GW's Mad Isolated Owl . . . Madison, Washington, Isolation, Owl's Head Traverse

Date of Hike: 9/21/19

Valley Way: 3.8 miles  /  Appalachian Trail: 7.0 miles  /  Davis Path: 15.0 miles  /  Notch Inn Cutoff: 0.7 miles  /  Nancy Pond Trail: 6.0 miles  /  Carrigain Notch Trail: 1.5 miles  /  Wilderness Trail: 3.5 miles   /  Abandoned Wilderness Trail: 0.5 miles  /  Bondcliff Trail: 1.9 miles  /  Franconia Falls & Fisherman's Path: 2.0 miles  /  Lincoln Brook Trail: 2.1 miles  /  Brutus Bushwhack: 0.7 miles  /  Owl's Head Path: 1.8 miles  /  Lincoln Brook Trail: 2.5 miles  /  Black Pond Bushwhack & Trail: 2.0 miles  /  Lincoln Woods Trail: 2.0 miles
Total Miles: 53 miles (13,838 feet elevation gained)

Trip Report:
-  It doesn't get much better than spending sunrise to sunset traveling through the spine of the White Mountains, fifty plus miles filled with rich history.  Above treeline across the Appalachian Trail, descending back into the trees along the Davis Path to 302. Heading by the old site of Lucy Mill on the way to Norcross Pond. Dropping into the Pemigewasset Wilderness over the old railroad grades along Nancy Pond, Carrigain Notch and Wilderness trails from the J.E. Henry's days. Cruising through the wilderness with not another person seen for miles and miles before finally making my way over to Owl's Head via the deteriorating Fisherman's Path, Lincoln Brook, and Brutus Bushwhack, followed by an exhilarating/scary bear encounter on the way back to civilization!

- Started off at 4:50AM from Appalachia along the Valley Way passing by two dozen hikers on my way up to Madison Spring Hut and another dozen coming down from the summit cone as I made my way to Mount Madison.  I was amazed about seeing this many people on trail at such an early hour in September, definitely shows the explosion in hiking/trail runners/weeble wobbles in the past couple of years.
- Thick fog and clouds blanketed everything above 4,500 feet so no spectacular sunrise from Mount Madison unfortunately.  Fortunately, once I left Madison Spring Hut I was ahead of the hiking bubble and cruised across the Appalachian Trail to Washington with the trails all to myself.  I made it to the summit of Washington just after 8AM with it all to myself.
- Next up, I dropped down to the Davis Path and made the long hike towards Isolation and then past it to Route 302.  Clouds broke off quickly as I made my way past the Southside Trail junction following my favorite section of cairn construction above treeline in the White Mountains towards Boott Spur.
- Continuing along the Davis Path I headed to treeline passing by a few hikers before having the trail all to myself again over to Mount Isolation.  From Isolation the Davis Path takes on a wild and remote feel as it passes by Mount Davis and Giant Stairs.  Once past Stairs I started seeing a couple of hikers here and there and then I saw about fifty from Mount Crawford the Davis Path trailhead.
- 25 miles and just over 7 hours later I was filtering water from the Sacco River before walking across 302, by the Notchland Inn, and taking a spur trail from the inn through the woods over to the Nancy Pond Trail.  It was now after 12PM and it was hot and humid, felt like the start of summer instead of the end.
- The hike up to Nancy Cascade was pretty quiet only seeing a handful of hikers, once past the cascade I would be all alone again for the next 10 miles.  The hike above the cascade is a very steep half mile burst, it was a grind but well worth it for the view from Norcross Pond.
- At the edge of the pond is an outlet with an amazing view looking down into the Pemigewasset Wilderness, I was able to see most of the twenty + miles of my remaining route from this spot.
- Now came for the highlight of the day, I had not dropped down the sweet "ramp" of the old railroad grade to Stillwater Junction from Norcross this year so I was excited to be back on it.  As always it did not disappoint with some early season foliage here and there as I passed Camp 19, the fern tunnel, and Desolation on my way into the valley.  I filtered water at Stillwater and took a short break before heading on.
-  Past Stillwater I continued onto the Wilderness Trail past Camp 20 as I jogged over to the old site of Trestle #17 / suspension bridge of the East Branch Pemigewasset River.  I easily rock hopped across the river as the water levels were the lowest I've ever seen them. From here I strolled along a half mile section of the abandoned Wilderness Trail to the Black Brook Trestle before making my way to Camp 16 onto what is now the lower end of the Bondcliff Trail along the railroad grade.
- I was pretty beat up at this moment, 38 miles and just over 10 hours into my "run." I hoped to be jogging this stretch but the warm temps made it a quick hike to the wilderness boundary.
- I crossed over the Franconia Brook footbridge, banged a right onto the Franconia Falls Trail and then at the "End of Trail" sign continued on to the Fisherman's Path bushwhack.  The past ten years have taken a toll on sections of this whack, it starts off on a well defined path but sputters out in places half way through before returning to a decently defined albeit narrow path.
- 42 miles and just over 11 hours in I'm on the Lincoln Brook Trail making the approach to the base of Owl's Head.  I pass by a few late day hikers on my way to the start of the Brutus Bushwhack.
-  At the least water crossing I fill up on water again before one last steep ascent.  I slowly hike up the well defined herd path, stopping at one moment to cool myself off from a small runoff before the super steep burst that leaves from a drainage.  After 0.7 miles I reach "Brutus Rock," and take a right onto Owl's Head Path, passing by a descending hiker and his dog while moseying up to the ridge followed by a semi jog to the summit of Owl's Head.  45 miles and just under 13 hours in I'm thrilled to be at the summit, now it's time for a nice and calm early evening hike back to Lincoln Woods . . . or so I thought!
- Just before the Owl's Head Path drops from the ridge I hear a hiker, he's banging his poles, he's talking loudly, my first though was sweet - a bear!  But as soon as I got to him I knew this wasn't the norm for bear encounters up here, which are they speed off or look at you goofily and waddle away.  No, this old male was used to people food from lazy or uninformed hikers/backpackers who leave their packs at the bottom of the slide or improperly hang food.  Bad news for me is that I had 45 + miles of wrappers and smeared chocolate on my running vest!
- So I start clapping my hands and talking to the bear, after a minute the other hiker heads towards the summit, initially the bear follows him for a few feet off trail but then he stops turns around and follows me, now on the trail!  I start slowly walking down the Owl's Head Path off the ridge, the bear is in step for step with me about ten to twenty feet away.  I pick up a downed branch and bang trees every few seconds, when I stop the bear does eventually stop, five feet away each time.  I then start walking backwards downhill and when I'm twenty to thirty feet ahead it starts following me, when I turn around and start to hike a little faster the bear makes sure to come back to within five feet of me right away.
- So I make the decision that I will not go down Brutus Bushwhack, I'll head down the slide.  Once I reach Brutus Rock, I yell at the bear and bang my branch into the ground and pick up and throw a rock near him, he stops, I'm able to walk backwards without him coming towards me, I get thirty feet of distance between us and knowing I am closing in on the top of the slide with plenty of rocks,  plus I'd feel more comfortable in the open space of the slide, I make the sprint down to the top of it.  I look back and don't see him running towards me, I continue to the middle, look back and don't see him, I sprint to the lower part of the slide and see the hiker with his dog.  I tell him a bear will be coming along and that I'll continue down with him, but this hiker is with the other hiker who I met on the ridge, and says he's going to wait here for him.  I had my fill of hanging out with the bear for half a mile so I was not going to stick around to keep talking to a bear until it gets bored and finally goes away.
- From here I jet down the remaining tenth of a mile to the Lincoln Brook Trail and trail run for another mile or so.  I catch up with two hikers making their way out, and they told me that a bear took someones pack who left it at the bottom of the slide path!  Poor bear, I feel bad for him, especially if he leaves the wilderness and starts dumpster diving, his days will be numbered.  As for the experience, not going to lie, it was kind of terrifying at times...
- My adrenaline finally started to drop quickly as I made it to the Black Pond bushwhack, now I was noticing how sore I was from the impromptu trail run, my legs were getting really tight, luckily the small uphill part of the BP BW helped stretch a few things out.
- I turned my headlamp on as I passed by Black Pond as the woods were quickly getting dark.  The remaining 2.5 miles to the suspension bridge was quiet and went by semi quickly. 
- After 53 miles and 14 hours and 50 minutes, I reached the end as the stars were starting to come out.  It was quite the day with a little bit of everything, the way I sum it up . . . it was a perfect bookend to a great summer of rock hopping!

 Elevation over distance profile

Map of route

 Sun burning through the clouds 

Solo choo choo

Making my way up to Washington

Quiet on the summit!

Clouds blowing off

Am I on a plane taking a picture from the window seat or above treeline on a trail??!! 

Davis Path

The beautiful above treeline section of Davis Path

The row of cairns marking the way towards Boot Spur

Mount Washington 

Making the drop to treeline

Entering the Presidential Dry River Wilderness

View from Mount Isolation

Entering the Pemi Wilderness.  New sign!

Norcross Pond

The view of the Pemi Wilderness valley from Norcross outlet 

Lower end of the Nancy Pond's lovely!  

Camp 19 clearing

Early foliage along the East Branch

Old fern tunnel railroad grade! 

 Stillwater Junction

Camp 20 relics

Camp 20 relics

 East Branch Pemigewasset at Trestle #17,  and the old site of the suspension bridge

Black Brook trestle

Summit of Owl's Head

Black Pond

Owl's Head from Black Pond


  1. Wow! Beautiful! As for the bear, this is why I broke down and got the canister!

    1. Yes, the canister is a much easier and safer way to keep bears from getting your food!

  2. Great write up as usual. Perhaps it's time to start taking bear spray on hikes in New England. Thought for sure you would have embedded a bear image in your elevation profile map!


    1. I knew I forgot something to add into the elevation profile! As far as bear spray goes, hopefully it will never come to the point where hikers in NE need it, as this is still a fraction of a percent of how black bears act towards hikers.

  3. What, no pictures of the bear? :)

    Also - 4 trips to Owls Head in little over a month, yikes ...

    1. HA! Didn't need to snap the pic, the memory of him being so close is a pic that will be burned into my memory for quite some time. Plus, I figured snapping a pic in that situation would be bad karma!

      As for Owlie, I’m one of the weirdos who love visiting that little peak :)

  4. Nice report and route. The pictures of the end of Nancy Pond and old fern are really nice. I can't wait to visit the stillwater junction area, hopefully next year.

    Glad you are ok, Couldn't imagine the adrenaline you had after that encounter

    1. Thanks, Matt! Hope you had a great summer on the trails and get in some good foliage hikes over the next few weeks :)

  5. Great hike and write up as always. It was a nice day to be out that day. I was up on Mt. Nancy when you went past the ponds, it's the only way I would have missed you as I camped between the Desolation Trail and Stillwater Junction myself before doing Vose Spur the next day.

    1. Hi Adam. You picked one of the best spots in the Whites to camp, that area between desolation and stillwater has such a remote feel to it!