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Hiking Mt Garfield in January

Hiking to Mt Garfield in January

Mt Garfield (4500′) is a 4000 footer located on the northwest corner of the famous Pemigewasset Loop. It’s a great hike with 2800′ of elevation gain that’s just over 12 miles in winter. While I hiked it last about 6 weeks ago, I “needed” it for January for my White Mountain 4000 footer Grid, which requires hiking each of the forty-eight White Mountain 4000 footers in each month of the year. Unfortunately, the summit was bone-chillingly cold and covered in freezing fog when my friends and I reached the top, but it was still a lovely winter snowshoe (Jan 20) with great company.

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

Winter has arrived! Snowy and cold winter that is. We got over a foot of snow a few days ago, so I was finally able to use snowshoes on our winter hikes instead of crampons or microspikes, which my feet are happy about. However, lots of snow means breaking out trails with snowshoes, which is considerably more effort because you have the resistance of the snow, plus an additional 5 lbs of footwear. That’s how much snowshoes weigh.

My hiking buddies are a bunch of colorful and seasoned characters.
My hiking buddies are a bunch of colorful and seasoned characters.

I didn’t mind about the extra level of effort though.  I’ve been housebound for the past week due to poor hiking weather. In addition to our blizzard, the temperature has been unspeakably cold during the past week, with subzero daytime temperatures, high winds, and nighttime temperatures dropping down to -20F or more. The last hike I did was a 17 miler out to Owls Head Mountain a week ago and other than that, the only real exercise I’ve had for a week is breaking a trail through my backyard to reach my car. Judging by the lack of hiking trip reports on New England Trail Conditions, most serious hikers felt the same.

On this hike, I was joined by a cast of characters with some serious White Mountain chops: Beth, Wanda, Ken, and Ken. I won’t embarrass them by listing all the huge and difficult peakbagging lists or trails they’ve hiked, but it’s a real lot and we’ve had many adventures together over the years.

Big bear tracks
Big bear tracks

One of the fun things about hiking with this group, especially with Beth and Wanda, is their knowledge of animal footprints and behavior. On this hike, we stopped to look at tracks in the snow from many different animals. But the highlight of the hike were the huge bear tracks we came across from, most likely a big male, who was out and about in the winter snow.

The day turned sunny as we neared the summit
The day turned sunny as we neared the summit

A hiker had been up the Garfield Trail the day prior so we didn’t have to totally break it out up to about 3100′. From then on to the summit, the snow had drifted back onto the trail and things got tougher, in addition to the steeper gradient as we neared the summit ridge. We alternated taking the lead, breaking out a couple of hundred yards each, before letting the others pass and dropping back to the end of the line where the snowshoeing is easiest because the people ahead of you are packing down the trail.

Fire tower foundations on the summit of Mt Garfield
Fire tower foundations on the summit of Mt Garfield

As we neared the summit, the sun came out, so I was hopeful that we’d have a clear view of Franconia Ridge and the other Pemigewasset peaks. There’s an old fire tower foundation on top of Garfield and it’s a wonderful viewpoint on a clear day. Alas, the summit was once again completely socked in and there were no views. It was also really cold, so we tagged the peak and then beat feet back down below treeline to warm up.

We still had to hike back down six miles to get out but by then the trail was broken out and gravity was on our side. Despite the viewless summit, it’d been a great hike and we’d made quite good time given the effort required.

Garfield is a great destination for newer winter hikers once you have a number of winter 4000 footers under your belt and want to hike a peak that has some limited 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.

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. Awesome! What do you recommend for a first time winter shoe jike?

  2. Great trip report! I’m puzzled by the huge bear footprint. I thought those critters hibernated? If it is walking around in this weather it must have been as hungry as a….well…a bear. I am curious what you brought for an emergency shelter. I bring a piece of insulation to sit on and a space blanket, the theory being if I had to spend the night I could sit on the insulation against a tree out of the wind with the space blanket covering me like a teepee. I’m thinking that may be a 3 season emergency shelter but may fall short for a trip like this.

    • Bears are out in winter. Females are denning now with cubs but seeing the prints of a big well fed male bear like this doesn’t surprise me that much.

      On this hike I did not carry an emergency shelter although I did carry enough insulation to stay alive at night…Parka, pad,down pants. The main reason is that This trail is very east for SAR to get a snowmobile up and that I was in a very strong group that I can could count on in an emergency. You wouldn’t believe that experience and wilderness medicine qualifications in this group…anyone of them could save my ass. But that’s because I know this trail system like the back of my hand. If I was solo and from out of town, I might add a 20 degree bag and a thin bivy sack to the pad, parka, and down pants I normally carry. But hiking with a strong group is always the best advice. That and avoiding dangerous weather.

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