5 miles (one way, including .2 miles of the Garfield Ridge Trail to the summit)
Difficulty: Weekend Warriors
On paper, the Garfield Trail looks to be a daunting challenge: a five-mile, 3,000-foot climb in the White Mountains to the summit of 4,500-foot Mt. Garfield. In reality, compared to neighboring hikes such as the Liberty Springs Trail, Falling Waters Trail and Old Bridle Path, it’s a walk in the White Mountains National Forest park.
All in all the Garfield Trail is a great early season hike, especially in the winter, to break in the old trail legs. The trail also passes within .2 miles of the Garfield Ridge Campsite, which makes it an attractive option for families looking to give the kids an overnight Appalachian Trail camping excursion (hey, nobody needs to know you only hiked .2 miles of the AT). The campsite has a brand new lean-to shelter as well as several tent platforms; however, there is a per person fee ($8 at last check).
None of this is to say the Garfield Trail should be underestimated. The last .2 miles from the junction of the Garfield Ridge Trail (also the Appalachian Trail) to the summit is steep and rocky (the mere scent of the AT makes it more difficult). Weather conditions on the wide-open summit can be harsh—I’ve eaten my fair share of hamburgers, and there were several wind gusts that nearly blew me off my feet. The 10-mile round trip hike is deceivingly long given the relative ease of terrain, and closure of the Gale River Loop Road in the winter makes it 12.4 miles, so plan accordingly.
As if by design, the Garfield Trail is a pleasant hike from start to finish. It begins by climbing the built-in steps of a small mound and following the crest of a ridge for a short distance. The trail soon connects onto the old fire tower road, crosses a couple of brooks and a snowmobile trail, and continues to gradually ascend the mountain. A little more than half way up the trail crosses a ridge that was once burnt over and is now a fully grown birch stand. The birches have interspersed with the higher terrain conifers in spots, making for a unique view against the skyline when seen from the right angle. An accomplished photographer could probably have some fun here.
The trail continues to meander up the mountain until reaching the Garfield Ridge Trail/Appalachian Trail junction. Take a right to head to the summit, left to visit the Garfield Ridge Campsite. The final climb to the top, a steep succession of rocks, is easily the most difficult section of the hike. The trail doesn’t actually pass over the summit, but you can’t miss it. A short rock scramble leads hikers to the base of the old fire tower, from which the views are superb.
Follow I-93 north through Franconia Notch and take exit 35 for Route 3. Continue on Route 3 for about four and a half miles and turn right onto the Gale River Loop Road (also known as Fire Road 92). You’ll know you’ve missed the road and gone too far if you reach the Gale River. In the winter the Gale River Loop Road is likely closed, in which case you’ll only be able to drive a short distance in and have to park at the gate. When the road is open it’s a 1.2-mile drive to the Garfield Trail parking area. Try not to get sidetracked on the way in as there are a bunch of side trails and turnoffs along the way. The trailhead will be on the right, and the best I can say is you’ll know it when you see it as the trail is well marked. It’s also worth noting that there’s a U.S. Forest Service fee for parking in the lot.
The stream crossings on the Garfield Trail are easily crossable.
The trail is open and easy from following the old fire tower road.
The beauty of the trail only grows with the elevation.
The Garfield Trail junction with the Garfield Ridge Trail, also the Appalachian Trail. Families hiking with kids should know the hiking is challenging on either direction of the Garfield Ridge Trail. Fortunately it is only .2 miles to the summit in one direction, as well as .2 miles to the Garfield Ridge Campsite in the other direction. Probably not a good idea for families with young children to hike past the campsite as the trail descends a steep headwall that’s part waterfall.
Mt. Garfield has a distinct summit widely recognized for the base of the old fire tower.
The view of Mt. Lafayette and Mt. Lincoln from the summit.
More mountains visible from the summit.