Caitlin is really interested in backpacking and backcountry camping. She’s been reading a lot about the Appalachian Trail (AT), the Pacific Coast Trail, the Camino de Santiago and any other long hiking trails you can think of.
Last summer, in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, we hiked a small section of Appalachian Trail with the kids and nearly got eaten (or something) by a copperhead.
— Matthew Walthert (@MatthewWalthert) August 20, 2014
We’ve done lots of car camping and I spent plenty of time in the field during my army training, but neither of us had done any real backcountry hiking and camping—until now.
After a bunch of research, we decided to head to White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. More specifically, we found a 25-mile circuit through the Pemigewasset Wilderness and traversing Franconia Ridge. Half of the hike was on the AT, with the rest on local, connected trails.
Arriving in Lincoln, NH late on Thursday night, we slept at a Rodeway Inn and woke up to light rain and threatening clouds. By the time we parked at the Lincoln Woods visitors’ center, made some final adjustments to our packs and started to hike, it had cleared a bit. That didn’t last long and we spent most of the day hiking in the rain—thankfully, the trails we were on had good tree cover.
The hike started out along an old railroad bed, which had been built for the lumber industry in the 1800s. Many of the old railroad ties were still embedded in the trail and the path was wide, smooth and not very steep.
Early on, we took a detour down a side trail to visit Lincoln Falls. As you can see (this photo only shows a small part of the falls), it is a pretty cool waterfall with various chutes through spouting here and there through the rocks. There was a family in their bathing suits, sliding down some of the chutes and splashing in the cool water. One of the boys, who was maybe 10 or 12, did a flip off the rocks into a pool below…dangerous and impressive.
After that, the climbing got steeper and the trail was rougher in sections, but overall it wasn’t too bad. We made it to the first tentsite, 13 Falls, around supper time. After setting up the tent, I went inside to change into dry clothes and didn’t make it out again until the next morning. Caitlin ate supper and sat by the falls for a bit before coming in to sleep.
The tentsite included a “kitchen” area (tarp with a log under it to sit on) and about 10 packed-earth platforms for setting up tents. There were bear boxes and a composting toilet, tended by the site caretaker, as well as a water source (the waterfall). The sites are well-designed to minimize campers’ impacts on the backcountry and the caretakers were extremely friendly and helpful. They collect $8 each night from everyone staying at their sites.
The weather was much better the next morning, which was good because we knew we had a long day that included climbing Mount Garfield, Mount Lafayette and Mount Lincoln. The climb up Garfield was pretty tough, including a couple sections where we had to use our hands to pull ourselves up extremely steep rock faces. We joined the Appalachian Trail partway through the climb and by the time we got to the top it was lunchtime, although we knew we weren’t halfway through the day’s hike.
However, thanks to some poor map-reading, we assumed that once we reached the summit of Mount Garfield, we would more or less keep the altitude we had gained and traverse the ridgeline including the other peaks. Not quite. Instead, from just below the summit (which had amazing views), we could see that we needed to climb nearly all the way down before heading back up the slopes of Lafayette. That was deflating.
At this point, I should mention that, just before the Garfield summit, we passed the last source of water until the tentsite we were aiming for that night: Liberty Springs.
The climb up Lafayette took forever, with several more steep sections and some challenging rock scrambles in the alpine zone above the tree line. There were also about 17 false summits before we finally topped out at 5,249 feet. By the time we reached the summit, the sun was already dropping and we figured we still had at least three hours before we would reach Liberty Springs (if only that had proven to be accurate!). We barely even paused to enjoy the spectacular view, and I was so focused on making it to the tentsite that I had stopped taking pictures. I gave my camera to Caitlin, instead, as she had more energy than me at that point.
At least it was all downhill from there (sort of). After dropping off the summit of Lafayette, where someone had set up their tent for a cold night, we climbed two lesser peaks: Lincoln and the unofficially named Mount Truman. The downhill portion proved to be nearly as challenging (and nearly as slow) as the uphill parts, though. The steps heading down the mountain often had two- to three-foot drops between them, giving the knees and feet quite a pounding.
On the way down from Lincoln, just before we reentered the tree line, we switched on our headlamps. Caitlin wanted to stop and pitch our tent near the trail and I would have agreed, but we were nearly out of water.
After stumbling through the dark woods for a couple more hours, worried that we had somehow made a wrong turn off the AT (in the official wilderness areas, the trails are not nearly as well-marked as usual), we finally made it to the junction with the Liberty Springs trail. At that point, 0.3 miles above the tentsite, we drank the rest of our water, which we had been saving, just in case.
After another very steep descent, we came upon the spring—a small trickle on a rock face—and refilled our bottles. As the guidebook had warned, because the site was on the Appalachian Trail, it was very full (this one had wooden platforms to pitch tents on). It was after 10 p.m. and we couldn’t find/didn’t want to wake the caretaker, so we squeezed in beside another tent that was covering about two-thirds of one platform.
The platforms are built to share and we learned from the caretaker the next morning that he had already told our neighbours they would have company that night. But that didn’t stop them from grumbling as we set up our tent (to be fair, it was pretty late and despite our efforts to be quiet, we did wake them—although I didn’t feel so bad when one of them proceeded to snore loudly the entire night).
In the morning, we had two choices. The first was to continue our original route and climb two more mountains, which would have completed the loop and probably gotten us back to our car in time for supper. It also would have involved backtracking the 0.3 miles back up to the junction, which may not seem like much, but it was not an easy path. My exact words, I believe, were, “Fuck that!” Caitlin agreed.
So we chose option B: a three-and-a-half mile hike down the AT (again, very steep and rocky) to another visitors’ center. We figured we could get a cab from there back to our car, but when the Liberty Springs caretaker told us there was an
Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) shuttle, well that sealed the deal.
We had to hurry, though, if we were going to make the shuttle. And hurry we did, despite the fact that I hadn’t eaten in 24 hours (I tend not to eat much in the field) and that Caitlin’s knees, one of which she had surgery on when she was younger, were bothering her on the descent.
We made it to the bottom exhausted, but in time for the shuttle. Then we realized we had to hike another short trail to actual get to the shuttle stop. After dropping a few more f-bombs, we instead walked to the visitor center and got them to call us a cab, which arrived immediately and dropped us off at our car just after 11 o’clock. It was the best money I had spent since I bought this a few weeks earlier:
— Matthew Walthert (@MatthewWalthert) August 7, 2015
After cleaning up as much as we could, we headed to Nachos Mexican Grille in Lincoln and had the best tacos ever—and not just because we were really hungry. The shells were homemade and deep-fried and I could still taste them a couple days later. Even writing this, I am craving them.
Anyway, the AMC guide book rated our hike 3/5 stars in terms of difficulty, and it was…if you are a mountain climber. If you are a normal person looking for a reasonable hike, stick to one or maybe two stars (or give yourself more time—our hike would have been more manageable with an extra day, but the terrain was still very rough).
Looking back, though, it was more fun than it seemed at the time—the same way basic training feels like fun in retrospect.