Owl’s Head and its 18 miles of hiking scares people off. Most hikers who are working on the NH 4000 Footer List put this one off until they are almost done. While it does take some extra skill and endurance, it is definitely not the hardest hike on the list!
One of the issues folks have with hiking Owl’s Head is the mention of bushwhack options. There are actually more or less herd paths as they are frequently traveled on. While Bushwhacking can be brushy, you get to avoid difficult stream crossings. There are multiple ways to hike Owl’s Head. Only you (and the various conditions of the day) can decide which route is best for you.
Option 1: “Traditional Route”-No Bushwhacks, Big Crossings
Start at the Lincoln Woods parking lot ($3.00 parking fee) and cross a beautiful wooden suspension bridge over the East Branch of the Pemigewasset River. You will continue on the Lincoln Woods Trail which may be covered with tourists (especially during foliage season) as it is flat and wide.
Continue on Lincoln Woods Trail for 2.9 miles where you will travel across Franconia Brook on another bridge. You will then turn left onto the Franconia Brook Trail. Follow this trail for 1.7 miles.
You will see a sign for the Lincoln Brook Trail. It will be a left turn. A half mile later you will need to wade across Franconia Branch.
0.4 miles after that, wade across Lincoln Brook. The trail remains on the left side of Lincoln Brook until about half a mile before the Owl’s Head slide. There are additional stream crossings along the trail, but they are much easier.
After the Lincoln Brook crossing you continue another 1.8 miles before the trail crosses a small stream. You will be on the left side of Lincoln Brook.
0.6 miles after you will come to (yes another) crossing called Liberty Brook. You will hike through a small clearing. It was the former site of Camp 11. Look for a “no camping” sign on a tree. You will then cross to the right side Lincoln Brook.
This is where you’ll really need to pay attention to navigation. 0.4 miles after you eloquently cross the stream (because you’re amazing at it now!) the Owl’s Head path will begin on the right. This is 3.4 miles from the Franconia Brook Trail). The junction may or may not be marked by two cairns. Because it is an unmaintained trail rangers may remove any cairns hikers build.
Once you reach the top of the slide it is easy to find the “old” summit. Continue just a little further and you will find the “new” summit. The new summit has a cairn. This route is over 18 miles and you will have two major crossings to deal with. You can check water levels before you go.
Option 2: Black Pond Bushwhack- Save a Mile and Two Stream Crossings
If water levels are high or you want to prep for the New England 67 list (Mt Redington is a ‘whack!) taking the black Pond Bushwhack will be the option for you.
You will start at the Lincoln Woods Trailhead and turn onto the Black Pond Trail 2.6 miles later. Follow it to the end (0.8 mi), then bushwhack north from Black Pond. Follow the south/west bank of Lincoln Brook until you join the Lincoln Brook Trail. Follow the same directions above from Lincoln Brook Trail. This bushwhack will avoid the two major crossings. The total hike will be just under 18 miles, but may take just as much time dealing with the brushy trail and being cautious about navigation. The mile saved to do this bushwhack may actually not save time as hiking is slower going. If water is low, I suggest staying on trail.
The two options above are the only routes I’ve taken so I cannot get too detailed about other routes, but additional route include (but are certainly not limited to):
Brutus Bushwhack- This bushwhack is often used to avoid the Owls Head Slide which can be a hazardous climb in winter. Most hikers that take this route also do the Black Pond Bushwhack.
Pair it with Mt Garfield- This route will involve a car spot: Up to Garfield and down Franconia Brook trail to 13 falls tentsite. Take Lincoln Brook Trail to Owl’s Head slide and summit. Return back down the slide to Lincoln Brook trail, and out to Lincoln Woods.
Lincoln Slide- you can certainly connect the Franconia Ridge, but you will need more navigational skills as there is a lot of bushwhacking and be a pretty badass hiker. DMOutdoors did this hike a couple years ago and it’s an interesting read!
Things to Note:
1. You gain around 3,400 feet of elevation over 18 miles. From the 3,400 feet of elevation gain, about 1,500 feet is gained under a mile on the Owl’s Head Slide. If you’ve hiked the Hancocks, I would compare it to hiking that route.
2. Much of the 18 mile trek is flat, but it may be more walking with a full pack than you’ve done in the past. Some opt to camp out and make this a two day adventure.
3. The first two crossings can be extremely dangerous if water is high. I advise hikers to really consider the Black Pond Bushwhack after a rain or in Spring when snow is still melting. You will likely find this route packed out in winter if it has seen some use.
4. I find the slide easier to ascend staying more to the right. It is pretty narrow in sections and is usually a little wet.
5. Once you think you’ve hit the summit, continue 0.2 miles to the true summit. It is marked by a cairn.
6. Signs, blazes, cairns, and other markers may come and go on Owl’s Head as some of it is unmaintained. Do your research and do not rely on finding these markers to lead you to the summit and back to your car!
Starting from: Lincoln Woods Trailhead
Elevation Gain: 3,368′
Mileage: 18.04 RT without bushwhacking
Book Time: 10:43
Last modified: May 26, 2015