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Hiking King Ravine and Castle Ravine

Floor and headwall of King Ravine
Floor and headwall of King Ravine

King Ravine and Castle Ravine are two glacial cirques on the north side of the White Mountain’s Presidential Range. Cirques are amphitheatre-like valleys with steep side ridges and a headwall. Many of the high peaks in the White’s Presidential Range are surrounded by them and have trails that climb them, usually quite tough, boulder-choked trails that are not exactly hikes, but Class 2, 3, and 4 scrambles with exposure. King Ravine has several such trails, Chemin des Dames, the King Ravine Trail, and The Great Gully Trail, while the Castle Ravine Trail is the one route that you can use to climb up the Castle Ravine headwall.

All of these headwall hikes require clear, preferably dry weather, because they are hazardous routes. (I would never climb them in winter conditions.) I took a one night trip last week to climb both of them in a narrow weather window that presented itself. It’s been a wet spring, with frequent rainfall, thunderstorms, and late snows that have made hiking theses trails difficult. Much of the hiking here is above-treeline in full exposure and I’ve had enough close calls with lightning and hail in these mountains to postpone hikes and wait for better weather when the forecast is unfavorable.

King Ravine is a glacial cirque on the north side of Mt Adams
King Ravine is a glacial cirque on the north side of Mt Adams

However, the weather forecasting information for these particular climbs is sparse. The Mt Washington Observatory Higher Summits Forecast is usually quite accurate on the day of your hike, but somewhat skewed towards conditions on Mt Washington, which is 500-1000′ higher in elevation and a few miles away. NOAS’ (weather.gov) point and hourly weather forecasts are also useful, especially for forecasting lightning activity, precipitation amounts, temperature, and wind speed. I also find the forecast discussion useful for predicting multi-day trends, especially when I won’t have access to the latest weather forecast on an overnight or multi-day backpacking trip.

Castle Ravine from the headwall
Castle Ravine from the headwall

King Ravine and Castle Ravine are on opposite sides of the Northern Presidentials, so I couldn’t climb them on the same day. I carried backpacking gear with the intention of staying at The Perch, a campsite just below treeline, that’s run by the local trail maintenance organization, The Randolph Mountain Club. Conditions proved so bad however, that I opted to stay at Gray Knob Cabin, another primitive RMC facility with four walls and a sleeping lot. More on this below.

The Castle Ravine Trail climbs through several boulder and scree fields and ends near the Randolph Path
The Castle Ravine Trail climbs through several boulder and scree fields and ends near the Randolph Path

One of the good things about the Presidentials is that it has a highly connected network of trails, giving you many options to hike above or below treeline under better cover. I exploited that fact on this trip.

What was the forecast for this trip? A high temperature of 50 degrees, 50% chance of rain showers in the afternoon, with winds diminishing to 40-50 mph on the first day, clearing in the evening with lows near 40 degree. On the second day, the forecast called for temperatures in the high 50’s, clear and sunny, with winds dropping to 25 mph. Not perfect, but I figured I’d hike in to the base of King Ravine and make a go-no go decision based on weather it was raining or not when I arrived. I had no desire to hike up the King Ravine headwall in the rain, which ascends 1500′ in 0.6 miles.

The Shortline Trail - pretty typical White Mountain trail
The Shortline Trail – pretty typical White Mountain trail

I got an early start the next morning and hiked up to the floor of King Ravine. The morning was sunny and cool, with no rain in sight. There, I ran into Brian and Mary Bond, two well-known White Mountain hikers, who were preparing to climb the Great Gully Trail, which is about twice as gnarly as the headwall section of the King Ravine Trail. Brian showed me a new gizmo he just got,a Garmin InReach Exlorer which can receive weather forecasts. He’d just checked it and said that the chance of rain had dropped to 10%. We parted to start hiking our respective trails and I thought, “I should check out the new Garmin InReach.”

The “trail” up the King Ravine headwall is solid boulders. I put away my poles and started climbing with my hands and feet. The route is marked by cairns and easy to follow. I was about half way up the headwall, when the sky grew dark. A bank of clouds had blown into the ravine. Then it started to rain. I put on a rain jacket. Then freezing rain started to fall. Peachy. Visibility dropped, but I could still make out the cairns. I concentrated on my hand and foot placements and made it up to the top without incident.

Brian and Mary Bond at the floor of King Ravine before they climbed the Great Gully Trail up the headwall.
Brian and Mary Bond at the floor of King Ravine before they climbed the Great Gully Trail up the headwall.

About three hundred feet before the top, I’d been overtaken by two other hikers with Australian accents. They’d waited for me at the top and I volunteered to lead them to the nearby Madison Spring Hut, where they could get some hot soup and warm up. They told me that King Ravine was their first ever hike in the White Mountains, which they were just visiting for one day. Ok…they turned out to be competent hikers, but I wouldn’t recommend King Ravine as a first hike in the Whites to anyone. I told them to take the Valley Way Trail back down, which is well protected from the weather.

Conditions were still pretty miserable as I set out from the hut. My original plan had called for hiking up Gulfside and around Sam Adams, down Israel Ridge Path to The Perch. Visibility was limited with dense fog on the ridge that connects Mts. Madison, Adams, and Jefferson, along the Gulfside Trail. I got out my map and compass and calculated two bearings, one to follow Gulfside to Thunderstorm Junction, and another to hike down Lowe’s Path, basically an escape route, off the ridge and below treeline.

Thunderstorm Junction
Thunderstorm Junction

I did consider descending there and then, but figured I’d give it a go. The rain had stopped and the ridge was obscured by fog, but I had good tools, my compass and Gaia on my smartphone, so I wasn’t worried about getting lost. I’ve also hiked these trails many times, and climbed every peak on the Northern Presidentials at least once, so I knew what to expect.

My compass bearings helped me stay on track and find cairns them I couldn’t see them through the mist. I hiked down Lowe’s, over Adams 4 and below treeline in blustery wind. The wind was blowing briskly from the north, which I knew would make hammocking difficult that night (I’ve subsequently learned that the wind speed was 72 mph that night), so I opted to stay at Gray Knob cabin instead. Unlike Madison Spring Hut ($96/night) run by the Appalachian Mountain Club, Gray Knob Cabin only costs $15/night. Of course, there’s no running water, food is not served, no indoor toilets, no electricity, lights, and or heat. Great place though, and open year round, including the depths of winter.

The Castle Ravine Trail (in shade) climbs Mt Jefferson
The Castle Ravine Trail (in shade) climbs Mt Jefferson

The next morning I ate breakfast with Casey, the summer caretaker, and headed out early to climb the Castle Ravine trail. I followed the Emerald Path down to the ravine floor and started climbing up the trail. There’s basically a stream that runs under the trail all the way to the top and which you can occasionally hear underfoot. It’s fed by Spaulding Spring, a water source on the ridge near Edmands Col, that’s good to know about if you need water between Mt Washington and Mt Madison. I mapped the GPS coordinates a few years ago for a popular guidebook.

From the Emerald Path junction, I climbed through forest to the treeline warning sign. The lower part of the trail is very wet, but it dries up above the above-treeline warning sign, where the scramble begins. The Castle Ravine Trail did not feel as steep as the King Ravine Trail, perhaps because I wasn’t being rained on. The final ascent from Roof Rock is 1300′ on 0.7 miles. It’s also not a terribly technical climb, but I did use my hands throughout as I scrambled over and boulders to the top of the headwall. Stunning views in good weather and lots of places to sit down and watch the world go by.

The wind was blowing pretty fierce when I made it to the top, so I hiked a short way to Edmands Col for a rest, food and water. From there it was a long but moderate walk, downhill and back to my car.

King and Castle (Click for PDF of Route)
King and Castle (Click for GEOPDF of Route)

Hiking Route:

  • Appalachia Trailhead on RT 2
  • Airline Tr
  • Shortline Tr
  • King Ravine Trail
  • Gulfside to Madison Hut
  • Gulfside to Thunderstorm Junction
  • Lowes Path
  • Gray Knob Trail
  • Stayed at Gray Knob Cabin
  • Gray Knob Trail
  • Israel Ridge Path
  • Emerald Path
  • Castle Ravine Trail
  • Randolph Path to Edmands Col to get out of the wind
  • Randolph Path
  • Israel Ridge Path
  • Perch Path
  • Gray Knob Trail
  • Hinck’s Trail
  • Spur Path
  • Randolph Path
  • Shortline
  • Airline
  • Appalachia Trail Head

14.5 miles with 6600′ of elevation gain.

9 comments

  1. Was nice to finally meet you and even better meeting you in such an amazing place. The weather changed so fast and it was certainly quite the adventure accenting The Great Gully Trail in those conditions.

  2. I have a story about the King Ravine that I’ll try to keep short. My adult son and I were hiking our first Presidential traverse a number of years ago. My first big hike. We were going from the Lakes of the Clouds hut to the Madison Springs hut. When we reached Mt. Adams he wanted to peak bag it and I chose to meet him up ahead. Near Thunderstorm Junction I followed a wrong set of cairns that led me to the King Ravine. On the way down a steep, rock strewn hill I fell forward and broke three ribs. I didn’t know they were broken at the time. I foolishly continued on and at nightfall I was on the side of a hill overlooking the King Ravine in the area of The Subway, a sort of tunnel formed by large rocks. I was prepared to spend the night there if necessary, when my backpack with almost all of my gear including headlamps rolled off the side of the hill. Luckily I still had my rain shell with my two way radio in the pocket. I was able to reach my son at the hut, and at about 10 p.m. he came out to find me. He went down the headwall of the King Ravine with a headlamp, found me, and we went back up the same way. We got back to the hut at about 3 a.m. This could have turned out really bad because of the many mistakes that I made. Be careful out there. On a positive note, we went back a year later and recovered my backpack, stuck on some underbrush on the side of the hill.

    • You’re a lucky guy. Bad place to descend.

    • That’s quite a story. It defiantly could have ended much much worse. Following the right Cairns can get tricky up there. I’ve had to back track more than once.
      I’m glad everything worked out and pretty impressed you recovered your pack a year later. Was your gear in okay shape?

      • Amazingly, all of the gear in my Kelty Redwing was in good shape. I got my Blackberry phone, Garmin Etrex gps, and Panasonic Lumix FZ18 working again by taking them partially apart and slowly drying them out in sealed bags with rice.

  3. Philip, You’re right, I am a lucky guy. But most of my luck was having the best hiking partner.

  4. That looks like a great hike, well done.

    The physical effort notwithstanding all the other elements that had to come together for a successful outcome make it impressive; planning, decision making, navigation, etc.

    Very nice.

  5. In good weather, the King Ravine Trail is a great choice for anyone who is willing to use both hands and feet to hike. Fewer people will be on it than the Air Line or Lowe’s Path, and it’s more fun. Coming down, the top 0.3 mi is steep, exposed, loose, and beautiful, a lot like many high trails in the Alps without the need for ropes. The larger rocks are decorated with concentric circular lichen that look like prehistoric carvings. The RMC Crag Camp, thankfully now without its old overhanging latrine, overlooks the ravine and there is a tall series of waterfalls on its left. Then as the trail levels out a bit, there are the amazing boulder caves, some filled with year-round ice, on the Ice Caves and Subway loops. I think these are possibly the most entertaining playground in the White Mountains. With a nice short walk through forest, you get to the Mossy Falls, then if you continue past Short Line, eventually to a bigger falls. The trail tends to be wet, following streams on and off. It passes relatively near the RMC Log Cabin lean-to, and I think it’s the best way in good weather (along with the last bit of Lowe’s Path) from Adams and Madison down to Lowe’s Store on Rt 2. Plenty to see, lots of water available, and challenging without being scary. In good weather.
    Thanks for bringing up this great favorite trail. I’ll have to try the Castle Ravine soon!

  6. I hiked King Ravine long enough ago that i don’t recall the trails i took. But i do remember that there was still a considerable snowpack in the headwall well into July.

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