A Thirteen Falls Loop

Backpacking a Thirteen Falls Loop
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.

Thirteen Falls Loop


****/4 out of 5

Distance/Elevation Gain

30 miles w/7500′ of cumulative elevation gain

White Mountain 4000 Footers

  • Garfield
  • Owlshead
  • Galehead

Recommended Duration

2-3 days


mid-June thru October

Permits Required



Backcountry Camping Regulations for the White Mountain National Forest

A substantial portion this route passed through the Pemigewasset Wilderness Area. Please observe all wilderness area restrictions. 

New to the White Mountains? Read this Quick and Dirty Guide to Backpacking in the White Mountains for information about camping regulations, road access, trail shuttles, lodging, dangerous wildlife, weather, etc.

Trailhead Directions

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.

Garfield Trail Trailhead

Gale River Trail Trailhead

Trail Sequence

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.

  1. Garfield Trail 4.8 miles
  2. Garfield Ridge Trail 0.2 miles (to Mt Garfield Summit)
  3. Garfield Ridge Trail 0.2 miles (back)
  4. Garfield Ridge Trail 0.5 miles
  5. Franconia Brook Trail 2.2 miles
  6. Lincoln Brook Trail 3.5 miles
  7. Owls head Path 1.1 miles (up)
  8. Owls head Path 1.1 miles (down)
  9. Lincoln Brook Trail 3.4 miles
  10. Franconia Brook Trail 3.5 miles
  11. Twin Brook Trail 2.7 miles
  12. Frost Trail 0.5 miles (up)
  13. Frost Trail 0.5 miles (down)
  14. Garfield Ridge Trail 0.6 miles
  15. Gale River Trail 4.0 miles
  16. Gale River Loop Road 1.5 miles

Scenic Highlights

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

Camping/Shelter Options


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.

Weather Cautions

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.

Mount Garfield (4500') - Middle
Mount Garfield (4500′) – middle Peak, with Franconia Ridge to the left, and Galehead Mountain in the foreground.

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.

Rocky drop below the Garfield Ridge Shelter and Tentsite
Rocky drop below the Garfield Ridge Shelter and Tentsite

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.

Bog bridges along the Lincoln Brook Trail

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.

Rock cairn at the base of Owls Head Path
Rock cairn at the base of Owls Head Path

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.

Owls head Summit Cairn
Owls Head summit 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.

Lincoln Slide taken from the Owls Head Slide (2017)
Lincoln Slide taken from the Owls Head Slide (2017)

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.

Southern section of the Franconia Brook Trail
Southern section of the Franconia Brook Trail

Turn left onto the Franconia Brook Trail 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.

Galehead hut from the ledge on Mount Gale during an early autumn frost
Galehead Hut from the ledge on Mount Galehead during an early autumn frost

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.

Gale River Trail in Autumn
Gale River Trail in Autumn

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.

Written 2018.

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  1. Ah, the 13 falls tent sites….

    Only place my college group ever caused any real trouble in the Whites.

    Then again, naked cliff jumping into the pools was probably not the best idea we ever had.

    At least we didn’t go au natural when we stopped by the natural waterslide on the way out to the Kank. (^_^)

    And since when is there a path up Owl’s Head? Was a bushwack only climb back in the late 80’s when we bagged that one.

  2. Philip,

    I imagine that even on a weekend in the summer most hikers in the area stay up on the Franconia and Bondcliff ridges and that this route through the valley between the two receives far less traffic. Is this a good trip for people looking to stay away from the crowds?

    • There are still lots of places in the white to experience solitude during the summer months but weekends near these popular 4000 footers isn’t one of them. Weekdays and weekends after a major holiday are when the forest is emptiest, even The Bonds and Franconia Ridge. I’ll also be posting a trip plan next week for a few peaks in the North Country where there are always a lot fewer people.

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