I recently stood on the summit of Owl’s Head which completed my 11 year quest to hike New Hampshire’s 48 4000 foot peaks. Owl’s Head has a bad reputation due to the long approach, challenging stream crossings and bushwhack to the summit. However ideal weather conditions combined with the joy of finishing the 48 4000 footers made this one of my favorite hikes.
We recently tried Owl’s Head via the seldom traveled north route and were turned back by horrific trail conditions. This time we took the most popular south route from the Lincoln Woods Trail to the Franconia Brook to the Lincoln Brook Trail to the Owl’s Head path which adds up to a 20 mile round trip. The distance may seem long but it is deceiving since most of the route is on old flat logging rail beds. The only real climbing is the 1 mile up the Owl’s Head path to the summit. The most treacherous part of this hike are the 3 major water crossings so be sure to check water levels before you hike it. I should also note that no “official” trail goes to the summit of Owl’s Head but the path is very well marked by cairns and foot traffic toward the end of the season. This hike can be done as a day hike but we chose to maximize the hiking experience and do it as an overnight
|Getting Ready, photo by Dave Newman|
We pulled into the Lincoln Woods trail-head at 7:30 am to find clear skies with temperatures in the 40s; perfect hiking weather. We made final gear adjustments and headed down the Lincoln Woods Trail. This trail used to be a logging railroad, some railroad ties are still there, so it is very flat and straight. This gives you plenty of time to think. I began reflecting that so many of my recent hikes have started or ended on this trail including my last Owl’s Head attempt and Black Pond overnight. This is one of the more popular trails in the whites because it is accessible, flat and bike friendly, but there was no one else on the trail that morning.
After a few quick miles we found ourselves at the junction with the Franconia Brook Trail which marks the beginning of the wilderness area. We took a break at the remnants of an old railroad bridge. The Franconia Brook Trail is also an old railroad bed with less railroad ties in the trail. We found ourselves at the junction with the Lincoln Brook Trail in what seemed like no time.
The Lincoln Brook Trail is not an old railroad bed but it is still pretty flat. Trails like this are when good hiking partners and good conversation are crucial.
|improvised trekking poles|
|photo by Dave Newman|
We soon came to the first of the 3 legendary stream crossings. The water was pretty high so we all planned our route and made it across without getting wet. I am told that this was the site of an old logging camp and we saw some remnants of an old bridge that suggested this was true. The next two stream crossings came up quick and they were equally challenging which was refreshing after many miles of flat hiking. Some people chose to bushwhack routes to avoid these crossings.
We finally came to the turn off for the Owl’s Path which meant we were only 1 steep mile from the summit. The turn off is well marked with two cairns.
The trail immediately begins climbing up a steep slide which provides amazing views of the surrounding wilderness. I was amazed that you can’t see roads or hear any sounds of civilization from here. At this point conditions were absolutely perfect; the temperature was in the mid 30s, there was a dusting of snow on the ground and the skies were still clear. I can imagine that the slide would be downright treacherous in wet or icy conditions.
|the last few steps, photo by Dave Newman|
The slide eventually becomes more gradual as the Owl’s Head Path evolves into a beautiful pine forest. The well defined path continued to meander through the forest but then a sign on a tree let us know that the summit was only a ¼ mile away. I practically ran from there to get to the Owl’s Head summit! The top of Owl’s Head is nothing more than a wooded clearing but for me it marked the completion of my 11 year to finish New Hampshire’s 48 4000 footers. This was one of the most exciting moments in my hiking life.
|Summit!, photo by Dave Newman|
We spent about 10 minutes on the summit and then decided to head back so we could set up camp before dark.
Hiking down the slide was a blissful experience as we were treated the expansive wilderness views all the way down. We made camp at an established campsite about 10 minutes from the Owl’s Head Path. The cold temperatures of late fall in the White Mountains made it easy to fall asleep.
|photo by Dave Newman|
We were on the trail by 7 am the next day and hiked out the same way we came in. The hike out was flat and fast with nothing but stream crossings to slow us down. We found ourselves at the Tilton Diner for a celebratory lunch by 12 pm.
The conditions aligned perfectly to create one of my most enjoyable hikes in the whites. However, be sure to check trip reports before you head to Owl’s Head. High water, ice, or rain can certainly impact the enjoyment of your Owl’s Head experience!