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.

Pemi Loop

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 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.

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 tight 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 Tentsite at 12.3 miles.

Hike over old rail road ties along the Bondcliff Trail
Hike over old rail road 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 cliff side 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 Tentsite 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.

Written 2018.

About Philip Werner: Philip is the 36th person to finish hiking and backpacking all of the trails in the White Mountain Guide (1440 miles). He's also finished hiking many of the region's peakbagging lists including the White Mountain 4000 footers, the 4000 footers in Winter, the Terrifying 25, the RMC 100, and the Trailwrights 72. Philip is a 4 season backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a member of the executive committee for the Random Hikers, a Long Trail Mentor for Vermont's Green Mountain Club, and a Leave No Trace Master Educator. He also teaches several compass, GPS, and off-trail navigation courses each year, listed on Outdoors.org.

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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11 comments

  1. What a fantastic loop!! Would you be available to hike this if we make an excursion to NH? :)

    After hiking the Presidential Traverse a couple Summers ago, I need to return to the Whites!!

  2. I did this terrific hike last September when temperatures were about 10ºF above normal. Definitely heed the advice about the stretches of trail that are dry. Garfield Pond is often not given as a water source. It’s possible, but the edges are muddy, and the access is semi-bushwacky, so maybe regard it as kind of an emergency option.

    I took the lollygag approach and took 3.5 days and four nights. Started out after noon, and hung at Franconia Falls for an extended lunch, so i camped the first night at large near where the Bondcliff Trail begins to ascend from the Pemi flood plain. Stayed the next nights at Guyot, Garfield Ridge, and Liberty Spring. Had fun chatting with various through hikers.

    Many areas of New Hampshire got blasted by a pretty bad storm on October 29/30 last fall (2017). I saw a You Tube video that someone did of their hike up the Bonds in November. There was an extensive amount of blowdown, and the trail was blocked in numerous places, requiring some gymnastic clambering to navigate. There were a lot of trees down at the Guyot Campsite, too.

    I’m not sure how much, if any, of this has been cleared since then, but it might be wise to check in with the AMC to find out. It will definitely take some added time on those trails, and perhaps elsewhere nearby.

    • 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.

    • 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.

  3. Would love to accomplish this come the summer. It’s on my bucket list. 2-3 day would be perfect I think for me as I’m not a fast hiker, love to take in the views, watch the birds, observe the fauna. Thanks for the article. Will read it again for sure.

  4. I’m scheduled for a mid-July 2 nighter for this route. Does anyone have any thoughts on alternative one to two night hikes I might pivot to in case the weather turns on me? Time off is hard to come by these days!

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