Trail Running the Pemi Loop

One foggy day many years ago I was taking a break at Galehead Hut before summiting Galehead Mountain on my quest to finish New Hampshire’s 48 4,000-foot peaks. I was pretty excited and exhausted since I thought that summiting a 4,000 ft. peak made for an epic day. That is when a tank top clad runner emerged from the fog carrying a water bottle and not much else. I thought this man must be lost or in need of help so I asked how he was doing. He told me he was doing a one day Pemigewasset Loop that bagged 8 4,000 peaks over 31 miles. As the runner disappeared back into the fog I thought I must have misheard him because what he described was impossible. 15 years later I found that the Pemigewasset Loop aka Pemi Loop was very real as I stood in the Lincoln Woods parking lot about to make my attempt to run the whole thing in one day. 

The Pemi Loop is a 31-mile loop that circles the Pemigewasset Wilderness in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Those miles contain eight of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot peaks including Flume, Liberty, Lincoln, Lafayette, Garfield, South Twin, Bond and Bondcliff. All those peaks help explain the 9,000 ft. of elevation gain that your legs will be treated to along the way. You also have the option to bag Zealand, West Bond and Galehead if you are up for a few quick side trips. However if you are going for the one-day option I think it is challenging enough without the side trips. The scenery on this route is, in my view, unmatched by anything in New England which explains why this is a very popular multi day backpacking trip and a downright crazy one-day trail run. 

If you choose to run this loop then your biggest choice will be to do it clockwise or counterclockwise. Going clockwise means you will take on the most challenging terrain early in the day only to face the mentally draining yet totally flat multi-mile section of former rail bed that is the Lincoln Woods Trail. Going counterclockwise lets you warm up with easy miles on the Lincoln Woods Trail but it saves the roughest terrain for late in the day. However counterclockwise gives you more retreat options later in the day and there is definitely value in that. I deliberated this for a while but I chose the clockwise option. 

Here are the basics of the route if you choose the clockwise option: 

  • Start at the Lincoln Woods trailhead and cross the bridge onto the Lincoln Wood Trails. This part of the trail is flat and as wide as a road but don’t be fooled; this is just the warm-up. 
  • At 1.5 miles head west onto the Osseo Trail to begin your first climb toward Mount Flume which you will summit at just over 5 miles. This section puts you onto the Franconia Ridge, which is arguably one of the best ridges anywhere on Earth (I am biased). 
  • From here you will continue to Mt. Liberty, Little Haystack (not an official 4,000 footer but your legs can’t tell the difference), Mt. Lincoln and Mt. Lafayette. 
  • After Mt. Lafayette you will head onto the Garfield Ridge/ Appalachian Trail to Mount Garfield. 
  • At Mile 15.5 you reach Galehead Hut, which will have snacks, water, friendly people and latrines. It is a true oasis in this adventure. Many years ago this where I saw that mythical runner who was doing the same adventure I was currently doing. 
  • After Galehead Hut you will take on the Twinway, which is a brutal ascent toward South Twin Mountain and Mount Guyot (another not official 4,000 footer). 
  • Depart the Appalachian Trail onto the Bondcliff Trail and make your way up Mount Bond and then Bondcliff. This will be the last summit of the day; it is all downhill form here. 
  • Descend the Bondcliff Trail to meet back up with the Lincoln Woods Trail. From here you have a flat few miles between you and the parking lot. The adventure comes to an end as you turn left and cross the bridge where you started this adventure. 

I ran this adventure with one of my favorite running partners. We arrived at the Lincoln Woods parking lot around 7 am where we checked our gear, took a second to make sure we really waned to do this, crossed the bridge, hit start on our watches and embarked on this grand adventure. We were heading into the first beautiful day after a week of deluges, which almost guaranteed there was mud in our future. 

I could hear my heart beating with excitement, nervousness or both as we churned out the first few easy miles. This is point in every adventure where I go through my mental checklist of all the gear I have and how my body is feeling; all systems were go! 

The multi-mile climb toward Mount Flume is steady but runnable even though we encountered a mud patch or two. Eventually mud patches became the norm and we began remarking when we encountered any dry ground. We kept our pace very casual to save energy for the thousands of feet of vertical that lay in front of us.

The first climb did not relent until we were on top of Mount Flume and about to embark onto the rocky alpine awesomeness that is the Franconia Ridge. At this point I swear my running partner said, “This is easier than I thought it would be!” although he swears he never said it; we may never know the truth of who said what. 

At first the views were spectacular enough to be on the cover of a magazine but as we neared Mount Lincoln clouds began closing in and they brought a windy chill with them. We donned our jackets and kept moving forward despite being deprived of the view. 

After Mount Garfield we began the descent toward Galehead Hut. The sign said we only had a few miles to go but the trail conditions made us earn every step. The week of rain leading up to this day made the trail indistinguishable from a stream. When we were not running in ankle deep water we were sliding down car size boulders that were as slippery as a water slide. Somehow every tree that I grabbed had a big slug on the backside of it; but that still beat falling and potentially injuring myself. This section was mentally and physically draining. Every trail junction we reached told us that we had only covered .1, .2 or .3 miles in what felt like hours. We kept moving forward with determination to get to the Galehead Hut. 

Eventually the hut appeared out of the fog and all of a sudden we were the crazy runners emerging from the fog. Galehead Hut is an amazing oasis in the middle of this adventure. It is a great place to stock up on baked goods, Snickers bars, water and the positive energy from the Hut Croo. We took a few minutes here to catch our breath but not long enough to get too comfortable since we still had 15 miles of adventure in front of us.  

Immediately after the hut we faced the Twinway, which is an absolutely brutal climb to the summit of South Twin Mountain. The fact that we had already taken on over 15 miles didn’t make this climb any easier. We moved forward one step at a time and thankfully the weather changed in our favor as sun broke though the clouds and the wind became almost unnoticeable. 

The ridge containing Bond and Bondcliff was now the last major obstacles between the parking lot and us. We pushed through the mud on our way toward Mount Guyot and the last major climbs of the day. We passed a few groups of hikers along the way and many of them asked if we were carrying headlamps or if we were really going all the way to Lincoln Woods; that felt a little ominous. 

We pushed up the rocky ascent to Mount Bond just before 6 pm into some of the calmest, sunniest and warmest conditions I have ever seen on top of a 4,000 footer. We were almost too tired to appreciate it but it was impossible to not take in the awesomeness of this experience. In the back of my mind I started calculating how much sunlight we had vs. how many miles we had to go and it looked like we would make it thanks to the long summer days. As long as we got off the ridge before dark we would be happy. 

I tried to overcome my worries about time and my tiredness to realize how far I had come and how lucky I was to be doing something that I once thought impossible.

It helps that the ridge between Bond and Bondcliff is one of the few spots in the Whites that can outdo the Franconia Ridge. This was especially true for us since the Franconia Ridge had blasted us with fog and wind while the Bonds had treated us to a windless alpenglow. 

All amazing things come to an end and eventually we began our descent off the ridge. As with every 4,000 footer I noticed as the trees began to reappear, then they got a little taller, then a little more deciduous and then before you know it you are back in the woods.

However our journey was not yet over. We now had 4 miles of flat, featureless running inside of the green tree tunnel of the White Mountains; all while the sun was giving us its last gasps before tucking away for the night. 

We found the strength to pick up our pace, to enjoy the moment and the find excitement in the pain as the steps and miles moved into the past. Eventually we passed Osseo trail, which we had turned onto earlier this morning, and we knew we had just a mile of straight and flat Lincoln Woods beauty to go. I felt an uncontrollable smile and excitement as we made our left turn back onto the bridge to finish the adventure we had started 12 hours earlier.

We reached the parking lot, high fived and laid down next to the car to take it all in.

We had just run the Pemi Loop in a single day. We didn’t come close to our target time. However, years of hiking in the Whites reminded me that the weather and conditions decide what the day has in store you and getting back to the car safely is the real victory. We piled into the car and headed straight for the Common Man in downtown Lincoln, NH for post run burgers. We all agreed that we didn’t need to do this run again anytime soon but we never said we wouldn’t do it again. 

Strava Route Data:

https://www.strava.com/activities/2496575201

Gear List:

Clothing

  • New Balance Leadville shoes
  • Darn Tough ¼ light cushion socks plus 1 extra pair
  • Patagonia Strider Pro Shorts
  • Patagonia trail running short sleeve shirt and one long sleeve shirt
  • CEP compression calf sleeves
  • Headsweats Technical Trucker Hat 
  • Buff 
  • Patagonia Houdini Jacket
  • 1 light knit cap and 1 light pair of gloves 

Pack

  • Ultimate Direction FKT vest
  • Tech
  • Garmin Fenix 5x
  • iPhone 10R in a LifeProof FRE case 
  • Nutrition/ Hydration
  • bacon, dates, Honey Stinger Waffles, Snickers, Tailwind 
  • BeFree water filter
  • 2 24 ounce bottles and a 70 oz. hydration bladder

Safety

  • Space blanket, whistle, paper map 
  • Small first aid kit and Squirrels Nut Butter 
  • Small amount of toilet paper and hand sanitizer 
  • Headlamp
  • Told several people where we were going, when we were starting and when we should be back. 

3 thoughts on “Trail Running the Pemi Loop

  1. Steve Pero

    Good rike, Grant! My wife and I have done the Pemi several times and feel it is our favorite day rike in the Whites.
    Can’t wait for the Spring, time for another loop!

    1. Grant Ritter

      Thanks Steve! I can see how it is the best day hike in the Whites because it has everything! Do you like going clockwise or counterclockwise?

      1. Steve Pero

        I prefer CCW…get that long, flat jog on the rail trail out of the way and finish on a wonderful downhill run on the Osseo! We always ended the day at the Woodstock Brewery for a beer and burger.
        My dog, Tucker has also done the Pemi.

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