What is Wilderness? Hiking in the Great Gulf

The summit ridge of Mount Clay, in early February.
The summit ridge of Mount Clay, in early February.

In the last month, I’ve gone on two big hikes in the Great Gulf Wilderness. I’ve had this objective in mind for a bit: to start at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, hike north into the Wilderness Area, west and south to climb onto the shoulder of Mount Washington, summit, and come down via the Lion Head Route. My first attempt was in early February; my second was last week. Some readers might wonder why I would bother taking such a circuitous route to the summit. I guess my main justification is that I’m focusing on the journey, rather than the destination. As such, part of this post is meant to be a quick introduction to Wilderness – the one that often comes with the capital W.

Huh? Yeah, there’s a difference between wilderness and Wilderness. Lowercase w wilderness means different things to different people. Some people might think of the nearest state park. Some people might gesture vaguely to the west. Some people might think of a desolate and bitter cold, hundreds of miles removed from the nearest human, encircled by the gleaming eyes of wolves, mountain lions, and grizzlies. Personally, my favorite definition came from a wilderness first aid course: “wilderness is where you are and they are not.”

Entering the Great Gulf Wilderness
Entering the Great Gulf Wilderness

And Wilderness? In the United States, Wilderness is a piece of land that has been set aside by the federal government for protection and preservation. The Wilderness Act of 1964 provides a formal definition: “a wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” There are a handful of additional distinctions and qualifiers about Wilderness:

  • “…undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation…”
  • “…generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable…”
  • “…has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation…”
  • “…has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition…”
  • “…may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.”

Fitting with the definition, the Wilderness Act also places some restrictions on the use of federally designated wilderness areas. In general, these lands are off limits to commercial enterprises such as logging, mining, grazing, and extraction of other resources. Roads, motorized vehicles, and mechanized equipment are also prohibited. Under normal circumstances, this means no chainsaws and no wildfire response. No OHVs (Off Highway Vehicles), no helicopters. You’re on your own. Wilderness areas commonly have restrictions on group size, camping, and fires, but these vary and are set by the managing agencies: the Bureau of Land Management, Fishand Wildlife Service, Forest Service, or National Park Service. At present, there are 765 distinct wilderness areas in the United States. The White Mountain National Forest encompasses six of these areas in New Hampshire and Maine: the Great Gulf Wilderness, the Pemigewasset Wilderness, the Presidential Range-Dry River Wilderness, the Sandwich Range Wilderness, the Caribou-Speckled Mountain Wilderness, and the Wild River Wilderness.

I step foot in the Great Gulf Wilderness about once a week when I run to Low’s Bald Spot, but have seldom ventured farther than that first couple tenths of a mile. This was part of my original interest in exploring the Wilderness. For both attempts at my circuit trip, I started at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. I live and work there, so it’s an easy place to start. I headed north on the Old Jackson Road, a mellow trail that leads 1.9 miles to the Mount Washington AutoRoad. This trail typically gets a decent amount of traffic, but I was the first person on the trail last Wednesday after half a foot of snow overnight. Snowshoes were a big help, for one of the first times all year.

A week ago...Half a foot of fresh snow!
A week ago…Half a foot of fresh snow!

After crossing the Auto Road, I entered the Great Gulf Wilderness on the Madison Gulf Trail. There were no tracks, but the trail was still easy to follow. The trail went over a small ridge and then gradually descended to the West Branch of the Peabody River. There were numerous brook crossings along the way, but they all had adequate ice and snow cover. After 2.1 miles on the Madison Gulf Trail, I turned left onto the Great Gulf Trail. Before long, I passed Clam Rock on the left. It’s a big rock. It looks like a clam. Use your imagination…or find it yourself. As an extra perk, you can legally camp right next to it.

The Madison Gulf Trail follows the West Branch, steadily climbing through the Great Gulf. The trail crosses a few brooks and the river itself a handful of times. There are a few trail intersections along the way: the Chandler Brook Trail, the Wamsutta Trail, the Six Husbands Trail, and the Sphinx Trail, all climbing out of the glacial cirque in different directions. On Wednesday, I took the Wamsutta Trail toward Nelson Crag. In early February, I stayed on the Great Gulf Trail. I’ll detail the February trip first.

February 10: Pinkham Notch to Spaulding Lake

First off: glacial cirques are formations that occur when alpine glaciers (the relatively small ones on mountains, not the continent sized ones) make their way through valleys. Over time, the glacier widens the base of the valley to leave behind a cirque, characterized by a broad and relatively flat floor and tall, near-vertical walls. The wall is commonly referred to as a headwall. Another common feature is a tarn, which is a lake or pool formed in a cirque.

Great Gulf has such a tarn and it is called Spaulding Lake. While not very large, this tarn collects the water flowing down the steep walls of the cirque and channels it to form the West Branch. One of my friends spent an extensive amount of time here one summer, helping the AMC with water quality research and data collection. It’s no surprise that she refers to Spaulding Lake as her happy place. It’s a beautiful spot.

Spaulding Lake, in early February.
Spaulding Lake, in early February.

All the way up to Spaulding Lake, I had been following in someone else’s footsteps. At lower elevations, there was barely an inch of fresh snow. The snow depth increased as I climbed higher into the Great Gulf, and my mysterious guide’s footsteps were shin deep by the time we got to the lake. Not long after passing Spaulding Lake, the footsteps disappeared and I found myself in a stand of spruce trees with no clear direction to go. I looked at my watch, as I had a dinner shift at the visitor center. I could turn around and hustle back the way I came or I could take a chance at stumbling to the headwall, finding a way up, and taking the shorter, faster, and more traveled Lion Head Winter Route back down.

It didn’t take much thought. As enticing as the idea was, pushing forward held a lot of unknowns. How difficult would it be to make my way to the headwall, having lost track of the trail? How safely could I find my way up the headwall? What if I made a mistake somewhere? I was deep in the wilderness. On my own. Tuckerman and Huntington Ravines were both rated at considerable avalanche danger that day, and the Great Gulf is certainly prone to avalanches. I took a couple pictures and took off the way I came. And I got to work 5 minutes early.

That evening, I used the White Mountain Guide Online to map my route. The online guide is like a hybrid of the White Mountain Guide (a fantastic and comprehensive reference) and a trip mapping website. I plotted my hike and it returned a wealth of information, which I was able to save and print as a PDF document. I had traveled 15.36 miles with 2230 feet of elevation gain to reach Spaulding Lake. I was presented with a detailed route description, including intermediate mileages and elevation information. I also got a map showing my route. Want to try it out? There’s a free, full-service, 5 day trial. Check it out, it’s pretty useful. On paper, you can find the Great Gulf Wilderness on the AMC White Mountains Trail Map #1 for the Presidential Range.

March 2: Pinkham Notch to Auto Road via Wamsutta Trail

Last Wednesday, I decided to try a shorter and theoretically easier route. I turned from the Great Gulf Trail onto the Wamsutta Trail. I figured I would climb onto Chandler Ridge, the shoulder of Mount Washington that includes Nelson Crag and Ball Crag. From there, I could head up to the summit or take the Alpine Garden Trail across to the Lion Head Route.

Antler rubs on the Madison Gulf Trail.
Antler rubs on the Madison Gulf Trail.

If I may backtrack for a moment: along the Madison Gulf Trail, I passed by a series of four young trees right next to the trail. These trees were maybe 4 or 5 inches in diameter and the bark had been abraded between 3 and 7 feet above the snow surface. It looked as if a deer or moose had rubbed its antlers to help with the shedding process. Not half a mile later, I saw the back side of a moose amble away from me through the trees! While moose are in the area, I don’t often see them. That was a neat moment.

Now, fast forwarding a few miles. I’ve made it to the Great Gulf Trail and turned onto the Wamsutta Trail. This trail starts out really mellow but soon becomes very steep as it climbs up the ridge. I switched from my snowshoes to crampons. Before I knew it, I passed the Alpine Zone sign and popped out of the trees. The clouds were thick and gray. The wind was stiff and chilling. After weaving around for a bit, the trail went back into the woods. While this was a nice break from the wind, I found myself in knee to thigh deep powder. I didn’t want to switch back to crampons, which was a poor decision. The deep powder section seemed endless and it was exhausting. The trail kept climbing uphill and the trees were not getting any shorter. My legs burned as I lifted them extra high to climb out of my own postholes.

I thought things would get easier when I finally broke out of the trees again. Instead, I got slammed by wind from the west. It was unrelenting. Snow from the previous night whipped at my face, so I hastily put on my goggles and pulled my balaclava over my nose. I spotted a cairn and staggered toward it, relying on my axe for extra support. I wondered how hard the wind was blowing. I guessed it was at least 60 or 70 miles per hour as I reached the cairn and crouched to reduce my wind profile.

And this is before things got really hairy.
And this is before things got really hairy.

I pulled out my compass. I was still headed south, so that was a good sign. I looked from side to side, searching for any signs of a trail. No footsteps – I can’t imagine anyone had been up this trail in months. No cairns. Shrubs and grasses poked up between rocks and wind slab, but no consistent ribbon without vegetation. I picked the cleanest line, unsure whether it was actually the trail, and stumbled southeast. I reached a wider, relatively flat strip. Was this the winter shortcut of the Auto Road? No snow cat tracks. I had likely veered southeast off the trail, so I turned right onto the strip – straight into the wind. If I was on the road, I was on track. If I wasn’t, I would find the trail again on my left. In theory.

I stopped, leaning into the wind, weighing my options. It was 3:15, sunset was around 5:30, and it would take until at least 7:00 to retrace my steps to Pinkham. It was 1.5 miles from the Auto Road to Lion Head by way of the Alpine Garden, which would be familiar territory. But also very exposed territory. The wind was supposed to keep rising all day. Visibility was low. I was possibly off trail already. Pushing forward would be unwise. I had to turn around and I knew it. I followed my tracks back to the cairn – they were already becoming obscured – and then made my way back into the trees. Sheltered from the wind, I switched into snowshoes and made quick work of the descent. It was so much easier with the added flotation. I made it back down to the Great Gulf Trail, then down to the Madison Gulf Trail, where I put on my headlamp. I sped down Old Jackson Road and got back just after 7, with another unintentional 15 mile day in the books. While having dinner, I looked up the summit weather history. Sustained winds of 75 miles per hour, gusts of 85. This place is truly wild.

Curious about past weather? The Mount Washington Avalanche Center has a 15 day archive of avalanche reports available online. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Weather Service maintain a 3 day archive of hourly weather information. Also, the Mount Washington Observatory has an extensive archive of daily and monthly weather observations, so you can get an idea of the temperature and wind that time you climbed the mountain 10 years ago.

Some quick lessons:

  • Always bring a headlamp. Always.
  • Know the weather conditions. How is the weather expected to change throughout the day? What is the avalanche forecast? How are the winds expected to behave? What time is sunset?
  • When it comes to switching between different types of traction, curb your stubbornness. Just put your snowshoes back on. They’re worth it.
  • Wilderness is equal parts beautiful and unforgiving. Trails may exist, but you may get lost. Don’t expect a walk in the park. Don’t expect to be coddled.
  • Some days, mountains are just not meant to be climbed. It would be wise to recognize these days as great opportunities to do laundry.

A quick footnote from Chris’ supervisor…believe it or not the landscape has changed again out in our woods. We are now thawing profusely and the rivers are high! That said, in the Great Gulf there is a LOT of snow to dissipate! Be prepared!

Questions about Wilderness Areas in the White Mountains? Come chat with us at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. We are here every day from 6:30 AM to 9:00 PM. We are also available by phone at (603) 466-2721 or by email at amcpinkhaminfo@outdoors.org. To make reservations at AMC Lodges and Huts, please call (603) 466-2727 available Monday through Saturday 9am-5pm.

Go out and explore!

Chris

AMC Backcountry Information Specialist

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