Vital StatisticsMount Washington Hike
via the Tuckerman Ravine, Lion Head, Nelson Crag and "Old Jackson Road" Trails
4473'/4473' elevation gain/loss
8:34am - 5:13pm
The TripWe started the hike on a cool morning under bluebird skies and light wind from the Pinkham Notch AMC Visitor Center. The trek up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail was moderately steep and rocky, but coming from Colorado the day before, our lungs had a plentiful supply of air at this "low" altitude so we had very little problem sustaining a good pace uphill. A short ways up the trail we hiked up a very short spur trail to Crystal Cascades which was a surprisingly majestic waterfall nestled amongst the trees. We continued upward and soon the trail began a long stretch where it headed almost due west. Unfortunately, at this time of day and year, this meant that the hot sun was bearing down on us continually, while the trees blocked us from any cooling breeze. This slowed us down a little but apart from occasional breaks to grab a few gulps of water, our pace was steady. There were relatively a lot of people on the trail and we passed a lot more than passed us. :)
Since the path was so straight, we could see the steep mountainsides ahead, including that of Lion Head. Looking at it, we had a hard time imagining how a trail could ever climb up its steep side. But since that was the steepest (and most scenic) trail up, when we reached the intersection for the Lion Head Trail, we left the popular Tuckerman Ravine Trail and took the trail up instead! Soon we were climbing upward quite steeply, often using our hands to scramble up the rocks. The dense trees on the mountainside provided very little views almost all the way up to the krummholz zone, so we couldn't see how much we had climbed. Finally, the trees became stunted enough that we could start to see around and the views were awesome! Ahead we could see the rocky outcrop of Lion Head, which as far as we could see was the highest thing around.
Upon scrambling to its top we were greeted with a wonderful view of the massive summit of Mount Washington ahead; we still had quite a ways to go! The next portion of the hike was pretty easy as we strolled across the alpine tundra, but before too long, we started to make the final steep climb up to the summit. We had set a goal to try and make it up to the summit by 12:00 and it looked like it was going to be tough to do it, so we pushed harder to attain our goal. Well, I can say we officially made it a minute early, although we were glad to sit down and rest right afterward!
It was strange to make it to the summit and suddenly see all the tourists who had driven up the road or taken the cog railroad, as they wandered about the summit complex. Many of them went straight from their cars into the visitor center without even taking the time to look around at all the beautiful views in all directions. I will never forget the first time we hiked up Mt. Washington, eight years ago almost to the date. It was a cold, windy, and very foggy day and so we were all bundled up to keep warm. As we were walking into the visitor center, there was a family behind us who had just driven up the road, all of whom were wearing shorts. The little boy in the family asked his parents "Why are they dressed like that, Daddy?" It seemed such a comical question when I was wondering the same thing: "Why are they dressed like that?" Anyway, it would have felt more impressive if the only people at the top were "tough" hikers like ourselves. At the summit, it was 48 degrees with a sustained wind of 28 mph, so we decided it would be nice to eat inside the visitor center instead of bundling up to eat outside. I guess we're not that tough! After lunch, we looked around a bit, but not too long as we wanted to head down and we still had a somewhat long drive to do that evening. We did take the time to look down at the southern peaks of the Presidential Range, as well as the Lake of the Clouds we had passed by on our first hike up the mountain.
After having done 4400' gain on the way up, we were amazed at how much energy we had as we started down via the Nelson Crag Trail. The trail provides great views of the more remote northern peaks of the Presidential Range; however, initially the view was marred in the foreground by the road with all the tourists driving up and down. After a while the trail crossed the road and we ascended up small Ball Crag. Just below the crag, the mountainside blocked the view of the road, so I took the opportunity to snap a panoramic photo of the northern mountains. If I come back to the Presidentials again one day, these are the peaks I will climb!
We continued to descend down, interrupted a couple more times by small ascents to the next two crags (unnamed and Nelson). Compared to the ~50 people we saw on the way up, this route had very little people. Maybe it's because it's longer? Maybe because it travels near the road in places? Just after Nelson Crag we encountered a couple of backpackers from Pennsylvania who were doing a 3-day backpack over Mt. Washington. They were the last people we would see on the trail for two and a half hours.
After Nelson Crag, the trail descended downward gradually up to a lip, below which was a very steep descent down to the next ledge. We turned around and looked back one last time to bid farewell to Mount Washington and then down we went! I had chosen this route down because my topo map showed that the contours were less closely packed here than where we came up; it's nicer on the knees to take a less steep route down, right? And indeed, the mountainside was less steep; however, the trail went nearly straight down the mountainside so the descent was definitely steeper, a 40% grade according to my GPS. In several places we had to do some class 3 rock climbing to get down. Who needs switchbacks! We encountered a couple more "ledges" on the way down, the first of which ran immediately next to the road. After this, the road curved off to the north and we never saw it again! We also dropped below timberline, and as we were on the east side of the mountain, while the sun was now toward the east, it was eerily dark within the dense forest. The descent was very steep and since the path was so straight, it was like climbing down through a long tunnel of trees. In a few spots there were patches where nearly all the trees had died and so it would open up, but only very briefly.
Finally, it began to level off and we knew that we would soon join Old Jackson Road. Would this be a relatively flat road where we could make quick time back to parking lot? We hoped so! Well, it did end up being a pretty flat trail and not too rocky, but instead of going down, it was slowly going up! Fortunately, after topping off over a small pass it descended downward again all the way to the parking lot. A guy hiking the Appalachian Trail caught up with us along this stretch and we enjoyed talking with him the rest of the way.
This was a great hike on a great day! Definitely the most beautiful area I have ever seen in the eastern US!