeah, we’ve been having safety meetings up and down the entire trail. I had to ask. You never know who’s smoking, these days.” Too funny.

“No, I gave that up a long time ago. But a lot of my friends have prescriptions,” I agreed.

We parted ways, and I hoofed it up to the summit of Garfield to admire the views of Franconia Ridge, my next destination. I was still on track to get to Lafayette by 2:00 pm, but first I had to hike down into the col between Garfield and North Lafayette, before climbing up to North Lafayette and the Lafayette beyond that. I cursed my altimeter watch as I dropped down into the col, knowing I’d have to climb back at the other side.

North Lafayette comes into view
North Lafayette comes into view

I was already sweating fiercely by this point, so I implemented a few dietary hedges to keep my electrolytes balanced. This included eating the rest of my Vermont summer sausage (sodium), eating the rest of my crushed potato chips (sodium), and spiking my water bottles with eLete Electrolyte drops, a seawater-based additive that doesn’t muck up your water reservoir or bottles because it doesn’t have any added sugars or sweeteners. By the end of the day I’d drink 7 liters of water over a 12 hour period.

North Lafayette eventually came into view. It’s a sub-peak of Lafayette, but a far nicer peak in my view because it’s not always overrun with tourists. Most people don’t even know that it’s a distinct 5000′ mountain. I’ve eaten many a quiet lunch there, overlooking Franconia Notch, in relative solitude, out of the wind and admiring the view below.

Cairned topped trail to Mt Lafayette
Cairn-topped trail to Mt Lafayette

From North Lafayette, it’s a short, cairn-lined walk to Lafayette proper and the famous scree-lined Franconia Ridge Trail, one of the most majestic ridgeline walks in New Hampshire. Words fall short of expressing the awe that I feel when hiking along this ridge. It’s hard to put my finger on it. The fatigue of the ascent melts away as one drinks in the views and feels the bright sunshine baking the rocks around you. Even when it’s windy, which is usually is, one feels a deep peace, calm, and oneness with the other people you meet along the path.

The southern half of the Fransconia Ridge Trail with Mts Liberty and Flume to the south
The southern half of the Franconia Ridge Trail with Mts Liberty and Flume to the south

Being a Tuesday, there weren’t that many people on the ridge, which I’d heard has been crazy busy all summer with up to 10,000 visitors per day. That day it was just me, a couple of dozen locals, and a few dozen thru-hikers still heading north to Katahdin. They were lucky to have such nice weather on the ridge.

I wasn’t rushing, but I made it to the col between Little Haystack and Liberty by 3:30 pm. I ate the last of my food (I was running very short) and prepared for the final push. My goal was to climb Liberty by 4:00 pm and Flume by 5:00 pm. After that, I’d have about 6.o miles to finish the hike. I checked my topographic map and saw that the approach hikes to both summits were fairly gradual, which was good, because I was pretty tired, although the food I ate had perked me up. Sunset was at 7:00 but I can hike very fast on easy trail and I knew I’d be able to make up some time on the downhill.

Bondcliff from Mt Liberty
Bondcliff from Mt Liberty

The climbs up Liberty and Flume had looked daunting when I was up in the ridge looking down on the peaks and the cols in front of them, but the topo didn’t lie and they were a lot easier than I’d feared. I summitted Liberty and glanced over to admire the view of Bondcliff, the first mountain I’d climbed the day before. Then onto the avalanche scarred summit of Mt Flume, which is an easy climb from Liberty.

The avalanche-scarred summit of Mt Flume
The avalanche-scarred summit of Mt Flume, seen from Mt Liberty

I was slightly ahead of schedule when I hiked over Flume, reaching the summit viewpoint by 4:45 pm. I’m not a night hiker by preference, but I was equipped to hike out by headlamp if I needed to, provided I’d gotten over the big peaks. Once past Flume, there is a precipitous section of the Osseo Trail which has many wooden ladders, but it’s downhill. Many people hike up this trail if they do a clockwise Pemi-Loop and I thanked my stars that I’d done my loop in the other direction. I hate climbing stairs, stone or wooden.

Once I got to the Osseo Trail, I was able to really pick up the pace
Once I got to the Osseo Trail, I was able to really pick up the pace

Once past the ladders, I really ramped up my pace. After hiking at a mile an hour for much of the day, going three miles an hour again was liberating! I made it back down to the Lincoln Woods Trail which runs along the East Branch just as the sun was setting and made it  back to my car by 7:05 pm.

Day 2 of my Pemi Loop had been really tough. It had definitely in the top 3 hardest days of my backpacking life, both physically and mentally. But at the same time, it’d been a good way to benchmark my fitness for the rest of the trips I have planned for the remainder of the year. Next time I hike this route though, I’ll be doing a 2-night loop instead.

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21 comments

  1. Looks like a beautiful hike, in nice weather. May have to work that in next year on my vacation. Midweek on Franconia Ridge is probably like midweek in the Presis, I’m assuming. Some people, but no crowds, especially after labor day.

    • Got that right. Those ridges can be very exposed in winter and bad weather. The advantage if hiking this route more quickly is that you can fit it into a good weather window. Mid week is best on this route, after Labor Day. But that’s not the case in all parts of the Whites. It has more to do with proximity to the interstate.

  2. Nice write up! I’m curious and I will check my maps and books on my own as well but are there any shorter but viable 2 day, 1 night loops or semi loop hikes one can do in this area. Something in the 20-15 total mile range that would give one a good taste of the full loop and beauty of the area?

  3. Question: why did you choose the Pemi in the counterclockwise direction as opposed to clockwise? Were water supply or bailout possibilities factors favoring that direction?

    • I wanted to visit Bondcliff first for aesthetic reasons and I knew from experience there was water in those two streams below the summit. I was quite surprised when they were dry. I also wanted to camp near Galehead or South Twin since there’s more solitude there than near Garfield or the Garfield Shelter. I wasn’t really worried about bailouts at all. The weather forecast was very fine and I don’t have any physical limitations.

  4. Safety first!

    On Saturday 9/9 there was water at that last crossing up Bondcliff, you just had to go up about 20-30 yards to get to where it was actually accessible. Might be helpful in another 6 years when you decide to get back there.

    It took everything I had not to bail down Skook on day 2 after running into some friends on Lafayette. The amount of people who complete this loop gave me a false sense of security on its exact difficulty, even after having hiked all these trails previously. Humbling.

  5. Great write-up of an awesome and ambitious trip! Over Labor day weekend I did a hut based traverse of the Pemi and between Galehead and Garfield Pond I probably ran into at least 12-15 people doing (trying) the Pemi loop in a day. I think it has become a “tick list” item like the Presi Traverse for folks outside the hiking community. The athletic achievement is astounding, but i don’t get the feeling that the trip is for love of mountains….but then again I’m getting old and usage patterns are changing (all while WMNF usage seems to be doubling yearly), DIAD seems to be the new norm! HYOH, but hike on!

  6. Great write up!

    The Pemi loop is great. I did it in three days early in the summer. Short hike to the base of Bond Cliff on the first day, then up Bond Cliff and around to Liberty Springs on the second day, and out the third day. The second day was rough…

  7. Looks amazing. As a westerner for most of my life, I spent my younger years ridiculing the smallness of the mountains back east, but man they’re gorgeous, and what they lack in pure elevation they more than make up for in challenging terrain, ruggedness, and just sheer beauty.

    I will say that, doing most of my hiking in Arizona now, I’m glad even you easterners have to suffer through carrying 11-plus pounds or more of water at once every now and then! Builds character or something.

  8. Nice write up! I’m planning a 4 day pemi trip in a few weeks and hoping for good weather.

  9. Ha! I just hiked the same route, also counterclockwise—and minus the West Bond spur—starting last Wednesday. Got a typical late start, and headed out from the parking lot at 1:00 pm. Had lunch at Franconia Falls (lovely spot) and decided to camp the first night near where Bondcliff Trial begins to ascend from the Pemi valley. (Yes, out of view of the trail.) With older legs, probably too much weight, and less than optimum conditioning, i opted for the five-day, four-night option. Stayed at Guyot campsite the second night, then Garfield Ridge campsite, then Liberty Spring. Legs felt like rubbish in the middle of the third day, but recovered a bit after lunching amongst the Saturday crowd on Lafayette. Other lunch spots worked out to be South Twin and Flume.

    As noted, a real benefit of catching part of the AT this time of year is meeting and chatting with the through hikers. Most were Nobos (northbounders), but Lil’ Ralph was headed south. I was camped between two through-hiker couples at Garfield Ridge. Always fun to check out others’ equipment and systems.

    Saw a few Exos packs, and one Hyperlite. One female through hiker was wearing Chaco sandals. And, i passed a male, barefoot day hiker. Really! Between Lincoln and Liberty. Met one young woman attempting to hike/jog/run the loop in 24 hours. She had started at 4:00 am. Which seemed impressive enough until a couple who blew past me said they were trying to do it in 12 hours. And later, a guy doing a shorter training loop to make an attempt in 10 hours! Apparently this has become a thing. Who knew?

    Only saw a bit of rain for a few hours coming into Guyot campsite as the remains of Irma wafted by. Otherwise, it was warm (~10º F above average), and mostly clear, though some days were foggy to start and hazy part of the time near summits. It’s a great hike, but as Phil notes, water is scarce on much of the route to non-existent along the ridges, so be sure to carry enough, especially when it’s warmer. There is Garfield Lake a bit off the trail just southwest of the summit of Garfield, but the edges are muddy, and you’d have to wade through some muck to get to filterable water.

    10,000 visitors per day on Franconia Ridge at peak times? Is that a typo?

      • Well, that just can’t be correct. Hundreds, maybe, on a busy day, but 10,000?? Citation needed, as they say. Assuming a 10-hour hiking day, that would mean an average of 17 people per minute passing along a particular point on the ridge at any given point in time. That’s completely implausible.

        I found one reference to “More than 10,000 people hike along the ridge each year…” in an undated, but apparently recent NH Natural Heritage Bureau write up on the Franconia Ridge Alpine Zone.

      • Northeast Alpine Start

        Where did they park?

  10. Franconia Ridge sees about 700 hikers at times on peak summer days.

  11. Northeast Alpine Start

    I gotta do this loop soon! I have a friend who did this in 9 hours 24 minutes last week! Holy smokes that’s fast… I think I would shoot for a sub 20-hour trip (read suffer-fest) during an extremely solid weather window… Certainly a trip that can be enjoyed over as many days as one likes or for those who go fast & light one that can be hammered out in under 24 hours of trail time (weather/fitness depending!)….

  12. Hi Philip, did you really drink 7 liters of water in 12 hours? I Just cant imagine anyone I know being able to drink that much unless they were in a mid summer desert situation. For me in New Zealand in mid summer with average 25 to 30 degree C heat on the trail I drink 2 to 2.5 liters in total and can get by on 1.5 if I have to, providing that there is a good source of H2O at days end.

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