The Pemi Loop. The name alone brings a wistful smile to the faces of many New England hikers. Eight wide-open summits on the New Hampshire 48 list of 4,000+ footers—each offering spectacular views of the Pemigewasset Wilderness—plus four other “optional” 4,000+ peaks on the list bagged via short side trails, help make The Loop an annual addiction for many. All it takes is one peak.
First timers should beware these smiles—they’re fraught with a masochistic amnesia that’s borderline endemic amongst White Mountains’ hikers. After all, Backpacker Magazine didn’t name the Pemi Loop the second hardest day hike in America for nothing. Connecting the dots between the paralyzing vistas is 31.5 rugged, knee-buckling miles with over 9,000 feet of elevation gain. Book time from the AMC’s White Mountain Guide lists the loop as a 20 hour and 17-minute hike, which is why most people still in possession of their faculties make this a two or three-day trek. The most rabid of trail runners have done it in under seven hours.
The irony to all this is that the Pemi Loop, officially, is not a trail. Rather, it’s a collection of interconnected trails that live in unity through hiker pop culture. What’s more, the loop only encircles the western half of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. Not that this has ever stopped anyone from ever giving it a go. The Pemi Loop is easily one of the most popular multi-day hikes in New Hampshire—if not all of New England. I highly recommend doing it in mid-week during the summer or early fall to avoid overcrowding at the designated AMC campsites.
The Lincoln Woods Visitor Center, located 5.6 miles east on Rt. 112 from exit 32 on I-93, is the traditional starting point to the Pemi Loop. From here hikers enjoy a leisurely stroll along the Lincoln Woods Trail for 1.4 miles before reaching the Osseo Trail junction. Turning onto Osseo sends hikers up Mt. Flume on a clockwise loop hike while continuing straight keeps the flat strides rolling for several miles before the long, gradual climb of Bondcliff. Both options have their merits, but most people choose Osseo as their first ascent to end the hike on an easy note, and, perhaps, in part because we’re programmed to go in a clockwise direction.
The directional choice is part of what keeps people coming back to the Pemi Loop. Factor in the many access points, including but not limited to the Falling Waters and Old Bridle Path trails, the Garfield Trail, and the North Twin Trail, and each time out can become an entirely unique experience. The Lincoln Woods Trail was closed for construction when I went on this hike, so I chose the Liberty Spring Trail as my entry point. This added a half mile to the hike, along with 2,850 feet in elevation gain. There’s more on this to come, so for now let’s just say it seemed like a good idea at the time, and fast-forward this review to the point where the Liberty Spring Trail (also the Appalachian Trail) meets the Franconia Ridge Trail.
One benefit I received from starting on the Liberty Spring Trail is that I was able to fill my 100-ounce water bladder at Liberty Spring. Hikers doing a clockwise loop from Osseo have to carefully plan their water allocation. Once beyond the brook along the Osseo Trail, the next on-trail water source isn’t until Garfield Pond, about 10 miles away, and, well, even with a filter it seems questionable. I have drawn water from here, and lived to tell about it, but I’d much rather resupply at the Garfield Ridge Campsite spring on the other side of the Garfield summit.
The solution? Day hikers aren’t going to have time for the 0.6-mile round trip to Liberty Spring, never mind the 2.2-mile round trip to the Greenleaf Hut off Mt. Lafayette, so their best bet is to pack an extra water bottle. Conversely, multi-day hikers won’t want the added weight of additional water, so they’re better off slack-packing down to Liberty Spring. It’s a fairly steep and rocky side trip, but it beats the alternative of running dry.
The Liberty Spring Tentsite is the first camp option for clockwise hikers starting at the Lincoln Woods Visitor Center. This is a good option if you weren’t able to start hiking until mid day. Fit backpackers with an early start will probably want to set their goals on the Garfield Ridge Campsite. If that’s going to be too long of a haul for you, then consider planning ahead and making reservations for the AMC’s Greenleaf Hut. When hiking on weekends it’s also best to try to arrive at all camp areas on this loop before dinner time as they fill up fast. This is why I find weekday hikes on this loop preferable—there’s still enough people out to get the social experience without having to worry too much about where you’ll be sleeping.
The col between the Liberty Spring Trail intersection and the summit of Little Haystack Mountain is relatively flat and easy going for about a mile. The last push to the Little Haystack summit is short but steep with one tricky rock scramble. Treeline is just before the summit, and once you reach it you’ll be out in the open until the col between Mt. Lafayette and Mt. Garfield, a stretch of about four miles, so it’s good to pause and layer up here if necessary.
The summit of Little Haystack Mountain marks the intersection with the popular Falling Waters Trail. The ridgeline traverse from here across Mt. Lincoln (elevation 5089 feet) to Mt. Lafayette (5260 feet) is nothing short of spectacular, and for many it’s the highlight of the hike (though Bondcliff provides stiff competition in the popularity contest). Cross your fingers for fair skies because the winds and temperature shifts can be extreme on Franconia Ridge in inclement weather. When not enshrouded in clouds there are views of all mountains on the Pemi Loop hike as well as Mt. Washington.
On the ascent of Mt. Lincoln the Franconia Ridge Trail traverses the east side of a rock outcropping. It’s smart to stick to the trail here as there are steep ledge drop-offs on either side. Once over Mt. Lincoln there’s one hump in the saddle between Mt. Lafayette. The climb of Mt. Lafayette isn’t too steep, but those lugging backpacks with several days of supplies will likely feel the burn.
The Franconia Ridge Trail concludes on the summit of Mt. Lafayette. Next up on the Pemi Loop docket is the Garfield Ridge Trail, which travels north from Lafayette along the Appalachian Trail. Also intersecting on the Lafayette summit is The Greenleaf Trail, which leads 1.1 miles down a rocky section to the Greenleaf Hut. In inclement weather, this is the best place to seek shelter.
The Garfield Trail makes a long descent off Mt. Lafayette that’s gradual at first but turns steep in a few spots. Once below treeline, the trail has some easy spots with several short ups and downs, and upon passing Garfield Pond it begins a steep, half-mile climb of Mt. Garfield with numerous rock steps and one notable ledgy scramble.
The Mt. Garfield summit (4500 feet) is a short rock scramble just off the right side of the trail. With the base remains of an old fire tower, it is one of the most identifiable summits in the White Mountains. The winds atop Garfield can be intense, so make sure you bundle up before heading out onto the summit, as you’re likely going to want to take in the view for a while. On a good night, it’s worth making the hike back up from the Garfield Ridge Campsite to see the sunset over Mt. Lafayette and the Franconia Ridge.
It’s a rugged, 0.3-mile climb down stone staircases from the Garfield summit to the short spur trail for the Garfield Ridge Campsite. The water source is at the beginning of the spur trail and it’s a good one, so even if you don’t plan on spending the night, make sure you stop to refill here. The campsite has a number of tent platforms along with a fairly new lean-to.
As with the other AMC sites on the Pemi Loop, there’s a caretaker and an overnight fee, all of which provides hiker amenities such as a bear box, a well-maintained outhouse, and a gray water disposal area. And no, that wasn’t sarcasm. After a long day on the Pemi Loop, I for one will gladly shell out $10 to have a good place to sit, $#!&, and not have to worry about hanging my food and scented items.
This was my maiden voyage with a new Warbonnet Blackbird hammock. I knew sleeping in a hammock would likely take some getting used to (less than I anticipated) so my plan was to drag the Pemi Loop hike out over two nights to really break it in. The trouble was that it started misting soon after I set the hammock up, and light precipitation persisted throughout the night. I’d also skimped on a few cold weather essentials such as long johns in an attempt to save weight, and while the temperatures dropped close to freezing, I’d managed through the cold by wearing my rain gear.
The irony of sleeping in my rain gear to stay warm is that water drops accumulated at the ends of the hammock and soaked my sleeping bag. With the forecast calling for colder temps the following night, I woke up the next morning knowing I was going to have to go for broke and put in a tough 24.5 miles to get back to my vehicle (yes, I could have gone back the way I came for less miles, but what fun is that?).
After the Garfield Ridge Campsite, the trail immediately descends a couple of successive, steep, rock-pile ledges. Exercise caution here as the spring flows down the ledges making them slippery when wet.
On the map, the remaining three-mile stretch of the Garfield Ridge Trail ending near the Galehead Hut looks like smooth sailing. While there are some flats, there’s also a lot of ups and downs that make it more time consuming than one would expect. I only averaged a slightly better than one-mile-per-hour pace through here.
Unlike the Greenleaf Hut, the Galehead Hut is just off the Pemi Loop, making it a can’t-miss pit stop for potable water. Not having to filter or treat water is a great time saver, but for clockwise hikers, there’s a catch. The next 0.8 miles on the Twinway is the toughest stretch of the entire Pemi Loop, gaining 1,122 feet in elevation over an agonizingly steep succession of seemingly never-ending rocks. My advice to backpackers here is to go as light as possible and carry only as much water as needed to get you to the Guyot Campsite, where you can slack-pack down to a strong spring.
Completing the Twinway’s grueling opening act and reaching the South Twin Summit (4,902 feet) is cause for celebration, because while traditional clockwise loopers still have 13.3 miles left, there are no more significant climbs. South Twin rewards this milestone with bountiful views spanning Mt. Washington to the Franconia Ridge. See more on this stretch of trail, including better photos from the South Twin summit, in our Appalachian Trail post covering Mt. Garfield to Mt. Guyot. The South Twin summit also connects to the North Twin Spur, which can be taken for a 2.6-mile round trip detour to bag North Twin Mountain (4,761 feet).
From South Twin the Twinway descends through krummholz and into a quaint forested section for nearly two miles before emerging on an open traverse along the side of Mt. Guyot.
Shortly after emerging from the forest the Twinway reaches the intersection with the Bondcliff Trail. Here the Twinway and Appalachian Trail turn and ascend to the Mt. Guyot summit (4,580 feet). It’s a short detour to bag Guyot (not on the New Hampshire 48 list); those looking to extend the hike further can continue along the Twinway to Zealand Mountain (4,260 feet) for a 2.6-mile round trip excursion.
To continue on the Pemi Loop, follow the Bondcliff Trail across South Guyot and down into a forested col. At the low point is a side trail that descends a little over 0.2 of a mile to the Guyot Campsite. The campsite spring is a good one and worth the effort for those getting low on water. From the col the Bondcliff Trail begins a 0.7-mile climb to Mt. Bond. Along the way, the trail officially enters the Pemigewasset Wilderness (to this point the Pemi Loop has traversed just outside the Wilderness’ boundaries) and passes the one-mile round trip side trail to West Bond (4,540 feet).
While the summit views of Mt. Bond (4,698 feet) are as spectacular as any other peak on the Pemi Loop, it’s hard to linger long with the open Bondcliff traverse beckoning. From Mt. Bond the trail descends steeply into the trees with a couple tricky rock drops to maneuver down.
The Bondcliff ridge climb is nothing short of spectacular. Do your mother a favor and steer clear of the ledges, especially when winds are high or visibility is low. From the 4,265 foot summit, the trail goes down a steep rock scramble before beginning the four-mile descent to the Wilderness Trail that is the epitome of gradual. The hiking only gets easier on the Wilderness Trail, where a flat 4.4 mile stretch along the East Branch Pemigewasset River connects onto the Lincoln Woods Trail en route to the Visitor’s Center.
Alas, I didn’t begin my hike at the Visitor’s Center, so I made the turn onto the Osseo Trail at four in the afternoon with my sights set on a 24.5-mile day. There was no doubt I was going to be hiking in the dark, my goal was to get across Mt. Liberty in time to enjoy the sunset. Fortunately for me the Osseo Trail climb of Mt. Flume is one of the easier ascents on the New Hampshire 48 list, until the upper third of the mountain where the steep terrain is traversed through a series of ladders. I feel bad for the hikers who met me on the trail at this point as my coherency likely qualified me for a teaching position on Charlie Brown.
The trail levels out for a bit after the ladders before reaching the intersection with the Flume Slide Trail and the beginning of the Franconia Ridge Trail. Following the Franconia Ridge Trail, it’s only a 0.1-mile climb to the Mt. Flume summit (4,328 feet). From here it’s a 1.2-mile hike to Mt. Liberty (4,459 feet) with a moderate climb in between, which I succeeded in reaching by sunset.
The Franconia Ridge Trail descends a rock scramble off Mt. Liberty and goes into the forested section referenced at the beginning of this post. For me it was 0.3 miles to the Liberty Spring Trail, followed by a losing race against darkness. The Pemi Loop is a rewarding experience regardless of the amount of days and hours it takes, and by the end, I was completely spent and ready to be done. Looking back on it now, I’m contemplating joining the ranks of screwballs who do this magnificent hike in a day.