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Climbing Mt Adams on the Great Gully Trail

The Great Gully Trail is one of the steepest trails in the Whites climbing 1700 feet in one mile. It begins at the bottom of the King Ravine headwall (3700′) on the north side of Mt Adams (5774′),  the second tallest peak in the White Mountains after Mt Washington, and ends at Thunderstorm Junction, just 200 vertical feet below the Mt Adams summit. The final hike to the summit is a short boulder scramble, but the views of Mt Washington and the Great Gulf spread before you make it well worth your while. The descent makes use of the Spur Trail, passing by Crag Cabin, an inexpensive cabin managed by the Randolph Mountain Club, that’s perched on the cliffside overlooking King Ravine.

King Ravine is a deep glacial valley on the north side of Mt Adams, NH

The Great Gully Trail has a particularly short season and is only snow and ice-free from mid-June (but as late as early July) to mid-October when it begins to fill again with ice and snow. Expert skiers have climbed and skied down the Great Gully in winter, but bypass the upper stream bed and narrow constriction that hikers must traverse the rest of the year. While the upper third of the Great Gully does not require protection for hikers to climb, there are a few highly exposed spots where a fall would probably be fatal, in part due to the remoteness of the route and its lack of use.

Given the difficulty of this route, I wouldn’t recommend it for dogs, children, or anyone afraid of heights. Don’t hike this route on days when it is raining or when the rocks may still be wet after rainfall. I would also recommend that you only climb UP the Great Gully Trail and not down it.

Map

This loop hike is 10.6 miles long with 4,600 feet of elevation gain. It should take you approximately 10 hours to complete.

Great Gully Trail to Mt Adams

Trail sequence

The hike begins at the Appalachia Trailhead on Route 2 across from Randolph, NH, where parking is available without a fee. If the lot is full you can park along Rt 2, but be sure that all of your wheels are off the pavement, or you’re likely to get an expensive ticket.

  • Ascent to Mt Adams
    • Airline Trail – 0.9 miles
    • Short Line Trail – 1.9 miles
    • King Ravine Trail – 0.7 miles
    • Great Gully Trail – 1.0 miles
    • Lowes Path – 0.4 miles
  • Descent to Appalachia Trailhead
    • Lowes Path – 0.4 miles
    • Spur Trail 2.0 miles
    • Randolph Path – 2.6 miles
    • Presidential Rail Trail – 0.7 miles

Airline Trail

As you leave the Applachian Trailhead, you’ll cross a gravel road that passed under the power lines. Bear right at a slight angle to reach the beginning of the Airline Trail. If you continue straight accidentally, you’ll find yourself on the Valley Way Trail. Backtrack to the sign and try again.

While the Airline Trail does climb Mt Adams, it runs along the top of the eastern ridge overlooking the ravine. To get to the bottom of the Great Gully Trail, you’ll need to follow the Short Line Trail to the King Ravine Trail which leads to the ravine floor. This lower section of the Airline Trail is an easy path through forest.

Short Line Trail

The Short Line Trail forks right off the Airline Trail. It’s a surprisingly moderate trail that climbs gently with good footing through the forest. After 0.5 miles, the Short Line Trail coincides with the Randolph Path for 0.4 miles, before branching left and continuing for 1.0 mile to Mossy Fall on the King Ravine Trail.

Mossy Fall, a scenic waterfall, marks the beginning of the boulder scramble up to the floor of King Ravine.

The King Ravine Trail

The section of the King Ravine Trail from Mossy Fall to the open floor of the ravine is a challenging scramble over and between large boulders that requires good hand-eye coordination and balance. It’s not recommended for small children or dogs. A fall between the rocks would be dangerous.

Trail Junction on the floor of King Ravine

When you arrive at the trail junction sign at the foot of the ravine, the surrounding tree cover gives way to the amphitheater-like spectacle of the ravine floor with its steep walls and a profusion of huge boulders that have tumbled down the surrounding cliffs.

The continuation of the King Ravine Trail can be hard to spot although it’s right in front of your eyes. Turn immediately left as you pass the right hand of the sign shown above and you’ll see a narrow path running through the bushes. Follow it straight towards the headwall of the ravine until you reach a sign for the Great Gully Trail nailed at tree height on your right.

If you continue to past this turnoff, you will continue into the King Ravine Subway, which winds through caves amidst the ravine’s boulder field and is a first-class destination in its own right. Given the time it can take to get through the Subway, I’d encourage you to defer following it to a later date in order to conserve your energy for climbing the Great Gully Trail, summiting Mt Adams, and the descent back to Appalachia.

The Great Gully Trails branches right off the King Ravine Trail

Great Gully Trail

The bottom of the Great Gully Trail is a quiet stroll over a mossy trail and through the woods. The trail is sparsely blazed in blue and there are few spots where you’ll want to be on the lookout for the faint footpath that marks the route. This trail is used far less frequently than the popular King Ravine Trail and the path is can be obscured by vegetation or confusing when you cross the stream overhead.

The Great Gully trails runs up the headwall in a narrow channel of rock. As you climb higher, you encounter a waterfall that flows through the trail.

The trail climbs up a narrow channel in the ravine headwall, snaking back and forth across a narrow stream. There is one spot where you’ll need to crawl past a boulder thrusting your backpack out ahead of you as you go. The trail skirts several open ledges but is safe to travel if you stay back from the edge. You’ll cross the stream to your left one last time before angling up the left-hand side of the gully. If you need water, this is actually a good place to stop and filter a liter, since the ridge above is dry.

The trail can be hard to discern here, but rest assured there is a narrow trail that runs through the krummholz. The trail opens up and crosses a small patch of boulders which is marked by cairns, before cresting the headwall. From the top, follow the cairns to the large rock cairn at Thunderstorm Junction, which is a major trail junction below Mt Adams.

Hikers at Thunderstorm Junction, a large rock cairn at the top of the Great Gully Trail, and an easily identifiable landmark below Mt Adams.

Lowes Path

From Thunderstorm Junction, head southeast, following the cairns to the Mt Adams summit in 0.3 miles. To begin your descent, return via Lowes Path to the  Thunderstorm Junction.

Hikers descend Mt Adams back to Thunderstorm Junction

Continue past the cairn on the Lowes Path for 100 yards, turning a slight right onto the signed Spur Trail.

The Spur Trail splits off from Lowes path about 100 yards north of Thunderstorm Junction

Spur Trail

The Spur Path is a rocky two-mile trail that runs along the west side of King Ravine. A significant portion is above-treeline and marked by rock cairns until it dips below treeline near the RMC’s Crag Camp Cabin. At 0.9 miles, the trail passes a side trail named Knights Castle which overlooks King Ravine from high up on the west wall of the ravine.

The Randolph Mountain Club's Crag Camp Hut. Self-Service.
The Randolph Mountain Club’s Crag Camp Hut. Self-Service.

The trail continues its gradual descent, dipping below treeline at 4300′ before reaching the RMC’s Crag Camp Cabin which was bunkbed, self-service accommodation for 20 hikers for a small nightly fee.

View of King Ravine from inside the RMC’s Crag Cabin which provides inexpensive hiker accommodations

The trail becomes easier to hike below the cabin, before reaching a small stream crossing before reaching the Hincks Trail junction. Continue on the Spur Path for another 0.3 miles until you reach the Randolph Path.

Randolph Path and Randolph Path East

Turn right onto the Randolph Path, crossing the Sanders Bridge. Continue on it for another 0.5 miles, where the Randolph Path and the Shortline Trail coincide for 0.4 miles. At this point, you have the option to continue along the Shortline Trail followed by the Airline Trail, reaching the Appalachia Trailhead in 0.9 miles. I always try to avoid hiking out the same way that I came in, so I’d recommend staying right on the Randolph Trail where the Shortline breaks off left for another 1.7 miles to the Randolph East trailhead off the Presidential Rail Trail. This segment of the Randolph Trail is an easy walk through a less traveled but pristine wooded area.

Presidential Rail Trail

The Presidential Rail Trail links all the trailheads along RT 2

Turn left onto the cindered Presidential Rail Trail and follow it 0.7 miles to the Appalachia Trailhead on your right. This rail-trail is used as a snowmobile route in winter and a bicycle trail during the remainder of the year. It also provides a convenient way to link together all of the trailheads along the north side of the Presidential Range from Bowman to Howker East if you decide to start and stop your hike at different trailheads. It’s not unheard of to hide a bike in the trees alongside the path so you can ride back to your car after a hike.

Recommended Guidebooks and Maps:

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About the author

Philip Werner is the 36th person to finish hiking all of 630 trails in the White Mountain Guide, a distance of over 1440 miles. He is also the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook that anyone can access. Philip has 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 (but still needs 24 hours of trail work for the patch). 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.

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