With cooler days in New England becoming more common. The sun going down earlier and earlier with each passing day. I decided I needed to squeeze in another long trail run / hike in the whites before the seasons change. Having just completed a Presidential Traverse in July… I wanted to push myself harder than before. This brought me to the Pemigewasset Loop AKA the Pemi Loop!
What is the Pemi Loop?
Distance: 31.5 to 35.5 Miles
Elevation Gain: 9,000 to 11,000 Feet
Difficulty: Extremely Strenuous
The “Traditional” Pemi Loop is an extremely rugged 31.5 mile trek that circles the entire Pemigewasset Wilderness in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Over the course of the 31.5 Miles you climb over 8 exposed 4000+ foot peaks earning you 9,000+ feet in elevation gain. This route has become more popular since Backpacker Magazine has dubbed it the “2nd hardest day hike in america” only being outdone by the Timberline Trail on Mt. Hood in Oregon.
If that’s not enough… hikers have the option to tack on another 4 nearby peaks which increases the distance to an astonishing 35+ miles with almost 11,000 feet in elevation gain! I decided to play it by ear and see how I felt before committing to the extra mileage and elevation gain.
Most backpackers and hikers attack this route as a 2-4 day trek by camping throughout the trip. The other option is to do it all in one shot, this is what I’d be doing.
What makes the Pemi Loop so different?
The Pemigewasset wilderness is 45,000 acres of relatively untouched pristine New Hampshire wilderness. The trails included bring you to some of the most remote and isolated areas of the White Mountains. A rescue effort here would be extremely difficult. Several miles of the pemi loop are above treeline. While hiking above treeline you can be exposed to some of the harshest weather in the country… even during the summer. Hail, rain, and hurricane force winds are a common occurrence and can roll in at any moment unexpectedly.
Unlike the more popular Presidential Traverse (21 Mile 9000+ Ft in Elevation) route to the north, with it’s 4 AMC (appalachian mountain club) Hut’s that offer shelter and resupply options. There is very little human intervention along the Pemi Loop route. Hikers need to be prepared to spend extended time in the wilderness without the ability to resupply with food or tap water. There is a single AMC run hut 17 miles into the route in the valley of Mt. Galehead. This is the only option for a food resupply during the hike. Other than the hut, there are established tent sites on Mt. Guyot, Garfield, and Mt. Liberty. If you need to bail out of the route due to weather or fatigue there are few options until you get to South Twin Mountain.
What to pack
I wanted to travel fast and light so I could run and move quickly on the steep stuff. I also realize this route is relatively dangerous and since my attempt would be on a weekday I wouldn’t run into many weekend warrior hikers. Here’s everything I had on me:
- Upper Body: REI Coop Base Layer
- Lower Body: REI Fleet Running Shorts, Olympia Boxer Briefs
- Patagonia Houdini Wind Jacket
- Spare REI UL Wool Socks
- Altra Lone Peak 2.5 Trail Runners
- Reebok Calf Length Compressions Socks
- Ultimate Direction Wasp (2015 Version)
- 4 Ziplock bags
- Garmin Fenix Watch (GPS Tracking / Waypoints)
- Samsung Galaxy S6 Phone (camera and emergency)
- Black Diamond Revolt Headlamp
- Ravpower Mini Power Bank W/ USB cable (to charge phone or headlamp)
- 2L Hydrapak Resevior
- 12 oz Gatorade Bottle (for mixing powders)
- Sawyer Mini Filter
- 2L Platypus Bag Bottle (for dirty water)
- UL Stuff sack for sawyer and platy bottle
- (6) Gu Energy Gel Packs
- (4) Chewy Granola Bars
- (1) Cliff Bar (purchased at Galehead hut)
- (1) Cliff Energy Powder Pack
- (1) Pack Gatorade Energy Blocks
- 4 oz of turkey pepperoni
- Rolled up Flaxseed wrap
- Small ziplock bag full of dried pineapple
Emergency / First Aid:
- 2x Tylenol
- Small roll of Duct Tape
- Small roll of Leukotape
- Small roll of medical tape
- Wad of Toilet Paper
- 10’ roll of Paracord
- Small Carabiner
- Pack of waterproof matches
- Car Key
- Revo Sunglasses
- Small Tube of Deet bug spray
- Tube of lip balm
- $10 in cash (for hut purchases)
Generally I used almost everything on this list… My one luxury item being the USB powerbank. I like to bring it along because it’s only 2.8 ounces and allows me to charge my phone in the event that I’m stuck and need to signal for help. My phone battery gets pretty depleted after a long day of taking pictures! I also had slightly more food than I needed… which isn’t a bad thing. Next time I’ll probably pack a little more “real food” as the sugary energy foods started to give me heartburn near the end.
The forecast was calling for partly cloudy skies improving throughout the day with a chance of rain. Temperatures would start in the low 50’s in the morning and work their way into the 80’s by mid-day. Despite the rain in the morning… this would lead to a pretty good day.
Since this is a loop hike the start and finish are both the same. The trailhead starts at Lincoln Woods off of NH112. I got out of bed at 2:30 AM, showered, arranged my things, taped up my feet, and hit the road. Unfortunately I was pulled over by a NH state police officer for speeding on 93 N (don’t worry only got a warning!) which ate into my start time a bit. I arrived at Lincoln woods off of the Kancamagus highway at 5:30AM.
Hitting The Trail
At 5:38 AM I started my run down the Wilderness Trail from Lincoln Woods Parking Area. I chose to do the loop counter clockwise because it was raining and I wanted to give some of the tougher terrain near Franconia Ridge time to dry out before I got there.
Wilderness Trail to Bondcliff Trail
The first section of the trail is 5 miles and very easy. The Wilderness Trail was an old logging railroad track which has since been turned into a nice wide flat trail. The only slight annoyance are the railroad ties that create trip hazards if you’re not watching for them. I ran this 5 mile section in 54 minutes at a relaxed steady pace. Only needed my headlamp for the first 15 minutes or so before the sun came up high enough to illuminate my path.
By this time it had started to rain, the trail was wet and foggy. Rocks felt like they had been covered in grease. Despite my Altra Lone Peaks having incredible grip… I was still sliding all over the place. I dialed back my pace to avoid an injury and made my way up. Just before breaking treeline the sun began to shine and poke through the trees… It was a welcome sight. The final hurdle is a short rock climb/scramble. This is pretty easy and most people shouldn’t have trouble getting up it… solid hand holds and footing.
At 2 Hours and 37 Minutes… I reached the summit of Bondcliff. Once you’re above treeline you’re rewarded with some of the most incredible views in the White Mountains. The remoteness of the Bonds grants you a view of pure wilderness. You cannot see a single man made structure or road from the top of Bondcliff (unless you squint your eyes to see the fire tower on Mt. Carrigan). The summit of Bondcliff is hands down my favorite place in the Whites. It never gets old! Those with a fear of heights can test themselves on the cliffs here!
I made my way along the ridge to Mt. Bond… Stopping frequently to snap pictures that I convinced myself I couldnt miss. There was an undercast forming from the morning rain and it was an incredible sight!
I reached the summit of Mt. Bond in 3 Hours and 16 Minutes. The views from here are spectacular. Looking back at bondcliff is an impressive sight. Looking to the North West was a daunting sight as the entire pemi loop was now visible. The mountains so far in the hazed distance it was hard to comprehend that I’d be on top of them later on in the day.
I slowed my pace after Mt. Bond as the trails were still wet from the morning rain. A casual jog got me to the summit of West Bond by 3 Hours 44 Minutes. West bond has some great views to the north… another daunting reminder how much more ground I needed to cover today to finish! Several backpackers were on the summit who had camped at the Guyot shelter the night before.
After West Bond I descended past the Guyot shelter spur trail and towards Mt. Guyot summit. At 4 hours and 9 minutes I reached the small summit outlook of Mt. Guyot.
Now on the Twinway trail I was moving at a reasonably fast pace. The trail winds over lush alpine terrain through brush at a low grade. This was a very pleasant section right up until I was on top of South Twins summit my 4th 4000+ foot peak for the day (4 hours 52 minutes from start). I didn’t stay long on South Twin as I felt behind on my time and wanted to keep up the pace. Unfortunately the descent from South Twin towards Mt. Galehead was grueling. The trail was extremely wet, slippery, rocky and steep. I slipped and fell a few times, and had my trailrunners ankle deep in mud at times. No fun!
At 5 Hours 21 Minutes I arrived at Galehead hut. I decided to resupply quickly and keep moving. I purchased a cliff bar and filled up my water. Had a quick conversation with the friendly caretakers at the hut and moved on towards the summit of Mt. Galehead.
The short trail to the summit of Mt. Galehead is relatively easy with the exception of it being very muddy that day. I arrived at the summit of Mt. Galehead by 5 Hours and 33 Minutes. Now I had to backtrack the galehead spur trail past the hut to resume my route towards Mt. Garfield.
Garfield Ridge Trail
The Garfield Ridge trail would prove to be the most difficult section of the day. To start, the distance from Galehead hut to Mt. Garfield was about a 3 mile span, which included dropping considerable elevation to Franconia Brook. The Garfield Ridge trail is full of rocky wet hurdles and up and downs. It seemed like this section went on forever below treeline in the wet humid environment. Again I needed to dial back my speed here to avoid injury as I found myself slipping constantly. The climb up towards Mt. Garfield’s summit is steep, rocky,and wet. Some sections were covered in flowing water.
I arrived at the summit of Mt. Garfield by the 7 Hour and 27 Minute Marker. The views from garfield are exceptional. It was incredible to look back at the bonds and see the path I had taken to get there. Several hikers were on the summit. I decided to take my official break here and eat my pepperoni and flaxseed wrap. Looking West towards Franconia Ridge was a little intimidating. The rocky northern approach to Mt. Lafayette didn’t look easy and was my next stop. I could hear the wind howling off the summit and see clouds passing by quickly. It was time to move on after some friendly conversation and my sandwich.
The section between Garfield and Lafayette would be the hardest most strenuous portion of the day. First, you descent a couple thousand feet of rocky wet terrain. Then you start your ascent of Lafayette’s northern face. This trail is very steep and made up of piles of giant boulders. The trail was still wet from the rain earlier in the day. I moved at my slowest here… I also dropped the most profanity at about this point! After about an hour I popped out of the treeline below Mt. Lafayette’s northern false summits. This was reassuring but deceiving as the true summit was still pretty far away. The views where phenomenal.
I moved along at a decent pace, stopping frequently to take in the views and snap pictures.
Franconia Ridge Trail
Finally at the 9 Hour and 32 Minute marker I arrived at Mt. Lafayette’s Summit. The summit was mobbed with hikers who had ascended the more popular route from Old Bridle Path. I enjoyed the views and looked at the opposing ridge feeling accomplished in all the ground I had covered today. Now at the tallest point of the route (5,249 Ft) my morale was boosted and I had a second wind of energy. I started to pick up the pace and began a steady run towards Mt. Lincoln.
I arrived at the summit of Mt. Lincoln in 25 minutes (9 Hours 57 Minutes from start). I didn’t stop for too long here as I watched the seconds click by on my watch. I moved on towards Little haystack. In my mind it was all downhill from here!
I hustled up and over Little Haystack… Next Stop Mt. Liberty.
Franconia Ridge Trail drops back into the treeline. This section was pleasant and relatively soft compared to the terrain I had been on for hours. I continued to alternate between jogging and hiking as I made my way towards Mt. Liberty.
The trail is gains elevation gradually. As I passed the liberty springs trail I could hear families enjoying themselves at the nearby tentsite. Liberty Springs would be my last opperunity for water before crossing over Mt. Liberty and Mt. Flume. My water was running low but I was convinced I could make it back to my car on what I had. Which turned out to be a mistake.
I arrived at the jagged rocky summit of Mt. Liberty by 11 Hours and 8 Minutes. I stopped briefly but the summit was crowded with campers from the tent site… so I moved on after a few pictures.
Now on to Mt. Flume. My final stop.
The trail descends into a valley between Liberty and Flume. This section of the trail is rather gradual and pleasant. By this point the trail had dried up completely and was a joy to walk on. Unfortunately, my energy was low so I decided to walk instead of run.
By this point my water had run dry and my small gatorade bottle only had about 2 oz of mix left in it. I made a mistake by not filtering water when I had the opportunity. My only option was to get over Mt. Flume and find water.
At 11 Hours 48 Minutes I arrived at the summit of Mt. Flume. I was thirsty since my water had run dry but I still took a moment to snap some pictures and enjoy the view.
The Osseo Trail
Now onto the Osseo trail which descends quickly back into the woods. A series of switchbacks and ladders make up the higher section. After about 30 minutes of somewhat rugged terrain the trail becomes a flowy soft single track. At this point feeling like I was behind schedule I willed myself back to running. My dehydration was definitely setting in and I could feel my mouth drying and cotton balling. I pushed on and continued to alternate running and hiking for the next hour.
Once low enough I spotted a small creek and had the opportunity to filter some water for the final push to the parking lot. The last mile and a half of running the Wilderness trail seemed endless. I knew once I started seeing families with children in strollers I was getting close the parking lot.
At 7:15 PM, 13 Hours and 28 Minutes after starting this trip I reached my endpoint, the parking lot at Lincoln Woods. Book time for this hike is about 21 Hours, so I was pretty happy with my time!
What a rewarding experience! I pushed myself harder than I ever have in the past. I didn’t set a speed record but I wasn’t really trying to. I wanted to enjoy the views and get lots of pictures… while also accomplishing a decent time. In the process I also bagged 3 additional peaks for my 48 4000 footers of NH list! Only 8 more to go! Below is the interactive track from my Garmin Fenix.
I hope this article helps if you’re interested in completing a Pemi Loop day hike. Feel free to contact me or comment below with any questions and I’ll do my best to answer them