Last Sunday I climbed Mt Jefferson using the Castle Trail. Jefferson is the third largest peak in the Northern Presidential Range of the White Mountains with an elevation of 5,712 ft. A mammoth mountain surrounded by deep glacial ravines there are a number of trails to the summit. I’d never been on the Castle Trail though, which follows a narrow, serrated ridge known for its magnificent views.
Hike: Mt Jefferson Loop
Location: RT 2, Randolph, New Hampshire, Bowman Trail Head
Route: Castle Trail, Gulfside Trail, Israel Ridge trail
Mountains: Mt Jefferson (5,712 ft)
Elevation Gain: 5,000 ft
Distance: Day 1 – 7 miles, Day 2 – 3.7 miles
Camping: The Perch Shelter and Campsite, $7, managed by Randolph Mountain Club
Available Water: Israel Ridge Trail (Cascade Brook), The Perch
I had great weather, except for high winds, which are always a risk in the Whites. The Castle Trail has about 1.5 miles of exposure above treeline and the 60-70 miles an hour winds I hiked through were a bit scary, especially since I was hiking alone. They were also chilling. Despite 70 degree temperatures, I was wearing a down vest, wind shirt, and gloves to stay warm. You can’t skimp on protective clothing up here, regardless of the season.
The Castle Trail starts in the hamlet of Bowman off Rt 2, about 1 mile west of Lowe’s Store and Gas Station. It’s not that well-marked, but there’s a hiker sign on the highway right where you need to turn off and park. The trail head is just a little ways down from the parking lot along the Presidential Bike Trail. Make sure not to walk up the driveway to the private residence, though.
Once you get on the trail, there’s a shallow water ford across a picturesque stream called Cascade Brook. From there, it’s a pleasant 1.3 miles hike through hardwood forest to the intersection with the Israel Ridge Trail/. This is your last opportunity to fill up your water before climbing further. After 2.2 more miles, you reach treeline at about 4,000 feet, where a trail called The Link intersects the Castle Trail. The Castles appear shortly after that.
The Castles are a series of rock towers that you climb over and around as you hike up the ridge. They’re a fun scramble and the views are stunning. To your left is Castle Ravine, a huge, tree-filler glacial cirque on the northeast face of Jefferson, that drops about 2,500 feet below you. To your right, there is an unusual view of the Southern Presidentials, including Mt Eisenhower. You can also see Mt Lafayette and Franconia Ridge, about 40 miles away, on a clear day.
As I climbed over and past each castle, I couldn’t help thinking how lucky I’d been with the weather, despite the wind. I’d hate to be on this trail in cloud or mist, or worse on a windy day in winter. This would be a very harsh and dangerous ascent under those conditions.
Actually luck didn’t have anything to do with it. I do a lot of planning for these hikes and most of it has to do with weather. I rely on the Mt Washington Observatory and Waterville Valley forecasts, and watch them carefully for a few days prior to when I plan to hike the high peaks. I hadn’t expected 60-70 mph winds, only 40 mph, so I wasn’t that put off when they were stronger than expected.
Once you pass the Castles, following the trail becomes difficult. You need to climb the last 1,000 feet by crossing a huge boulder field. The footing is treacherous and the cairns are short and hard to pick out among the rocks. It’s easy to break a trekking pole in conditions like this and there aren’t a lot of people who climb this route, in case you get into trouble. It is a lonely but powerful place.
I finally made it to the summit after about 4.5 hours of hiking and climbing, and saw some old friends, snacking just out of the wind. I knew they were attempting a Presidential Traverse, but it was pure luck that we’d arrived at the summit of Jefferson at the same time. They fed me cheese and we hung out for a while, before they took off toward Mt Clay and Washington.
June is the time to do a full Presidential Traverse because you can squeeze out about 15 miles of daylight. to hike up Mt Madison and over Adams, Jefferson, Clay, Washington, Monroe, Franklin, Eisenhower, Jackson, and Pierce in one day. They’d started at 4:30 am and only reached Jefferson by 1pm, so they had to push on to finish before dark.
After Jefferson, I’d planned on walking along the top of Castle Ravine before heading down it north side to The Perch, a small shelter and campsite carved out of Mt Adam’s northern face. From Jefferson, I walked along the Gulfside Trail (also the AT), to the base of Mt Adams, passing Edmunds Col and walking through the last small patch of snow that’s always there in June, year after year.
From there, I vectored off down the Israel Ridge Trail and got some good pictures of the entire Castle Trail up Jefferson, including the one at the top of this post. I followed Israel Ridge, still walking on boulders, down to The Perch and called it a day by about 3:30 PM. I could have walked back to my car, and done this hike in one day, but I wanted to camp out for a night in the mountains and look at the stars at night, rather than sitting in the Sunday evening traffic jam between New Hampshire and Boston.
I’m not a big fan of camping on tent platforms, but it’s one of the few options for camping at 4,000 feet in the area. Given the dense woods and steep slopes, finding a natural site for the night is near impossible. Surprisingly, the campsite was almost full on a Sunday night and on Father’s Day, too. I hung out with my neighbors for a bit, ate dinner, and crashed before sundown. I woke later for star-gazing 1 am.
The next morning, I hiked back to my card descending on the Israel Ridge Trail. It’s also steep, but a nice trail. I would not recommend coming down this way however when it’s wet. There are a lot of slippery and steep rock sections without good footholds. At the moment, there are also a lot of blow downs and avalanche debris on the trail from last winter, but no doubt they’ll be removed soon.
This was a marvelous, inspiring hike and I heartily recommend a climb up Mt Jefferson on the Castle Trail if you have good weather window.