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Hiking Mt Garfield in December

Hiking Mt Garfield in December

Mt Garfield (4500′) is a 4000 footer on the famous Pemigewasset Loop. Located just north of Mt Lafayette, it is blessed with a fantastic view of the Twins, the Bonds, Owlshead Mountain, Franconia Ridge, and countless other peaks. Unfortunately, the summit was completely socked in when my friends and I reached the old fire tower foundations on top of the peak, but it was a lovely autumn hike in winter conditions (Dec 5), just the same.

Route Plan – out and back

  • Gale River Loop Road (gate closed for winter) – 1.2  miles
  • Garfield Trail 4.8 miles
  • Garfield Ridge Trail 0.2 miles

Autumn! Huh? That looks like winter to me! Yes, we’re having one of those autumns where we’re having to contend with winter trail conditions a few weeks early, but it’s all good fun just the same. While there is snow on the trails, there isn’t a whole LOT of snow and it’s still relatively mild temperature-wise, except on the days when it’s not.

While the hike out to Mt Garfield is a bit long, it’s actually fairly moderate, gaining 2800′ of elevation fairly gradually, without a lot of steep climbs along the way. The trail follows the route of an old logging road which gradually narrows as you get higher, but there isn’t a huge amount of rock scrambling required along its length. While there are a few small stream crossings near the start, they are easily crossed with microspikes. The trail meets the Garfield Ridge Trail 0.2 miles below the summit, where you can put on a hard shell, more insulation, or a face mask for the final 250′ climb to the open summit.

Philip before the final summit push - photo courtesy Ken Robichaud
Philip before the final summit push – photo courtesy Ken Robichaud

Except for a somewhat heavier backpack, winter hiking is a lot easier than three-season hiking in New Hampshire, because the snow fills all the holes between the rocks that you usually have to pussyfoot through. When packed down, the trails are basically flat, so you can shuffle along without having to use the larger muscles in your legs to take big steps. You still have to climb the same elevation, but the pace is a bit slower than in the warmer months, and coming down is much faster and less strenuous.

This hike was kind of special for me because I met some old friends and made a new one along the way. The hard-core hiking community is still small enough in the White Mountains that it’s common to run into old friends or friends of friends at trailheads and on the trail. I ran into my old friends Barb, Alan, and their daughter Hannah at the trailhead as we were packing up to leave which was a very pleasant surprise. I don’t think I’ve seen them for five years so it was great to reconnect. We hiked a lot of the Trailwrights 72 bushwhacks together back in the day, including Southwest Twin and Northwest Hancock.

Lew Dow and Karen Robichaud at the Garfield Ridge Trail Junction - courtesy Ken Robichaud
Lew Dow and Karen Robichaud at the Garfield Ridge Trail Junction – courtesy Ken Robichaud

I also met Lew Dow at the trailhead, who’s friends with many of my friends, and a very experienced on-trail and off-trail hiker. He’s friends with Ken and Karen, my frequent companions this autumn, and we all hiked together for the day. It was fun talking to Lew about his bushwhacking escapades in Maine and his experiences with our many mutual friends.

I was able to hike most of this route without any winter traction although I did put on a pair of microspikes for the final climb to the summit ledges and the stream crossings when they were helpful for hiking over ice-covered rocks. We skipped carrying snowshoes for this one based on beta from a recent trip report on New England Trail Conditions. We’d carried them earlier in the week on a hike out to Mt Isolation and hadn’t needed them either. One of these days though, they’ll become essential.

The lower stream crossings were partially bridged with ice and easy to cross.
The lower stream crossings were partially bridged with ice and easy to cross.

The hike up to the Garfield Ridge Trail junction was very straightforward. We stopped a few times to layer up or down, eat, and drink. A few other hikers passed us going up and down, all hiking solo. I’d be perfectly comfortable hiking this trail alone in winter if it was already broken out, and have in the past, in part because it’s pretty well-traveled, and because I carry enough extra insulation and survival gear to survive the night if I have an accident and need to hole up.

We often encounter hikers with very small packs or even just hydration vests and wonder if they really understand just how dangerous the winter Whites can be if you’re not properly equipped and self-sufficient. You can take the ultralight trail running mantra just so far…or maybe I’m just an old-school curmudgeon who reads too many SAR accident reports. I don’t carry a huge amount of extras when I’m alone, but just enough to survive an uncomfortable night out (foam pad, insulated pants, puffy jacket, sometimes a sleeping bag and bivy bag, etc.) That extra insulation also helps keep my water hot longer and from freezing.

The Garfield Trail narrows as you climb higher.
The Garfield Trail narrows as you climb higher.

Garfield is a great destination for newer winter hikers once you have a number of winter 4000 footers under your belt and want to try a peak that has some above-treeline exposure. There are only about 50 yards between the open summit and protective vegetation making it a good place to practice wearing a balaclava and ski mask when the wind is up. The winds were calm for our hike, so we skipped wearing them, but I’ve been up there in the past when full face protection is required.

Mt Garfield (right) and Franconia Ridge
Mt Garfield (right) and Franconia Ridge

When the skies are clear, the winter views from Garfield are also hard to beat.

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  1. Bruce Johnson (curmudgeon)

    You are an old curmudgeon, but you are also right. The only way to be safe in the winter mountains is to be prepared for real trouble. Good for you to point out that being independent costs a little weight.

  2. Philip, thanks for another great blog entry! What would you recommend as some good beginner winter hikes? Trying to acclimate some friends.

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