Thirteen Falls Backpacking Loop Attempt

There was a dusting of snow at the bottom of the Garfield Trail
There was a dusting of snow at the bottom of the Garfield Trail

Late autumn/early winter conditions are notoriously tricky to forecast in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and you need to be willing to modify or abort your trip plans when conditions on the ground don’t meet your expectations. I found myself in that situation the day after Thanksgiving (11/23/17), on a late season backpacking trip when I encountered a lot more snow at the higher elevations than I’d expected. I was hiking solo, so I was more cautious since I had to be completely self-sufficient. Rather than continue deeper into the wilderness, I decided to bail and hiked out.

I’d planned to hike to Thirteen Falls, a trail junction deep in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, bagging two 4000 footers, Mt Garfield and Mt Galehead on the route. My primary objective was to hike the trails along the route and not those two specific peaks, which I’ve climbed many times before. Thirteen Falls is a very popular campsite deep in the forest, named after an old logging camp, Camp 13. I doubted anyone would be there except me and looked forward to spending the night there as an antidote to Black Friday’s shopping frenzy. You could say this was my #optoutside backpacking trip.

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Route Plan

  • Day 1 (miles)
    • Park at Gale River Trail Lot
    • Road Walk to Garfield Trailhead  – 1.0
    • Garfield Trail – 4.8
    • Garfield Ridge Trail – 0.7
    • Garfield Shelter Spur Trail – 0.2 (out and back)
    • Franconia Brook Trail to Thirteen Falls Campsite 2.2
  • Day 2
    • Twin Brook Trail – 2.6
    • Frost Trail – 0.8 (out and back)
    • Garfield Ridge Trail – 0.6
    • Galehead River Trail – 4.2

I parked my car at the Galehead Trailhead since I planned to hike out along the Galehead River Trail at the end of my trip. The trailhead is reached by a seasonal road and I was kind of amazed that it was open so late in the season. I then walked down a forest service road for a mile to the start of the Garfield Trail which runs up to the summit. The days are quite short at this point in the year, so I’d gotten an early start and driven up from Boston. That put me at the trailhead by 9:00 AM. Sunset was close to 4:30 PM, giving me just over 7 hours of hiking time to travel the 9 miles to the Thirteen Falls Campsite.

I’d brought a mixture of three season and winter gear for this trip, including a canister stove, tarp shelter, sleeping bag, bivy sack, insulated water bottles, and Hillsound Trail Crampon Ultras, with plenty of warm clothes and spare gloves. The Weather.gov point forecast for Thirteen Falls predicted overnight temperatures in the low 20’s falling to 0 degrees the following night, so I had a small weather window to hike this route before the onset of higher consequence weather.

The Garfield Trail - the snow got deeper as I got closer to treeline.
The Garfield Trail – the snow got much deeper as I got closer to treeline.

The road was covered with a thin sheet of ice, but I was able to hike on the gravel shoulder without having to put on traction. I headed up the Garfield Trail which was snow-free near the trailhead with deepening snow as I approached the Garfield summit. Nate Weeks, his dog Piper, Jason Beaupre, Andrew Soares caught up with me about 2/3 of the way up the trail and we chatted for a while. I’d met Jason at the then buried (in winter) Lakes of the Clouds Hut a few years earlier but this was my first face-to-face encounter with Andrew and Nate. We all have mutual friends. We chatted for a while and then they took off, moving fast, and headed to Lincoln Woods in a marathon day hike.

Memories of my past hikes up the Garfield Trail occupied my mind as I hiked up the trail. I can still remember camping off the trail, deep in the woods, on an Appalachian Trail Section Hike I did in September of 2010 from the Garfield summit to the Skookumchuck Trial junction. It was one of my last New Hampshire section hikes, one where I had to hike about 15 miles to finish just 2.7 more miles of the AT. I’d camped that night in a Mountain Laurel Designs Duomid that I’d managed to jam between a few trees in the densely packed forest. I looked for the approximate location as I climbed toward the treeline.

Related Trips in the Same Area

I bare-booted to the junction of the Garfield Trail and the Garfield Ridge Trail which is just below the Garfield summit but still protected by trees. I put on my Hillsounds here because the summit area is open ledge and I wanted the extra traction. Then I climbed the short distance to treeline and took in the view. Garfield is at the northwest corner of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, adjacent to Mt Lafayette and the Franconia Ridge, just 3.7 miles away. This view never gets old.

From the Garfield summit. The Garfield Trail continues past the summit and climbs up the north shoulder of Mt Lafayette on Franconia Ridge.
From the Garfield summit. The Garfield Trail continues past the summit and climbs up the north shoulder of Mt Lafayette on Franconia Ridge.

It would have been a fine day to hike Franconia Ridge too. The winds were calm, although they were forecast to pick up later in the evening. I hung out for a while and then backtracked back to the Garfield Ridge Trail junction and headed toward the Garfield Shelter to check it out. We’d had a major storm recently and I wanted to see what the state of the access trail was and whether it was full of blowdowns. It was. I managed to get down the trail, but a big saw would have been handy. Guess I have to go back anyway.

Peaks to the east. Thirteen Falls is below them
Peaks to the east. Thirteen Falls is below them.

By this time the snow was getting really deep, probably 10 inches or more. This was a lot more than I’d expected or prepared for. I started thinking hard about what conditions would be like at Thirteen Falls, which is about 2000′ lower in elevation. I resupplied my water at the shelter stream and purified it with a Steripen. Then I had a bite to eat, all the while thinking. I wasn’t that worried about the next section of trail which requires climbing down a highly eroded waterfall, but I was concerned about what the snow depth would be at Thirteen Falls. I hadn’t brought the shelter or stove that I prefer for snow camping. A shovel and a second person would have been welcome too.

There was a chance that Thirteen Falls would be snow free, but somehow I doubted that. It’s in a deep valley between two big ridgelines. The prevailing winds are from the west and hit Franconia Ridge, which was snow-capped, before dipping into the valley and hitting the ridgeline to the east. I reasoned that Thirteen Falls would probably have a decent amount of snow blown in from Franconia Ridge, but there was no way of knowing for sure. I thought about my wife and what she’d council. Time was running out. It was about 2:00 PM. I had just enough time to get to Thirteen Falls in daylight.

I decided to bail out of an abundance of caution. I about-faced and hiked the 6.5 miles back to my car, arriving just as the sunset. “The mountains will be there another day.” I climbed Flume and Liberty the next day.

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14 comments

  1. Well done, first rule, if you’re a little uneasy about it, turn around and go another day. The hills will be there long after we’re gone…….

  2. Great trip report of a nice little loop that didn’t quite happen. The Twin Brook Trail is one of my favorites. I’m surprised that you didn’t opt to stay at Garfield shelter even though the main objective wasn’t going to fly. I’m always looking for an excuse to stay out, though under the predicted conditions I’d probably have wanted a liquid gas stove for that long afternoon at the shelter(not as a heat source!). Always a good decision to bail before you get in too deep.

    Great photos also.

    Were you hoping to use your new Beta-Light at the falls?

    • I thought about it. Two guys had already moved into the shelter and had a blue tarp up over the front wall. They were heating it…”60 degrees last night” That’s not my scene and I didn’t want to have a confrontation.

  3. Is it possible for the Forest Service to close the road while your car is there?

  4. How do you heat a shelter?

  5. Hi Phil, love the blog. I attempted that same hike the day after Thanksgiving 30 years ago with the same results. My hiking partner brought a video camera. That camera was a pain then, but now I am glad to have the video.

  6. I’m curious as to why you switch from the hammock to tents in the winter?

  7. Thank you for the trip report! I find it more interesting and instructive to learn about the trips that don’t go as planned and the decisions we make when seeing the actual conditions.

  8. Incredibly beautiful scenery and amazing adventure! We would definitely love to trek and camp there. But coming from the tropics, we believe we will need more than just a hammock to protect us from the cold. Hehehehe!

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