Hiking to Owls Head Mountain in September

Hiking to Owls Head

Owls Head Mountain (4025′) is a White Mountain 4000 footer that is located deep in the Pemigewasset Wilderness. While it’s not a difficult peak to climb in terms of elevation gain, it’s an 18 mile out and back day hike with numerous stream crossings if you follow the trail system from the Lincoln Woods Trailhead. You can reduce that to about 16 miles by following herd paths which eliminate several stream crossings and bypass the avalanche slide that’s normally required to climb to the Owls Head summit.

The Black Pond and Brutus Bushwhacks

The weather forecast looked favorable for a 2-day backpacking trip out to Owls Head to climb the peak and then fly fish Lincoln Brook, a beautiful freestone stream that runs along the west and south sides of the peak. I was also eager to scout out two herd paths, the Black Pond Bushwhack, which shortens the distance from the Lincoln Woods Trailhead, and the Brutus Bushwhack, which avoids having to climb up and down an intimidating avalanche slide to the summit ridge.

I’d hiked both bushwhacks some 10 years ago in winter on a trip where the leader knew the route, but I just followed along, not really knowing where I was going. This time around I wanted to figure out where they were and map the route for future reference since I’m hiking The White Mountain 4000 Footer Grid. This requires that I climb Owls Head (and the other 47 x 4000 footers) once in each calendar month of the year. While this is crazy, it’s good fun. I’m also well along with 307 mountains completed of the 576 summits required to finish.

Black Pond
Black Pond

The Black Pond and Brutus Bushwhacks are not without controversy. They’re both unmaintained herd paths that the Forest Service discourages people (mainly people who ask the rangers for advice) from hiking. At one point, anyone with a Guide Card (in other words, professional guides and hike leaders, including Appalachian Mountain Club volunteer leaders) was prohibited from leading a trip that followed these routes or any other route in a Wilderness Area that is more than 500′ from an official trail.  I’m not sure if that is still the case, although I suspect it is. There aren’t any restrictions on regular hikers though.

While the Black Pond and Brutus bushwhacks are not blazed, they’re pretty obvious trails if you know where to start. Although I’d caution you to know how to use a map and compass/GPS when the autumn leaves fall down or there’s snow on the ground because they’ll both make the routes much harder to follow.

Route Plan

  • Lincoln Woods Trail – 2.6 miles
  • Black Pond Trail – 0.8 miles
  • Black Pond Bushwhack – 1.0 miles
  • Lincoln Brook Traill – 2 miles
  • Owls Head Path (Avalanche Slide) – 1 mile (up)
  • Owls Head Path to 3400′ – 0.6 miles (down)
  • Brutus Bushwhack – 0.6 miles (down)
  • Lincoln Brook Trail – 2 miles
  • Black Pond Bushwhack – 1.0 miles
  • Black Pond Trail – 0.8 miles
  • Lincoln Woods Trail – 2.6 miles

For this trip, I started at the Lincoln Woods trailhead and followed the Lincoln Woods trail and the Black Pond Trail the point where it “ends” at the pond. I’d mapped out the routes for both bushwhacks the night before and transferred them to the Gaia App, so I had them handy if needed, and to check whether they are accurate, since you can’t always trust online maps.

The Lincoln Woods Trail runs along the East Pemigewasset River
The Lincoln Woods Trail runs along the East Pemigewasset River

Both routes are also available in Caltopo and Guthook’s White Mountains app, although neither is labeled as such. You can also find maps for them in GaiaGPS’s suggested hikes. I also looked up both bushwhacks in AllTrails, which I rarely use. I couldn’t find any maps of either route there, but I did read a lot of reader comments that describe how to find them, so I knew what to look for.

The Weather Forecast

The forecast was quite favorable for this hike and Tenkara fly fishing. There was a 20% chance of showers before 7:00 am followed by partly sunny weather for day 1 and sunny weather for day 2. The temperatures have finally dropped to a tolerable level in the Whites, with 70 degree days and 40-50 degree nights, although the humidity remains quite high. I’ve switched to a hammock shelter and sleep system for the autumn and I was looking forward to camping out that night at a dispersed site somewhere along Lincoln Brook.

The Hike to Owls Head

I get started around 9:00 am and cruised down the Lincoln Woods Trail which is a wide gravel path that was once a logging railroad line. It’s a boring monotonous trail to hike, but it’s the main trunk trail into the Pemigewasset Wilderness and difficult to avoid if you want to hike out to Owls Head, 13 Falls, or the Bonds from the Lincoln Woods Trailhead.

I turned onto the Black Pond Trail and hiked to the pond, where the trail ends. It’d been a long time since I’d hiked this trail and I’d forgotten what it was like. That’s why I don’t mind re-hiking trails in the Whites or climbing all these 4000 footers again. The trails also change from year to year, sometimes quite substantially, due to erosion, floods, avalanches, overuse, etc. so there’s always something novel to see and discover. While I still crave visiting new trails and destinations, I do love the White Mountain trail system and can see myself hiking it for the rest of my days, even if it means repeating hikes every few years.

The Black Pond bushwhack is not an official trail but it's very easy to follow
The Black Pond bushwhack is not an official trail but it’s very easy to follow

The Black Pond bushwhack starts at the end of the Black Pond Trail and if you didn’t know that the trail ended at the pond, you might not realize that you’re on the herd path. You literally keep on going straight ahead. While the herd path is not blazed, there’s a distinct tread to follow all the way to the point where it intersects the Lincoln Brook Trail one mile further on. Following that route turned out to be a lot easier than I thought.

Unexpectedly, it had started raining when I’d first turned onto the Black Pond Trail and would continue to do so for the rest of my hike (all day, torrentially). I don’t mind hiking in rain, but I knew that the rainfall would probably dash my fishing plans if it kept up for any length of time. Lincoln Brook is not a big stream and it’s in a very deep valley below Franconia Ridge. That means that the river rises quickly when it rains and increases the force of the downstream current.

Lincoln Brook, on the way to Owls Head
Lincoln Brook, on the way to Owls Head

I wasn’t too worried about the stream crossings, but about how the rain would affect the trout. If it takes too much energy to fight the current, trout hunker down in their holes and don’t come out to feed.  I had a feeling that the fishing would suck until it stopped raining and the river level dropped back to normal. That can take a day or two, depending on the size of the watershed.

I turned on the Lincoln Brook Trail, which was very wet and muddy, and followed it alongside Lincoln Brook. It’s a gorgeous boulder-filled stream with miles of pocket water..perfect wild trout habitat. The trail is also very level so I was able to make excellent time despite the mud.

I rock hopped a feeder stream that drains Franconia Ridge before coming to the large stream crossing at Lincoln Brook. There was just no way across without getting my feet and shoes wet, so I plowed through the surprisingly warm water. Once across, I had a short rest, a bite to eat, and filtered another liter of water along the riverbank before looking for the Brutus Bushwhack.

The Brutus Bushwhack was created by a peakbagger who had a big black dog named Brutus. Brutus was so big that he couldn’t climb the Owls Head Path, which follows a rocky, loose avalanche slide up the west side of the mountain. The Brutus Bushwhack slabs and switchbacks up the side of Owls Head through the woods instead. It’s quite steep and muddy in places, steep enough that you’d want an ice ax in winter for the descent, but it avoids any rock scrambling. It rejoins the Owls Head Path at about 3400′ at a big boulder and from there you can continue up the path until you run out of trail and reach the summit.

On a clear day, you can see Franconia Ridge and the Lincoln Slide from the Owls Head Path
On a clear day, you can see Franconia Ridge and the Lincoln Slide from the Owls Head Path,

While I had the route of the Brutus Bushwhack on my Smartphone, I couldn’t find the bottom of the path. There was no landmark or cairn marking it. Instead, I saw what looked like a half dozen herd paths headed up the hill (clear signs of overuse by the unwashed hordes.) Rather than investigate all of them, I decided to hike up the avalanche slide instead (along the Owls Head Path) and then try to find the bushwhack on the way down.

I hiked up the trail until I saw two small cairns marking the start of the Owls Head Path. The Forest Services keeps removing them because they’re in a Wilderness Area but hikers just rebuild them. This has been going on for years. They are rather useful though because it’s very easy to walk right by the start of that trail.

I’ve been up and down the avalanche slide on the Owls Head Path on prior trips to Owls Head and it’s never phased me much. People are quite fearful of it and I was a little cautious this time because it was wet and raining when I climbed it. It’s just a narrow rocky scramble that gains about 700′ in 0.4 miles. I took my time and climbed up it at a comfortable pace. There aren’t any crux moves required and the footing was quite good despite the rain.

Once past the big boulder, the Owl Head Path Continues to the summit
Once past the big boulder, the Owl Head Path Continues to the summit

The steep part of the climb ends at about 3400′ at the big boulder, where the Brutus Bushwhack rejoins the Owls Head Path. I remembered that from a previous visit although I didn’t downclimb it then.

I continued up the path and followed the summit ridge the peak’s high point. There’s a small cairn that marks the spot, but not the cairn that was there when I visited last. It was still raining and there aren’t any views from the summit, so I made my way back down to the big boulder where the bushwhack starts.

Owls Head in Guthook
Owls Head in Guthook

I entered the woods and the herd path split into several threads, but I still managed to pick the main trail and follow it. It descends gradually at first, before dropping very steeply, and then switching back in the other direction before intersecting the Lincoln Brook Trail again. The Brutus was much harder to follow than the Black Pond bushwhack because the tread is not at all as clear. At one point, I whipped out my compass to make are I was headed on the right bearing because the path down was not at all obvious.

The bushwhack route ends in a jumble of boulders just past the Lincoln Brook stream crossing. I’d walked right by it previously, but now I know exactly where to find it….next month when I have to climb Owls Head again for my October Grid.

The Brutus Bushwhack starts/end at this jumble of rocks (of course they’ll be covered with snow in winter).
The Brutus Bushwhack starts/end at this jumble of rocks (of course they’ll be covered with snow in winter).

Back at the brook, I filtered another liter of water and ate a Probar, before retracing my steps back to the Trailhead. I’d decided to come back for the fishing another day when the rain had stopped. Now that I know how to get out here quickly via the Black Pond Bushwhack, I think I’ll be spending a lot more time fishing this stream and discovering its mysteries.

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11 comments

  1. I was on the Blackpond Bushwhack Labor Day weekend and it is much easier to follow than it was a couple of years ago. On my way down the ro rock slide last year I inadvertently started a mini rock avalanche. One rock, about the size of a softball, took a turn and headed towards a group of young people sitting on the trail looking at Franconia Ridge. I yelled a warning and a woman covered her head, but her friend looked up saw the rock, and pushed her out of the way. It would have been a direct hit. It was a close call. My fault obviously, but it wasn’t the smartest place to take a break. I will forever be cognizant and very cautious when hiking on this type of “trail”.

    • One only hopes that they took that as a learning experience as well. I’m a skier as well and continually frustrated by people that stop on the far side of a lip in the slope – even worse in the middle of the trail. You come over it and they’re stopped right there.

      I did the Blackpond Bushwack a couple of years ago on a nice early November day. The leaves were down and the trail was VERY difficult to follow. I was going back to my compass or GAIA every so often to validate we were going in the right direction. The slide would be aggressive for a dog but for someone with opposable thumbs there’s plenty of stuff to grab onto as you work up it.

  2. For the most part I like this column. I have become increasingly disturbed by the authors publishing of bushwhacks and bootleg trails in this space. Its irresponsible and a violation of leave no trace principles to engage in bushwhacking on “herd” paths and even worse to encourage others to do it. Frankly I’d like to see some discussion of ethical principles and how you square this circle.

    • The use of a herd path that’s well established instead of creating a new trail is completely consistent with leave no trace doctrine. You’ll also note that I did not publish a map on this trip report. I suggest you direct you’re ire to all the people who camp illegally, leave trash in the woods, build campfires etc.

      • CAPT Gary Andres USN ret

        Yeah, I respect your outlook…..and have been following you/your column for a couple of years now, Phillip. So I believe that your backcountry ethics are sound. However, having spent 25 years as a federal wildlife officer…significant backcountry experience….I think Roger’s point is well put. Not a single time in my career when confronting someone doing something outside of the regulations….not once!!!….can I recall the individual owning up to their choice to disregard or interpret the regulation to suit their purpose. Did your choice do any harm to the resource? Likely not. But not everyone lives by your backcountry ethics. So when one occasionally does something outside the established regulations, let’s not promote that by writing about it. OR…..if the regulation makes no sense, work with the federal or state agency to get the regulation changed. I of course, don’t know Roger from Adam…..but I think the point he was making was valid. Retired now, I sometimes miss the job…..but I most definitely do not miss having to explain day after day, to people who clearly violate regulations, why they shouldn’t. And especially so when they admit to knowing the regulation.

      • Yes, but I didn’t violate any regulations. It’s perfectly legal to hike off trail in the white mountains.

      • There’s 2 completely separate issues here that I think are getting mixed up. LNT principles which the OP was highlighting and Gary’s (thank you for your service) call out of breaking regulations. I am far from an expert but I don’t believe there are any rules/regulations – maybe in alpine zones? – about bushwhacking or off-trail hiking.

        There’s a good number of summits in the White’s that are only accessible via bushwhacking or following the “herd path”. I think the principle of staying on the herd path, absent a defined trail, follows LNT principles with the goal being to minimize impact. If we truly wanted to LNT, no-one would ever go into the woods at all. Some of these herd paths go so far as to be on maps, even though they might not be “maintained trails”, further adding hiker confusion.

  3. Some 7 or 8 years ago I took the Black Pond bushwhack on my way to Owls Head. After the pond there wasn’t much of an obvious track, but I had set a compass bearing and aimed off slightly so as not to miss the Lincoln Woods trail handrail. Worked out nicely. I understand now that route has become quite established over the intervening years and is more of a herd path than bushwhack. Caltopo even shows it with mileage (and Brutus too). Why not designate it a trail and mark it as such? It’s shorter, eliminates 3 considerable stream crossings, and doesn’t traverse any objectionable land AFAIK.

    I remember going to the Hancocks via the usual route off the Kanc about the same time. The AMC guidebook described the trail crossing back and forth over a stream several times, but hikers had eliminated those through usage. Is that a bad thing? Nobody ever drowned on the portage.

    • It’s in a wilderness area. They have legal and procedural issues with building or creating new trails there. The Hancocks aren’t. I’m bummed that that route is so easy now. Those stream crossings were half the fun. Now it’s just lots of mud, and not necessarily an upgrade.

  4. My point is not about an individual wandering off trail in the woods to their heart’s content. By all means I encourage that type of activity and indulge it when I can which is usually in the winter with a foot or two of snow on the ground.

    Rather my point is about publicizing herd pats and bootleg trails and encouraging others to use these routes. These paths get no maintenance attention from the Forest Service or trail adopters who are already stretched thin with the extensive network of trails in the WMNF and adjoining conservation lands. Its not that they exist or even that you use them but rather the publication and sharing of this information that encourages continued use. That’s the ethical issue that you still have not addressed. Frankly I think its something you should put in as a main article and not bury in the response to comments.

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