On the morning of Sept. 18th 2002 I drove to the Ammonoosuc Ravine trailhead with very vague plans. I had never been up the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, though I had gone down it once. I also was thinking of bagging Mount Monroe for my current round of Trailwrights peakbagging, though peakbagging is now a low priority for me.
For those who want a map I have included a link to a Topozone map of the western slopes of Mount Washington.
The Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail starts off very gently, following the south bank of the Ammonoosuc River to Gem Pool (which is indeed a gem!) where it crosses the river. Here its nature changes radically. It rises steeply, in fact very steeply, going over an enormous number of stone steps. There is a fairly long section which is very steep but has good footing, ideal for an aerobic workout! Then there is a section in which the trail goes over several ledges, since they were dry going up them was quite easy. Following the trail required some thought at times as the blazes on the rocks are a bit sparse, and also because the morning sun was right in my eyes when looking up the trail, which heads almost due east. I never really wandered off trail, so I suppose that the blazing was adequate.
Halfway up the trail it was clear that this was going to be a spectacular late summer (almost fall!) day. Clearly something more than a quick trip up and down Mount Monroe was called for. Something that would keep me above treeline for a few hours. I started thinking of going south on Crawford's Path to Mount Eisenhower, then descending by Edmands Path and either thumbing a ride or walking back.
Then I met a several people, all were planning to do the classic Mount Washington loop, going up by the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail and down by the Jewell Trail. I had never done that loop, which is a White Mountain classic, so I decided to do it.
It took me roughly a couple of hours to reach the Lakes of the Clouds Hut, which was closed for the season. With the hut closed the area was deserted, all hikers continuing up the Crawford Path to the summit of Mount Washington. Quite a contrast from the summer season, when many refer to these lakes as "Lakes of the Crowds"!
The Crawford Path climbs over rocks from the hut to the summit of Mount Washington, which has the nickname "The Rock Pile". But whereas the Tuckerman's Ravine Trail above the headwall is a cross between a Class 1 trail and a Class 2 scramble over talus, the Crawford Path is a good trail all the way. I stopped many times on the way up just to enjoy the views. I specially enjoyed the brown sedges, they give a wonderful fall feeling to the above treeline zone.
There were people at the summit, of course. Both the summit stage and the cog railway were still running, and there were a few hikers. But on a weekday after Labor Day it is obvious that the crowds were gone. While in the summit building I looked at the weather display from the Observatory, the temperature was 50°F, with winds of 8 mph, gusting to 13.
At the summit I had a lasagna and sat at a table with a view to the north, including Mount Clay. I also need Mount Clay for my Trailwrights list, so it seemed like a good idea to go and bag it. That would also keep me above treeline for a longer time. Sitting in the cafeteria I clearly saw two knobs on Mount Clay, but the map only showed a broad area over 5,500 feet. The solution was obvious: go over both knobs! From the second knob I could quite easily go straight down (west) to the Gulfside Trail, how environmentally acceptable that was would depend on how easy it would be to stay on rocks rather than trample the delicate alpine vegetation.
The Trinity Heights Connector and Gulfside trails descend from the summit of mount Washington to the col between it and Mount Clay, and in the col the Mount Clay Loop branches off to loop over Mount Clay. This entire section of the trail (about 1.8 miles) goes along the upper edge of the Great Gulf. The Great Gulf is an awesome structure, a deep U-shaped glacial excavation with extremely steep walls. The Great Gulf Trail angles up the least steep path out of the gulf, yet still manages to rise 1,600 feet in 0.8 miles!
On reaching the second (northmost) knob of Mount Clay I decided to return by the long way, going down to the Gulfside Trail near Sphinx Col. For a couple of minutes I thought of adding Mount Jefferson to the trip, but was not sure I had enough strength or daylight to do so. So from Sphinx col I went back up the Gulfside Trail to the Jewell Trail (about 400 feet). The entire section from the summit of Mount Washington over Mount Clay and back to the Jewell Trail was over, by and large, well graded rocks.
The Jewell Trail is probably the gentlest trail up (or down) Mt. Washington. It has easy grades and relatively good footing. Going down the first 0.7 miles are above treeline, when I entered the trees I found that I had spent 4½ hours above treeline. The trip down to the car was pleasant but anticlimactic after that long stay above the trees.
What encouraged me to wander was the beauty of the day, sunny, cool but not cold, and winds at 8 mph, gusting to 13 mph! “Not all those who wander are lost”!