Hiking an Ice Gulch Trail Loop

Hiking an Ice Gulch Trail Loop

The Ice Gulch Trail is located in Randolph, NH across from the high peaks of the Northern Presidential Range. It’s a narrow ravine filled with giant boulders that is strenuous and challenging to hike and scramble through. The AMC White Mountain Guide (p 564, 30th edition) describes it as follows:

Caution: The trip through the gulch itself is one of the most difficult and strenuous trail segments in the White Mountains, involving nearly constant scrambling over wet, slippery rocks, with deep holes between them, and it may take much more time than the standard formula allows. There is no way to exit the ravine in the mile between Fairy Spring and the Vestibule; hikers must either retrace their steps to the end they started from or continue to the other end, and should keep this in mind when considering the suitability for their party or estimating the amount of time they should allow for it. The trail is emphatically not suitable for dogs.

I knew that of course when I planned this hike because I’ve hiked through Ice Gulch before. It is a strenuous rock scramble and considerably more difficult than even Mahoosuc Notch in Maine, called the most difficult mile of the Appalachian Trail. I’ve hiked through Mahoosuc Notch twice before and the gnarly scrambly part is much shorter and easier than the Ice Gulch.

What I didn’t fully appreciate was just how much snow would be left in the gulch on the first week in June. There’s usually some ice still in the gulch in August, but it’s located deep in the voids between the larger boulders and not an issue for hikers. The first half of the gulch was relatively snow-free, but the second half had a lot of snow.

Snow by itself isn’t bad, but this snow covered deep holes between the rocks that you can fall into and become trapped. I had a few close calls as it was, post-holing up to my waist several times and once up to my chest.

Rather than turn around, I kept on forging ahead, climbing up the sides of the ravine to get around the worst sections, but it was very slow going and very strenuous. I made it out eventually and hiked the Cook Path back to Randolph Hill Road. On hindsight, waiting until August to hike this route would have been a more prudent choice.

Ice Gulch Trail Loop

This loop hike starts on Randolph Hill Rd and is 6.5 miles in length with 1250 feet of elevation gain. Parking is on the south side of Randolph Road, opposite the trail sign, which is located near a barn that used to be painted red.

  • The Ice Gulch Trail – 3.4 miles
  • Peboamauk Loop – 0.5 miles
  • Cook Path – 2.4 miles

On the Trail

The Ice Gulch Trail runs north to the left of the barn and enters the woods. The trail is blazed in orange paint and marked by occasional green and white signs. It crosses several small streams as it meanders up and down small hills in open forest until you arrive at an old birch tree with a signed the says “The Marked Birch.” I’m not sure how much longer that tree can last. It was in much better shape when I hiked this loop five years ago.

The sign at the beginning of the trail on Randolph Hill rd.
The sign at the beginning of the trail on Randolph Hill Rd.

You have option to continue straight from The Marked Birch sign and hike along the Peboamauk Trail (currently unsigned) which descends into a small gorge with a waterfall or to turn left and continue along a very muddy section of the Ice Gulch Trail. I’d recommend taking the Peboamauk Loop, although it has several shallow stream crossings where getting your shoes wet is unavoidable. It is a much prettier route too. Both the Ice Gulch Trail and the Peboamauk Trail rejoin 0.5 miles ahead at the base of the business end of the Ice Gulch.

The Marked Birch on the Ice Gulch Trail
The Marked Birch on the Ice Gulch Trail

The two trails are lightly blazed with orange blazes. They rejoin shortly before you arrive at the Fairy Spring sign, just before the beginning of the Ice Gulch scramble. You know you’re close to the start when you start to feel a cold chill run through you because the temperature has dropped noticeably. The Ice Gulch is much colder than the surrounding forest. Bring a sweater.

The rocky portion of the trail begins shortly after the Fairy Spring sign.
The rocky portion of the trail begins shortly after the Fairy Spring sign.

The rocky portion of the Ice Gulch Trail can be broken into two parts. The initial climb is fairly straightforward with more densely packed rocks and few deep voids. Once you climb up the initial ascent (shown below), the trail becomes much more technical and difficult with larger gaps in between the rocks. The ravine also narrows and the walls become quite steep.

Ice Gulch Trail
The first section of the Ice Gulch Trail is fairly straightforward to climb.

It’s not impossible to get through the second half, but it is slow, especially if you have to wait for other people ahead of you. The biggest challenge are the gaps between the rocks and hard to reach handholds and toeholds. There are some weather tree trunks and roots you can grab onto, but it pays to test them before you put all your weight on them.

The route gets more difficult as you near the head (north) end of the Gulch.
The route gets more difficult as you near the head (north) end of the Gulch.

The scramble ends with a climb up a waterfall to the Cook Path. It’s not a difficult ascent, but the rocks are slippery. Once you get to get to the top, bear right, and hike up another small ravine that has a stream running through it.

It wasn’t signed or blazed when I hiked it, but you could tell it was the trail because the vegetation along the sides had been cut with a saw. The Randolph Mountain Club is normally quite good about trail maintenance since they have their own professional trail crew, so I suspect that will be fixed soon. (I hiked the trail very early in the season before anyone in their right mind would.)

Bog bridges on the Cook Path
Bog bridges on the Cook Path

Once past this little ravine, you’ll see signs for the Cook Path and more orange blazes. From here, follow the trail to Randolph Hill Road and turn left to walk down the road back to the start of the loop and your car.

The best time to hike the Ice Gulch Loop is in August, especially when it’s hot and humid in the National Forest, and you want a break from the heat.

Recommended Guidebooks and Maps:

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About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 7500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 2500 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its detailed gear reviews and educational content. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip is the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He also volunteers as a 4 season backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a Long Trail Mentor for Vermont's Green Mountain Club, and a Leave No Trace Master Educator. He lives in New Hampshire.

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6 comments

  1. Nice writeup. It’s been about 40 years since I did that hike. I traveled in the opposite direction because the Randolph Paths guidebook used to say that most hikers preferred to descend through the Gulch. Has anything changed that would negate the advantage? A lot can happen in 40 years.

    For what it’s worth, the Marked Birch looked pretty sad in 1980.

  2. No. The White Mountain Guide does not recommend descending and I wouldn’t either. It’s much easier and safer going the direction I went, if only because you get to practice your rock moves before the really hard stuff.

  3. Hello Phillip,
    First off, thanks very much for all of your good work! I have relied on a lot of your information both for equipment and hiking. The gulch trail looks like a beauty. I was wondering if you ever came across a creek that flows over a waterfall about 6′ in height into a pool that has a 6′ high and sloped slab of granite on one side and about a 14-16′ high cliff on the other side. I’ve been trying to locate it for the last 10 years or so. I swam there on multiple occasions when I was young in the 60’s and 70’s. I thought it was located on a trail off of Rt. 302. I’ve been to every location recommended as the possible “spot”. The trail to the pool that parallels the creek is flat. The cool thing about the waterfall is that it has eroded the granite to form a curved pocket, which you can get to by diving well underneath the waterfall flow and coming up behind the waterfall. The waterall is the only elevation change in the creek in the immediate area. During the summer months, the creek flows through a granite shoot approaching the waterfall. It practically like a carnival exhibit. Any thoughts are welcomed. I wonder if the property might have been purchased and is no longer accessible or perhaps was always private property and the owners shut it down. Thanks very much!!
    Nick

  4. I appreciate the classic North Country directions

    “ which is located near a barn that used to be painted red.”

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