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Backpacking an Owl’s Head Loop

Franconia Ridge from the Owl's Head Slide

Owl’s Head Mountain is one of the most remote 4000-footers in the White Mountains, deep in the heart of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. Feeling in need of a long hike, I decided to climb it but to take a roundabout route to get there, looping around the peak’s north end to hike the “notorious” north section of the Lincoln Brook Trail. This stretch of trail has the reputation of being the muddiest, wettest, and most difficult-to-follow trail in the White’s 1440-mile trail network. It’s one of those trails where you’re unlikely to see anyone when you hike it, and if you do, it’s because they’re lost.

Route Plan:

  • Lincoln Woods Trail
  • Black Pond Trail (out and back)
  • Lincoln Woods Trail
  • Franconia Falls Trail (out and back)
  • Lincoln Woods Trail
  • Franconia Brook Trail
  • Lincoln Brook Trail (North end)
  • Owl’s Head Path – (up and down)
  • Lincoln Brook Trail (South end)
  • Franconia Brook Trail
  • Lincoln Woods Trail
  • Total 24 miles w/ 3700′ of elevation gain

I started out at the Lincoln Woods trailhead off the Kancamagus Highway, just outside of Lincoln, NH. The first part of the hike was up the flat and monotonous Lincoln Woods Trail, which is covered with stone dust and gravel and hard on the feet. I opened up the choke and flew down this section, my trekking poles flying like pistons as I ate up the miles.

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I took a couple of brief detours to hike the Black Pond Trail, out and back, and the Franconia Falls Trail, out and back. I’m just starting a second White Mountains trail round, so it was hard to pass up a chance to hike these two trails. The Black Pond Bushwhack has become popular as a route to Owl’s Head in recent years, but I didn’t plan to hike it.

Black Pond
Black Pond

Actually, the Forest Service is trying to get people to stop hiking the Black Pond bushwhack (which is now a herd path) because it’s so overused and eroded. They now forbid all licensed outfitters, including volunteer-led Appalachian Mountain Club hikes, from using that route (in addition to the Engine Hill Bushwhack to Mt Isolation.) I’ve never been one for shortcuts and often take the road less traveled on my hikes, even when it’s longer. My goal is to prolong my wilderness experience, not curtail it.

Franconia Falls is a popular swimming hole.
Franconia Falls is a popular swimming hole.

A little further down the Lincoln Woods Trail, I turned down the Franconia Falls Trail, which leads to a popular swimming hole. This section of the hike is not in a wilderness area, so you can ride a bike to the falls which are 3.0 miles from the Lincoln Woods lot. This is a very pretty spot and well worth a visit.

Beaver Pond near the junction of the Franconia Brook Trail and Lincoln Brook Trail
Beaver Pond near the junction of the Franconia Brook Trail and Lincoln Brook Trail

By now, I was ready to plunge into the wilderness. I crossed the wooden bridge over Franconia Brook and headed north towards Thirteen Falls on the Franconia Brook Trail. I’d repeat this short stretch on my way out the next day, as my loop was more of a lollipop than a perfect circle.

Like many of the trunk trails in the Whites, the Franconia Brook Trail follows an old railroad grade built by the logging companies that stripped the region of timber before the Whites came under federal protection with the passage of the Wilderness Act. Without those logging railroads, the trail system we enjoy today probably wouldn’t exist.

Railroad ties - many of the White Mountains hiking trails are built on top of old logging railroad grades
Railroad ties – many of the White Mountains hiking trails are built on top of old logging railroad grades

While I had a GPS app running to record my route, I knew where I was by counting the major stream crossings on the trail. First Hellgate Brook, which starts below Mt Bond and West Bond Mountain; and then Redrock Brook, which drains a pond below Southwest Twin and Mt Guyot; and finally Twin Brook which runs between Galehead Mountain and the northwest side of Southwest Twin. I soon passed the trail to the tent platforms at Thirteen Falls and stopped to refill my water bottles at the rock ledges at the start of the Lincoln Brook Trail.

Filtering water
Filtering water

Now the moment of truth. I found the start of the Lincoln Brook Trail and started up it. I wanted to hike about 2 more miles before calling it a day and pitching camp near water. It was 4:00 pm and sunset was at 7:30 pm. That would give me about 90 minutes to get settled in and cook dinner before the sun went down.

Falls along north end of Lincoln Brook Trail
Falls along north end of Lincoln Brook Trail

It’d been nearly 8 years since I’d hiked this section of trail, and I remember hiking a portion of it in the middle of the stream adjacent to it since the trail had vanished. Yes, I’d hiked in the stream since it was the only clear path through the dense brush. I was expecting the same experience on this trip if I couldn’t find the trail again.

The Lincoln Brook Trail follows a north-south valley that parallels Franconia Ridge to the west, which I could catch glimpses of through the trees. If I lost the trail, I knew I could hike along the west side of Owl’s Head Mountain to stay clear of the worst of the wet, following south on my compass until I came to the Owls Head Path, which intersects the trail at a right angle and climbs to the Owl’s Head summit.

The notorious north end of the Lincoln Brook Trail is now easy to follow with only a few muddy spots. It's the end of an era.
The notorious north end of the Lincoln Brook Trail is now easy to follow with only a few muddy spots. It’s the end of an era.

Much to my amazement, this notorious stretch of the Lincoln Brook Trail has had a lot of recent trail maintenance by one of the professional crews that works in the White Mountains. It was well brushed out with a wide trail corridor, including new bog bridging over some of the muddiest areas on the trail. I had no problem finding or following the trail and made better time than I expected through the section. I ended up hiking all the way to the base of the Owl’s Head Path, before setting up camp for the evening.

Camping in a pre-existng Campsite along Lincoln Brook
Camping in a pre-existing Campsite along Lincoln Brook

I found a pre-existing campsite along Lincoln Brook, set up my tent and cooked a simple dinner before turning in with the sunset. I’d climb the Owl’s Head Slide, an avalanche path, first thing in the morning before hiking out and driving back to Boston.

The next morning, I packed up and headed for the cairns that mark the Owls Head Slide, which is unsigned. The slide, short for landslide, is a steep scree-covered trail that climbs 1500′ in seven tenths of a mile, and 1000′ in the first four tenths. It’s not the easiest thing to get up, so I took my time and took in the vast views of Franconia Ridge, Mt Garfield, and even Galehead Mountain that than can be seen from the Owl’s Head Slide. On Franconia Ridge, you can see Lincoln Slide (top photo), one of the routes people would follow to get to Owl’s Head Mountain. This is a view that few people see unless they climb the Owl’s Head Slide Trail.

Owl's Head Summit Cairn
Owl’s Head Summit Cairn

I was the first person to summit the peak that day, but a half-dozen others soon followed in my wake. It had taken me slightly over an hour to climb Owl’s Head, but I easily halved that on my way down. Gravity is my friend.

Franconia Brook Bridge
Franconia Brook Bridge

From the bottom of the slide, I had another 8 miles to hike to finish the hike. These went quite fast since the trail gains and loses almost no elevation from the base of the slide to the Lincoln Woods parking lot. I had a few remaining stream crossings to deal with, but managed to rock hop my way across them without getting my feet wet. In fact, I managed to do this entire loop hike without getting my socks or shoes wet, which might be a first for this route by anyone.

While I could have hiked this loop as a giant one-day hike, it was really the perfect distance for a quick 1-night trip.

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  1. Another timely post Philip. I plan on doing Owl’s Head as the end part of a loop that will go over the Bond’s, Twin’s and Galehead in a couple of weeks. I had done the north segment of Lincoln Brook maybe twenty years ago and it was as you described, a swamp with a slight grade.

    • I’d originally wanted to do a Pemi loop with this as an inner add-on loop, but the timing didn’t work out. The changes to the Lincoln Brook Trail were a bit of a shock, though. I was looking forward to a navigation challenge.

  2. Redlining? Again? What will become of Philip Werner?

  3. Nice Philip! I just returned from hiking the AT section between Hanover NH>Gorham NH>Androver ME. I will come back for other trails in the Whites.

  4. I was the USFS Trail maintainer for the section from the slide to Camp 13 for six years in the late 00s. It was a great excuse to camp out for a long weekend with one day of work sandwiched between two days of walking valley trails.

    IMO the height of land and the herd paths north of the slide were the crux for route finding. An AMC crew came through in my third year and brushed out the entire section. Prior to that I had taken a bonsai tree approach to brushing it out. Then the Camp 13 AMC care takers took an interest in it. Finally another crew came through, AMC or USFS, and that was it for me.

    I do think there is a place for difficult to follow trails deep in the Wilderness Areas.

  5. Phil, did you see the resident snake on the Owls Head Slide?

  6. A clafification on the AMC aspect you mentioned. AMC chapters are considered outfitters by the Forest Service and as such can not lead hikes in designated wilderness areas that are more than 500′ from an official trail. So, we can no longer lead any hikes to Owl’s Head at all because it is in the Pemi and there is no actual official trail.

    • Really? I lead bushwhacks for the AMC and teach off trail navigation for them. Can I ask what your source is for this revelation, because I’ve never read it in the rules for USFS outfitters or been barred from leading bushwhacks by my chapter (Boston) committee. I was told that those two routes are off-limits, but nothing else.

  7. We did this hike minus the climb up Owls head as a day hike a few years ago (2014?). Started at 8:00 am, think we were done by 5:30 pm. Had no serious problems following the trail from 13 Falls to the slide except for a point nearing the slide where the trail took a hard right down a small stream.

  8. We use to do this loop every winter with skis and snow shoes. One of my favorite outdoor experiences of all time was skiing out down the frozen Pemi river with wonderful open views by the light of a full moon.

  9. I am halfway through the Direttissima and did owlshead two days ago. Two old guys with white beards to the waist told me about a bivouac trail around the ledges on decent. It’s marked by two crossed sticks on a very big rock and a small carrion. It was easy to follow and meant I didn’t have to descend with my 35# pack. I’m also old. 68.

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