Owl's Head and the Bonds: My First Solo Backpacking and Bushwhacking Trip
Owl's Head is probably the 4,000 footer with the worst reputation, mostly because of its remote location (aka lots of mileage), challenging slide, and underwhelming wooded peak. Many people camp at the bottom of the slide because the typical distance for Owl's Head out and back is a hefty 18 miles. A lot of people also do this one in a day, but man is it a long trek for a wooded peak! It's dreaded by most because it's such a long hike for a peak with no views and there are four major river crossings that can be dangerous or impossible when the water is high. There is a bushwhack (a known way to cut through the woods off of the trail) to avoid two of the worst crossings, so I planned on doing that. There is also a slide made up of loose scree that is incredibly steep, gaining 1500 ft in less than a mile, so that's a really difficult climb.
A lot of people put off Owl's Head to the end of their 48 because it's so inconvenient and difficult, but I wanted to get it out of the way earlier so I wouldn't have to worry about the possibility of finishing on a peak with no views. I decided that Labor day weekend would be a good time to do it because many of the other mountains would be crazy busy and I wanted to avoid the masses. I decided to make this an overnight trip because although I'm sure I could do it in a day I like backpacking and I wanted to try out my new tent!
I wanted to do the Bonds or possibly Franconia Ridge with it so that I could get some nice views, but as I explored my options it became clear that it would be difficult to plan a route that met all of my needs. I'm a relatively fast hiker but with a 35 lb pack it was guaranteed to slow me down. It seemed like the best option was to go from Lincoln Woods through Owl's Head and stay at 13 Falls tentsite night one. Then day two go up and over Garfield and out because I had family in town willing to car spot me. The distance would be 12.4 miles for day one and 7.9 miles for day two which was totally manageable.
Day 1: Owl's Head, 13 Falls, South Twin, staying at Guyot Campsite (19.7 mi, 6380 ft, 10:50)
On Saturday morning I woke up early but didn't make it to the Lincoln Woods parking lot until about 6:35. Luckily I got one of the last spots in the lot, paid, and started my journey at 6:55. This was a late start but 13 Falls was only 12 miles so I was confident I would get there at a reasonable time.
Lincoln Woods trail was flat and tedious as most hikers who have done it would agree. It was only 2.6 miles to Black Pond trail and it went by quickly because I was talking to a nice gentleman working on the grid. This is when you do all 48 of the NH 4,000 footers in every month of the year. He gave me lots of tips and advice for the Black Pond bushwhack, which I appreciated immensely since I was nervous about doing it by myself. Black Pond was gorgeous, so I stopped for a minute to take in the views before starting the whack at 7:45
Bushwhacking is basically trying to get from point A to point B without following official trails. Luckily the Black Pond bushwhack is very well traveled so there is a defined herd path for most of it. The only tricky part is the southern section right near Black Pond. I set my compass to the correct degree mark, found the beginning of the herd path, and started off on my way. After about 200 ft I lost the path but kept going north according to my compass. I also have a downloaded GPS on my phone which ended up saving me because I got so lost. I kept losing the path, sweeping the area, finding it, and then losing it again. I started to get nervous because it seemed like I was going in circles and being alone in the forest off trail was starting to freak me out. I ended up using the GPS and compass to find the well defined part of the path and then it was easy to follow. So in short, my sense of direction is not great but I had the tools to figure out how to get where I wanted to go. Below is a picture of the terrain I was trying to get through before I found the path
This is what the herd path looks like. I found it about a quarter of a mile into the bushwhack and then followed it for the last three quarters of a mile to Lincoln Brook.
I finally got to the intersection of the Lincoln Brook Tr at 8:25 making it a total of 40 minutes for the 1 mile bushwhack. This is pretty slow, but now that I've done it once it will be much easier next time. Lincoln Brook trail was really nice south of Owl's Head Path and really quick going since it was flat. So far I had hardly gained any elevation, so it was a good warm up for what I knew would be a very difficult climb up the slide. I ended up meeting a couple from my small hometown of Hopkinton, NH so it was great to talk to them for a while. I also passed about ten other people before I got to Owl's Head Path so it was nice to have some company after feeling lost in the woods. When I got to the spur at 9:25 I took a quick break to talk to some people and then started the climb.
Owl's Head Path got pretty steep quickly. I got to the bottom of the slide and stashed my heavy pack in a tree nearby. I was definitely nervous about leaving my bag but I figured with the number of people I saw on their way and all of the people who had started earlier today there would be enough commotion to scare off any bears. The slide was super steep and full of loose scree. I figured the faster I could get up and down it, the lesser the chance that my pack would be raided by bears. I climbed up for what seemed like miles, checking behind me frequently to make sure I wasn't kicking loose rocks onto a hiker behind me. It was a hazardous trail, but it was actually a lot of fun! It definitely got my blood pumping which was a nice change from the easy morning. The best part about the slide was the view of Lafayette and Lincoln. I had never seen Lafayette so close up like that (except when I was on top of it), so it was an interesting perspective. You could also see Lincoln Slide very clearly, a bushwhack that I had been pondering doing but ended up deciding against because of my lack of experience. These were the only views that Owl's Head has to offer.
Above the slide it was still very steep and rocky for a while, but eventually the trail flattened out. There were lots of branches to dodge, so me being the clumsy person I am, I got poked quite a few times. I passed the old false summit and ran to the new one, making it there at 10:20 for a total of 55 minutes and 1 mile with 1500 ft of elevation gain. #35 out of 48 complete! Little did I know I still had a long day ahead of me.
On my way up I met some hikers that recognized me from the "Hike the NH 4,000 Footers" Facebook page. I often post there for help with trail selection and put up trip reports after long hikes. They were so nice, offering me food and water because I had dropped my pack. I have really been touched by the generosity and kindness that the hiking community has shown me in the past few months. If anyone from that group is reading this, I want to say a big thank you because although I often hike solo and I'm still new at this, you have always made me feel like I have people in my corner when I'm in the mountains. I definitely could not have made it this far into my 48 without you all cheering me on and guiding me through it!
After tagging the summit, I ran back down to the slide where the tricky descent began. There were more people now ascending, many of whom I had seen on my way. Because the rock was so loose, we all had to make sure not to accidentally kick them down onto the hikers below. It was a slow but steady descent back down to the Lincoln Brook trail, but I got there at 11:05.
With what I thought was the hardest part of the day complete, I stopped for a quick lunch break and then went north on the Lincoln Brook trail. I had heard that this trail was not well maintained and some even described it as a glorified bushwhack. I'd say that both of those assessments were correct. The trail was mucky and hard to follow in some areas, reminding me of the bushwhack I had already done that day. I knew that 13 Falls was only a few miles away so I took my time and moseyed down the trail. Despite that it was mostly swamp, it was a really beautiful trail and I only saw a few people on it compared to the southern section earlier that day. It was a beautiful quiet walk through the woods.
At this point I decided that if I got to 13 Falls before 2:00 I would figure out a new plan for the rest of the day. It was really beautiful outside and with at least five more hours of daylight I didn't want to waste it sitting at camp. I reached 13 Falls at 1:10 and filtered water while thinking about what to do next. After a quick conversation with the campmaster, I decided to try to get to Guyot campsite, 6.2 miles away. This doesn't sound that far, but the elevation gain between Galehead hut and the summit of South Twin Mountain is killer at 1,150 ft in 0.8 miles. To put that in perspective, that's equivalent to 115 flights of stairs! Pluss there was another 1550 ft to be gained on the Twin Brook Tr in 2.7 miles, so an extra 155 flights. I was truly not sure that I could make it to Guyot, but the campmaster said that with the pace I had been going I would make it there no problem. So I took her advice and went on my way.
The Twin Brook Tr was really beautiful with mostly steady elevation gain, so it wasn't too bad. I tried to really make good time because I wanted to get to Guyot before dark. The other issue was that since it was a holiday weekend the campsite was sure to be jam packed with people. I thought about stealth camping a little ways before Guyot on the Twinway, but like I mentioned earlier there has been a hungry bear wandering around the Pemigewasset Wilderness stealing people's food for the past few weeks. I mostly wanted to use the bear box at Guyot to secure my food, so my plan was to ask to pay the $10 fee just to use their bear box and then camp on my own a little ways away.
I made really good time to Galehead and arrived at 2:50 only an hour and 20 minutes after leaving 13 Falls. The book time for that stretch of trail is 2:05 so I was pretty proud of myself especially with my 35 lb pack. I quickly filled up water and started the crazy hard climb to the summit of South Twin.
A few months ago when I did the Pemi Loop as my first backpacking trip, I specifically chose to do it counterclockwise just to avoid this uphill climb. Now I had a pack that was 10 lb heavier attempting to go up it and I remembered why I opted out last time. Man was this climb brutal. The large rocks were relentless and seemed to go on forever. It felt like it took hours of huffing and puffing to make it to South Twin, but I got there at 4:00. This was my first real view of the day and unfortunately it was mostly cloudy. I was so happy to have made it there it didn't even matter that I couldn't see anything.
I knew that the 2.8 miles on the Twinway was the home stretch to make it to Guyot. That being said I was absolutely gassed from the climb to South Twin. I had already gone over 16 miles and I was so tired that I couldn't even think straight. Saying "Hi, how's it going?" to all of the other hikers in the area was really difficult, but seeing how miserable I looked they cheered me on to the finish. Although I was exhausted, the hike on the Twinway was really beautiful. When I stumbled into Guyot the feeling of relief washed over me.
There were already 90 people at the campsite when I arrived at 5:45. I asked if I could use an overflow site to avoid the crowds and got one about a half a mile from the heart of the camp. After setting up my tent, I went to camp to make myself dinner. I have only had Mountain House meals in the past and they've been surprisingly good, but this time I tried Alpineaire's Three Cheese Chicken Pasta. Boy was that a mistake. It was really nasty, but I was so hungry I still ate the whole thing. I also saw that guy that I had met at Logan airport before I flew to Iceland a few weeks before at the campsite. What a crazy coincidence!
The main reason that I had chosen to pay for a night at Guyot was to use their bear box, but by the time I got there it was already full. I ended up having to hang my food anyway, so I was a little frustrated. Basically, I paid to use a stealth spot (that was on a slope I might add) and hang my food. I could have done this for free off the Twinway! I was so tired that it didn't matter though. I turned in early to rest up since my plan was to do West Bond for sunrise in the morning.
At 1:40 am I was awakened by crashing noises in the woods. I froze in fear thinking that it might be a bear looking for food. I had hung my bag about 150 ft away from my tent so I was pretty confident that it was safe, but I had overheard that the guys in the tent 50 ft away from me didn't bring equipment to hang their food so they had put it on the ground. I offered to help them hang their food with mine more than once, but they declined. I didn't know where they ended up putting their's so I was worried it was too close to my tent. After listening to the crashing in the woods coming closer for a few seconds I started clapping my hands really loudly. The noises stopped for a few seconds and I kept making noise. Finally the crashing sounds went in the other direction. All of this happened in under a minute but it felt like an eternity. I'm not sure what was out there but it sounded big. The brush was too thick for it to be a hiker in there (they wouldn't make it 5 ft through the thick trees) and it was the opposite direction from the trail. Maybe I'm being overdramatic but it was pretty scary especially because I was on my own! It took a little while to fall asleep after that experience, so when my alarm went off at 5:00 I dreaded coming out of my cozy, warm sleeping bag.
Day 2: The Bonds and Out Lincoln Woods (11.6 mi, 855 ft, 6:05)
Breaking camp in the dark didn't take long, so I hit the trail at 5:30. I found my food stash intact, so that was a good sign. I realized that sunrise would be around 6:10, and since the best part of sunrise is the half hour before I needed to make good time for the 0.5 miles to West Bond. I dropped my pack at the spur and ran most of the way there, getting to the summit at 5:45.
Unfortunately the summit was socked in with clouds just minutes after I got there. This was the second sunrise in three days that I couldn't see because of fog! I waited around for about a half hour trying to see if it would clear up but it didn't happen so I moved on to Mt. Bond. The trek to Bond wasn't bad, but I was still groggy and I had thrown everything in my pack haphazardly so it was a little off kilter. I repacked and ate breakfast when I got to Bond at 7:10. It was still socked in, so I waited a bit and chatted with some other hikers before giving up on a clear view and moving on.
The hike to Bondcliff started out slow, but the clouds started moving quickly so I was hopeful that there would be a nice view once I got there. I was hiking with two women who had never been to the Bonds before, so they were hoping for good weather too! We went very slowly to Bondcliff, trying to give the clouds time to burn off. We were successful because by 8:25 the clouds had lifted, revealing the amazing views!
Bondcliff, West Bond, and Bond are my favorite 4,000 footers so far, so I was so happy that I ended up being able to pay them a visit. They're so remote and beautiful it's really serene being up there. I also kind of like that it's such a long hike in and out because you know that everyone up there has really worked hard to be there. Last time I was here, I was too scared to sit on the furthest rock out and dangle my legs off of Bondcliff. This time I did it! I'm a little scared of heights, but hiking has definitely helped me get over that fear. The views on Bondcliff were as absolutely gorgeous and the weather turned out to be perfect. It was amazing to be at one of my favorite places in the world again.
I wanted to stay there all day, but I knew I had a long walk out Lincoln Woods to look forward too so I had to pull myself away. Bondcliff Tr on the way down was a little steep at the beginning but then it flattened out. I tripped over a rock and face planted at one point, and I couldn't catch myself because my pack made me fall so quickly. Luckily I got out of that one with nothing more than a skinned knee thanks to the mulch. Rock would have been detrimental. I was happy when I finally made it to the sign for Lincoln Woods Tr.
Man, I forgot how long and flat Lincoln Woods was. I heard someone describe it as "seriously suicidal," which I completely agree with. I thought that the flat walk would never end. Last time I came out Osseo Trail so the Lincoln Woods walk was many miles shorter. This is one point where I wish I wasn't solo hiking. A long, flat walk like this was made so much longer by the fact that I didn't have anyone to chat with, distracting myself from the pain that I was in. I said hi to a few hikers who were all friendly, but I wanted to keep at a 3 mph pace so I mostly just passed by them.
When I got to the Franconia Falls trail junction I started to see the tourists and families in flip flops on the trail. I smiled or said hi to every single group of people I saw even though I was in an intense amount of pain. I'd say about 25% of them smiled or said hi back. This is interesting because I also said hi to every single hiker I saw throughout the weekend, and all of them acknowledged me even when they I could tell they were hurting. Maybe it's just a hiker thing but I thought that was weird. I swear I was on that trail for hours, but I finally made it to the bridge at 12:35.
Owl's Head was actually much more enjoyable than I anticipated. After lots of negative press, I thought that I was going to hate it but I thought it was a really great hike. The views from the slide were nice and it was a fun challenge figuring out how to get up and down it. The people that I talked to were so nice and they were all frequent NH hikers trying to get away from the crowds. I think I might be one of the only people to say that I loved my Owl's Head experience! Bushwhacking was an interesting but stressful experience that I probably wouldn't do solo again. I'd like to do more bushwhacking with another person though! I kept looking at Guitar Slide up West Bond from Bondcliff imagining what it would be like coming up that, so maybe one day I'll try it. Getting lost in the woods by myself though isn't on the agenda for me.
Backpacking by myself was actually really nice. I got an entire two person tent to myself which was great and I never had to worry about slowing another person down while hiking. I did everything at my own pace and met lots of new people that I probably wouldn't have talked to as much if I had been with a hiking buddy. That being said, there were long stretches that I didn't see anyone, and on trails like Lincoln Woods it goes by much faster when you're talking to someone else distracting you. Another downside was having to carry all of the equipment on my own. At 35 lbs my pack was way heavier than it's ever been before, so I'll have to figure out how to cut my weight down even though I have mostly ultralight equipment.
Overall this has probably been one of the best hikes I've ever done before! Backpacking by myself made me feel really independent being able to survive on my own in the back country. I think I'll probably do some more solo backpacking in the future, but maybe not with as much mileage because I was really hurting. That might also be because in the last five days I did a total of 55.6 miles of hiking and nine 4,000 footers. I learned a lot and met a bunch of great people so it was a really nice trip to end the summer! I was trying to get the hiking bug out of my system before school starts on Tuesday, but I don't really know if that's possible. I started the NH 48 on June 16, 2018 so this summer I did 35/48. I'm hoping to finish in the next few months and then go back and do my favorites all over again! I'm sure there will be lots of fall and winter hiking in my future!
#35 Owl's Head (4,025 ft), South Twin Mountain (4,092 ft), West Bond Mountain (4,540 ft), Mt. Bond (4,698 ft), and Bondcliff (4,265 ft) via. Lincoln Woods Tr, Black Pond Tr, Black Pond Bushwhack, Lincoln Brook Tr, Owl's Head Path, Twin Brook Tr, Twinway, West Bond Spur, and Bondcliff Tr [31.3 mi, 7235 ft, 29:40].
Follow me on Instagram @lexi.brocoum for more pictures!