Winter comes early at the higher elevations in the White Mountains, especially on Mt Washington and in Presidential Mountain Range. Our first high elevation snowfall this year (2021) was on September 30, so when you get some good days in October where the temperature is in the 50’s with clear skies and low wind, you’d best grab them since they get real scarce until spring. After that, it’s long pants weather for the next six months.
When we saw a good weather window in the days ahead, my friend Ken (not the mountain guide Ken) and I planned a long loop over Mts Monroe, Washington, and Jefferson. As luck would have it we also picked a day with an undercast on Mt Washington, also known, as a cloud inversion, where you get to look down onto the tops of the clouds filling the valleys below.
Ken and I are both working on the White Mountains 4000 Grid, although he’s quite a bit farther along than me in his peak list. This “feat” requires hiking all forty-eight White Mountain 4000 footers in each calendar month of the year. We both needed all three of these peaks in October, so this looked like the perfect opportunity to go bang them out. Being the #5, #1, and #3 tallest peaks on the 4000 footer list, nabbing all three at once would be challenging but still attainable for us all goats.
We met at the Amonoosuc Trailhead just before 8:00 am (a civilized hour) and quickly got underway, hiking up the Amonoosuc Ravine Trail to the Lakes of the Cloud Hut at the base of the Mt Monroe summit cone. This is a really steep and wet climb, gaining 2500 feet of elevation in 3.1 miles, and one of my least favorite in the high peaks because the steepest parts have stone stairs for erosion control. The thing about stairs is that they’re often too tall, forcing you to use your bigger leg muscles to climb them and making your legs tired faster than if you take little steps.
As we climbed, we met two other hikers Ann and T0m, who we ended up hiking with for the rest of the day. I’d actually met Ann briefly before, the last time I climbed Mt Washington and Mount Clay in June when she was doing a Presidential Traverse with my friends Larry and Wanda. Ann and Tom are both AMC trip leaders for the AMC New Hampshire Chapter and we have many mutual friends in common.
The cloud ceiling was about 4500 ft so we were enshrouded by mist when we reached the Lakes Hut at 5012′ (which is now closed and boarded up until winter). After a quick snack, we climbed to the top of Monroe, which is only about 250′ more of elevation gain. Once you get up to the Hut, Monroe is easy.
We hiked back down of the Hut and started hoofing it up to Mt Washington on the Crawford Path. That’s another significant elevation gain to 6200′, but the path is easy to follow, although it’s a very rocky path, all the way. We broke through the cloud at about 5900′ and proceeded to the summit. There’s a snack bar up there where you can get water, although it closes down for winter in late October.
We gawked at the undercast, but you really couldn’t see any of the surrounding peaks poking through it like islands, which is the part I really like about inversions. Still, it was cool hanging out above a sea of clouds. After a quick lunch, we headed down to the Gulfside Trail towards Jefferson dipping back into the mist.
After a quick vote, we decided to climb over Mt Clay, which is at the head of the Great Gulf Wilderness and is one of Washington’s 5000′ sub-peaks. It parallels the Gulfside Trail but is a little less monotonous to hike and requires very little elevation gain to climb. When we reach the top of Clay, the cloud layer around us began to break up and we could see deep into the great Gulf Wilderness, some 3000 feet below us, as well as the Carter Range on the other side of Pinkham Notch. The foliage wasn’t very far along down in the Gulf (another name for a glacial cirque or valley) but had already turned a fiery red on the Carters.
We came to the foot of Jefferson, well – not really the foot, but at the bottom of the final climb to the summit which requires about 700′ of elevation gain in 0.8 miles. Jefferson is a huge mountain and the third highest in the Whites. It’s also one of the windiest after Washington and you really need to be prepared when you climb it in winter, with a face mask, goggles, proper insulation, and wind protection.
One of the highlights of this climb is the Monticello Lawn, a large alpine lawn on the south side of Jefferson, which is one of my favorite places in the Whites (along with Bigelow lawn on Mt Washington.) I love looking at the line of cairns that crisscross these grasslands and the juxtaposition they provide against the backdrop of the Mts Clay and Washington. It’s very striking.
The final ascent of Jefferson was straightforward, though rocky. As we sat there on the summit throne, a discussion ensued about the best way to get down and back to the trailhead where we’d left our cars. We’d originally planned on hiking down the Jewel Trail but that would require backtracking and climbing to the top of Jewel before descending. We were all pretty cooked at that point and the thought of hiking back up to the start of the Jewell Trail was pretty unappealing.
An alternative route was proposed – hiking down the Caps Ridge Trail to its trailhead lot, then down Jefferson Notch Road to the Boundary Trail which rejoins the bottom of the Jewell Trail about 0.3 miles before the Amoonsuc Trailhead lot where we’d parked.
We got out our maps and GaiaGPS and plotted the two routes to see if our alternate plan was loner than our original one and it turned out they were basically the same distance. That decided it – we were going down the Caps Ridge Trail which required no additional elevation gain.
Only, I guess we all collectively forgot how difficult the Caps Ridge Trail is to climb down. It’s called the Caps Ridge Trail because it follows a ridge that is capped by rocky peaklets called Caps that require all kinds of scrambling to climb up, around, and over. It’s actually harder coming down than climbing up to Jefferson. It ended up taking us just under two hours to “hike” down to Jefferson Notch Road.
The Jefferson Notch Road is a dirt and gravel road that travels from the Base Station Rd at the bottom of Mt Washington to Rt 2, just west of Randolph. It’s gated in winter and when snow makes the road impassible except for snowmobile, which includes most of the spring and much of the autumn. There are places you can car camp alongside it and follows Jefferson Book which is a good trout stream and swimming hole.
Once we got to the road, we set a brisk pace hiking down it. We had an hour before sunset and we wanted to be back at our cars before we had to break out the headlamps. Winter is just around the corner and that time will come soon enough!
Ken and I knew about the Boundary Trail because we’ve both hiked all the trails in the AMC’s White Mountain Guide, him once, and me twice. It connects the Amonoosuc Ravine Trailhead and the Jewell Trail to Jefferson Notch Road, so you can form the exact loop we were making. It’s a wonderful trail bordered by dense moss and sections or slippery wet bog bridges over the worst muddy stretches. We made quick work of that distance and we were soon back at the cars, with 10 minutes of daylight to spare!
Total Distance: 12.5 miles with 5,300′ of elevation gain.