Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Madison Gulf, Adams, Madison, and Thru-Hikers

Date of Hike: August 24, 2014
Route: Old Jackson Road, Madison Gulf Trail, Star Lake Trail, Airline, Gulfside, Osgood Trail, Osgood Cutoff, Madison Gulf Trail, Old Jackson Road
Peaks: Adams (5799', NH4K), Madison (5366', NH4K)
Mileage: 16.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 6300ft
Book Time: 12 hr

For the second weekend in a row, I planned to meet up with Whitney ("Tip-Toe") and Kenny ("Kenny") as they made their way through New Hampshire along the Appalachian Trail. Their schedule happened to nicely coordinate with my desire to visit the Northern Presidentials (it's been well over a year!), and Denise wanted to come along as well, so the plan was made to meet them at the Madison Hut. Denise and I decided to make a red-lining day of it, and head up to the hut via the Old Jackson Road and the Madison Gulf Trail. This would take us up the headwall itself of Madison Gulf, which the AMC White Mountain Guide makes sound exceptionally tough. Knowing from others that the difficulty was highly exaggerated, we weren't too worried.

Meeting very early at Pinkham Notch (we expected our friends to be at the hut by 11), we set off around 6:15 on the Old Jackson Road. The entirety of this trail is part of the Appalachian Trail, and offered an easy warm-up to the crossing of the Mount Washington Auto Road. On the other side of the road was the Madison Gulf Trail, also a segment of the Appalachian Trail in the lower stretches (the AT avoids the headwall section by taking the Osgood Cutoff and Osgood Trail up to Mount Madison). Shortly after crossing the road we took the short detour to Low's Bald Spot, a very worthwhile diversion. The morning views of the Northern Presidentials and our route yet to go was stunning.

Crossing the Mount Washington Auto Road near mile marker 2

Adams (L) and Madison (R)

Adams and Madison with Madison Gulf in between. We have a long way to go yet!
Following the viewpoint, the trail descended for a long ways (we did not remember this later in the day when we had to re-climb it of course...), and eventually reached the junction with the Great Gulf Trail. To this point the trail was pretty easy going, with gentle grades and good footing. Dropping down to cross the West Branch of the Peabody River on a nice suspension bridge, we hung a left and continued up the Madison Gulf Trail, now having left the Appalachian Trail and entering the lightly-traveled section of the day.

Crossing the suspension bridge over the Peabody River
The trail now began climbing steadily, but not too steeply at first, following pretty close to Parapet Brook and crossing it several times. Finding the exact crossing location at a few places was a little tricky, but we figured it out and added a few more rocks to the small cairns that folks had made to indicate the proper way. Near the base of the headwall we took a break at one of several nice cascades that we passed. So far we were both loving this trail with its gentle footbed, nice cascades, and quiet (we had seen only one person since Pinkham - a thru-hiker near Low's Bald Spot).

Small cascade along the Madison Gulf Trail

Large waterfall along the Madison Gulf Trail
Now the fun began! The trail indeed climbs very steeply, scrambling up a tricky slab near the start. But overall the trail merely climbs steeply up boulders, and the footing was solid pretty much the whole way. I wouldn't want to climb this headwall with a heavy pack, nor head down it under any circumstances, but with a light daypack it was a terrific climb! The views opened up as we climbed, and before long at all we were breaking treeline and arriving near Star Lake. We continued over to the hut, and headed in for a break.

The Wildcats and Carter Dome from the Madison Gulf headwall

The trail skirts around all the sheer cliffs

One of the few slabs to scramble up

View from the top of Madison Gulf

Denise climbing the final pitch of the headwall

A cloud briefly rolled in, hiding Mount Adams
I hadn't been inside Madison Hut since it was rebuilt in 2011. Say what you will about the AMC, but they did a fantastic job with the inside of that building. One thing I noticed was that they turned the common area 90 degrees, putting the kitchen against the Mount Madison side, whereas it used to be along the wall nearest the Valley Way Trail. We were a tad ahead of schedule, and opted to hang out at the hut instead of heading to Adams. I was content with just Madison on this day, and we didn't want to miss our friends. It turned out we needn't have worried, as they got going a little late and were taking their time on the day as well. No need to injure themselves on the treacherous rocks of the Northern Presidentials when they are so close to Katahdin!

Madison from Star Lake

The Star Lake Trail

Inside Madison Hut
Ultimately we headed up the Gulfside Trail to find them, naturally finding them within 100 yards of the hut. They had bypassed Adams (they did do an out-and-back on one of the legs of the Jefferson Loop earlier in the day), but still wanted to hit the summit, just after getting lunch. So they had their lunch, then we all left our packs and scrambled up the Star Lake Trail to Adams. In all, Denise and I were at the hut for roughly 2.5 hours, most spent napping on the benches in the sun. It was great!

The Star Lake Trail was also a new trail for me (just never got around to it I guess!). The 3 others seemed to sprint up it, while I huffed and puffed a bit, especially up the steep boulder steps. My frequent breather breaks allowed me to keep looking back and watch as Star lake got smaller and smaller though, which was cool. The final pitch near the summit is a sort of mini-chimney, which was a ton of fun. I like those short little scrambles like that, it probably explains why I loved the headwall climb earlier in the day too. We only spent a few minutes on Adams, getting a few pictures and then dropping down the Airline and Gulfside Trails back to the hut.

Leaving Madison Hut

Mount Madison over Star Lake

The Carters and Wildcats, plus a shoulder of Mount Washington

Star Lake starts shrinking

Higher (and smaller - the lake that is)

High on Mount Adams

Madison from Adams
At the hut, we took a short break, but soon headed out as we had a ways to go yet. Whitney and Kenny were heading to the Osgood Tentsite for the night, and Denise and I were going to walk that far with them before heading back out to Pinkham Notch where our cars awaited. When we left Madison it was almost 3, so it was going to be a late night for me getting home, that was for sure! The climb up to Madison from the hut always looks so daunting, but it actually goes by pretty quickly, especially once the initial steep pitch is taken care of. Once again, we took only a couple quick pictures before heading down the Osgood Trail.

Heading up Madison from the hut

Mount Washington across the Great Gulf

Starting the descent on the Osgood Trail

The Osgood Trail was predicatbly rocky and somewhat slow going as it passed over countless small bumps along the ridge. Mercifully, once it reached treeline, the footing improved dramatically and we made good time to the Osgood Tentsite. Denise and I wished them well on their final few weeks, and headed off on the final 5 miles of our day. That ascent from the suspension bridge crossing back to Low's Bald Spot was an unpleasant surprise (it wasn't steep, but is roughly 700 feet of climbing!), and the Old Jackson Road at this point seemed to drag on forever, but we made it back fine, stopping the clock at 12hr 40 minutes for the day, which included the long stop at Madison Hut mid-day. The 3.5-hour drive home afterwards stunk, but after a day like that in the mountains, the 11PM arrival back home was completely worth it!

Mini-PUD after rocky mini-PUD, down the Osgood Trail we go...

Not a bad view to have to descend towards

Looking back towards Adams (L) and Madison (R)

Nearing treeline on the Osgood Trail

 It was only the next day that we did the math on the mileage and elevation gain and realized just how much we had done! I was surprised at how I felt all day considering the beating from the day before on the Cannon-Kinsmans Loop, but I have a feeling that without the long rest at the hut that the day would have been a different story. It was an awesome day, and a great time with great company, and I have to say that the Madison Gulf Trail might rank right up near the top of my list of favorite trails!

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