I got a bit obsessed this autumn trying to hike as many new trails as I could before the harsh New Hampshire winter arrives in the White Mountains. I’ve been aided in this pursuit by the unseasonably warm weather we’ve been having this year, which has delayed the onset of winter’s wrath into January, more than six weeks later than I would have expected heavy snow and bitter cold to arrive.
Seizing a favorable weather window, I decided to climb up to Gray Knob, on the north face of Mt Adams in the Northern Presidentials, ground zero for harsh winter weather. Located just below treeline, Gray Knob is an unheated cabin run by the Randolph Mountain Club, where hikers can spend the night before attempting to summit Mt Adams, Jefferson or Madison (the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th highest peaks in the Whites after Mt Washington), during the brief daylight hours in winter.
I haven’t done much hiking in the Northern Presidentials this past year, even though I like to rotate my hikes through the different regions the White Mountains for variety. I also don’t anticipate climbing many of the high peaks this winter because I’m burnt out on climbing the same mountains over and over again. I’ve always hiked to experience new places and see new sights. So I decided to skip summiting any of the high peaks on this trip and try to hike as many new trails instead, including the:
- Randolph Path
- Beechwood Way
- Amphibrach Trail
- Spur Trail
- Hincks Trail
- Gray Knob Trail
- Log Cabin Cut-Off
- Short Line
- The Brookside
- The Fallsway
If this looks like a large number of trails, it’s a reflection of the fact that there are dozens on this side of the Northern Presidential Range, which is one of the oldest trail systems in the White Mountains and the United States. Most of these trails were literally cut by hand by the townsfolk of Durand, New Hampshire, since renamed Randolph, which is located just across Rt 2 facing the north side of the Madison, Adams, and Jefferson. I won’t bore you with the history of this trail system’s development, but refer you to Mike Dickerman’s White Mountains Hiking History: Trailblazers of the Granite State, which provides an excellent overview.
Before you ask, yes, I am slowly redlining the White Mountain Guide which is also co-edited by Mr. Dickerman, hiking all 608 of the trails listed in the 29th edition. I’ve hiked 346 of the trails so far, and 1009.5 miles of the 1440.4 miles that they cover.
I started this hike just after sunrise at the Randolph East trailhead which is where the Randolph Path and Howker Ridge Trails originate. I arrived before dawn, which is prudent this late in December when there are so few daylight hours. You have to respect the Northern Presidentials any time of year – they’re not a very forgiving place to hike.
I started up the Randolph Path, working my way west to the bottom of the Amphibrach Trail, named after the three blazes that were originally used to mark the trail when it was first built. The early Randolph trail builders were a curious mix of backwoodsmen and academics back in the day, though not too dissimilar from the community’s current residents. Merriam-Webster defines Amphibrach as “a long syllable between two short syllables in quantitative verse or of a stressed syllable between two unstressed syllables in accentual verse.” The blazes are all gone, replaced by signs today.
My goal was to hike up the Amphibrach to the Pentodoi, a junction of five major trunk trails, before heading up Gray Knob on two steep and rocky trails called the Spur and Hincks Trails. From there, I hoped to hike the Gray Knob trail up to Edmunds Col at the bottom of the Jefferson summit cone, before heading down the Randolph Path back to my car.
Temperatures were in the low 40’s at 1500′ with very little snow on the ground, although I expected very different conditions at 4500′ where the Gray Knob Trail breaks above treeline. Winds were forecast to be only 5 mph, so I was optimistic I could hike above treeline for a short distance if the opportunity presented itself. I was equipped with microspikes for this trip and my full set of winter layers but opted not to bring full face protection or goggles, since I didn’t plan to go above treeline solo unless conditions were perfect.
I’d read that the Amphibrach is one of the easiest trails to climb up to elevation, nearly 3000 feet of it of in the northern Presidentials, but I’d never been on it before. It’s quite pleasant actually, without the rocks and scrambling required when you climb up Lowes Path or the Airline Trail. It begins just past the Memorial Bridge over Cold Brook, built to honor the early trail builders in the region.
The leaves changed over to snow and slush at about 3500′, necessitating a change over to microspikes. I passed through the Pentodoi trail junction and headed up the Spur Trail and the Hincks trail, popping out at Gray Knob cabin. Rather than stop and say hello to the caretaker, I decided to keep hiking and see if I could follow the Gray Knob Trail above treeline. The bottom of the trail is protected by spruce up until it intersects with the Perch Path, but it is exposed to the elements above that point.
While it was reasonably warm out, probably in the 30’s at elevation (temperatures drop 2-3 degrees for each 1000 feet you climb), the wind was certainly blowing a lot faster than the 5 mph forecast. The snow was also deepening and I was beginning to posthole. I decided to bail on this 1 mile section of my hike and turn around when I reached the Perch Path, heading down the Randolph Path and back into the protection of the trees. No big deal as far as I’m concerned. I’ll be up this way again next year in warmer weather and better conditions.
I headed back down the Randolph Path to the Randolph East Trailhead with a few diversions to the Log Cabin, another hiker shelter managed by the Randolph Mountain Club, as well as some side trails along the beautiful brook adjacent to the Valley Way Trail, the main thoroughfare up to Madison Hut.
You don’t have to summit the high peaks in the Northern Presidentials to have a great hike along the many beautiful trails here. No indeed.
Total Distance: 14 miles with 3500′ of elevation gain.