- Difficulty: Extreme
- Distance: ~17 miles
- Elevation: 5,089′ (Mt Lincoln), 4,025′ (Owl’s Head)
- Elevation Gain / Loss: +5,000′, -5700′
- Hike Type: Thru
- View: Excellent, Rare.
Sunday I finally got a chance to try a trip that I’ve been dreaming about and planning for a little over a year. After doing Franconia Ridge near countless times, I decided to link up a few different trip reports I’ve found to make a novel path to Owl’s Head. The trip involves going up an off-trail slide to Franconia Ridge, down the off-trail Lincoln Slide into the Pemigewasset Wilderness, and finally up the Owl’s Head Slide to the summit. The way is no shorter than going in and out through Lincoln Woods, but does add an incredible amount of adventure. Katherine, Fiona, and I led this hike as part of MITOC’s October Circus.
We started up the Falling Waters Trail just before 6:00am on Sunday, aiming to reach the turn-off for Dry Brook Ravine at Sunrise. The drainage didn’t look too difficult from the previous trip reports we found, but we decided that trying to pick our way through the rocks and blowdowns would be no fun in the dark. We made good time up the easy first part of the trail, reaching the turn-off in under an hour. We had excellent weather for the hike, with no rain for the previous week. We made good time up the drainage, having to work our way over many downed trees, but without much worry of getting our feet wet. We encountered many small falls, and it was great to think about how few people have experienced this part of The Whites.
We continued up the drainage, eventually finding a spot that appeared to be recently devastated. The exposed rocks and roots were much fresher than the other parts of the drainage, with large boulders and beautiful exposed rock. Here we also encountered our first good views of the day.
After climbing to the top of the damage, we initially thought that we were about to begin the true bushwhacking portion of the trip. After pushing through only 20 or 30 feet of forest we found that the drainage actually continued slightly left of where we had climbed up the earthen mound. It always pays to spend an extra minute looking before diving into the forest! Eventually we came to a point in the drainage where we faced a larger-than-average waterfall in front of us with loose and slippery rocks galore. Right at the same location a small slide met the drainage of the left, which we (in hindsight) miss-took for the beginning of the Gargoyle Slide. After attempting to climb the waterfall and deciding it was more difficult than we wanted, we instead climbed up the slide assuming we were on our way to the main gargoyle slide.
This small slide proved to be one of the more dangerous sections of the day despite its length. The rocks were eager to come loose, and it was short and narrow enough to make dodging and incoming rocks difficult. To mitigate the risk we ended up climbing the slide one-by-one. We soon found ourselves at the top, but in thick forest around 4000′, which made traveling slow. In hindsight (and GPS tracks), it appears we left the drainage too early. Instead it would have been better to continue up the drainage which appears to naturally come to the base of the slide with no real bushwhacking required.
The base of the Slide is one of the most difficult sections with large amounts of a surprisingly slick black moss growing on much of the rock. The slide is very steep and even after 7 days of no rain was quite wet in places. It should be avoided at all costs when wet. After a while the slabs opened up and provided many hand and foot holds, with only a few sections that really required any aid. The Gargoyle’s were also in view from the very bottom of the slide, and always appeared to be just out of reach.
The going began to get steeper and more committed as we moved up the slide, with sections starting to appear that I would classify as difficult Class 2 or even easy Class 3.
After more scrambling we finally made it up to the Scree Field portion of the slide, which only really exists in the last few hundred feet. The rocks here were loose but not treacherous, and with some careful footing we didn’t dislodge any rocks of notable size.
The last challenge of the slide was of course at the very top. The ridge trail is guarded by a short section of real climbing. After making our way up nearly 1000′ of wet slab, this short section proved easy and quite fun!
In total, the Gargoyle Slide took us almost exactly 4 hours, and we topped out on Franconia Ridge just before 10:00am. If I were to do it again, I would stay in the drainage longer which would cut this time significantly. We spent an unknown long amount of time trying to determine if we had missed the slide or not.
After a quick all-safe text and selfie to close out the first portion of our adventure, we made our way to the summit of Lincoln for an early Lunch and a view of Lincoln Slide, the second half of our journey. We were also treated to our first view of Owl’s Head, our eventual destination for the day.
The Lincoln Slide is a large V-Shaped slide that sits on the eastern side of the ridge between Mt. Lincoln and Mt. Lafayette. The slide is easiest to access from the summit of Mt. Truman, sometimes also referred to as “Unnamed peak between Lincoln and Lafayette”. It is the highest point between the two and there is a worn herd-path that leads away from the summit cairn and can be followed to gain access to the slide with minimal trampling of alpine vegetation. The Lincoln Slide can be followed down to nearly 3800′ in the true slide, with a small stream and drainage that continues all the way to the Lincoln Brook which flows next to the Owl’s Head Path.
We entered the slide and found it to be just as the trip reports said: full of sand and loose rocks the size of a fist to fridge. We zig-zagged on the upper portion of the slide to prevent knocking any rocks down on each other. Although the rocks were very loose we never had a problem with dislodging them. We made good time down the slide, reaching the bottom section where it became a stream in approximately an hour.
As we reached the base of the slide, we got what might have been our biggest surprise of the day. There was actually someone camping at the very base of the slide, where the first trickles of water came out of the ground. The tent was cleverly placed behind a large rock which I suppose would provide some shelter in the event of an small and unexpected rockslide. You definitely couldn’t get me to camp there!
At this point the slide began to level off and the rocks took on a much older and worn quality. There were bright shades of blue hiding in the rock and the slide became much more of a stream than a rockslide. With the advice of the hiker camping at the base of the slide, we made our way into the brush to the left of the river once the drainage narrowed to the point of making forward progress difficult without getting our feet wet. We entered the brush slightly too high and could have progressed further down waiting for it to thin further. Once the trees thinned it was very easy to maneuver and we made it from the base of the slide to the Owl’s Head Path in an hour. After a 15-minute break where we joined the Owl’s Head Path we started off down the trail looking for the Owl’s Head Slide.
The slide isn’t an official trail it is well worn but I’ve heard the markers at it’s start are sometimes taken apart by Forest Rangers. The cairns we saw at the base were well established, and looked very similar to the ones I saw last year.
As we made our way up the slide to the summit of Owl’s Head, we were treated with a surprisingly wonderful view of Franconia Ridge. The view isn’t usually considered a great view for The Whites, but today it proved to have special value. We all stopped on the slide to admire how far we had come, with The Gargoyle’s visible on the southern portion of the ridge and Lincoln Slide on the northern side.
We made our way to the summit of Owl’s Head, marking off a repeat for Katherine and I and number 36 for Fiona. Blox and Katherine aren’t exactly tracking their 4000 footers, but after this hike they should probably start!
With Halloween so close we decided to carry animal masks up to the summit. Two animals that rarely meet in the wild got into quite the tussle.
With the summit behind us all that remained was an 8-mile slog back out to the Lincoln Woods trailhead. We had thought going up and over Franconia Ridge might be technically the shorter milage way to do Owl’s Head, but it turns out it was exactly the same 8 miles as it takes to get there from Lincoln Woods. It is much more interesting though, and everyone agreed this hike was one of the best we’ve done yet. After a 3 hour slog we made it back to Lincoln Woods at 7:30pm, just under 13.5 hours after we started. All-in-all we managed to see the Milky Way Twice, Sunrise, Sunset, and we explore parts of The Whites seen by many but experienced by few. This trip won’t soon be forgotten.
Notes and Do It Yourself:
- 6:00am – Start Hike
- 7:00am – Turn off into Dry Brook Ravine
- 9:00am – Base of First Slide
- 10:15am – Franconia Ridge
- 11:00am – Top of Lincoln Slide
- 12:00pm – Base of Lincoln Slide, top of Drainage
- 1:30pm – Owl’s Head Path
- 2:15pm – Base of Owl’s Head Slide
- 3:30pm – Summit Owl’s Head
- 4:30pm – Base of Owl’s Head Slide
- 7:30pm – Parking Lot
The small slide that we encountered on the way up to Franconia Ridge starts at ~3800′ where the drainage suddenly hits a cascade. Stay in the drainage here, the real slide starts at ~4100′, saving you 300′ of bushwhacking.
The Gargoyle Slide is very steep and even after 7 days of no rain was quite wet in places. It should be avoided at all costs when wet.
The drainage of Lincoln Slide is narrower and harder to stay dry that the other parts of the trip. We moved out of the drainage and into the woods to the north at approximately 3700′, but found them to be very dense. It would be easier to stay in the drainage until 3400′ – 3500′ and move into the woods then.