Backpacking the White Mountains: Taking on the Pemi Loop

Written by Morgan Nankivell

This is what I was here for, this indescribable euphoric feeling of peace. The feeling that we had accomplished something significant. We were almost home, and I planned to ride this buzz the remaining 10 miles of the Pemi Loop back to the car. I hoped it would keep my aching feet marching and my spirits high. There had been many moments throughout the Pemi Loop that had me wondering why I was out here – some of the trails proved to be a form of self-inflicted torture of backpacking – but these moments like this one – this was the reason.

I never imagined I would find myself in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, setting out on a 30 mile backpacking trip. It was only several years before that, during a somewhat unprepared trip up Mt. Washington, I had dreamed of doing an overnight somewhere in the White Mountains. I was a rather sluggish hiker, though, and didn’t know much about backpacking. Fast forward to June of this year,  I had fixed my lack of knowledge, experience and at least improved my sluggish style. My boyfriend & I were doing well on the trips we had undertaken thus far, and were waiting for an opportunity to take on a new challenge.

It wasn’t until I sat contemplating my four day weekend for the Fourth of July holiday that it hit me…the Pemi Loop! I scrambled for my phone and texted my boyfriend, suggesting the Pemi for a backpacking trip. He agreed with gusto, and we began to plan our coming adventure. We researched the trails, the amount of time it may take, and the summits we would be reaching. The more we planned, the larger the pit of excitement grew in my stomach. The Pemi Loop would be bigger than anything I had done before, the prospect of really getting out there and doing some serious miles thrilled me.  I was keen and I had no idea what I was in for.

The Pemi Loop traverses parts of the Twin and Franconia ranges as well as through the Pemigewasset Wilderness in New Hampshire. It is 30 miles of rugged and relentless ups & downs, being recognized as one of the most difficult day hikes in the country.

Its namesake comes from the Pemigewasset Wilderness, a sprawling 45,000 acre section of the White Mountain National Forest. This area was heavily logged in the past, if you find yourself hiking in this region you’re sure to see remnants of this activity. These old logging and railroad grade roads and paths provide some rather easy going on the east portion of the loop. On the western side, outside of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, lies the Franconia range. It is the second highest range in the White Mountains after the Presidential range offering some spectacular alpine hiking.

We decided to do the Pemi Loop clockwise. This meant we would head up towards the Franconia ridge first. This would have us hiking the less steep and in some places completely flat portions of the loop on our last day. As hikers, we are certainly more tortoise than hare. We decided to take our entire four day weekend and devote it to the trail. This is longer than most take but we didn’t want to rush.  We planned out which mountains we would summit each day and where we would sleep each night. I felt ready. We packed our bags and hit the road.

Day one began on Saturday morning hitting the trail around 8:00 a.m from the Lincoln Woods trail head. Our packs were strapped down and adjusted to our liking with four days’ worth of supplies. We knew the extra 25-30 pounds would mean big changes in our pace and comfort. The biggest advantage to doing the Pemi Loop in less time is the obvious decrease in supplies you need to bring with you. It wasn’t until the real fatigue started to kick in a few days later that we would really begin to pay the price for the extra weight we were carrying.

The weather for our first day was questionable at best,  spots of rain and thunder were in the forecast. We prepared as much as we could with waterproof gear and cautiously carried on. The first 1.4 miles from the Lincoln Woods Visitor Center is entirely flat, with lovely views of the Pemigewasset River and lush forest. It wasn’t until we reached the Osseo Trail that we remembered we were about gain 9,000 feet of elevation over the next several days. The trail began tranquil, smooth and gradually increased in grade as we climbed higher. After several miles the trail began to change. Sure-footed steps were slowed by the prolific rocks on the trail – a trend one can expect when hiking in throughout the White Mountains.

We were just warming up. Our minds and bodies had not yet settled into the hike. A beautiful overlook on the Osseo Trail before you reach the summit of Mt. Flume was a welcome respite. The cloud cover hadn’t moved in on us yet, and the gap in the trees was just enough to look east toward the southern edge of Bondcliff.

We quickly got back to the grind and continued to the top of Mt. Flume. By the time we had reached the narrow-pathed summit, clouds had completely moved in and the rain was threatening to do more than just drizzle. To our left lay a gut-wrenching void of fog. A rock slide on Flume left a large gash in the rocks at the peak. This huge divot looked eerie as we became consumed in clouds. With no view and empty tummies, we carefully made our way across the trail looking for a place to shelter ourselves from the increasing rain for a lunch break.

The Summit of Mount Flume, looking down the area affected by the rock slide.
Looking south from where we had come on Flume summit

The next 1.2 miles to the summit of Liberty were damp, but relatively easy going. We arrived at the summit in high spirits with the clouds blowing by giving us some peek-a-boo views of Mt. Lincoln and the valley below. My heart skipped a beat as the sweeping green valley opened up in front of us, and the western slope of Lincoln came into view for just a few seconds.  We may not have been able to see much through the thick and quickly shifting cloud cover,  but we felt like we were on top of the world. We were looking down upon a mysterious and hypnotizing landscape.

The clouds clearing atop the summit of Mt. Liberty

Snapped out of our trance, a fellow hiker warned us of heavy rain in the coming hours. Continuing on we moved from the glorious and peaceful peak of Liberty. The next stop was the Liberty Spring tent site a breezy 0.6 miles away. The Franconia Ridge Trail meets the the Liberty Spring Trail just 0.3 miles from the summit of Liberty. The remaining 0.3 mile hike down to the Liberty Spring Trail to the tent site felt like it took an eternity. With the threat of rain, it made us more impatient than usual.  Once we finally arrived, we hastily set up our tent. We knew the thunderstorms were expected to last all night. We began to string up a small lightweight tent footprint  creating a makeshift extended vestibule. It was at precisely this moment that the rain started.

This is the moment the biblical flood began, endless torrents of water suddenly began to fall from the sky. Within moments we had become drenched. As I felt the water pour down my legs and into my boots I knew it was going to be a tough weekend ahead. Within minutes I had gone from walking with shoes on to walking around with full buckets strapped to my feet.

The view from inside our tent while it was down-pouring outside, our clothes hanging everywhere.

We finished setting up our camp and it continued to pour. The task now was cooking dinner and getting into our tent without completely soaking everything we owned. Luckily our eating area had a large tarp for shelter. We sat shivering, half clothed and shoveling down a warm meal. As we ate lightning lit up the sky so brightly it seemed supernatural with the accompanying thunder resonating in my chest. We sloshed back to our platform, literally walking through shin-deep streams where none had been only 20 minutes prior. With an amount of patience I didn’t know I possessed, we managed to change and get into our tent without getting anything inside wet. I was thrilled with this feat, and happily cozied up in my bag.

The next morning was rain-free, although I was feeling that we should be quick with our break-down – just in case. All of our attempts to dry our socks, shoes and various clothing items were completely useless. Nothing had dried even the tiniest bit. I didn’t know then but the following days would be drastically altered by my soaked boots.

Despite our damp clothes dangling from our pack, we remained excited and positive. My feet felt dry after putting on a pair of socks that had been saved from the torrent, and I was sure a day of hiking would at least dry my socks. With a full day ahead of us, we would be reaching 4 summits and find ourselves at the Garfield tent site that night.

We made good time up the hill from the tent site and back onto the Franconia Ridge Trail. From here we set off on the 1.8 miles to the summit of Little Haystack, This portion of the trail is scattered with tiny angelic pastures of ferns and small conifers dripping with old man’s beard lichen.

The trail to Little Haystack

The skies were almost totally clear, and once we reached the summit of Little Haystack we were rewarded with an the incredible views that had been mostly hidden from us the previous day. Lincoln stood towering ahead of us, a welcoming sight that looked so easily within reach. The Franconia Ridge Trail continues above the tree-line across the ridge for the next 2 miles, providing wide open views on all sides. After a short lunch on Little Haystack, we eagerly continued the 0.9 miles up to Lincoln’s summit. We reached the peak and were hungry for our third, Mt. Lafayette, the highest peak on the Pemi Loop.

I had been itching to get to this summit all summer and was thrilled it was our present focus. A steady 0.8 miles along the ridge led us to the peak. I could see everything; Cannon mountain across the valley, the rest of the Pemi loop to the east, and the Presidentials off in the distance. If it had not been so crowded at the top we may have stayed longer. The throngs of people out enjoying the mountain felt overwhelming. We also were discouraged by the distance it looked like we had to cover to reach our destination – Garfield Tent site. Mount Garfield is 3.7 miles from the summit of Lafayette. It looked like a distant peak for another day, not something we would be summiting later that afternoon.

The trail from Lafayette, Garfield a speck on the right hand side

Not yet too tired, we moved out happily marching along the inviting portion of the trail toward the north peak of Lafayette. Large cairns marked our route with easy going trail allowing me to look west as we walked. How we would navigate through the mountains and valleys to the other ridge line the Pemi Loop is on? I supposed I would just have to find out.

Descending back into the forest from the alpine zone would prove to be tough for me. Going down is always the tough part in my eyes. With added weight from our packs, the steep, rocky and very uneven trail leading down from Lafayette was much slower going than either of us had anticipated. With Tree cover in sight, we continued to plod along.

Just before we reached the trees, I made a crucial error looking back. While taking a step on a rock slab my feet vanished from underneath me. I rolled down the rock slab, bouncing off of a small boulder on my way. Luckily I didn’t roll far, and my boyfriend hastily scooted down the slab to meet me. Tears streaming down my face, looking at him and looking at my arm. I had thwacked it pretty hard, and it showed. A gigantic bump had popped up and thoroughly freaked us both out. After some inspection and a minute to shake off the adrenaline, I decided I was fine. I have no doubt it was quite a sight for the fellow hiker who passed us moments after my tumble.

The next 24 hours of our journey on the Pemi Loop would get worse before it would get better. After my fall we began to feel tired. We were pushing our bodies harder than we had done before and had to get our minds in a place to deal with the physicality. After descending further into the trees, we looked forward to our next few miles being relatively easy going. The topo map, as it turns out, was incredibly misleading on this portion of the trail. What we thought would be easy going ended up being some of the slowest hiking of the entire trip. The ground beneath us was muddy, slick and threatening to suction your boot right off if you stepped wrong. The rocks were glassy from the rain. Every roots & wood planks went from being helpful ways to avoid bogs, to slippery balance beams.

We were passed many times on this stretch to Garfield. I looked at the trail runners breezing by us in disbelief. The path was covered in jagged rocks of all sizes. Each time we stopped to let someone pass, hordes of mosquitoes descended upon us.  The combination of slow & tedious hiking, being passed by so many people, and being eaten alive by bugs was pushing me to the edge. My feet had also become increasingly wet. Those dry socks I had on were now dampened from the inside of my boots. Slowly I could feel my feet beginning to hurt. It felt like blisters were forming on the bottoms of my feet. I knew that’s not what was happening, it was the beginning stages of trench foot. The fire on my soles would build and the tingling would intensify every time we stopped to rest or let someone pass.

It seemed like an eternity, but when we reached the lake that sat just below the summit push to Garfield, my mood was instantly lifted. Beyond tired at this point, I was actually ecstatic to see the trail going up. We were starting to get somewhere. The Garfield Ridge Trail begins right before this lake. This trail would lead us 0.4 miles to the summit and then bring us back down the other side of the mountain before we would find the Garfield Tentsite. Those 0.4 miles felt like nothing after the tedium since Lafayette, and the summit provided an incredible view of where we had just come from on the Pemi Loop.

The view of Lafayette from Garfield summit on the Pemi Loop

The sky was clear with the warm sun beginning to hint that evening was approaching. Much more tired than I had expected, my wet feet felt like they were on fire. I was proud that we had pushed this far though. Reaching another summit was incredibly empowering. Eager to rest, we headed down the other side toward the tent site.

The trail was steep the entire way, my fatigue and foot pain went from bad to worse. Luckily the descent was short-lived, and I was overcome with joy when I saw the sign for the tent site. We managed to procure a couple of spots in the shelter, saving some precious energy and time. Crawling into the shelter and beaten down by the day, I took an hour to even contemplate making dinner. Choking back tears of exhaustion on my sleeping pad, I wondered how everyone else in the shelter seemed to be just fine.  I reminded myself that this was not easy, and that everyone has their own journey.

I removed my boots, socks and hung up all of our wet clothes. Absolutely nothing had dried while we were hiking. This meant wet socks tomorrow unless some kind of sock-drying fairy visited us during the night. My feet were tingling, burning, and swollen. Every time I stood I had to hobble until the blood began to flow normally through my feet again. We hoped for restful sleep and hit the hay after dinner. Half the trip and hopefully the hardest part was behind us but only tomorrow would tell.

Part #2 of Morgan’s journey across the Pemi Loop! 

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