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Owl’s Head – A Bushwhacking, Water Crossing, High Mileage Adventure!

Owls Head, located in the heart of the Pemigewasset Wilderness is a remote peak standing 4,025′ in elevation. Due to Owl’s Head 4,000+ stature it makes the cut and joins the “New Hampshire 4000 footer” list. This mountain has a bad reputation due to it’s extremely long approach, higher than average mileage, steep rock slide climb, and difficult (at the wrong time)  water crossings.

Owl's Head (right) viewed from Mt. Garfield Owl’s Head (right) viewed from Mt. Garfield

I set out with my buddy Conan (he’s a dog)… with slight hesitation. Conan is spooked by some larger water crossings and I had no idea how steep the “slide” portion of the trail would actually be. He’s a tough dog and has completed some very difficult hikes with me, so I figured we’d go for it.

The forecast was showing temperatures ranging from mid 30’s to mid 20’s with high winds sustained at 30MPH. Luckily Owl’s head’s summit is wooded and would protect us from any crazy gusts. The only exposed portion is the slide.

Lincoln Woods Trail Head Bridge Lincoln Woods Trail Head Bridge

We got a late start and arrived at the Lincoln Woods parking area off of NH 112 at 10AM. Setting foot on the bridge at the trailhead 10:10AM.

Lincoln Woods Trail and a Major Screw Up!

Lincoln woods trail is wide, flat, and easy. Every hike that I start here I always try to run/jog the first several miles to get a head start. This section can be long and “boring” to some but the scenery is still beautiful. The trail hugs the Pemigewasset river and offers views of neighboring peaks. This section of the trail is also open to recreational mountain biking… but remember if you use a bike it doesn’t count!

Pemigewasset River viewed from Lincoln Brook Trail Bridge Pemigewasset River viewed from Lincoln Brook Trail Bridge

I had read about bushwhacking through Black Pond to bypass two of the larger river crossings. I committed to this route before I even left the car. However I ended up taking the Osseo Trail (which leads to Mt. Flume!) by accident thinking it was Black Pond, then turning around when I noticed, And then MISSING the actual black pond trail head all together.  I’m usually on top of this stuff but I was foggy and running at a good pace so I made the mistake by not reading the signs and trucking on… By the time I noticed my screw up I decided we had gone too far and I didn’t want to backtrack.

Lincoln woods trail is followed for 2.9 Miles before the junction of Franconia Brook Trail.

Franconia Brook Trail

So! turned down Franconia Brook trail. This trail is still very gradual but gains elevation quicker than Lincoln Woods trail. This trail also has several creek/brook crossings that can be tricky for some. These water crossing’s are fueled by a ravine running down from Mt. Bondcliff. These were easy for Conan and I to rock hop across.

One of the Franconia Brook Trail water crossings One of the Franconia Brook Trail water crossings

Franconia Brook Trail is followed for 1.7 Miles before the Lincoln Brook Trail Junction.

Lincoln Brook Trail

Lincoln brook trail spurs off to the west from Franconia Brook trail. This trail has much lower traffic and inherently has some overgrown sections since trail maintenance is lower. In certain spots I lost the trail due to the heavy leave coverage on the ground. The trail is gradual again… and continues on to the two “large” water crossing’s

Conan at the Lincoln Brook Trail Junction Conan at the Lincoln Brook Trail Junction

The first water crossing on Lincoln Brook trail is very large and difficult.  This very wide crossing bridges over Franconia Brook which is essentially a river. A teen girl from Massachusetts was killed attempting this crossing earlier this year. Water was higher than usual due to recent rain, hale, and sleet the night before. I wasn’t worried about getting myself across, but Conan would surely have trouble and a fall here could be deadly if he was flushed down stream in a high flow spot.

Conan investigating the large crossing. These things always look easier in pictures! Conan investigating the large crossing. These things always look easier in pictures!

At this point I decided to tie off Conan so I wouldn’t lose him if he fell in to the rapids. I fashioned a harness out of some 550 para cord and a carabiner I had in my “emergency kit”. We walked the shore of the brook until finding a decent crossing spot. We made our way across until one final jump over gushing water was required. I made it to a large rock close to land and tried to will Conan to follow and make his move. That’s when Conan slipped and fell into a rushing flow of water! I pulled the makeshift harness until he was close enough to grab and pulled him up onto the rock I was standing on by his collar and hind legs. He was panicked and wet but OK. I’m really thankful that I had the foresight to tie him off, this could have been disastrous… Though not the most graceful of crossings, we made it!

Another crossing Another crossing

The next crossing was similarly large, but the rocks were closer together and easier to jump from. We moved across this final crossing relatively easily and onto the final stretch of Lincoln Brook trail before the cut off to Owl’s Head. This stretch of the trail has some nasty muddy spots and bogs.

Lincoln Brook Trail is followed for 3.4 miles before the junction with Owl’s Head Slide

Owl’s Head Rock Slide

The Owl’s Head Slide path isn’t technically a “Trail” it is an unmaintained pile of rocks that have slide down a steep section of the mountain side… Exactly as the name implies. This trail is not shown on maps so you need to keep an eye out for it. The start of the trail is marked by two Cairns on Lincoln Brook Trail.

Conan on the lower section of the slide Conan on the lower section of the slide

The trail starts off gradual but quickly steepens. Dispite it’s short 1 mile distance, you gain over 1500 feet during it’s climb. The path pops out of the trees onto a bare slide of rocks and dirt on the side of the mountain. From here I gained my only view of the day towards  Franconia Ridge with Mt. Lincoln and Lafayette in sight. We started to feel the gusts of winds that I had seen in the forecast. Temperatures dropped rapidly as we gained elevation into the mid 20’s.

The only view to be had from Owl's Head Slide The only view to be had from Owl’s Head Slide

This section was fun for me. Scrambling up over steep sections  and over loose scree. Conan handled this great as well, he’s really good with the steep stuff!

Conan and I on the slide.  Conan and I on the slide.

Eventually we dropped back into the trees, Ice was forming, and a combination of snow and hale coated the ground. The path from the top of the rock slide to the summit is very easy and gradual.

Flat section after climbing owl's head slide Flat section after climbing owl’s head slide

Finally! After 9+ miles of hiking we made it to the summit! A small Cairn marks the true summit. This makes #45 in my New Hampshire 4000 footers list and #23 for Conan!

On Owl's Head summit! On Owl’s Head summit!

Getting Out

Conan leading the way back down Owl's Head Slide Conan leading the way back down Owl’s Head Slide

Getting out means retracing our steps. We headed back down the slide… I threw on my MicroSpikes for the upper portion since it was icy. By the base of the slide we were losing daylight quickly. Sunset on this day was only at 4:30 PM and it was already 3. I knew for sure we’d be hiking in the dark.

The Black Pond Bushwhack

At this point it was obvious… there was no way I’d be tackling the intimidating water crossings again, especially in the dark! This is when I made up my mind to do the black pond bushwhack and bypass the water crossings all together. This would also save us more than a mile of total distance.

Doing this Bushwhack from the North rather than from the South made it a bit more difficult to find the “obvious” route. This is a well documented bushwhack but a bushwhack non the less. I followed my track closely along Lincoln Brook trail on my GPS trying to decide when to spur off trail into the woods. By the time we reached the first water crossing I noticed a herd path heading in the general direction (South East) we wanted to be… so we took it.

Conan at the start of the Bushwhack. Conan at the start of the Bushwhack.

The herd path started out pretty well defined, but that only lasted for about 1/8 of a mile. After the defined section it was a true bushwhack. The heavy leave coverage on the ground made it difficult to identify mud traps. Sometimes sinking shin deep my feet were soaked and I was becoming frustrated! The easier path always seemed to lead me South West which was away from black pond. so I needed to suck it up and force myself push through some heavy brush and mudded areas to compensate.

Bushwhacking in the dark is an acquired taste Bushwhacking in the dark is an acquired taste

Soon the sun set, and darkness had set in. I was in the middle of the Pemigewasset wilderness, alone, in the dark… This takes some mental fortitude to overcome. I pulled out my headlamp and continued on. Conan stuck close by my side and didn’t stray too far from the headlamps beam.

Black Pond at night Black Pond at night

After about 30 minutes of bushwhacking we popped out onto Black Pond trail… it was a welcome sight! Black pond was pretty beautiful in the dim nights light. Black Pond Trail continues on for .9 miles. This trail was very easy with a few muddy spots. Luckily it was well blazed and easy to follow with a headlamp. Soon we popped out onto Lincoln Woods trail and began the long, flat, dark walk back to the parking lot.

Final stretch of the Lincoln Woods Trail Final stretch of the Lincoln Woods Trail

Conan in bed after a long day! Conan in bed after a long day!

Summary

The GPS track from the trip. I've highlighted key areas. The GPS track from the trip. I’ve highlighted key areas.

My Garmin Fenix GPS track tells me that total trip mileage was 20.1 miles, with 3,880 Feet in elevation gain. This also takes my Osseo Trail screw up into account. It took us 7 Hours and 48 Minutes from beginning to end including breaks. Despite Owl’s Head’s bad reputation I enjoyed the hike. It offered a diverse experience and made for a really adventure filled day. I’m glad I got to experience the bushwhack and water crossing’s. The slide up the side of the mountain was also a really fun experience.

Hiker, climber, father, and husband. The mountains have become a tremendous source of inspiration, physical challenge, fitness, motivation, and enrichment for me. I love the gear, and technical aspects of climbing. I also enjoy sharing this other type of lifestyle with people who haven't experienced it!

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