Backpacking a Pemi Loop

Backpacking a Pemigewasset Loop

A Pemi Loop, as it’s known locally, is a 33-mile loop hike that follows the ridgeline encircling the Pemigewasset Wilderness. This 2-3 day route climbs TEN 4000 footers with 9000 feet of elevation gain and has long stretches of above-treeline travel, including a Bonds Traverse and a Franconia Ridge Traverse, two of the most scenic walks in the White Mountains. You can also bring the total number of 4000 footers climbed to TWELVE, by adding in a few short side trips to nearby summits.

This is a tough hike, but one that you’re unlikely to forget for the rest of your life. Some hard-core White Mountain peakbaggers try to hike the entire loop in 24 hours, but my preference is to spread the experience out over multiple days to fully enjoy the awe-inspiring views and star-filled skies at night. The route described below runs in a counter-clockwise direction around the Pemi because it provides better campsite opportunities for backpackers. You can also hike it counter-clockwise by reversing the directions.

BWM4K-Pemi-Loop-PDF

Download a printable high resolution GEOPDF of this map which can be carried or used to navigate with the Avenza Maps App.

Rating/Difficulty

*****/5 out of 5

Distance/Elevation Gain

33 miles w/9000′ of cumulative elevation gain

White Mountain 4000 Footers

  • Bondcliff
  • Mt Bond
  • West Bond
  • Zealand (optional side trip)
  • South Twin
  • North Twin (optional side trip)
  • Galehead
  • Garfield
  • Lafayette
  • Lincoln
  • Liberty
  • Flume

Recommended Duration

2-3 days

Season

mid-June thru October

Permits Required

None.

Regulations

Backcountry Camping Regulations for the White Mountain National Forest.

Most of this route passes 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

Lincoln Woods Trailhead

Trail Sequence

The route follows the following trails in sequence. Refer to the 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.

  • Lincoln Woods Trail – 2.9 miles
  • Bondcliff Trail – 7.9 miles miles
  • West Bond Spur – 1.0 miles (out and back)
  • Guyot Shelter Spur – 0.4 miles (out and back)
  • Bondcliff Trail – 0.8 miles
  • Twinway East (optional out and back) – 2.6 miles
  • Twinway West – 2.0 miles
  • North Twin Spur – 2.6 miles (optional out and back)
  • Twinway – 0.8 miles
  • Frost Trail – 0.8 miles (out and back)
  • Garfield Ridge Trail – 6.4 miles
  • Franconia Ridge Trail – 5.0 miles
  • Osseo Trail  – 4.1 miles
  • Lincoln Woods Trail – 1. 4 miles

Scenic Highlights

The following list provides cumulate distances on the route to each view or landmark.

  • Franconia Falls (optional side trip) – 2.9 miles (plus optional 0.4 mile side trail)
  • Bondcliff Mountain Summit – 9.1 miles
  • Mt Bond Summit – 10 miles
  • West Bond Summit – 11 miles
  • Guyot Summit – 12.3 miles
  • Zealand Mtn – (optional 4K side trip) 1.3 miles from Mt Guyot
  • South Twin Summit – 14.3 miles
  • North Twin Summit (optional 4K side trip) – 1.3 miles from South Twin
  • Galehead Hut – 15.1 miles
  • Mt Gale Summit – 15.5 miles
  • Garfield Lean-to and tentsite – 18.6 miles
  • Garfield Summit – 18.8 miles
  • North Lafayette Summit – 21.9  miles
  • Lafayette Summit – 22.5 miles
  • Greenleaf Hut (optional side trip) – 1.1 miles from Mt Lafayette
  • Lincoln Summit – 23.5 miles
  • Little Haystack Summit – 24.2
  • Liberty Summit – 26 miles
  • Mt Flume Summit – 27.5 miles

Camping/Shelter Options

Water

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. 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.

The Appalachian Mountain Clubs Huts are taking reservation in 2021. Contact the AMC for reservations and information at outdoors.org. (Note: You don't have to stay in their facilities when hiking in the White Mountains.) All Randolph Mountain Club Cabins remain closed for 2021, but the tentsites are open on a first come first serve basis.

I also recommend purchasing the WMNF Pemigewasset Map in Guthooks Guide’s New England Hiker Smartphone App (IOSAndroid) 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 also several stretches along this route where it may be prudent to carry extra water. These include:

  • Franconia Falls Trail Junction to Guyot Shelter and Tentsite
  • Garfield Shelter Spur Trail to the Liberty Spring Tentsite

Weather Cautions

This route is sensitive to seasonal and weather conditions which can make it hazardous. This is particularly true for the above-treeline portions of trip which are completely exposed to the elements. The chief hazards are high wind (above 40 mph) which can make walking difficult, rain and cold temperatures which can lead to hypothermia, being struck by lightning, and poor visibility which can make trail finding difficult if you’re not a strong navigator. If the weather deteriorates or is bad, get below treeline, consider ending your trip, or changing your route to where there is more vegetation.

Be sure to check the Weather.gov and Mt Washington Observatory Higher Summits forecasts before your hike. Updated weather conditions are also posted at all of the AMC Huts along the route. It’s not unusual for experienced White Mountain hikers to postpone above-treeline trips and hike alternate, less exposed routes on bad weather days. The month with the greatest thunderstorm danger is July.

On the Trail

Cross the suspension bridge over the East Branch Pemigewasset River
Cross the suspension bridge over the East Branch Pemigewasset River

Leave the Lincoln Woods trailhead and cross the suspension bridge over the East Branch Pemigewasset River. Turn right at the other end and walk 2.9 miles down the Lincoln Woods Trail until you reach the Franconia Falls Trail junction.

The Lincoln Woods Trail is a major access trail leading into the Pemigewasset Wilderness
The Lincoln Woods Trail is a major access trail leading into the Pemigewasset Wilderness

Before crossing the bridge over Franconia Brook to the Bondcliff Trail, you might want to take a short detour to check out nearby Franconia Falls, 0.4 miles down the side trail, on your left. Franconia Falls is a wonderful swimming hole, well worth returning to at some future point.

Lovely Franconia Falls
Lovely Franconia Falls

Crossing the wooden bridge to the beginning of the Bondcliff Trail, follow it down an old railroad grade that was once used to pull lumber out of the forest using horse teams and steam engines. At 4.7 miles, turn left and start climbing, still following the Bondcliff Trail, as it climbs alongside Black Brook, with several easy stream crossings. The last time I hiked this route, those stream crossings were unexpectedly dry so you might want to bring extra water, or check NETrailConditions.com for recent trip reports, to see if they mention water availability. The next reliable water is at the Guyot Lean-to and Tent site at 12.3 miles.

Hike over old rail road ties along the Bondcliff Trail
Hike over old railroad ties along the Bondcliff Trail

At 8.8 miles, you’ll scramble up a rock ledge that’s often called “Hillary’s Step” before emerging above treeline on Bondcliff Mountain, one of the most scenic cliffside traverses in the Whites. To the west (left), spreads Franconia Ridge, Owls Head Mountain, and the heart of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. This is a sight to behold and many people linger for hours absorbing the view.

Bondcliff Mountain Summit Viewpoint
Bondcliff Mountain Summit Viewpoint

Since Bondcliff is a cliff, use caution if you’re accompanied by children or a pet. The trail is marked by rock cairns, which should be followed carefully, to avoid disturbing the sensitive alpine flora along the east side (rear) of the mountain. Stay well to the right (east) if it’s windy, visibility is poor, or darkness has fallen. There’s a reason the region below the cliffs is called Hellgate.

The trail runs along the top of Bondcliff for about a mile before climbing steeply up a boulder-choked trail to Mt Bond, which also has tremendous views to the east, including Mt Washington.

Bondcliff, seen from Mt Bond
Bondcliff, seen from Mt Bond

Continuing north, descend the Bondcliff Trail to the West Bond Trail spur on your left, and follow it 0.5 miles to the West Bond Summit. The morning and evening views of Bondcliff from this viewpoint are quite breathtaking and it’s well worth hiking from the nearby Guyot Shelter and Tent site to experience them. While walking along the ridgeline of Bondcliff is quite an experience, seeing its rakish profile from West Bond is equally awe-inspiring.

Avalanches scar the face of West Bond Mountain
Avalanches scar the face of West Bond Mountain

Return to the Bondcliff Trail, turning left, until you reach the Guyot Shelter Spur Trail. This is good place to camp because it has water and bear boxes, tent platforms, and a lean-to. During the summer months, you’ll meet Appalachian Trail Thru-hikers who also stop to camp here.

Climb back up to the Bondcliff Trail from the Guyot Shelter Spur Trail and continue north towards Mt Guyot, an exposed dome-shaped peak, until you reach the Twinway Trail junction. If you want to climb nearby Zealand Mountain, also on the 4000 footer list, you can turn right (east) at the junction and hike 2.6 miles, out and back, to bag the peak. If not, turn left (northwest) and continue towards South Twin Mountain, in 2.0 miles, passing through the dense woods that border the trail.

South Twin Mountain
South Twin Mountain

The Twinway pops back up above treeline at the South Twin summit, which also has tremendous views. In summer, you can often see glider pilots soaring on the thermals above. If you want to climb nearby North Twin Mountain, also on the 4000 footer list, follow the North Twin Spur Trail for 2.6 miles, out and back. If not, continue along the Twinway, descending steeply for 0.8 miles down a rocky trail, before arriving at the AMC’s Galehead Hut.

AMC Galehead Hut
AMC Galehead Hut

Day hikers are welcome to enter and visit the huts, where you can get out of the weather, check the forecast, and purchase snacks prepared by the hut crew. Water and bathrooms are also available.

From the Galehead Hut porch, it’s just 0.4 miles up the Frost Trail to the Gale Mountain summit. There’s also a nice ledge viewpoint on the left near to summit sign.

Return to the AMC Galehead hut and make your way to the Garfield Trail/Twinway Trail junction, at the end of the spur trail leading to Galehead Hut. Turn left onto the Garfield Ridge Trail and follow it over a series of small peaks for 2.9 miles to the Garfield Shelter Spur junction, where a piped water source is available on the immediate right. The trail is quite rough and rocky in this section, and often wet, so take your time hiking it.

Garfield Ridge Trail below shelter
Garfield Ridge Trail below shelter

Continue climbing the Garfield Ridge Trail, bearing left where the similarly named Garfield Trail enters from the right, and scramble over open ledges to the Garfield summit which has an old fire tower foundation. From Garfield, you can see the east side of Franconia Ridge, your next destination. South Twin Mountain, Owls Head, Bondcliff, and many others can be seen from this fine viewpoint.

Franconia Ridge from the Garfield Summit
Franconia Ridge from the Garfield Summit

Retrace your steps to the Garfield Ridge Trail and dip below treeline again, heading southwest. Follow the ridgeline for 2.9 miles, climbing past the Skookumchuck Trail, which enters on the right. Ascend the north knob of Mt Lafayette, also called North Lafayette, once again climbing above treeline.

Climb North Lafayette following the cairns to Mt Lafayette
Climb North Lafayette following the rock cairns to Mt Lafayette

Follow the cairns to the Mt Lafayette summit in 0.8 miles, where the Franconia Ridge Trail begins. From Lafayette, you can see the Kinsman Range and Mt Cannon to the west, on the other side of Rt 302. On a clear day, you should be able to see all of the peaks to the west that you climbed earlier on this route, including Bondcliff.

Mt Lafayette and the Franconia Ridge Trail
Mt Lafayette and the Franconia Ridge Trail

When hiking the Franconia Ridge it’s important to remain between the scree walls that demarcate the trail to avoid stepping on fragile alpine vegetation and potentially harming it. These slow-growing plants are buried in snow for all but a few months each year and have a hard time recovering if they’re trampled and damaged. While it’s tempting to roam over the open ledges on the east and west sides of the ridge, this trail is so popular in summer, that these plants are in serious jeopardy of disappearing forever.

Follow the Franconia Ridge Trail headed south
Follow the Franconia Ridge Trail headed south

Follow the Franconia Ridge South as it travels over Mt Lincoln and Little Haystack until it reaches the Liberty Spring Trail Junction. If you need water, there’s a spring down this trail at the AMC’s Liberty Spring Tentsite in 0.3 miles.

Mt Flume in the foreground. Mt Liberty to the north
Mt Flume in the foreground. Mt Liberty to the north

Continue south on the Franconia Ridge Trail for another 0.3 miles to the summit of Mt Liberty, which has a small but open summit. The trail follows a ledge down the south side, dropping into a col, before climbing again to the summit of Mt Flume in 1.1 miles. The Franconia Ridge Trail ends 0.1 miles south of the Flume summit, at a trail junction, where the Osseo Trail begins.

Follow the Osseo Trail descending steeply via wooden ladders at points
Follow the Osseo Trail descending steeply via wooden ladders at points

The Osseo Trail runs down Flume gradually at first and then more steeply, climbing down steep wooden staircases at points. In 4.1 miles, it reaches the Lincoln Woods Trail. Turn right at this junction and follow the Lincoln Woods Trail for 1.4 miles, turning left at the suspension bridge over the East Branch Pemigewasset River to the starting point of this route.

About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 7500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 2500 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip is the 36th person to hike all 650 of the hiking trails in the White Mountain Guide, a distance of approximately 2500 miles, completing a second round in 2021. Philip is the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He lives in New Hampshire.

Safety Disclaimer

This trip plan can not alert you to every hazard, anticipate your experience, or limitations. Therefore, the descriptions of roads, trails, routes, shelters, tent sites, and natural features in this trip plan are not representations that a particular place or excursion will be safe for you or members of your party. When you follow any of the routes described on SectionHiker.com, you assume responsibility for your own safety. Under normal conditions, such excursions require the usual attention to traffic, road and trail conditions, weather, terrain, the capabilities of your party, and other factors. Always check for current conditions, obey posted signs, and Backcountry Camping and Wilderness Area Regulations. Hike Safe and follow the Hiker responsibility code. 

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37 comments

  1. No, sorry. Working on other “projects” this year. Please do it without me.

    • Dennis A. Cooley

      Maybe next year!! Our Summer is fairly busy, with a reverse hike of the Black Mountain Crest Trail (NC) thrown in. Enjoy your “projects”. :)

  2. The Liberty end of Franconia Ridge suffered the most (between little haystack and liberty), but I’m sure it will be clear by the time spring is over. Everything else is clear.

  3. Nick, that is the trip I am planning, hopefully in June. Like you, I want to stretch it out to 4 nights, 4.5 days, but I am thinking of finding a place to hang my hammock near Garfield Pond. Do you recall seeing any signs that excludes camping near this area?

    • I don’t recall seeing any signs to that effect. The standard guidance for at large camping is no closer than 200 feet from trails or water. For designated wilderness areas, i think this is extended to .25 mile (~1,400 ft.). Perhaps Philip could corroborate. I’ think it does, but i’m not sure that the Garfield Pond area falls within the wilderness boundary.

      There are some camping spots in that area that are flat, but i’m not sure they are the specified distance from the trail, though i did see people using them. I didn’t fully explore the options further off trail since i was planning to camp at Liberty Spring, but i suspect you’d be able to find legal options. Using a hammock would diversify your options.

      But, as i mentioned, getting water from the pond isn’t ideal, so you might want to water up before getting there for the night.

      (I thought i posted a response earlier, but it’s not showing up. Maybe i forgot to post it. If there’s a duplicate, Philip can delete it.)

      • There’s a link on the trip plan to backcountry regulations. But nick is right that Garfield pond area makes for lousy camping. Ugly as sin from overuse. The bears all know about it. Getting water out of the pond is s misery and in June you’ll get killed by black flies. Camping at the Garfield campsite is infinitely better and it’s too early for the caretaker so it will probably be free.

  4. Wow! Sounds like quite an adventure. Thank you so much for your feedback. I heard Lafayette was a zoo last weekend with the unprepared hikers and bad weather. But I’m glad that you were aware of the weather extremes that can occur.

  5. Rent a car. Land in Concord, Nh or Manchester.

  6. There are 80,000 acres of forest in the Pemi. Just go down below treeline to camp…It’s not far and there’s water below the ridge.

  7. What’s the point really? I like to savor my hikes.

  8. Hard to say. We’re now getting frosts every night down in the valleys. I switched to a 20 degree sleeping bag 3 weeks ago.

    • I know, such a hard topic to try to foresee. I picked up a bag liner that is supposed to add +25 degrees. Even if I get half that combined with my 30 degree bag I hope to be good. I am bringing a survival bevy just in case.

      Do you think Yaktrax are needed? Ice on rocks, or would that make it worse?

    • If you need anything, I’d bring microspikes. The whites would destroy Yaktrax in about 5 seconds.

    • Thanks Philip Werner for the info. My ticket is a go and I think I have enough of the right gear to make this a fun trip. Just hold that snow dumping back a bit till I get out!

  9. Philip…planning to hike the Pemi, we think 4 days and three nights would be a nice pace to enjoy the hike. Final decision is when? Best weekend for our crew would be Memorial Day weekend but concerned about the crowds and getting campsites. Four days would get us on the trails early and hopefully arrival at sites to beat the crowds. Weather is weather, but historically is late May a good time to give it a try? Have heard late spring might be good for wild flowers, and also have read about the black flies.

    Any thoughts? Thanks!

    • The monday after a major holiday or weekdays.

    • Did you go Memorial Day weekend and if so how was it (the trail conditions,crowds and weather)?

      • If they went last year I wouldn’t take that as an indication for what you might find this year since last year would have been under COVID. I was just up there this past weekend. With the early weather warm-up and quickly diminishing snow (didn’t need any traction) the crowds are already picked up. The coming weekend looks relatively nice for hiking and can’t predict with certainty but I would expect it to be busy.

  10. Hi Philip- I’m making plans for July. How cold will it get at night? I can hammock or tent- hammock seems better for the terrain. Down to freezing? Bear can recommended? thanks!

  11. Hello Philip. Planning on hiking this loop in a few days. If I don’t bring bear can do I hang my food if shelters and tent sites are full? I understand there might be a few bear boxes on the loop at these sites.
    Thanks.

  12. planning a trip in two weeks, end of September…Can i get by with a hammock or would you recommend a tent this time of year? Not planning micro spikes, but would you recommend poles? I’m a very fit individual,a Marine, but not an experienced hiker

    • You’ll probably be more comfortable in a tent unless you’re experienced in cold weather hammock camping. Check “weather.gov mt bond, NH” before you set out. Poles yes. Probably don’t need microspikes yet.

  13. Looking to backpack this weekend or next with the family. We have an 11 and 9 year old. We usually back pack in PA and have completed a couple 20+ mile hikes. Do you have a recommendation on best hike(15 to 20Miles)? Would like to be above tree line but not for too long and prefer a trail that is challenging but with easy navigation. This would be our first time to the whites.

  14. Hey Philip, this is a great site, thank you so much for the information you provide. I’m looking to do a CC Pemi Loop late this summer, probably 3 nights 4 days.(I know that’s a months away, but I’m a researcher). I was hoping to camp near West Bond the first night. Are you aware of any legal “unofficial” campsites near there? (I’m aware of the backcountry camping regs). And is the spring near the Guyot Shelter the closest available water to there?

  15. What side of the river is the Franconia Brook shelter these days? Looking online I’m getting conflicting information.

  16. I misspoke: I meant the Franconia Brook Tent site: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/whitemountain/recarea/?recid=74631

    • It’s on the east side of the river (east branch road trail). I was walking past it this past Saturday and look like good sites. I will say that I also showed up to the Lincoln Woods parking lot at 6:30AM and think I got the last legal parking spot. Summertime is in effect apparently!

  17. Do the campsites tend to fill up quickly? Nervous about the first come first serve aspect.

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