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Climbing the Mt Washington Headwall and the Great Gulf Trail

The Great Gulf is a glacial valley that lies between Mt Washington and the Northern Presidential Range in New Hampshire. It’s ground zero for many of the toughest and steepest trails in the White Mountains, including the Great Gulf Trail which climbs the Mt Washington Headwall. The Headwall is a steep cliff that gains 1600′ in the last 0.5 miles of the Great Gulf Trail, ending at the top of the climb. From there it’s a short walk to the summit of Mt Washington.

Map of the Great Gulf Trail

Great Gulf Trail Map

Level of Effort

Before you can climb the Mt Washington Headwall, you have to get to its bottom, which is located at an alpine pond called Spaulding Lake, deep in the Great Gulf Wilderness Area. That is a 6.5-mile hike up a rugged trail from the Great Gulf Trailhead on Rt 16. By the time you actually summit Washington, you’ll have hiked 7.8 miles with a total of 5000′ of elevation gain, which is a pretty big day.

From Mt Washington, you still have to get down and while there are many routes to choose from, they also take time to hike. For example, the Tuckerman Ravine Trail is 4.2 miles from Mt Washington to Pinkham Notch and takes most people about 3 hours to descend. Once at Pinkham, you’d still need to get back to your car unless you’ve dropped a second car there.

The Mt Washington Headwall as seen from Spaulding Lake

If you are a very fast hiker, you could climb the Headwall and get back down in one day. I know people who can do it, but they’re animals, figuratively speaking, of course. I would advise against doing the above-treeline portions by headlamp because the terrain is very rocky and you can get really hurt if you trap your leg between boulders and fall. Cell phone access is very spotty and help will probably not reach you until the next day.

Weetamoo Falls is located just above the Sphinx Trail Junction and a short distance below Spaulding Lake.

You can also complete the route as a one-night backpacking trip, which is how I’ve climbed the Headwall, the two times I’ve been up it. There are several designated campsites along the Great Gulf Trail with bear boxes that make this fairly convenient. Camping isn’t permitted beyond mile 5.6 on the Great Gulf Trail, but that still gets you pretty close. For you fly fisherman, there are native brookies in the West Peabody River alongside the trail and it will take you all day to fly fish your way up.

The Climb

The bottom of the Headwall starts just above Spaulding Lake (4228′) and climbs to the Gulf Side Trail Junction (5925′) in 0.9 miles. Follow the Great Gulf Trail past the Lake until you reach a small stream and turn left onto it. The stream flows down a section of the trail that’s been washed out and you’ll need to hike up it (and in it) to get back onto the part of the trail that is still intact. If you try to bushwhack around this stream bed, you’ll be in for the fight of your life. The vegetation is incredibly dense and you’ll quickly realize that the stream bed is the path of least resistance.

As you climb, take a moment to sit down and savor the views of the valley below

This is where the fun starts. The climb has two parts. The bottom half climbs up, back, and forth over a stream. The route is wet and slippery, so you really want to be sure of your footing and handholds. It’s a pretty serious scramble and there are some exposed areas where a fall would be dangerous.  Last week when I climbed this section (mid-September) I also encountered ice on the rocks, which made things twice as exciting. This half of the trail is marked with faint yellow blazes painted on rocks and small rock cairns. They’re not terribly obvious and you have to keep eyes peeled for them. They also become more infrequent, the higher you climb.

The upper half of the trail becomes increasingly dry but can be very hard to follow since the blazes cease and the rock cairns are fewer and farther apart. Carrying a GPS with up-to-date maps or a Smartphone GPS app like, Guthook’s NE England Hiker App, which has maps of the White Mountain Trail System, is useful to reacquire the trail if you stray too far left or right as you ascend. I’ve also used a compass which is even better for following a bearing.

The grassy cut near the rim is visible in the upper right-hand corner of this photo.

The trail runs along a rock slide closer to the top where the scree is more pulverized and less stable. Just below the rim, the trail jogs left and then right through a grassy cut, before you crest the top and come to the Wilderness Area sign that marks the Great Gulf boundary. If you’ve completely lost the trail don’t panic. You can scramble all the way to the top with care, although I’d avoid straying too far to the right and the cliffs below Mt Clay.

Cross the Cog Railway Tracks and hike the short distance to the Mt Washington summit

The Great Gulf Trail ends when it reaches the Gulf Side Trail. Follow it across the Cog Railway Tracks for 0.2 miles to the Trinity Heights Connector Trail, which climbs to the Mt Washington Summit in 0.2 miles, coming up behind the TipTop House.

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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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13 comments

  1. The Great Gulf is one of my favorite trails! I think I just had a convergence of wonderful things that led me to love that trail: perfect September weather, a wonderful campsite, glorious scenery (that, of course, is always true), fun rock scrambling (also always true), and a great group of people to hike with. One of the most fantastic things about the GG, imo, is that it is so uncrowded.

    Sadly, I don’t think it’s in the cards for me to get into the GG this season. I miss it so.

  2. Slow old me will need two nights at Clam Rock. Prema (my daughter and hiking partner) has been after me several years for Six Husbands and everything else Great Gulf. I know you red lined Six Husbands
    This can wait til next summer
    Best wishes on your remaining TW work!

  3. Assuming you parked and started from Dolly Copp you can loop back by taking the auto road or Nelson crag trail to madison gulf trail. This takes you back to great gulf trail trail and back to your car. That’s the way I did it many years ago. Long day but doable in daylight if you start out at dawn.

  4. I parked at pinkham AMC and took a trail that crossed the lower auto road and then down into GG, where I camped a bit upstream. Next day up and out via Tuckerman. This seems like the most logical loop. The GG headwall is nice hiking trail.

    • Yes you can easily do a loop using the Old Jackson Road and Madison Gulf trails to connect to Great Gulf from Pinkham. I never see anyone mention that connector when describing this hike, which is odd, because the elevation gain and distance from Pinkham is nearly identical to hiking the full length of the Great Gulf trail from 16. No car spot or road walk needed, you hit Lowe’s Bald Spot on the way and it’s an extra 10 minutes at most to tag the Bluff if you want, which is a nice destination in its own right (and not even mentioned in this article).

      People also generally don’t mention how easy either route is up until the Sphinx intersection, where the trail gets pretty wild up until the actual headwall… but that rougher section is a big part of the appeal of doing this trip imo. It’s not just the headwall that makes it a great hike. Appreciate Phil mentioning the stream bed past Spaulding, I wasn’t aware of it the first time up and it was definitely a “is this REALLY the trail?” moment.

  5. Phil, what’s the last official campsite on the GG trail?

    • Just past the Wamsutta Trail Junction, I believe. There’s aslo one at the bottom of the six husbands and buttress Trail junction across the river.

      • Phil, you are correct, it is a long day. We did it the same day you did in and out Great Gulf including a summit of Washington and down the Sphinx Trail. Well over 16 miles and 5000 feet of elevation gain with an 11-1/2 hour day. Probably made even harder that we did Madison Gulf and the Buttress the day before from Great Gulf. We did find that “trail” in the stream and Rick tried to bushwhack around it, it was easier in the stream!
        Views were fantastic from the headwall though. Any fish in Spaulding Lake?
        I will definitely be coming back into the GG to get the T25 with others, but I will backpack next time.

      • Fred, hey. Spaulding Lake is a mud pit, too shallow for fish when I was there. They’re downstream below the Sphinx Trail junction though. Let me know when you head back in there. I might join you since incredibly, we’ve never hiked together!

  6. “less stable” scree near the top of the head wall is darn right! I hiked this trail a couple months ago. My 2 kids and I were hiking with my older son about 15 or 20 feet ahead and my younger son about 2 feet ahead of me. The older son caused a 5 gallon bucket sized rock to tumble down directly toward me and my younger son. In my effort to get him out of the way my leg stayed right in the rocks path and it slammed into my shin and then fell onto my foot. Thankfully the worst of my injury was a relatively minor gash that required bandaging. How the bones on top of my foot did not break I have no idea. But it sure hurt. Great hike though!

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