The East Branch Pemigewasset River (the Pemi) is the huge wild river that runs through the heart of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. I spent two days this weekend hiking its length starting at Lincoln Woods all the way up to its headwaters at Stillwater Junction searching for potential places to ford the river. There aren’t any until way upstream near Carrigan Notch, where the river is a fraction of its downstream size.
I concluded that the only safe crossing from the north side near the Bondcliff Trail to the south side is over the Thoreau Falls Trail Footbridge, which can only be reached with a bushwhack and two mid-size stream crossings. I half expected this, but I wanted to see it firsthand because many of the maps of the area that I own or have access to have out-of-date trail and bridge crossing data. This is a region of the White Mountain Trail System that I haven’t hiked much, so I wanted to make sure that some key assumptions in my White Mountain Challenge Route Plan were indeed valid, or even salvageable.
My goal is to cross the Pemi from a point near where the Bondcliff Trail meets the river’s north side to the beginning of the Cedar Brook Trail, which is almost directly across the Pemi on the south bank. If you stick to the existing trail system, this requires a long 9.9 mile walk down the Pemi to the suspension bridge at Lincoln Woods and then back up the south side along the East Side Trail. That’s almost 2/3 of a full day on my estimated White Mountain Challenge pace, so a significant chunk of time and distance.
An alternative is to bushwhack about to the Thoreau Trail footbridge which I scouted this weekend. The length of this detour is about 3.5 miles with about 1 mile of easy-to-moderate bushwhacking. A comparison of the two routes is shown below with the shorter bushwhack route in blue and the long Lincoln Woods bridge detour in purple. I wouldn’t recommend taking my bushwhack route unless you have previous off-trail hiking experience, wear protective clothing, and understand how to safely ford streams.
There was a time when crossing from the north to the south bank of the Pemi near the Bondcliff Trail was easy. But several years ago, the Forest Service dismantled the two bridges which enabled a crossing here. Unfortunately, both removed bridges are still shown on the many White Mountain maps, including Caltopo, which is why the Forest Services has signs posted warning people about the closures at almost every trailhead in the White Mountains.
In addition to closing the bridges, the Forest Service ceased to maintain the trail which leads to them. But the trail is still passable, beginning at the point where the Bondcliff Trail turns sharply left away form the river and starts climbing north up to Bondcliff Mountain.
The first removed bridge crossed Black Brook, which is one of the feeder streams along the Pemi’s length. I suspect this bridge was part of a lumber railroad because the stream is crossable on foot with a little scouting as long as you don’t mind wet feet.
After you cross Black Brook, the old un-maintained trail continues east,
until you come to the old suspension bridge abutments and anchors. The Wilderness Trail and Cedar Trail junction are just across the river.
Continuing east past the site of the old suspension bridge foundations, my bushwhack turned into a proper off-trail excursion. After bashing my way along what looked like an old road for 100 yards or so, I dropped down to the north bank of the Pemi where the walking was more open. This is prime moose habitat with willow shoots sprouting up along the water’s edge.
I continued to scout for a water crossing across the Pemi, venturing out on the gravel bars alongside the river’s edge and fording over to islands in the river, but to no avail. I was looking for places where the river flattened out in between elevation drops and where the watercourse was broken up by islands or gravels bars that would reduce the flow into shallower, more manageable crossings. No such luck: this section of the Pemi is just too wide and dangerous to cross. I’m in awe of this river. I had no idea how big and mighty it is.
When I realized that there was no way to ford the Pemi itself, I decided to scout out North Fork, another mile or so east, one of the large streams that feeds the Pemi and drains the Bonds/Zealand watershed. A lot of the water that flows down the North Fork flows over famous Thoreau Falls, five miles north.
I bushwhacked up the west side of the North Fork, again using the gravel bars as a route of least resistance.
Until I found a crossing a few hundred yards upstream where the stream widens out and is shallow enough to ford safely.
The crossing was knee-deep in moderate current and the water was ice-cold. From here, it was a short, easy bushwhack through moderately open woods to the Thoreau Trail, which leads to the last remaining footbridge across the Pemi.
I knew I’d found the Thoreau Falls Trail when I saw saw-cut logs along the trail and a discernible treadway. From here it was a short distance back to the river and the last standing, but obviously rickety, bridge across a narrow section of the Pemi.
Rather, than looping back to the Cedar Falls trail junction which is part of my White Mountain Challenge route, I continued east along the Wilderness Trail toward Carrigan Notch to scout a second water crossing at Stillwater Junction. That was the start of the second half of this backpacking trip, which I’ll continue in a subsequent post.