Distance: 10.2 miles round-trip; 13.4 miles when the Gale River Road is closed
Time: 5-7 hours
Galehead Mountain Elevation: 4,024 feet
Difficulty: Weekend Warriors
Recommended Gear: Trekking poles, micro spikes, crampons
As the most direct route to the AMC’s Galehead Hut, along with access to Galehead Mountain, South Twin Mountain, the Appalachian Trail and the Pemi Loop, and it’s easy to see why the Gale River Trail is a major hiker thoroughfare in the White Mountain National Forest. But this trail is so much more than a line between points A and B. Beginning with a gradual hike along the North Branch of the Gale River, and ending with a steep, rocky climb, the Gale River Trail is a great escape. Tackle it in the spring for more on-trail alone time — just come prepared for ice.
The Gale River Trail hike officially begins at the trailhead parking lot on the Gale River Loop Road, but in the winter and early spring months the road is closed, during which hikers park at the intersection of U.S. Route 3 and Trudeau Road known as Five Corners. Consider it bonus hiking with an additional 1.6 miles each way. Begin on the Gale River Road, stay left at the first intersection, and then turn right at the second intersection for the Gale River Loop Road (continuing on this road past the parking lot would also bring you to the Garfield Trail).
The hike kicks off with a leisure stroll along a well-trodden path through hardwoods. Mind your footwork, because there’s plenty of rocks and roots. Springtime can also bring wet and muddy trail conditions. It’s important to be conscious of the impact our travel is having on the trail, and it’s best to avoid the hike altogether when springtime reaches the point of unavoidable wear and tear.
A short distance into the hike, the Gale River Trail crosses a feeder brook of the Gale River. The original version of the trail featured several crossings of the Gale River; however, a bridge washout, concerns over hiker safety, and the potential impact of hiker traffic on the Gale River (a municipal water supply), has led the Forest Service to relocate a significant portion of the trail.
The relocated version of the trail is fun in its own right, offering a glimpse into what early versions of White Mountain hiking must have been like before trails sunk into deep gullies. Most of the Gale River Trail in the relocation stays within earshot of the river, keeping the soothing sounds of rushing water omnipresent. The trail still comes out along the river at a viewpoint of the Twins, and if river rock hopping is your idea of hiking fun, fear not, the relocation hasn’t taketh all away.
After the river crossing, the hike begins to pick up considerably in the elevation gained department. There are a couple more small stream crossings, and in a few places, logs have been placed.
In the springtime, higher elevations bring remnants of winter, and the trail snowpack has been pressed into rock-hard ice. Couple this with steep sections of trail and the hiking can get, well, you get the picture…
The higher the elevation, the more snow and ice. Oh, yeah, and the steeper the trail.
Turn left onto the Garfield Ridge Trail for a 0.6-mile hike to the AMC’s Galehead Hut. Along this stretch, there’s one significant steep, rocky climb, along with a quick viewpoint of the valley.
Before reaching the hut, there’s an intersection where the Appalachian Trail turns left to follow the Twinway to South Twin Mountain. Vear right here and the hut is just around the corner.
The Frost Trail dips into a col before beginning a short but steep climb to the summit of Galehead Mountain. Along the way is a scenic lookout and a junction with the Twin Brook Trail.
Gale River Trail Directions
Follow I-93 north through Franconia Notch and take exit 35 for Route 3. Continue on Route 3 for about five miles to the Five Corners intersection with Trudeau Road. Park here for winter/spring hikes. In the summer, turn right onto the Gale River Road and stay to the left at the first intersection. 1.3 miles in, turn right onto the Gale River Road. The Gale River parking lot is 0.3 miles ahead on the left.