10 miles round trip
Difficulty: Pack the Aleve
Mt. Washington may get the glory, but the Mt. Jefferson Castle Trail has more than its fair share of guts. With 4,200 feet of elevation gain over 4.8 miles, and a tip-top height of 5,716 feet, the Castle Trail packs a wallop as challenging as anything the New Hampshire Presidential Range has to offer.
Yet somehow I was stumped when a Canadian chap we met at The Cornice junction, a half mile from the summit, asked if it was a technical hike. He went on to say he’d hiked Mt. Jefferson several times but had always shied away from the Castle Trail.
“It’s not too bad,” I said, the word ‘technical’ conjuring images in my mind’s eye of climbing ropes and harnesses. It wasn’t until we’d gone on our merry way that I got to thinking I may have misled him. What exactly is a technical hike, anyway?
In all likelihood my gut reaction overshot his definition. Perhaps he was thinking of a hike requiring hands as much as feet. In this case there are three steep rock embankments where all four appendages are needed, as well as numerous little pull-ups.
Or maybe he simply meant a trail where careful stepping is warranted. In this case, the Castle Trail is extremely technical. The top portion above the castellated ridge is a full-on rock scramble with many loose stones. Below treeline rocks and exposed roots are endlessly entwined. Unlike other White Mountain trails where rocks have been carefully rearranged into happy staircases, the Randolph Mountain Club has taken great care to leave the trail composition in its natural state. In other words, the Castle Trail is difficult for difficulty’s sake. And deservedly so.
Which brings me back to the inquisitive Canadian. In the nonexistent chance he ever reads this post, let me just say, my bad. And if he ends up hiking the Castle Trail based on my negligent response…I’m sorry. Now that my conscience is clear, let’s continue with the recap.
For a difficult, or “technical” hike, the Castle Trail provides plenty of warm up for the old legs. The first 1.3 miles is an easy stroll through the woods with little trail debris or elevation gain. The lone obstacle is the Israel River crossing and its choose-your-own-adventure selection of rock hops. Nothing stands out as the obvious route and the odds of slipping in are approximately 50 percent—well, that was our success rate, anyway, and we did the hike in August. The chances of getting wet likely rise with the early summer water levels.
What this warm-up stretch of trail really means is that the 4,000-plus feet of elevation gain occurs primarily over 3.5 miles. Fun. No, really, it is! The climb begins after the Israel Ridge Path splits off and the Castle Trail ascends Mt. Bowman. From here the next 1.2 miles of trail transforms into a motley collection of rocks and roots delivering consistent elevation gain. There’s a brief reprieve where the trail levels off and the footpath smoothes out on the wooded ridge connecting Mt. Bowman to the Castellated Ridge. The ascent returns gradually before becoming steep again for a short stint prior to the intersection with The Link.
A good rule of thumb on the Castle Trail is that intersections also mark points of increased difficulty, and The Link junction is no exception. The Link enters stage right (and left) at a little above 4,000 feet with 1,700 left to gain over the final mile and a half. So, yeah, it gets steep. Immediately. The Link crossover is also “only” .3 of mile before the first Castle. The parenthesis around “only” are to denote sarcasm. This stretch is loaded with three steep rock embankments and the White Mountain National Forest sign informing hikers they’ll die in bad weather.
After emerging from the treeline onto an open ridge, the final of these rock embankments ascends the first Castle. From here the view of Mt. Adams and the Castle Ravine is mighty fine. There are a few rocky up and downs in the scruff between the Castles before the trail emerges onto the meat of Mt. Jefferson and the seemingly endless rock scramble. Later than sooner the trail reaches the Cornice crossing where a marker alleges that it’s a half mile to the Jefferson summit. This last segment offers more of the same in the rock scramble department, often following cairns white-capped with quartz.
Once onto the Jefferson summit the views extend onto Mt. Washington, Mt. Monroe, and beyond. Of course there’s an equally good chance you’ll be white-washed in clouds. On this trip we were fortunate enough to enjoy both.
From New Hampshire take I-93 north to exit 35 for U.S. 3, and continue on U.S. 3 until the right turn onto Route 115. Follow Route 115 to the intersection with U.S. 2 and turn right, the trailhead is 4.2 miles from here on the right. From Maine follow U.S. 2 through Gorham, New Hampshire. From the junction of U.S. 2 and Route 16, follow U.S. 2 west for 9.2 miles; the trailhead will be the second trailhead on the left after Lowe’s Store. In addition to the brown sign with double hikers, there’s a mailbox at the entrance as the parking lot is at the end of a private driveway.
@itdoug with the unmistakeable “Which way do we go?” pose.
The trail is getting steep and rocky…but is it technical?
More than anything, The Link intersection indicates the trail is about to get steeper and more difficult.
I’d say this constitutes a technical section of the trail, wouldn’t you?
“You shall not pass.”
At this point, the trail is officially technical.
A view of Castle Ravine and the first Castle from a lookout just above treeline.
Minor technicalities. This climb is to get onto the first Castle.
Looking back down upon the Castle Ridge.
The view of Mt. Adams was much better for us on the way down.
The rock scramble at the top might as well be trademarked by the Presidential Range.
There was a break in the clouds just long enough for us to get a glimpse of Mt. Clay in the foreground with Mt. Washington on the left and Mt. Monroe on the right. In between is the Lakes of the Clouds Hut.
President Adams from the Jefferson summit.
So were we.