A 2-3 day, 31 mile scenic loop that journeys into the most remote part of the Pemigewasset Wilderness below Franconia Ridge, climbing 3 four thousand footers: Mt Garfield, Owls Head Mountain, and Mt Galehead. The route runs along the major watercourses of “The Pemi” past cascades, pools, and gorgeous swimming holes, providing plenty of opportunity to kick off your shoes and soak your feet in the clear mountain streams or jump in.
****/4 out of 5
30 miles w/7500′ of cumulative elevation gain
White Mountain 4000 Footers
mid-June thru October
A substantial portion this route passed through the Pemigewasset Wilderness Area. Please observe all wilderness area restrictions.
While this is a loop hike, there is a short 1.5 mile gravel-topped road walk required from the Galehead Trail Parking Area to the Garfield Trail Parking Area at the end of the hike. If you have two cars, you may opt to leave one at the Galehead Parking Area to avoid the road walk.
The route follows the following trails in sequence. Refer to AMC White Mountain Trail Map 2 – Franconia Pemigewasset (2017 ed), which is the best waterproof map available for this region, although I’d recommend buying the complete AMC White Mountain Waterproof Map Set (2017 ed) rather than one map at a time. More detailed trail descriptions can be found in the AMC White Mountain Guide (2017 ed), which is considered the hiking bible for the region. Take photos of the pages using your phone for easy reference, instead of carrying the entire book with you on hikes.
- Garfield Trail 4.8 miles
- Garfield Ridge Trail 0.2 miles (to Mt Garfield Summit)
- Garfield Ridge Trail 0.2 miles (back)
- Garfield Ridge Trail 0.5 miles
- Franconia Brook Trail 2.2 miles
- Lincoln Brook Trail 3.5 miles
- Owls head Path 1.1 miles (up)
- Owls head Path 1.1 miles (down)
- Lincoln Brook Trail 3.4 miles
- Franconia Brook Trail 3.5 miles
- Twin Brook Trail 2.7 miles
- Frost Trail 0.5 miles (up)
- Frost Trail 0.5 miles (down)
- Garfield Ridge Trail 0.6 miles
- Gale River Trail 4.0 miles
- Gale River Loop Road 1.5 miles
The following list provides cumulate distances on the route to each view or landmark.
- 5.0 miles – Mt Garfield Summit and fire tower foundations
- 5.2 miles – Mt Garfield Campsite
- 7.9 miles – Thirteen Falls and Tentsite
- 11.4 miles – Owls Head Slide
- 12.5 miles – Owls Head Summit
- 20.5 miles – Thirteen Falls Tentsite (again)
- 23.2 miles – Galehead Hut
- 23.7 miles – Galehead Summit
- 28.8 miles – Galehead Trail Parking
- 30.3 miles – Garfield Trail Parking
- AMC Garfield Ridge Shelter and Tent Platforms ($) Caretaker fee required in-season. Lean-to, two single tent platforms, and five double tent platforms. First come, first served.
- AMC Thirteen Falls Tentsite ($) Caretaker fee required in-season. Twenty-four tentsites.
- AMC Galehead Hut ($$$) – Advance reservations recommended
Natural water sources are plentiful in the White Mountains although you may need to descend to them from ridgelines along side trails if you run short. There is usually abundant water along this route, In addition, when the AMC Huts are in season, anyone can stop in and resupply their water for free from the small sink located near the hut kitchen. In any case, carry a detailed topographic map with you and don’t rely on the overview map provided with this trip description to find water sources.
I also recommend purchasing the Pemigewasset Region Map in Guthooks Guide’s White Mountains and New England Trails Smartphone App (IOS, Android) which is a GPS guide to all of the trails, trailhead, shelters, campsites, views, and water sources in the White Mountains National Forest. I use it all the time and it is much more complete and current than using the maps bundled with the Gaia Smartphone App.
There are numerous stream crossing on this route and you’re bound to get your feet wet. Many of the larger stream crossings may become hazardous after heavy rains, so use caution when crossing, wait for the water level to drop, or seek an alternate route. Water levels tend to drop lower in the summer, but the best way to avoid high water is to postpone hikes after major rain events or to check recent trip reports about water levels at NETrailConditions.com.
On The Trail
Start at the Garfield Trail parking area on Gale River Loop Rd and follow the Garfield Trail for 4.8 miles, gradually climbing up an old forest road through open forest until you reach the Garfield Ridge Trail junction. The trail climbs gradually with a few rock-hoppable small stream crossings, although there are often muddy stretches where the trail has eroded.
Continue on the Garfield Ridge Trail for 0.2 miles to the Mt Garfield summit, hiking across several open ledges to the foundation of an old fire tower to admire the view. You can clearly see the Twins, the Bonds, Owls Head, Mt Carrigan, and Franconia Ridge from this vantage point.
Retracing your steps, descend to the Garfield Trail Junction and follow the Garfield Ridge Trail, passing the spur trail to the Garfield Shelter and Tentsite on your left. There’s a good water source at the spur trail junction, but filtering or purification is recommended given the popularity of the mountain.
Continue past the spur trail for 0.5 miles, down a steep and rocky drop that often has a small stream running through it. Grab onto the trees and rocks to your right and take your time descending. Turning around and climbing down the drop backwards, like on a ladder, can be helpful if you’re carrying a heavy pack.
Turn right onto the Franconia Brook Trail and follow it 2.2 miles besides a stream to Thirteen Falls, the site of a series of waterfalls over open rock ledges. Be careful of slippery rocks if you venture onto the open ledges because the current can be quite strong after rainfall.
From here, you have a number of options. You can follow a short spur trail to the Thirteen Falls Tentsite and call it a day if you’re tired or want to do a little swimming, or you can continue on toward the base of the Owls Head Path and camp in a dispersed wilderness setting.
If you continue towards Owls Head, look for the Lincoln Brook Trail on the opposite side of the falls. This used to be the hardest trail to follow in the White Mountains because it was kept wild and lightly maintained by trail crews. However, there’s been substantial work done on the trail in recent years and it is now quite easy to follow.
Continue along the Lincoln Brook Trail until you come to the base of the Owls Head Path, which is not technically a trail, but an avalanche slide that you’ll scramble up to the Owls Head summit. The bottom of the slide is usually marked by a rock cairn but it may be missing if the Forest Service has dismantled it. Being a wilderness area, man-made structures are forbidden, but local hikers often rebuild the cairn in an endless tug of war with the Forest Service.
If the cairn is missing, you can usually guess where you are anyway. The area at the bottom of the slide has been severely overused by campers, which you can tell by the denuded trees and the pressed-earth campsites in the area. A GPS or GPS Phone App can also be quite useful for finding the path. If you decide to camp in the area, please follow the Backcountry Camping Regulations for the White Mountain National Forest and Leave No Trace so others can enjoy this spot in the future.
The Owls Head Path climbs very steeply up an avalanche slide made up of loose gravel and unstable rock. It’s relatively safe to climb and descend, but you want to avoid dislodging rocks on any hikers coming up the path below you. The path is not officially marked, but it climbs up to a well-beaten herd path that angles left to the summit, which is also marked with a rock cairn.
Once you’ve summitted, retrace your steps down the Owls Head Path to the Lincoln Brook Trail. As you descend, you can catch a glimpse of the Lincoln Slide, another avalanche track on the west face of Mt Lincoln along Franconia Ridge.
When you reach the bottom of the Owls Head Path, turn left (south) onto the Lincoln Brook Trail. Follow it 3.5 miles to the Franconia Brook Trail, crossing Lincoln Brook several times before finally crossing Franconia Brook. Some of these crossings may be difficult in high water, so exercise caution.
I’ve always found it easiest and the most stable to just walk across them still wearing my shoes since many are too wide to rock hop. I view it as a way to wash out my shoes and socks, which have invariably gotten muddy along the trail.
Turn left onto the Franconia Brook Trail for 3.5 miles, this time headed north and looping around the west side of Owls Head Mountain. This section of the Franconia Brook Trail is easy to hike, with a gentle grade back up to Thirteen Falls.
Turn right (northeast) onto the Twin Brook Trail and climb 2.7 miles to the AMC Galehead Hut. This trail runs above Twin Brook which you can often hear, but not see through the trees. When you get to the hut, resupply your water if you need more, and hang out on the porch a bit to visit with the people sitting there. It’s not unusual to run into a northbound or southbound Appalachian Trail thru-hiker because they like to stop at the huts and enjoy a little hospitality.
From the hut, follow the Frost Trail 0.5 miles to the viewless summit of Mt Galehead. A side path on the way leads to a small ledge with a view of the hut and South Twin Mountain, which towers above it.
Retrace your steps back to the hut and take the Garfield Ridge Trail, around the rear of the hut, for 0.6 miles to the Gale River Trail. Turn right on the Gale River Trail and follow it, steeply at first, along an old railroad grade to the trailhead parking area at the end. From the lot, turn left onto the Gale River Loop Road and walk 1.6 miles to the start of your journey at the Garfield Trail trailhead where you parked your car.