King Ravine: The Steep Way to Adams and Madison
Updated: Jul 29, 2019
When I finished the NH 48 4,000 footers I was super excited to try out King Ravine Trail because I had heard so many great things about it. It's on the Terrifying 25 list and has many different difficult aspects including tiny caves and steep climbs. I'm so glad my cousin Libby and her husband Paul agreed to come with me for this exciting day because I'm a little hesitant to do remote trails like this for the first time by myself. The whole hike was extremely difficult but very rewarding with some amazing views and great summits!
The threat of afternoon thunderstorms loomed in my brain from the beginning of the day. The forecast called for scattered thunder showers starting around 3:00pm, but I knew that any type of imminent weather in the Presidential range can become a reality without warning. The plan was to start early, hike quickly, and get to the top of the headwall by late morning so that we could bail down a wooded trail in case of an early storm.
We left Appilachia on Air Line Trail at 7:30, and about a half a mile from the trailhead we came across an older gentleman having a medical emergency in the middle of the trail. As an EMT, I helped as much as I could and transferred care to the other EMTs when they arrived about a half hour later. Although I had seen medical emergencies like this countless times before, being out in the wilderness with very little medical equipment made the situation much more frightening. Luckily we weren't too far from civilization and he seemed to be doing well when the EMTs walked him back to the trailhead.
After that encounter we continued on our way up Air Line to Short Line trail, gaining elevation slowly yet steadily along the way. It was a beautiful hike through the forest to warm up my sore legs from Huntington Ravine the day before. We soon continued to King Ravine trail and started our hike through the floor of the ravine. We came across Mossy Fall, a gorgeous cascade just on the side of the path. Everything was so lush and green here making it feel like we were walking through an enchanted forest.
When we got to the alpine zone in the ravine floor the real work began. There were areas with large boulders and soon that was all that was in our path. Hopping from rock to rock was fun, and there was the occasional view of the headwall that we would be climbing shortly. But first we had to conquer the Subway. This is a stretch of boulder caves along the floor of King Ravine that have some tight squeezes and require some real thought to get through. Although there is a side trail to bypass these caves, we decided to go through them for an extra little challenge. They were quite an experience!
We maneuvered through the first few spots fairly quickly, but came to a tight area that was more challenging shortly after. The tricky part about these is getting through without hitting your head or falling into the deep gaps between boulders. It's harder than it sounds!
The last cave was the most difficult and when I saw it I thought there was no way we were supposed to go through there. There were blazed arrows pointing down into it from every direction, so we made our way through carefully and deliberately. It was really cool down in the caves, but we were all sweating profusely trying to weave our way in and out of them. Paul had a bit of a disadvantage being so tall, but eventually we made it through all of the tricky spots and met back with the side trail. After some discussion, we elected to bypass the Ice Caves because we thought it would take too much time and I wanted to get to the top of the headwall in case the storm made an early appearance.
When we got to the base of the headwall I was starting to see some concerningly dark clouds above us. After a quick radar check it looked like the storm would hold off for a few more hours, but being in such an exposed area made me nervous so we decided to pick up the pace a bit. The Subway had taken longer than I anticipated, but we made great time climbing from rock to rock up the trail. Interestingly enough, it felt less steep while we were up there than it looked from afar. It was mostly large, jagged boulders towards the bottom with smaller rocks and some loose scree towards the top. It was fun making our way up the side of the bowl, and we enjoyed the gorgeous views behind us.
Before we knew it we were nearing the top of the headwall and getting close to the jagged rock structures that looked so tiny from afar. Once we made it to the top, we took one last look at the ravine we had just conquered and set our sights on the summit of Mt. Adams. The dark clouds were still a bit ominous, but they seemed like they would hold of for at least a few more hours allowing us our summit bids.
The scramble up Air Line to the summit was tough, but less so than what we had just experienced. When we made it to the summit we took a few quick pictures and moved on down Star Lake Trail as to try to outrun the impending storms. Our hope was to make it to the summit of Mt. Madison before descending, but I was constantly reassessing our plans due to weather. We had yet to hear a rumble of thunder, so we kept going making our way down from Adams. I have only ever ascended Star Lake trail, and for good reason I learned. It was really slow going because of the rugged terrain, and the rocks were taking their toll on our knees every step of the way. Every few steps a boulder would move letting us hear the hollow clang of granite quivering beneath our feet. We were glad when we made it down to Star Lake.
Star Lake is one of my favorite spots in the Presidentials (although this list has been growing out of control lately). The way the still water reflects the profile of Mt. Madison is just gorgeous, and although we were worried about time I stopped here for a moment to admire the view. After a quick water refill at Madison Springs Hut, we scurried up to the summit as the first few rain drops began to fall. These were Libby and Paul's 18th and 19th 4,000 footers, and they had definitely not taken the easy way up. As we hurried our way back down to the hut to descend via Valley Way, a few more rain drops fell and we were itching to get down below treeline before the skies opened up.
Valley Way is sheltered by trees pretty much the whole way from Appilachia to Madison hut. Our original plan was to descend via Air Line Trail, but with the storm blowing in we shifted gears just in time. As we were making our way down there was a small sprinkling of rain here and there, but not even enough to warrant a rain shell. The walk out seemed to go on forever as a descent from a challenging hike always does. For the last mile of the descent we could hear thunder booming behind us, and as we got to the car rain started to fall. On the drive back to Franconia we could see the dark storm clouds raging through the Presidential range with lightning every few seconds. Our timing was perfect!
Yesterdays hike was an enormous undertaking, but it ended up being an awesome day! King Ravine Trail was more difficult than I had anticipated, and I definitely underestimated the amount of time it took to cross the ravine floor through the Subway. After Huntington Ravine the day before I thought this would be a much easier hike, but I found it extremely challenging in a different way. Huntington is all about technical slab climbing in no fall zones whereas King was about steep boulder climbing and potentially disastrous drops through boulders in the floor of the ravine. I found that I needed to be focused for a longer period of time, both while in the floor of the ravine and while climbing the headwall.
This being said, King Ravine has made it on my top five favorite trails, and I would love to do it again without the pressure of an impending storm. It was a really beautiful hike, and tagging the two summits after treating a patient in the morning made it an extremely taxing day both mentally and physically. We all definitely deserved a nice cold beer after this one!
Mt. Adams (5,774 ft) and Mt. Madison (5,367 ft) via Air Line Tr, Short Line Tr, King Ravine Tr, Subway, Star Lake Tr, Osgood Tr, and Valley Way [11.11 mi, 4935 ft, 9:00].
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