Great Hikes: Howker Ridge Watson Path Loop
I was in awe the first time I climbed it up the Howker Ridge Trail to Mt Madison. Howker runs along the top of a ridge that’s capped by these strange rocky peaklets, called Howks, which poke out above treeline at intervals along the route. Their tops are barely a few paces wide but looking back at them from the summit they look like a staircase climbing to the summit.
The Howker Ridge Trail is named for the Howker Family which lived at its base. I suspect the term “howks” is a made-up local term to describe the peaklets, but the name “Howker” was originally a name for someone who worked as a person who made hooks or an agricultural worker who used hooks (Wikipedia). It could also be applied to someone who lived near a bend or hill-spur. That actually makes sense because the Howker Ridge could be classified as a hill spur, which is a lateral ridge or tongue of land descending from a hill, mountain, or the main crest of a ridge.
- Howker Ridge Tr: 3.1 miles
- Pink Link Tr: 1.1 miles
- Watson Path: 1.4 miles
- Brookside Tr: 0.5 miles
- Kelton Tr: 0.8 miles
- Inlook Tr: 0.7 miles
- Randolph Path: 1.4 miles
I was thinking about the last time I climbed this section of trail, 9 years ago. All I could really remember were the howks and what they looked like when seen from the summit. My purpose on this hike was to refresh my memory buy re-experiencing the landscape. I’ve never been one to grow moss, so it surprises me that I’ve stayed so attached to the White Mountains and Northern New England for so long. I’ve always been a rolling stone, moving from place to place, job to job, profession to profession, when one got old and the novelty of the next beckoned. But I’ve been hiking in the Whites for 15 years so far and every hike I take is still a delight.
Living here has taught me a few things about the types of adventures I prefer though. Novelty is important. I like to go to new places more than revisiting old ones. If there’s one regret that I have after spending the past four years re-hiking the White Mountains trail system, it’s probably that. I’m ready for new pastures and there’s plenty to explore nearby for another 15 years of hiking, backpacking, and fly-fishing adventures.Howker Watson Loop
On this hike, my plan was to hike up the Howker Ridge Trail until it merges with the Pine Link Trail and to branch off onto Pine Link at the point where the two trails break apart and go their separate ways. I’d done the inverse (up Pink Link, then up Howker Ridge to Mt Madison) the week before and didn’t feel a huge urge to stand on the summit of Madison again. Instead, I planned to follow Pine Link before descending the Watson Path, another trail I haven’t hiked for a long time.
I’d had some trepidation planning this route because I remembered Watson to be a difficult trail to climb. I can recall pulling myself up Watson in 2012 by grabbing onto the trees alongside a narrow, near-vertical section of trail. On the flip side, I was equally concerned about descending the trail, since I sprained my ankle badly just a few months earlier, descending a similarly difficult trail on Mt Jefferson. A trusted friend (my age) assured me descending Watson was manageable and so that’s what I decided to do.
From Watson, I’d descend back to the Howker Trailhead by a series of smaller trails, in order: Brookside, Kelton, Inlook, and Randolph East. I like all these trails but I was looking forward to hike the InLook Trail again, which has a tremendous view up the narrow valley between Madison and Adams. The north side of the Presidentials has a gazillion interconnected trails with lots of interesting things and places to visit from sublime geologic features to memorial plaques and waterfalls.
The start of the trail is on private property, according to the newish looking signs posted, something that I don’t recall noticing previously. Private property owners are quite gracious in providing access to hikers throughout the White Mountain National Forest, although with the influx of visitors this (pandemic) year, I wonder how many are reconsidering that position. I doubt it will ever be a problem on this trail, however, which is as unpopular as ever because it’s out of the way. Hopefully, it will stay that way.
The hike up the first 3 miles of the Howker Ridge Trail begins with a series of bog bridges before starting to climb gradually alongside Bumpus Brook. The brook had a good flow despite the fact that we’re in the middle of a drought. All of the streams on the north side of the Presidentials are spring-fed so they have reliable water. They’re also cold as hell and sport a surprisingly feisty population of brook trout.
The trees and shrubs get smaller as you climb through hobblebush and ferns passing the Bear Pit, which is an assemblage of rocks that forms a pit that a bear could easily climb out of, but a person or dog probably can’t. The north side of the Presidentials is managed by the Randolph Mountain Club which likes to post sardonic, humorous, and descriptive signs naming various features of the forest and trails, that help disarm the difficulty of hiking their steep and rocky trails. A history of the club is recorded in Peaks and Path: A Century of the Randolph Mountain Club which you can purchase from the club website.
There are two howks on the bottom half of the Howker Ridge Trail. The first is tiny, while the second is more substantial. Both have good views of Madison. At 3.1 miles the Howker Ridge Trail meets the Pine Link Trail and both trails coincide for 0.3 miles before splitting again. I continued up Pine Link at the upper junction for 0.4 miles before breaking above-treeline, meeting the Watson Path at 0.7. This junction is just 0.3 miles below the summit of Madison and provides an easier way to ascent to the summit than following the Howker Ridge Trail directly, although somewhat less scenic.
It was sunny but windy and cold when I started down Watson. Much to my surprise, I encountered five people hiking up the trail, which I wouldn’t recommend because it is insanely steep. The top section above treeline is all talus, so it was slow going. The below treeline section is just as difficult, but in a different way, with many tree roots and much erosion. The descent from the Watson/Pine Link Junction to Snyder Brook at the base of the Watson Path is 1600′ in 0.9 miles. I’m glad I followed my friend’s advice and hiked down this trail.
I filtered water at Synder Brook and had some lunch, before following the last little bit of the Watson Path, and then hiked down a rocky section of the Brookside Tr to the Kelton Path, which I followed to the Inlook Path. The path has great views up Synder Brook, to John Quincy Adams and Mount Adams, from a perspective you’ll never see if you just hike up the Valley Way Trail (the most popular trail) to the ridge. From the base of Inlook, I followed the Randolph Path East, a very fast but pleasant section of trail to hike, back to the Howker Trailhead.
I really recommend this route if you’re looking for a less-crowded and quite scenic way to climb Mt Madison. There are a lot of different ways to climb to the Northern Presidentials and it’s quite a lot of fun to hike them all.
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