Two Ravines and a Gulf Backpack

Two Ravines and a Gulf Backpacking Trip Report

Castle Ravine and Jefferson Ravine are two glacial valleys in between Mt Adams and Mt Jefferson, the second and third highest mountains in the New Hampshire’s Northern Presidentials. I did a one-night trip last week where I climbed both on successive days, with a night in between in the Great Gulf Wilderness, another glacial valley at the foot of Mt Washington. The entire route was 23 miles in length and involved close to 8000 feet of elevation gain on several of the White Mountain’s toughest hiking trails. Calling them trails might be considered poetic license because they’re essentially boulder fields with rock cairns to mark the way.

Hiking the White Mountain Guide

This hike was also the capstone to a journey I began five years ago in late 2017, to hike all 650 trails in the AMC’s White Mountain Guide (30th edition), a journey that takes about 2500 miles of hiking to complete. No one tackles this list as a thru-hike because the trails are not contiguous, but are widely distributed from western New Hampshire into eastern Maine. Still, I’ve managed to hike quite a few of the trails as backpacks, which is my favorite way to unplug from the grind. That also led to me writing, Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 footers, which is a free guidebook that I’ve published here on the SectionHiker, that many people use to plan their own trips.

This route was also special because it completed my second round through the White Mountain Guide trail list, formerly called “White Mountains Redlining” (because you use a red marker to color in the trails you’ve hiked on a map), but changed to “White Mountains Tracing” because the former name has racist connotations. This change occurred last summer during the Black Lives Matter protests. It’s still widely referred to as redlining when you meet people working the list, but I suspect that usage will die out given time since the award name and patch have been changed.

Two Ravines and a Gulf

Why in god’s name would you hike a second round? It’s simple, really. The White Mountains trail system is fantastic, challenging, and beautiful. Having finished one round, over the course of 15 years, I wanted to revisit all of the trails I’d forgotten and sear them into my memory. Along that journey, I realized that that the existing trails and the landscape are always changing. Trails are wiped out by floods and landslides, they’re rebuilt or rerouted, retired, or created anew. The only way to keep them alive in your mind is to revisit them periodically, which I plan to do again and again although less systematically going forward.

This capstone hike was also a year in the making. Last June (2020), I sprained my ankle quite badly on Mt Jefferson. While I managed to hike the mile back to my car on my own power (Hiker Self-Rescue on Mt Jefferson), it’s taken about 10 months for my ankle to fully heal and feel like it used to. I haven’t been on the bench all that time, but I’ve only recently gotten back above-treeline in the Presidential Range and to the point where I can backpack for 12 hours a day. I guess it was poetic justice that this backpacking trip involved hiking trails on Mt Jefferson again, which though beautiful and challenging, hasn’t ever been my favorite peak in the Whites. It was still a fulfilling destination because I was able to overcome so many challenges along the way.

Castle Brook
Castle Brook

The Trip Report

I had 8 trails to finish up on this hike, including several trail fragments that are called “chads” as in hanging chads. This explains some of crazy loops and out and backs I did on this hike, which is pretty typical when you hike every bit of every trail in the White Mountain Guide. We use a standard spreadsheet to keep track of it all.

While I did say that the trails in the White Mountain Guide are not contiguous above, the ones in the Northern Presidentials are highly interconnected, which is a blessing in some ways and a curse in others since it requires hiking some segments repeatedly to hike them all.

My route plan for this hike was as follows.

  1. Castle Trail
  2. Israel Ridge Trail
  3. Castle Ravine Trail
  4. Randolph Path
  5. Gulfside Trail
  6. Six Husbands Trail
  7. Jefferson Loop
  8. Randolph Path
  9. The Cornice
  10. Gulfside Trail
  11. Sphinx Trail
  12. Great Gulf Trail
  13. Six Husbands Trail
  14. Gulfside Trail
  15. Gulfside Trail
  16. Six Husbands Trail
  17. Edmands Col Cutoff
  18. Randolph Path
  19. Israel Ridge Trail
  20. Emerald Trail
  21. Castle Ravine Trail
  22. Israel Ridge Trail
  23. Castle Trail

I arrived at the Bowman Trailhead at 7:00 am and started hiking up the Castle Trail. I hadn’t walked more than 200 yards when I startled a large moose who bolted further into the woods, which I took as a good omen of the trip to come.

Roof rock marks the beginning of the headwall climb in Castle Ravine
Roof rock marks the beginning of the headwall climb in Castle Ravine.

I forded the Israel River, the first of six freezing cold stream crossings on my way up the Castle Trail and Israel Ridge Trail before following the Castle Ravine Trail to the bottom of first headwall climb. This segment of the trail climbs 1300′ in just 0.7 miles, which is really steep.

The Castle Ravine Headwall

I strapped my poles to my pack at 4000′ and then climbed using my hands and legs up the boulder-filled headwall, using all the climbing moves I learned years ago at the rock gym. I almost always wear fingerless gloves for sun protection, but they also prove useful on these headwall trails to keep my hands from getting torn up on the sharp rocks.

High above Castle Ravine.
High above Castle Ravine.

I took it slow but steady and stopped occasionally on flat rocks to take in the view. The trail overlooks a deep valley bordered by steep ridgelines, but you can still make out the sound of the spring-fed Castle Brook raging far down below. It was a brilliant sunny day, but the wind was calm and cool, making for perfect above-treeline hiking weather.

Another hiker named Shelly caught up to me as I reached the top of the headwall. She was also hiking all the trails in the White Mountain Guide, which I suspected when I saw her because the Castle Ravine Trail is avoided by most peakbaggers.

Shelly caught up with me near the top.
Shelly caught up with me near the top.

Having climbed to the ridge, I followed the Randolph Path a short distance to Edmand’s Col, which is a good place to rest because the summit of Jefferson is usually quite windy. From there, I climbed the Gulfside Trail and followed it to the upper section of the Six Husbands Trail climbing to the top of Jefferson before descending back down the Jefferson Loop Trail and hiking back to Emands Col. I could have done this loop on day two, but I knew my legs would be tired and I wanted to hike it while I was still fresh.

Summit of Mt Jefferson, the third highest 4000 footers in the White Mountains.
Summit of Mt Jefferson (5712′), the third-highest 4000 footer in the White Mountains.

It’s one thing to hike these trails with a daypack and quite another to do it with a full pack while carrying extra water. I was carrying extra water because the boulders above treeline absorb a lot of sunlight and heat during the day, causing a surprising amount of insensible perspiration. It’s important to prehydrate and drink a lot of water on a sunny day.

The Cornice Trail

From Edmands Col, I made my way back down the Castle Ravine Trail to The Cornice Trail which loops around the bottom of the Jefferson summit cone, all above treeline. It’s a challenging trail to hike because it’s all boulders for 1.8 miles without a break. While the trail is marked by rock cairns, there’s no clear footpath or anything, so you have to pick your way along it stepping from rock to rock without losing your balance.

The Cornice Trail loops around the rocky base of the Jefferson summit cone.
The Cornice Trail loops around the rocky base of the Jefferson summit cone.

The south end of The Cornice Trail intersects the Caps Ridge Trail which is the summer route most peakbaggers take to climb Mt Jefferson. As I neared the junction, I saw two day-hikers start hiking toward me on The Cornice and I asked them whether they really wanted to do that.

They’d missed the turn-off to the Caps Ridge Trail which isn’t particularly well signed, but still. You have to be on your best game above treeline.  “What would have happened if we hadn’t run into you?”, one said. I got them headed down the right trail and all was well.

From there, I followed The Cornice a short distance back to the Gulfside Trail and then down to the Sphinx Trail that would take me to the bottom of the Great Gulf.

The Sphinx Trail

Top of the Sphinx Trail
Top of the Sphinx Trail

The Sphinx Trail is used to descend from the Gulfside to the floor of the Great Gulf, dropping 1350′ feet in 1.1 miles. This trail is no joke, but you have to have a sense of humor when you hike it because you’re going to get wet.  Still, it’s pretty easy to follow despite the fact that a creek runs down a large segment of the trail before vectoring off and turning into a beautiful set of trailside falls. There are a few sketchy drops at the top and the bottom though where you have to be careful that you don’t fall or slip off a wet ledge.

The Sphinx Trail is also good place to get water since there is a spring at the top. I was in need when I passed the spring, but decided to hold on until I reached the creeky portion of the trail, where it would be easier to collect water. I then filled a platy bottle and dropped a Micropur tablet into it to purify it. The chlorine dioxide in Micropur only takes 15 minutes to kill the bad stuff, so I didn’t need to wait very long to have a drink.

Tall waterfall and deep pool near the bottom of the Sphinx Trail
Tall waterfall and deep pool near the bottom of the Sphinx Trail.

There’d been a lot of landslide damage since I was on the Sphinx Trail last, five years ago, and I didn’t remember the bottom of the trail which looked like it’s been rerouted since I was there last. The bottom of the trail is a mess though, full of blowdowns and debris and a little tricky to follow unless you know where it’s supposed to go. Being a wilderness area, the Great Gulf is largely unblazed and very lightly signed. It’s also possible that the trail crews just haven’t gotten in there yet after winter though.

The Great Gulf Trail

The Great Gulf Trail was in a similar state of disrepair and also hard to follow, even though I’d been there last year. It looks like a flash flood or a series of microbursts have hit the trail, what with the downed trees and trail erosion. The half-mile below the Sphinx Trail junction is the worst condition I’ve ever seen it. But experience prevailed and I was able to figure out where the trail was, although I was ready to bushwhack downstream if need be. The trail is a shambles.

By now, I was tired and ready for dinner and sleep. I stopped at a designated campsite a mile down the trail and made camp. I ate my favorite trail dinner – a Knorrs Rice Side mixed with tuna fish in olive oil and turned in.

Patrick, a Scottish bull, was my companion on this hike.
Patrick, a Scottish bull, was my companion on this hike.

The next morning, I drank two big pots of tea and ate a breakfast sandwich I’d made at home before heading out. I figured if the caffeine hadn’t woken me, the first river crossing, just a few tenths of a mile down the trail would.

I turned on the Six Husbands Trail and forded the West Peabody River, which was running low, but ice cold. From the river, it looked like the Presidentials high above were shrouded in fog. That was a little concerning because I prefer to avoid rain and lightning above treeline. Those often occur later in the day though caused by diurnal heating and being morning, I hoped I had a few more hours before I needed to get below treeline.

When I forded the West Peabody River I saw fog way up on the Presidential ridge.
When I forded the West Peabody River I saw fog way up on the Presidential Ridgeline.

I followed the Six Husbands Trail to the Buttress Trail junction before heading uphill to the trail’s business end. I knew this trail would kick my ass with a full pack, but after climbing the Castle Ravine Trail the day prior, I was fairly confident I’d get up it ok if I just took my time. Little steps achieve the same outcome as big ones.

Jefferson Ravine is a deep glacial valley between Mt Adams and Mt Jefferson.
Jefferson Ravine is a deep glacial valley between Mt Adams and Mt Jefferson.

The Six Husbands trail climbs a ridge called Jefferson’s Knee alongside Jefferson Ravine, gaining 1600′ in the 1.2 miles between the Buttress Trail at the bottom and the Edmands Col Cutoff Trail junction.   That 1600′ section can be broken into three parts: the caves, the ladders, and the scramble.

Jefferson’s Knee
Jefferson’s Knee

The caves are a couple of boulder overhangs that require some scrambling and lemon squeezes but aren’t that bad in the scheme of things. The ladders aren’t hard either, just intimidating, because they’re next to open ledge and the footing is a little sketchy.

Having been up this trail once before (I finished my last White Mountain Guide Round on the Six Husbands Trail), I had totally forgotten about the section above the ladders, the scramble, which proved the most difficult, with tricky hand and footwork, ending at 4600′ when I broke above treeline. Doing it with a full pack though…that made it much harder than when I did it the first time around on a long day hike, with my friend Beth Zimmer.

The upper section of the Six Husbands Trail climbs through this sea of boulders.
The upper section of the Six Husbands Trail climbs through this sea of boulders.

At treeline, the trail entered bug-infested Krumholz before traversing an open alpine zone and then climbing through more Krumholz to another boulder garden. I’d forgotten about that one too, probably because it’s usually covered with snow into mid-July. I picked my way through it because I still had to hike another section of the Gulfside Trail, over to the Monticello Lawn Peak, an out and back, to finish that trail.

Low cloud blew across the Monticello Lawn a large grassy expanse at the foot of the Jefferson Loop
Low cloud blew across the Monticello Lawn a large grassy expanse at the foot of the Jefferson Loop

The wind was whipping on the Gulfside with low cloud blowing across the Monticello Lawn, a grassy expanse at the foot of Mt Jefferson. It didn’t look like rain clouds though, just fog, which was somewhat reassuring. I’d been hoping for clearer weather like the day before, but I knew a front was expected and I figured it was moving in.

I finished that little detour and hiked back through the Six Husbands boulder field to the Edmand’s Col Cutoff Trail. It is similar to The Cornice in character, only a little harrier because it teeters over Jefferson Ravine, which is a long way down. It took me a half-hour to hike its half-mile length, including a short break to get another liter of water from a spring at the head of the trail. One more trail to go!

The Edmands Col Cutoff Trail crosses this rocky hillside.
The Edmands Col Cutoff Trail crosses this rocky hillside.

Back at the Edmands Col again, I took a food break and powered up for the final act. From there I followed the Randolph Path to the Israel Ridge Trail before starting down the Emerald Trail and back to the floor of Castle Ravine.

The Emerald Trail was the final trail of my second round of the White Mountain Guide.
The Emerald Trail was the final trail of my second round of the White Mountain Guide.

The Emerald Trail is another steep trail that drops 800′ in 0.5 miles. But it’s much easier to descend with careful footwork and trekking poles. I took it slow and got to the bottom in one piece, rejoining the Castle Ravine Trail which I’d climbed the previous day. From there it was a very fast hike out, cold stream crossings and all, back to the trailhead and the end of this round of the White Mountain Guide. Onward.

About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 7500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 2500 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip is the 36th person to hike all 650 of the hiking trails in the White Mountain Guide, a distance of approximately 2500 miles, completing a second round in 2021. Philip is the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He lives in New Hampshire.

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