“Do you know the way to Mt Jefferson?”, asked a confused hiker, as I approached Thunderstorm Junction on the sedge plateau below Mt Adam’s summit. It must be summer, I thought, a bit incredulous that hikers were walking around above treeline in the Northern Presidentials without a map or any kind of directional device. I pointed her in the correct direction and plunked down on a rock to rest and eat some gorp.
I’d just finished climbing the Great Gully Trail, one of the trails that climbs the King Ravine headwall on the north side of Mt Adams. It’s a steep and rocky trail with water gushing down it, that’s a bit hard to follow in places. I’d been nervous about climbing it solo that morning. The trail had rattled a friend of mine and her description of the trail’s challenges had been unnerving. It’s definitely not for the faint-hearted or anyone afraid of heights, but it didn’t turn out to be as sketchy as I’d feared.
The Great Gully and Chemin des Dames Trails climb the steep walls of King Ravine, on the north side of Mt Adams. The term ravine is used interchangeably with cirque and gulf in the White Mountains. Both of these trails are on The Terrifying 25, a popular list of challenging White Mountain trails that have rocky scrambles, boulder caves, and avalanche slides.
The Great Gully Trail climbs the southwest corner of King Ravine. It’s just one mile long, but gains 1700′ of elevation and is best ascended rather than down-climbed. The Chemin des Dames Trail climbs the east wall of King Ravine, linking the ravine floor to the Airline Trail, which runs along the top of a knife-edge ridge. The Chemin is 0.4 miles long and gains a modest 800′, making it much easier to descend with care.
I started my hike at the popular Appalachia Trailhead off Rt 2 and hiked up the Airline, Short Line, and King Ravine Trails to the floor of the ravine. It’s about a two-hour hike to 3824′, a gain of about 2500′. Most of the hike up is pretty mellow until you get to Mossy Brook Fall, which is good place to resupply your water if you’re short. After that, the trail turns into a rocky scramble through a maze of large boulders.
The Great Gully Trail splits off from the King Ravine Trail weaves its way though stunted trees and rocks to the base of a gully, a narrow channel of rock that runs from the floor of the ravine to boulder fields at the top of the trail. Because the trail is north-facing, snow lingers in the gully into late June and the trail is best avoided until it melts out. As I was climbing the trail, I did see the some ice between the rocks bordering the trail, but thankfully none on the trail itself.
The gully has a stream flowing through it which the trail crosses over, back and forth. Route finding can be difficult though and the trail gets harder to follow the higher up you go. At one point, I lost it on the ascent and briefly thought about bushwhacking up the gully itself to the top of the headwall. That would have been a mistake because I could feel my feet getting numb with cold while standing in the stream.
Instead, I consulted my map and altimeter and figured out where the trail ought to be, before contouring sideways to acquire it. From there, I climbed a sea of boulders marked with cairns to the top of the headwall, popping out near Thunderstorm Junction, where the Great Gully Trail ends.
After my snack break, I looped around the top of King Ravine on the Gulfside Trail to the Airline Trail and descended that to the Chemin de Dames Trail junction. The Gulfside Trail is the major trunk trail linking the northern presidential peaks: Madison, Adams, and Jefferson. This section of the trail is made with rocks that have been carefully fitted together in a surprisingly smooth surface that’s easy to walk on.
There are other trails like this in the Northern Presidentials, built by the great trail builders of the early 1900’s who lived in the town of Durant, now called Randolph, located on the valley floor below. Mike Dickerman, co-editor of the AMC’s White Mountain Guide, has written a book about these men and women called White Mountains Hiking History: Trailblazers of the Granite State that I recommend if you’re interested in learning more about the history of the White Mountain trail system.
I headed down the Airline Trail, taking in the great views from the top of the ridge. I know the volunteer trail maintainer who oversees the Airline Trail. I saw him close to this same time last year, napping among the rocks overlooking King Ravine, close to the Chemin des Dames trail junction. He wasn’t around, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if he was, since we both have odd schedules.
I had some reservations about down climbing the Chemin des Dames Trail, as well. But I knew that my friends Brian and Mary Bond had climbed down it recently, which emboldened me to give it a go. The trail plunges steeply from the junction, past boulders and through krummholz, but the top is easy to down-climb if you take your time and keep your center of gravity low. There’s a tight lemon squeeze about halfway down, but I passed my pack through it first and followed behind. The descent does get more challenging about halfway down when you hit a boulder field, but careful footwork and patience will see you through.
Once I was back at floor of the ravine, I marveled at the route I’d hiked. I get enormous satisfaction when I push my limits and use my wits to do it. I reversed my route and hiked back down to the valley floor, my hiking addiction satiated once again.
Total Distance: 8.5 miles with 4200′ of elevation gain.
Recommended Guidebooks and Maps:
- Appalachian Mountain Club White Mountain Guide, 30th ed.
- AMC White Mountain National Forest Map Set
- White Mountains Map: New Hampshire and Maine
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