Caps Ridge: Another Trail to Add to My Ever Growing List of Favorites
Caps Ridge today was one of my favorite hikes so far and definitely made my top five favorite trails list! I went in nervous that it would be really challenging, and it was but in the best way possible. It was fun and difficult both physically and mentally for a great morning spent above treeline. To add to that, Caps Ridge is one of the trails on the Terrifying 25 list so it was nice to get another taste of what those trails can be like.
I met a friend at the trailhead and we started hiking around 7:40. He said that we would probably be done by 1:00, so I was a little worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up! The first mile of the hike was pretty gradual so it went by quickly. This was a pretty typical low elevation NH hiking trail, mostly dirt with some sporadic roots and rocks in the mix. After just a half hour we came to the first viewpoint looking out at the vast mountain ranges all around us.
We broke treeline very quickly and were surrounded by gorgeous views for the rest of the hike. When we got to the first cap the real challenge began. Caps Ridge consists of three rocky caps that look like big gumdrops on the ridge of the mountain. The first was steep and rocky, but not too challenging with lots of hand and foot holds. It was really fun trying to figure out the best route to get up. We met a woman who was struggling a little bit, so the three of us strategized the best way to go about each rock face.
The second cap was the most difficult with two extremely steep and daunting walls. As treacherous as they looked, they both had really good hand and foot holds so getting up them wasn’t too hard. As I looked down from the top, I wondered how we would possibly get down them! After the second cap the third felt pretty easy. We stopped many times along the way to take in the views and appreciate the great weather.
Above the third cap was the summit, but there was still a little bit of a climb to reach it. This consisted of the classic rock hopping you see across all of the northern presidentials. The jagged granite boulders make the terrain on these mountains extremely rugged, one of the reasons we call Mt. Washington “the rock pile.” When we finally reached the summit we were relieved. The views stretched far and wide, showing most of the other mountains in the presidentials and beyond. We could see Crawford Notch and the Mt. Washington hotel in the valley, and the Cog steam engine chugging its way up Mt. Washington leaving behind a plume of black smoke.
After hanging around the summit for a few minutes, we parted ways with our new hiking buddy and headed towards Clay. There was an alpine meadow that we wanted to check out down by the base of Jefferson on the Clay side, and my friend had skipped Clay in his presidential traverse so he wanted to grab the peak. The alpine meadow was a field of grass that was smack dab in the middle of Jefferson.
By the time we got to Sphinx Col we realized that the summit of Clay was further than we anticipated. It was a long way up from where we were, so we decided to turn around and head back instead. In retrospect this was a good decision because with our water stores dwindling and the hot weather approaching risking dehydration could be dangerous. This was a good lesson for me because I can be really stubborn when it comes to hiking. I hate bailing, but sometimes it’s the safest course of action. With no water supply until we got back to the cars, the sun making an appearance, and the temperatures rising this was a good call. The mountains are always there as I always say!
On the way back to Caps Ridge we decided to change things up a bit and take the Cornice trail around the summit of Jefferson to avoid unnecessary elevation gain. We had heard that it was a rough stretch of trail, but anything seemed better than hiking all the way back up to the summit just to hike right back down. I was pleasantly surprised by this stretch of trail. There were a few spots of dirt that gave our feet a break from the rocky terrain and it still gave us great views while we made our way around the summit.
When we got back to Caps Ridge the hardest part of the hike started. Most people think that ascending a steep trail is most challenging, but for me descending is even harder. You have more momentum which makes your movements and balance harder to control. We took each cap one step at a time, carefully making our way down. There were some goat paths around the steepest slabs, so that helped us a lot. Most of them branched to the left of the jagged gumdrop shaped caps, so it made descending safely much easier. When we got back to the treeline we knew the hardest part was over and made good time back to the car.
On Wednesday I did the Tripyramid slides and said that these are the hikes that motivate me to get out there and hike some more. Add Caps Ridge to the list because this was another one that reminded me why I love hiking. Although this hike was dramatically different than the one on Wednesday, they were both very difficult in their own ways and made me love the mountains so much more. Scaling each cap made me really work both mentally and physically, really holding my attention and focus the whole time. The gorgeous weather topped it off for another amazing day in the Whites!
Mt. Jefferson (5,712 ft) via. Caps Ridge Tr, Gulfside Tr, and the Cornice [6.69 mi, 3020 ft, 5:15].