We left Boston very late Thursday night–H had to work and I had to meet with a friend/mentor about a new project, so we didn’t hit the road until at least 8PM after inhaling sandwiches from the wonderful Clover Food Lab in Harvard Square. I, with my usual terrific planning, had not reserved a campsite. So when we finally arrived at Sugarloaf I and II campgrounds in the Whites at 11PM, we parked in the pitch darkness near the entrance of II and walked around with headlamps peering at the signs in front of each site. All but 2 sites were either reserved for the next day, or occupied…we felt very lucky to find one nice spot that appeared neither to be reserved nor occupied, and pitched our tent with a minimum of fuss, finally getting to bed around 1AM.
The next morning we were awoken by a polite but insistent call from the campground host. Apparently someone had goofed writing on the sign and the site was actually reserved! Fortunately, a nonreservable site opened up while we were snoozing and we were able to haul the tent (sleeping pads and all) two sites over, and set up camp for the next couple of days. In the end, it was a good thing, because our original site was smack-dab in the middle of a family reunion that stretched across at least 3 sites and featured what appeared to be a full bar laid out on a picnic table!
We got a late start that first day owing to our late night the prior evening, and decided on a hike that looked interesting but not too taxing–Garfield. We ascended via the Garfield trail. This is a lovely wooded trail that’s in good shape and involves a minimum of the crazy ups/downs and rock heaps that I feel like are a characteristic feature of WM trails. The only remotely challenging part was the last 0.2 miles up to the summit cone, which is well worth the (small) effort.
For such a relatively easy trail, we had the mountain largely to ourselves. On the summit (the busiest place), we encountered a guy who was partway through a Pemi traverse, and a handful of through-hikers. We ended up walking a bit with one of the northbound through-hikers. He was getting towards the end of his journey and was clearly feeling it. He had been inspired to do the AT by an uncle who’d hiked the trail before, and they’d planned on actually hiking together. Just 2 weeks before they were scheduled to start, though, the uncle was killed in a car crash. This through-hiker was carrying his uncle’s ashes and scattering them along the trail. He told us that was what kept him going even on the worst days. He’d also met couple, both with type 1 diabetes and insulin pumps, and a man with a pacemaker, all of whom were through-hiking as well. Crazy.
We finished the 10 mile hike in 6.5 hours (with a very leisurely pace and a foot-soaking in one of the brooks on the way down), stopped at Foster’s Crossroads (an amazing gas station and junk store) to get camp wood, and headed back for a mellow evening.
The next day we were up earlier and at the trailhead for North Twin trail by 8ish. North Twin was the first trail I’d seen with really significant damage from Hurricane Irene. We’d otherwise been hiking in snow or in less affected areas, it seems. The trail was eroded in the lower parts and it was quite a sad sight to see.
We passed two large groups along the first part of the trail before the last river crossing, never to see them again. I suspect they might have been beginner hiking groups because they were talking in detail about water crossings. Further on, we ran into a third large group of people again moving slowly…but this time it was Randy Pierce, the Mighty Quinn, and their entourage. It was inspiring to watch them all working together, and to watch Randy tackle the challenging terrain (and triumph) without the aid of sight.
In contrast to the Garfield hike, the trails to the Twins and Galehead were strenuous, with lots of ups and downs on paths that seemed to be nothing but boulders at times. The few sections that were flat were so remarkable that H felt like he had to document them. The outlook from North Twin was lovely, as was the view from South Twin’s summit.
The descent from South Twin to Galehead hut was short but arduous, requiring careful foot placement with each step on the boulders. We paused at the hut for a quick break (and to buy a tasty but stingily small chunk of applesauce cake), then made the quick trip along Frost trail to Galehead’s rather boring wooded summit. The outlook was nice, though.
By the time we reached the flats along North Twin trail again (having returned the way we came), I was pretty footsore and we were both sweaty and tired. A soak in the Little River proved the perfect antidote. Revived, we returned to camp–admiring the elaborate campsites of people camping along Haystack Road along the way.
On our third morning, we had a leisurely breakfast of our usual oatmeal and discussed where to hike. An easy day hike, we agreed, would be just the thing. Mt Willey (which we had missed back in our February trip to the Willey range) seemed just the thing. Only six miles round trip, and if it was steep, how bad could it be?
Willey is not an easy day hike.
We started on Ethan Pond trail and passed some weary looking through-hikers heading for Webster Cliff. A few were napping in the parking lot as we walked to the trailhead. The initial stretch of Ethan Pond is rocky and definitively goes up, but the footing is good and it’s never particularly challenging. The first short stretch of the Willey Range trail (coming from the north) is the same, maybe even flatter in places. It’s very deceiving, because then the trail goes up, ascending about 1650 feet in 0.7 miles. It is steep. Eventually you get to the ladders, but before that the trail is eroded and covered in loose slippery rock. The ladders…well, the picture speaks for itself.
These are only about half the ladders. In total there seemed to be about 10-12 of varying lengths. It was work. At one point I sat down in despair, unsure if I could bring myself to keep going up but not really wanting to back down the way I came either.
The summit, when we finally reached it, was perfectly fine.
But if I had to do it again, I’d come from the south/west end, or do a long loop going south/west from Ethan Pond, swinging over the rest of the Willey Range, and going back through the Pemigewasset wilderness instead.
By the time we reached the bottom of the trail (after a long debate of the pros and cons of going the other way along the trail, coming out by Highland Center, and doing a long road walk, before eventually deciding to just get it over with), we were whupped, so whupped that the short shlep to look at Ethan Pond seemed way too far. So we slogged back down Ethan Pond trail, chatted with a father and son pair who were coming from an overnight at Nancy Pond and weren’t sure where they’d parked the car, and finally emerged back into the parking lot to watch some trail magic occurring and to go eat our own lunch across Route 302 by a swampy part of the Saco River.
Day 1: Mt Garfield via Garfield trail and Garfield Ridge trail, rt 10 miles, 3100 ft
Day 2: North Twin, South Twin, Galehead via North Twin trail, North Twin Spur, Twinway, and Frost trail, rt 13.8 miles, ??? ft
Day 3: Mt Willey via Ethan Pond trail and Willey Range trail, 6 miles, 3050 ft