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 TrailGreat 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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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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