On a cold and rainy weekend in August of 2019, I lead a small group of Hudson Valley Hikers on a backpacking trip to Owl’s Head in the White Mountains. Owl’s Head is the only 4000 foot peak in New Hampshire’s White Mountains without an officially maintained trail, although there is a well established herd path. We camped for the night at AMC’s Thirteen Falls Campsite.
Owl’s Head is the only 4000 Foot Peak in the White Mountains that doesn’t have a maintained trail. It is also one of the most remote peaks. A one-way hike from the nearest parking area to Owl’s Head is 8.8 miles if you stay on the trails. There is a bushwhack route that cuts off a few miles, but we didn’t follow it.
Our route started at Lincoln Woods Visitors Center. From there we took the Lincoln Woods Trail 2.9 miles up to the Franconia Brook Bridge and then turned north onto the Franconia Brook Trail. Both of these trails are relatively easy old railroad beds. After 1.6 miles on the Franconia Brook Trail, we turned west onto the Lincoln Brook Trail, which circumnavigates Owl’s Head. The Lincoln Brook Trail (LBT) is well established, but has many stream crossings and begins to incline. In another 3.3 miles, we came to the herd path for Owl’s Head. The herd path is just over a mile and mostly follows a rock slide. It is very steep and very rocky. Descending, we continued North on the LBT for another 3.1 miles to arrive at Thirsteen Falls Campsite.
Our group gathered the night before the hike at the Notch Hostel in Woodstock. We had dinner in Lincoln, then returned to the Hostel for a few games of cards and a nice night sleep. Notch Hostel is clean and comfortable. They have a few bunk-style rooms as well as a nice private suite with its own porch. A well appointed kitchen is available for guests to cook their own meals. A lot of nicer hostels have a rule that you can’t bring your gear or boots inside. This may be off-putting, but it is also how they stay so clean.
We left the hostel early the next morning and had breakfast in Lincoln before heading to Lincoln Woods Visitors Center. This route is a loop rather than a traverse, so we had no need for a car shuttle. That was very nice! We were on the trail by about 7:30 AM.
Lincoln Woods to Owl’s Head
The first 2.9 miles follows an old logging rail path that is now the Lincoln Woods Trail. This wide, smooth path is a popular walking route for many locals and tourists. You could easily run this section if that’s your thing. Eventually you come to Franconia Brook. There is an old footing for the rail bridge that once crossed the river, but hikers now cross on a smaller foot bridge.
Immediately after the bridge, we turned North onto the Franconia Brook Trail where we walked another 1.6 miles. The Franconia Brook Trail is another old railroad bed or logging path. It is just slightly rougher than the Lincoln Woods Trail and continues a very gradual incline. There are a few river crossings, some of which might require you to remove your shoes at high water.
After 1.6 miles, we turned West onto the Lincoln Brook Trail. This is the trail that circumnavigates around Owl’s Head and meets back up with the Franconia Brook Trail at Thirteen Falls. The two trails form a giant loop around the mountain. The Lincoln Brook Trail is rougher than the Franconia Brook Trail and crosses more streams, but the include is still gradual.
After 3.3 miles on the LBT, you arrive at the herd path for Owl’s Head. Until now, you have climbed 1508 feet in 8.8 miles. That’s pretty easy. From this point to the summit is 1453 feet in just 1 mile. That’s pretty hard. This trail is very steep and rocky. A lot of the rocks move and some of the steeper sections have very poor handholds. The steepest part of the ascent is in the first 0.6 miles, where you gain 1352 feet. That’s the equivalent of 2253 feet per mile, or 1 foot up for every 2.3 feet forward.
There are one or two places along the climb that offer a view of Franconia Ridge, but for the most part Owl’s Head offers no views. After the tough 0.6 mile climb, the herd path levels off significantly and follows the ridge. From here, you only go up another 52 feet in 0.3 miles. While there are no views, the woods are beautiful. The summit is marked by a small cairn.
Owl’s Head to Thirteen Falls
From the summit, you walk back down the path the way you came. Guess what: its still really steep and rocky. Most people prefer to scramble up hill rather than downhill, but you don’t always have a choice. However, its only a mile and when you get to the bottom you can relax and breath again.
After returning to the base of the Owl’s Head herd path, we continued North on the Lincoln Brook Trail. The LBT continues another 3.3 miles around owl’s head, first gaining 700 feet, and then descending to Thirteen Falls Campground. Portions of this trail are strewn with boulders and may be tough to walk on. I sprained my ankle.
We arrived at camp around 2 or 3 PM and it was already pretty full. The caretaker showed us to the overflow area where we pitched our tents. It was a drizzly afternoon, but we passed the time sitting by the nearby waterfall and then had dinner in the designated eating area. To avoid habituating animals to finding food near tents, AMC requires all guests to eat in central location and store their food in metal boxes.
Thirteen Falls to Lincoln Woods
The next morning we woke up later than usual and got on the trail. We had 5.3 miles to walk on the Franconia Brook Trail, and then 2.9 more on the Lincoln Woods Trail. As mentioned earlier, both of these are former logging rail beds, so the walking is pretty easy aside from a few water crossings on the FBT.
More than a century ago, the entire Pemigewasset Valley had been clear cut by logging operations. Many of the low lying paths followed by hikers today are old logging paths or rail beds. There are many rusty steel artifacts leftover in the woods. The Thirteen Falls Campsite itself used to be Logging Camp Thirteen!
We covered the 8.1 miles back to Lincoln Woods pretty quickly. Although it is an easy walk, it may feel long because it is just so boring. Eventually we crossed back over the Pemigewasset River to the visitors center and ended our trip.
I actually would recommend this hike to beginner backpackers if they are already strong hikers. Most of the hiking is easy, except for the climb up and down Owl’s Head. Not a strong hiker? Just skip the climb. This is still a beautiful hike through lush forests. I would advise trying to get to Thirteen Falls Campsite early in the day, especially if its a hot weekend. This place is easy to get to and fills up fast. It is a very popular campsite because of its easy access and many swimming opportunities.