Hiking on The Fourth of July (Mt. Washington & Mt. Jefferson)
Hiking on the New Hampshire Presidential Range for Independence Day epitomizes America's tradition of free and unencumbered movement as much as anything else and it's certainly among the most scenic methods to signify the birth of America. This Fourth of July hike targeted two lofty Presidential peaks, Mts. Washington (6288’) and Jefferson (5716’), two of the three tallest mountains in New Hampshire (Mt. Adams comes in second at 5,799’) on a nearly perfect weather day full of sun and mild winds
Starting out on the Jewell Trail just after sunrise (off Base Station Road) the climb began from the west, escalating smoothly over the Ammonoosuc River by small bridge and up the ridge, never meeting any significant elevation “blast” so common with most any climb this far north. While the distance to Mt. Washington’s summit was not particularly short (approximately five miles using this approach) it was surprisingly moderate, never becoming drastically rigorous but rather sloping back and forth over Clay Brook and gradually upward until coming out above tree line at approximately three miles into the journey. The vista at this juncture is nothing short of spectacular, allowing the hiker to see the vast Bretton Woods Valley with no obstruction whatsoever while getting a glimpse of the distant peaks on the range above. It's the first real open view of breathtaking proportion and comes at a well-timed point of the hike. Washington’s summit beckons for the remainder of this route, rarely dropping from view the entire climb past tree line, making for a nearly irresistible mental game of “we’re so close” while hiking the last two miles, a rewarding and scenic climb over rocky and at times uneven terrain surrounded by waist high shrubs lining the trail.
From this point on, the approach is completely exposed to the elements, a factor which would figure significantly if the day’s weather wasn’t so ideal. The leisurely but persistent climb of the Cog Railway trains can be seen in the distance, its billowing black smoke plume rising out of the mountain side steadily during its gradual ascent, making one think there was a forest fire somewhere if they weren’t familiar with the operation. Passengers can access the summit on this train for a fee (steam or biodiesel engine trains) for just over $70 per adult and $41 per child. More thrifty visitors not wanting to hike the mountain can drive their vehicles up the Auto Road for a significantly cheaper rate or the slightly more expensive guided van tour.
Washington is truly a unique experience because of this bizarre mix of transit methods to the summit not seen on any of the four thousand footers in New Hampshire, vehicles darting up in the distance on the horizon of the mountain ascent and trains to the other side, chugging away to the top.
After hiking five miles to your destination, there’s some irony in waiting in a long line to get your picture next to the brown wooden summit sign with kids in shorts and flip flops, their parents dressed in nice jeans and summer shirts with cups of coffee or slices of pizza (or on this day, men and women in all sorts of garish red, white and blue clothing, including swimsuits and tank tops). Vehicles are parked all over the summit in marked spaces with souvenir shops tucked in neatly between the lookout center and restrooms. One man (tough to say if he climbed to the peak or rode) was dressed all in black wearing a red "Make America Great Again" baseball hat, sitting quietly on a stone ledge gazing ahead with a small nylon American flag planted in the ground next to him. It’s as close to a theme park as one could imagine on New Hampshire’s tallest mountain.
After ascending to the Gulfside Trail at three and a half miles, the route cuts along the westerly side of Mt. Clay, an impressive mountain in of itself under normal circumstances but in the midst of its loftier neighbors seems but a rocky hill one could scramble up along the way to Washington if given ample time and energy. We bypassed Clay and continued on up Gulfside, past the Mt. Clay Loop junction and along the spectacular Great Gulf, a vast bowl nestled in between Mts. Madison, Adams, Jefferson and Washington with stunning views far away and below, including Spaulding Lake at the bottom of the Gulf. This is among the very best of views one can see in the entire White Mountain region and possibly all of New England.
Continuing on the last mile up to the Trinity Heights Connector (and literally scaling over the Cog Railway tracks in the process) called for a short rock scramble before coming out at the summit a few feet from the line to the brown summit sign marking the peak and elevation. Aside from the tourist trap vibe emanating from the top of Washington, one of its major perks is providing access to cold water taps for container refills and the use of actual restrooms.
After descending back onto the Gulfside Trail and repeating the previous mile or so of trail, we hiked past the Jewell Trail junction (tricky to see if you’re not paying attention—the sign is very weathered and it’s difficult to see what it says even up close) another mile and change on the Gulfside around Clay and toward Jefferson, at this point its summit looking like a rocky peak in the far distance. The refill of water came in handy at this point in the hike for while there were no sharp elevation increases along this path, the direct exposure to the sun and sometimes challenging terrain and tight turns force one to be vigilant the entire way. The path changes height and direction very suddenly with muddy sections quickly giving way to rocky portions, all the while the peak of Jefferson seemingly taunting visitors in the near distance. I ended up consuming about four liters of water total by hike's end, a decent amount considering the distance and temperatures on this day.
Passing by the Sphinx Trail we continue another half mile to the short but very steep Mt. Jefferson Loop (three tenths of a mile) up to the barren and rocky summit atop Jefferson. No auto road or train visitors here, nor any refill stations or snack food or souvenir shops. Only a handful of friendly but subdued hikers resting before their next move. Perhaps because of the time of day and its timing in our overall hike this day (and maybe also because of the swarms of bugs flying around our heads), Jefferson was a bit underwhelming save for its impressive scenic views and perspectives of Presidential neighbors Washington and Adams. Moreover, there wasn’t even a summit sign to boost one’s spirits or for a nice photo opportunity. Sound trite? Maybe, but at these stages in the day one needs all the spiritual boosts one can get. A sign photo would have been nice (I am contemplating bringing and planting my own DIY version next time I come this way).
The descent down from Jefferson came via the Caps Ridge Trail, a very steep and surprisingly technical series of rocky ledges with twists and turns up and around rock formations until dipping below tree line after a very hard mile of managing footholds and scaling down steep rocky descents. On a wet day this trail would have been highly difficult if not outright foolish to attempt. Even just a little moisture on any of the many rock faces and slippery stony steps could easily send a hiker tumbling down several feet to an uncertain landing below. Mercifully, the trail eases a bit after this stretch for the last two miles over a fairly manageable path through trees until coming out at the modest dirt parking lot off Jefferson Notch Road.
Overall, this was a tremendously rewarding climb, both in sights and distance covered. We covered nearly 11 miles and amassed just under 4,900 feet in elevation gain in 8:15 hours (moving time). More importantly, the hike offered some of the most breathtaking views in the White Mountain region on a truly spectacular and ideal day of weather. Give this route a try some time, Independence Day or some other warm weather holiday. Start early enough and you’ll fit in a wondrous hike and still be back home in time for a well-deserved barbeque.