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Mt Washington and the Great Gulf Trail

The Great Gulf
The Great Gulf

The Great Gulf is a glacial cirque on the northern face of Mt Washington surrounded on three sides by Mt Clay, Mt Jefferson, Mt Adams, and Mt Madison. Drained by the West Peabody River, it is a wild place, but surprisingly accessible to those who venture a few miles up the Great Gulf Trail which runs up the middle of the valley. It is also home to some of the steepest trails in the White Mountains such as the Sphinx and The Six Husbands which climb from the base of the valley to the Gulfside Trail, the main ‘highway’ that connects all of the Northern Presidentials in one circuit route.

When hiked to its terminus, the Great Gulf Trail climbs from Spaudling Lake, a tiny pond at the head of the valley, up the headwall of Mt Washington, ending 0.4 miles from the summit, a bit before the raised tracks of the Cog Railroad. In that distance, it climbs roughly 1600 ft in 0.8 miles through a waterfall and over boulders and rocks loosened by avalanche activity. From a distance, the climb looks far steeper than it really is.

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Spaulding Lake
Spaulding Lake

I climbed the headwall on Saturday morning, after hiking up to the Great Gulf + Sphinx Trail Junction on Friday afternoon and camping out to get an early start. When I awoke the next morning, the sun had turned the top of Washington and neighboring Mt Clay a firey red and the sky was clear. But, by the time I broke camp at 6:30 am, mist had filled the head of the valley and a light rain was falling. Rather than commit to a climb in bad weather – the forecast for later in the day was for rain after 2pm and high winds all weekend – I decided to hike up to Spaulding Lake and have a look at the base of the climb.

That’s when the mist cleared and I decided to go for it. There was no telling how long the sky would remain clear, so I pulled out my map of the Presidential Range and took a bearing of the route up. That bearing would prove very useful later.

Cliffs of Mt Clay
Cliffs of Mt Clay

At first, the climb was an easy boulder scramble. Some of the rocks were painted with a yellow blaze, but it was very intermittent. As I climbed higher a waterfall ran down the middle of the trail, and I had to cross back and forth numerous times. With the recent rain and the stream water, the footing was quite slick, still good footwork and a slow steady pace kept me moving up.

The Mist Rolls In
The Mist Rolls In

After I’d cleared the last of the cascades, I could hear the water flowing under the trail or what I assumed was the trail because the blazes petered out and there were no cairns. That’s when a big rock that I’d climbed onto slipped underneath me and I fell, tearing my pants and ripping up my knee a bit. The mountain bit me.

It wasn’t a bad fall, but I realized that I was climbing up a very dynamic rockfall that was moving around me as I climbed. I was at about 5,000 feet and headed left to get onto more stable ground. That’s when the mist blew over the headwall blinding me to the route forward and covering the adjacent cliffs of Mt Clay. Funny, I remember the horrible odor of the Cog Railroad exhaust wafting down the headwall to me in the fog.

Mt Washington Headwall
Mt Washington Headwall

I had a choice whether to try to climb down through the waterfalls or continue going up. It wasn’t much of a choice really. I had to go up. I was committed.

I had a bearing, so the question wasn’t whether I was in the right place or not, but where I’m come up over the headwall lip. I kept drifting left to get better footing and to climb around some large rock outcroppings in my path, but after a while I started angling right again while scanning up through the mist looking for cairns. There weren’t any. I’ve since heard they’ve all been swept away by avalanches.

At the Top of the Great Gulf Trail
At the Top of the Great Gulf Trail

As I angled right, I thought I could pick up the traces of mineral soil between rocks, which is usually a good sign of a trail, but none of them panned out. Then I saw a yellow blaze and knew I was on the right track. Soon after I saw what was obviously a sign ahead through the mist, and came over the headwall at the exact right spot, where the Great Gulf Trail terminates. Spot on. The summit of Mt Washington was a short distance away.

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  1. I did the Great Gulf Trail when I was a kid with my parents and remember, still to this day, its wild beauty! Fantastic photos!

    • Longer trip report to come – this climb was the beginning of two days of mostly whiteout conditions with occassional views. Had great weather the 1st day though hiking up to the base of the cliff – have to come back here for the incredible swimming holes and wildness. A true rain forest.

    • Just doing some armchair adventuring in my old age and ill health. I got pretty far up My Washington in my 20’s, To a ridge with breathtaking views. I don’t remember what trail.

  2. Nice. I am hoping to do this same trip sometime later this year. Are there decent campsites near the junction of the Sphinx trail?

    • Depends what you call decent.

      There are nice designated sites along the Great Gulf trail with good water, many with bear boxes that the forest service has set up. There are also less nice (in fact disgusting and heart-wrenching) non-designated sites higher up that are heavily “impacted” that are not 200′ from the trail. It’s a moral decision whether you camp at these or not. That said, I’m not going to tell you where they are because I want to discourage their use, but it’s pretty obvious if you walk up the trail and know where to look.

      • Thanks. I plan to leave no trace. And build no fires. So sad when people wreck it for the rest of us.

        • Thanks for understanding. I know you.

        • When coming down the Bridle Path from Greenleaf Hut a month ago, just below treeline I saw some spots not five feet from the trail that had been used to camp. If you’ve already walked that far, another two hundred feet isn’t going to kill you. Another pet peeve is empty water bottles left on the trail. If someone can carry a full one a few miles back, they certainly can take a light empty out. I always come out of the backcountry with a bunch of other people’s trash.

        • Empty water bottles are something I really don’t understand. I section hiked the AT through New Jersey a few weeks ago and picked up several dozen of them along the way.

          So, back to the subject, if someone were to attempt a first climb up Mt Washington, which is the best (easiest/safest) route?

        • I think the Jewell Trail is the easiest and it’s not crowded. You start at the Cog Railroad base station. Beautiful Trail – I used to maintain a section of it. The most popular route starts at Pinkham Notch up the Tuckerman Ravine Tr and the Lion Head Trail.

  3. Hiked the Great Gulf trail three years ago in september. Very nice. Correct just like a rain forest !

  4. We had an amazing trip this weekend! So glad to have read your report and know that looking for cairns on the headwall would be an exercise in futility. Amazing to see how much has changed in the two months since you posted this – many more colors on the slopes now, though I would say not peak foliage yet.

  5. Hi Phil, I had much the same experience climbing the Great Gulf to Mt Wash last Oct. My leg also got “bit” by a rock/boulder slipping out underneath my foot. I was too far up to turn around. Not a lot of hikers on this trail in this true wilderness. Enjoyed your article.

  6. Many years back, my husband and I hiked up from the Great Gulf Trailhead to the last of then 4 official campsites on the trail, then the next day took the Six Husbands trail to Jefferson, across Clay and to Washington, coming back down the Great Gulf Trail and back down the river to our site. Really nice route on a clear day in late August. I don’t recall an excess of water although the river was always there and available, and the views were spectacular.

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