Hiking the Caps Ridge Trail

Hiking the Caps Ridge Trail

The Caps Ridge Trail is a popular above-treeline trail in the White Mountains because it’s the shortest route to climb Mt Jefferson (5712′), the third-highest 4000 footer on the AMC’s 4000 footer list. The trail starts in the forest and gradually climbs above treeline over a series of rocky outcrops called Caps, before climbing a boulder field to the summit. The Caps Ridge Trail is also a good way to get to the Sphinx and Six Husbands Trail, the Clay Loop, Mt Adams, and the Randolph Mountains Club’s shelters and tent site on Mt Adams.

Hiking the Caps Ridge Trail

Hike Description

  • Difficulty: Strenuous. Involves rock scrambling and walking across boulder fields.
  • Distance: 2.6 miles (2.5 miles to the summit of Mt Jefferson)
  • Elevation Gain; 2700 feet
  • Water: Bring at 2-3 liters per person. The rocks on Mt Jefferson absorb and radiate a lot of heat and you’ll probably want extra water.
  • Caps Ridge Trailhead Directions: (GPS: 44.29657, -71.35388) The Caps Ridge Trailhead is on Jefferson Notch Road, a seasonal and gated gravel road. The easiest access is via the south side, directly across from the Mt Clinton Rd (also seasonal) on Base Station Rd, which is the paved road (watch for big suspension crunching bumps) that links Rt 302 to the Cog Railway station. The high point is 3.4 miles up. Keep your speed down because the road is narrow and people will be driving down. Parking is available for about two dozen cars.
  • Blazing: Yellow blazes below treeline and rock cairns above treeline. The blazing, if painted on rocks, can be very hard to see because it flakes off over time. Above treeline, hike from cairn to cairn rather than wandering over the rockpile to avoid damaging rare alpine plants that live on and in between the rocks.
  • Recommended Maps and Guidebooks:
  • Season: July-November. Jefferson Notch Road is closed during winter and usually only reopens the last week of June.
  • Dogs: Permitted, but you make need to carry your dog between large gaps in the rocks.
  • Camping: Camping is forbidden above treeline throughout the White Mountain National Forest. The nearest campsite is the RMC Perch Shelter and Tent Platforms located on the north side of Mt Adams, but these are closed thru 2020 due to the Pandemic. Please observe all White Mountain National Forest Backcountry Camping Regulations. 

On the Trail

The Caps Ridge Trail provides direct access to Mt Jefferson and other trails
The Caps Ridge Trail provides direct access to Mt Jefferson and other trails

While many people hike the Caps Ridge Trail to reach Mt Jefferson, it also provides good access to several other trails and destinations in the Northern Presidential Range. Don’t underestimate this trail despite the fact that it climbs to the Jefferson summit over a short distance. It still averages over 1000 feet of elevation gain per mile, which makes it one of the steeper climbs in the White Mountains.

The first part of the Caps Ridge Trail is easy to follow, although it starts to climb quickly
The first part of the Caps Ridge Trail is easy to follow, although it starts to climb quickly up rocky stairs.

The trail starts fairly gently, running through the forest and up well-maintained stone steps for the first 1.1 miles up The Link trail junction. From there the trail narrows and the trees get progressively shorter in height until you break out above treeline at close to 4000 feet. Look for a short spur trail to your right which has a great view of the ravines below Mt Washington and the Southern Presidential Range. This is where the Caps begin.

The trail runs over rocky peaklets, called Caps, as it climbs up the ridge
The trail runs over rocky peaklets, called Caps, as it climbs up the ridge

The Caps are rocky outcrops that require some scrambling to get over. They’re marked with a combination of yellow blazes and rock cairns. The yellow blazes may be quite faded, however, since the paint flakes off with age. The route is pretty easy to make out however, as long as you think “up.”

You can see the summit of Mt Washington and the Southern Presidential Range from Cornice Trail Junction.
You can see the summit of Mt Washington and the Southern Presidential Range from Cornice Trail Junction.

At 2.1 miles, you arrive at The Cornice Trail junction. From here on to the summit of Jefferson, the Caps Ridge Trail follows a series of cairns as it climbs through a boulder field. It’s important to stay near the cairns to avoid disturbing alpine plants which have a very short growing season above treeline (since snow covers them most of the year). The footing on this section of the trail is tricky, so go slow. In summer, the boulders retain a lot of heat, so I suggest bringing extra water on this hike.

Follow the cairns on the final leg of the Caps Ridge Trail.
Follow the cairns on the final leg of the Caps Ridge Trail.

The top of Mt Jefferson is one of the windiest places in the White Mountains and as you approach the summit you will probably feel a strong breeze and a chill on a cool day. It’s very easy to walk right past the Jefferson summit because it just looks like a big pile of rocks. If you find yourself at a huge rock cairn on top of the mountain, you’ve walked past the summit. Turn around and hike back a few steps and climb the mound of rocks to your right with a squat rock cairn at the top. There are numerous signs on top of Mt Jefferson that mark the trails leading off the peak, should you desire to continue to other destinations from the summit, or reverse your route and hike back down the Caps Ridge Trail.

The top of Mt Jefferson is well signed and a major trail junction. Mt Adams (right) can also be seen clearly.
The top of Mt Jefferson is well signed and a major trail junction. Mt Adams (right) can also be seen clearly.
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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 36th person to hike all 650 of the hiking trails in the White Mountain Guide. He is also 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. In addition, Philip 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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3 comments

  1. Would that be a good place to start for a half traverse of the Presis?

    • I’m not sure what a half traverse includes. It is a relatively easy way to get up to the ridge though.

  2. Jesse Roussell

    Great article as always. I wish I had known you were doing coverage on caps ridge trail because I have many photos shot with the Sony A7iii

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