The High Road To New Hampshire’s Presidentials

Winter’s snow takes its time in exiting New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. North facing trails and sheltered ravines can hold winter’s deposit well past Memorial Day. But when the snow is gone and the sun shines, the hiking begins.

It’s time to head for the Caps Ridge Trail and a trek up the rock fragments of Mount Jefferson. Jefferson is in a fine neighborhood — the northern ridge of Mount Washington. At 5,716 feet, it shares space with Mounts Adam, Clay, Madison and tiny Pine. The largest cirque in the White Mountains, the Great Gulf, can be spotted from its summit, along with Mount Washington and all that is on it — Auto Road, Cog Railway and Observatory.

Cairns mark the way above treeline on New Hampshire’s Mount Jefferson and the Caps Ridge Trail. Marty Basch photo.

Though the 2.5 mile-long Caps Ridge Trail involves less than 3,000 feet of climbing, it is not an easy route. Just listen to your quads scream. The route, above treeline, is steep and slippery when wet. Knees will be used on the way up, and butts get some sliding action on the descent.

Starting At Over 3,000 Feet
Located between the northern towns of Jefferson and Twin Mountain, hikers get a bit of a boost starting out on the trailhead from the dirt Jefferson Notch Road at just over 3,000 feet above sea level. From the parking area, which had only two other vehicles in the early morning of a recent day, the trail leads over a few log bridges before staying in the shelter of the pines. It was just about a half-mile into the trek when one of the other vehicle owners was met as he sat on a downed log, eating breakfast, his walking stick next to him. Pleasantries were exchanged and we continued onward.

Huge glacial boulders with potholes formed by voracious streams invited rest at the mile mark. The summit of Jefferson was high in the distance as was the Caps Ridge, looking like spikes down the backbone of a stegosaurus. At this overlook, the man with the hiking stick passed us. He was the only hiker we met on the way up.

Soon enough, the trees were gone and the trail became a rocky scramble up the caps. Hiking turned into modified rock climbing. Above treeline, the sky is the only ceiling, blue and white. Treeline is like a teen-ager. You never know what to expect when it walks through the door. This day, it had a pleasant and welcome demeanor. The light wind was at our backs as we put on another layer for protection and ascended the steepness of the caps.

Near the highest cap, we met the owner of the other vehicle. A solo hiker maybe in his 20s, he was already on his way down. He offered advice: Watch out ahead, it is slippery underfoot. Slippery became personified. On occasion, we could see flimsy layers of ice on the rocks. These were nature’s warning signs to go slow.

Wind Intensifies At The Summit
The wind intensified as we approached the craggy summit. We found ourselves yelling to communicate and quickly descended to the east to leave the wind. There we found the man with the walking stick. He was enjoying the solitude. We apologized for ruining his peace, but he said we weren’t. Still, we found our own place out of the wind to do what hikers do after they reach a summit — sit and eat.

With our fuel tanks now topped off, we began the descent. Too bad hikers can’t coast down a mountain like bikers. It would be so much easier. Maybe that’s why the quads revolt.

Knowing the slick spots, we were supine and on all fours on some of the slanted pitches. Except we weren’t alone. The rest of the world had woken up, and was heading our way. We heard a group of maybe 20 high school students before we saw them. They were the leaders and knew what they were doing.

That 20 beget a chattering 20 more as we descended. That 20 beget even more noise (the stragglers who really wanted to be somewhere else) as we longed for the solitude found just an hour ago on the summit. Solitude lost momentarily, it was found again as the trail re-entered the trees and wound its way back to the parking area, which now had a couple of buses where only three vehicles had been before.

Marty Basch is the author of five outdoor books including “Above the Circle.” He lives in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

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