Saturday, August 22, 2015

White Mountain National Forest: Appalachian Trail to Lowe's Bald Spot (Blog Hike #538)

Trail: Appalachian Trail/Old Jackson Road
Hike Location: White Mountain National Forest, Pinkham Notch
Geographic Location: south of Gorham, NH
Length: 4 miles
Difficulty: 9/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: August 2015
Overview: A persistently rocky, occasionally steep climb to a fantastic viewpoint.

Directions to the trailhead: From Gorham, drive south on SR 16 for 10.5 miles to the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, which is well-marked by signs.  Turn right and park in the visitor center parking lot.  If the lot is full, which happens often on warm summer days, you will have to park at the Wildcat Ski Area 0.75 miles north on SR 16.  The trail starts behind the Visitor Center.

The hike: When I arrived at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center on a sunny early afternoon for which thunderstorms were forecast, I asked the young lady manning the hiker information desk if it was a good time to set out for Lowe’s Bald Spot.  She replied, “oh yeah!” as if I had asked a stupid question.  2 hours later, I found myself hiking in a moderate rain with thunder booming over my shoulders.  By the time I finished the hike (without incident: God protected me yet again), the sun was back out.  White Mountain weather can flummox even the most knowledgeable locals.
            For my general comments on hiking in Pinkham Notch, see my short and fairly easy hike to Crystal Cascades, which departs from this same trailhead.  I did the Crystal Cascades hike back in 2004 on my first trip to the White Mountains, so I decided to be slightly more ambitious on my 2015 return trip.  I chose the hike described here partly due to the view at the end and partly because it uses the world famous Appalachian Trail (AT).  As you will see, I bit off a little more than I could chew, but not because of the terrain or length, both of which are fairly manageable.
Trailhead in Pinkham Notch
            The hike starts on the west side of the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center at the same trailhead used by the Crystal Cascades hike.  Very quickly the Tuckerman Ravine Trail heads left toward Crystal Cascades.  Angle right to stay on the AT and the Old Jackson Road.  The white AT blazes and the blue blazes for Old Jackson Road run conjointly for the next 1.5 miles.
            The trail undulates gently as it heads north over rocky terrain.  The low-elevation forest here at Mount Washington’s base is dominated by birch and maple trees.  At 0.3 miles, you intersect the Blanchard Trail, a ski trail that links the Tuckerman Ravine Trail with the state highway.  Continue straight on the AT.
            0.4 miles into the hike, the path you are walking intersects the roadbed used by the historic Old Jackson Road.  As directed by a sign, you need to turn left here to continue on the AT.  The climb now begins in earnest as the wide dirt/rock trail seems to head straight up the mountain.  Numerous well-constructed waterbars keep the trail from becoming too eroded, but the rockiness of the terrain still makes the going rough.  The trail crosses the main headwaters of the Peabody River on a thick, sturdy wooden bridge, but other feeder streams are crossed via rock hop.
Climbing on the AT
            At 1 mile, the trail levels out as a small wet area comes into view on the right.  The signed George’s Gorge Trail soon exits, also to the right.  Though more primitive and rugged than the AT, the George’s Gorge Trail could be combined with some ski trails to form an alternate route back down to Pinkham Notch.  For now, continue straight to keep heading for Lowe’s Bald Spot.
            1.3 miles into the hike, you cross a wet area on wooden planks placed on logs, a construction called puncheon.  After another rocky creek crossing, you reach a signed intersection where the AT and Old Jackson Road part ways.  The blue-blazed Old Jackson Road continues straight to quickly reach the Mount Washington Auto Road.  The auto road is steep, narrow, and winding, so hiking along the road is not recommended.  Thus, our hike turns left to continue up the AT.
Approaching Mt. Washington Auto Road
            Next comes the hardest part of the hike.  The AT climbs some steep, primitive rock steps to quickly pass two junctions, the first with the Raymond Path and the second with the Nelson Crag Trail.  Both of these trails exit left.  More steep rocky areas bring you to a parking lot on the Mount Washington Auto Road at 1.8 miles.  Continue straight on the AT as it crosses the road and enters the Great Gulf Wilderness.  Due to the wilderness designation, blazes will become less frequent for the last portion of the outward hike.
Storm clouds on Mt. Washington
            In another 0.2 miles the unsigned trail to Lowe’s Bald Spot exits right, after which a short climb brings you to the viewpoint.  To be honest, I never made it all of the way to Lowe’s Bald Spot.  I made it to the last 0.3 miles when I looked over my shoulder and saw the storm clouds in the picture above coming over Mount Washington.  Realizing I was in an exposed area at risk of lightning strike, I chose to turn around and head for lower, more sheltered ground rather than risk everything to get a view.  I made it back down the rockiest areas before the rain and thunder started in earnest.  In hindsight, I am glad I yielded to the most basic rule in hiking: always be willing to change your plans when trail conditions warrant doing so.

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