The Dreaded Hike: Owl’s Head

Owl’s Head. The one NH48 hike that almost no one wants to do. Why? It’s the longest hike for a summit that has no view – just woods, no sky. It’s also one of the only ones without a maintained trail to the summit.

Located in Franconia, NH at an elevation of 4,025 feet, Owl’s Head is an easy to moderate 18.2-mile hike in and out of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. Chris, Milo and I are no strangers to this hike as we did a majority of it for the Bonds (Bondcliff, Mount Bond, and West Bond). Being as it was a holiday weekend, we decided to hike the least exciting of our last NH48 hikes as an overnight. This hike (like the Bonds) starts off at the Lincoln Woods Visitor Center. It wasn’t even 8:30 a.m. when we arrived and found that the parking lot was already full with cars spilling onto the sides of the road. We snagged a spot on the road and made our way to the Lincoln Woods Visitor Center where we were stopped by a park ranger and his pop up tent. He gave us the basic rules of camping – no camping within 200 yards of water or trail, no fire rings, hang your food up at night because of bear country. We haven’t been stopped by a park ranger ever. We think it’s because we had our brand new (matching might I add) Osprey packs on and it made us look like newbies. Don’t be fooled though, we have plenty of overnight hikes under our belt!

Once our impromptu park ranger lesson was over, we headed out on Lincoln Woods Trail – 2.9 miles of flat, old railroad beds. There are still old railroad planks from the old East Branch and Lincoln Railroad that are still there. Along the way we passed by Black Pond Trail and took a detour on Franconia Falls Trail for a short break. Retracing our steps, we veered left at the junction of Franconia Brook Trail and Wilderness Trail to stay on Franconia Brook Trail for 1.7 miles and veered left again to take the Lincoln Brook Trail. Once on Lincoln Brook Trail, we decided to start looking out for camping spots so that we could unload some of our weight before hitting Owl’s Head summit. We found a great one off the trail and down a hill but still near Lincoln Brook. It was flat and used plenty of times before us. It was illegal-ish but we did make an effort to find a legal camping spot. (The spot was well over 200 feet from the trail, but we couldn’t find one 200 feet from the water.) It’s a lot better than the ten campers we passed on our way back to camp who were parked right next to the trail (and water). Once settled, we enjoyed a short break. Sitting on the rocks in the middle of the brook, we couldn’t help but people watch. We were astounded as to how many hikers were passing through as we didn’t see many on the trail towards Owl’s Head. Guess they might’ve gone a different route or were a bit speedier than us. [Some of the hikers we encountered included the Good To-Go founders who wore matching company shirts – good marketing!]


The family who matches together, stays together.

After the break, we continued 3.4 miles on Lincoln Brook Trail towards Owl’s Head Path. As the trail isn’t maintained, hence not marked, we went past the junction for Owl’s Head Path for about 5 – 10 minutes. After realizing we were continuing on the loop that goes to the Bonds, we turned around and asked a fellow hiker where the path was. We knew we may have missed it as it is only marked with a large cairn and some hikers left their packs before embarking to the summit.

Once on the correct route, it’s 1.1 miles to the summit. The trail is very steep with very loose rocks so I recommend not hiking behind one another in case rocks get kicked your way. I almost had that happen where a female hiker was in front of me and knocked a loose rock my way. Good thing I chose to veer right on a different path. It took us some time to get up the rock slide. After what seems forever, you eventually get to flat terrain where it’s another 0.2 – 0.4 miles to the summit cairn. Like I said earlier, a long hike for a summit that has no view. We took a quick nap on top and made our way down. To our surprise, we encountered a hiker ascending – we thought we were the last ones. He told us he got a late start – 2:00 p.m. to be exact. We told him what to expect at the summit and made our way down, albeit slowly, on the rock slide. Not going to lie, we were slow back to camp – so slow that dusk crept up on us. (The fast hiker also crept up on us and scared the crap out of me.) We were a little lost back to camp as we couldn’t recall how many water crossings there were before camp. Chris had made a big cairn in the middle of the brook as well as a small one on the side of the trail and we were on the lookout for those but our headlamps could only shine so far down the brook. It got to a point where we had to stop and turn around to see if we missed our spot. Turns out we didn’t. We just camped a bit farther than we thought. Thank goodness we both remembered a few details other than where the cairns were (Someone had decided to knock down the small cairn on the trail). Tired and hungry, we immediately made water for dinner and rolled out our sleeping bags. We didn’t even attempt to pump drinking water. That would have to wait until morning. Milo immediately snuggled in for the night while Chris and I waited for our dehydrated meals to cook. It wasn’t long before we scarfed our food down and settled in for the night.


Poising with the cairn in Owl’s Head summit.


The next morning wasn’t all too exciting. Chris was the most exhausted and sore of us all so he ended up sleeping in – he usually does. I woke up early, pumped water into our Nalgene’s and slowly broke down our tent, waking Chris up in the process. Once back on the trail, it was an easy hike back – about 2 – 3 hours to get back to the car. We encountered so many people on the Lincoln Woods Trail – many who were going to the Franconia Falls for the day and some who were hiking/camping overnight for Owl’s Head, the Bonds, or both. Milo caused quite the spectacle with his pack. Apparently, not many people have seen a Shiba Inu with a hiking pack on. Overall, it was a good hike. 10/10 would not recommend hiking it just for Owl’s Head. I’d spice it up a little bit by making the excursion longer with the Bonds. However, with Owl’s Head knocked off, we only have three 4,000-footers left!

32px-Black_Paw.svgA Dog’s Walk:
Owl’s Head is a moderate 18.2-mile hike. Lincoln Woods Trail, Franconia Brook Trail, and Lincoln Brook Trail are relatively flat with rocks, tree roots, and old railroad planks here and there. The only difficult part is Owl’s Head Path which is very steep with very loose rocks – this will be difficult for smaller dogs. We saw quite a number of furry companions on the trail including a lab mix and poodle. Milo did a good job overall though he kind of slowed down towards the end – a mixture of long hike and being slightly out of shape. He toughed it out and we didn’t have to carry him once (Chris had to a water crossing here or there but I don’t think that counts for a dog that hates water). The hike is certainly do-able for dogs of all sizes, but smaller or older pooches you will need to watch or help up and down the rock slide portion of Owl’s Head. Just be wary of how long of a hike your dog can endure because it is a long one but does have plenty of water that runs along the majority of the trail for frequent breaks.


Milo enjoying a cold one at Pub 32 in Lincoln, NH.


And then he was pooped.



Halfway Done: The Bonds

The 4th of July weekend brought us halfway through our NH 4,000-footer goal. Our latest hike? The Bonds: Bondcliff (4,265 feet), Mount Bond (4,698 feet) and West Bond (4,540 feet). The Bonds are located in the Pemigewasset Wilderness and part of the Twin Range in the White Mountains.

We decided that for this hike we would do an overnighter (with Chris’ dad, Rob, in tow). And we weren’t the only ones who had the same idea. When we arrived at the Lincoln Woods Visitor Center, just down the road from the Hancock Campground, the parking lot was already half full at 7:30am. We would see a slew of hikers and dogs on the trails. We even encountered Rachel and Isis who were doing the entire Twin Range traverse. And it was a gorgeous weekend to boot.

The hike starts off at the suspension foot bridge over the East Branch Pemigewasset River and onto the Lincoln Woods Trail. This trail parallels the river and is a flat 2.9 miles. As you walk along the trail, you can see train track remnants from those old logging days. This trail allows for 4 – 5 hikers to walk abreast, a rare thing to do on trails! There’s not much excitement until you get to Franconia Falls and the trail junction just passed it, though there are some great openings to the river. One hiker who tore past us had a fly reel – we didn’t see where he ended up but it’s certainly a beautiful place for some fishing. At the trail junction, hikers have the option of taking the Franconia Brook Trail (for a much longer loop) or the Wilderness Trail/Bondcliff Trail. We opted for the Wilderness Trail/Bondcliff Trail.

At this point, the trail gets a bit more traditional. The gradual elevation gain and water crossings begin as you continue on the Wilderness Trail for 1.8 miles. It was muddy with some tree blow downs and a few wobbly rocks for the water crossings. At 1.8 miles, there is a trail junction for Bondcliff where we turned left and continued onward to Bondcliff. As we were planning to camp for the night, we decided to locate a camping spot so that we could lighten our load by setting up and continuing on to the summits the same day. Looking at the map, we decided to camp around the 2,500 – 2,900 foot elevation mark as it looked relatively flat and would be much easier to find a spot than at higher elevation. (And all the huts and camping sites were probably full too). Easy to say that when looking at a map but when actually looking for a physical spot was hard because of the no camping within 200 feet of water rule. Well, we were bad (and desperate after searching for more appropriate places) and ignored that rule and found a camping spot about 2 miles in on the Bondcliff Trail that was previously used with log seats, campfire and all. It was okay as long as we were neat and tidy right? I’d like to think so. After setting up camp and me changing my socks (I’m pretty bad at water crossings), we were able to lighten our load and continue our trek onward to Bondcliff. From our camping spot to Bondcliff was another 2ish miles of mud, rocks and roots to navigate as well as encountering hikers descending and ascending.

We knew we were close to Bondcliff when we encountered the Alpine Zone sign and plenty of rock scrambling. As we approached the summit, there were already plenty of people hanging around either snacking or waiting to get their photo op on the infamous Bondcliff. We kindly waited while an AMC group (who we would play leap frog with on the trail) took their photos. When it was our turn, we took a few including our best impression of the Lion King with Milo as Simba. I couldn’t help myself. And many others before me couldn’t either.


Milo just can’t wait to be king!

With obligatory photos and snack break, we continued the 1.2 miles to Mount Bond. And boy, was it a tough one. Though there was wind on the open ridgeline, it was still hot with the sun bearing down on us coupled with negotiating footing on the rocks. What we thought would be a short hike from Bondcliff to Mount Bond ended up taking us an hour with the steep incline and our slow moving feet. When I encountered Rob (as I’m the slow hiker of the group), he declared that this would be his last summit and would wait for us as we bagged our last peak of the hike. I felt the same way when we finally made it to the top. Though we wanted to retire and head back to camp, Chris, Milo and I just couldn’t do it. If we left West Bond for another day, it would be the same hike so we opted to continue. From Mount Bond, it is another .5 miles to the turnoff for the West Bond Spur trail and then another .5 miles to West Bond. Man, was it exhausting! You would think it would be easy because it’s only another mile to get there but it’s not! There’s a good amount of descending before finally ascending to the West Bond summit. It took us nearly an hour to get there! We met a British guy (who we passed on the trails earlier) who was exhausted as well and also attempting the NH48. Who isn’t?! We sure met a fair number of peak baggers that day. We took our summit photos and left as it was 4pm at that point and we wanted to make it back to camp before sunset.


USGS marker on Mount Bond.


West Bond

We retraced our steps and returned to Mount Bond. Chris and Milo got there first with Rob getting a head start back. When I arrived, we took a much needed break. None of us wanted to move, not even Milo. Poor pup wanted to just sleep right then and there (and Chris too), but we had to keep going. On the ridgeline to Bondcliff, Milo was slow often stopping and looking back at me with the “Do I still have to keep going?” face. I had to keep encouraging him to move forward. There was one point where I carried him because he just looked so pathetic and was lagging behind me. At Bondcliff, we switched his pack for his harness and what do you know? Milo bamboozled us. He was much more chipper and himself when he saw another dog on the summit. Well with that solved, we continued our slow trek back to camp. Slow and steady with feet hurting (and knees for the guys). We were back at camp around 8pm, quickly refilled our water bottles, made dinner and settled into our tents. No one was moving until we had to the next morning.


That’s one tired pooch.


The Bondcliff ridgeline with Mount Bond in sight.

And when we did, we were glad not to be summiting that day. It was too painful and exhausting to even think about. There were already many hikers ascending in the early morning hours. We were just glad that we had 6 miles of flat terrain to get back to the parking lot. Albeit it was slow and tortuous, it had to be done. Milo wasn’t having it either. We had to hold his leash to coax him to keep going. He was even carried for a bit and he loved every moment of it. We were quite frequent in our breaks at this point. Not only was it physically exhausting but mentally as well. We just had to keep going. By the time we got to Franconia Falls and beyond, we encountered plenty of day hikers including families. We were so close yet so far. We just had to keep going. The suspension foot bridge seemed elusive.

When I saw the turn to the bridge, I was excited beyond relief. I think Milo was too. We sped up and booked it to the car. Milo immediately jumped into the car and I sat down to change from boots to flip flops, a wonderful feeling. Chris and Rob joined shortly after.

All in all, it was a 22.6 mile hike. Not our longest, but a challenging one. Highly recommended for the views.

[Fun Fact: Bond is named after Professor George P. Bond (1825 – 1865) of Harvard University.]


32px-Black_Paw.svg   A Dog’s Walk:

The Bonds hike is considered a tough hike for dogs. Though it is fairly flat the first 5 miles or so, the packed gravel is not easy on the pads. There is plenty of rocks (of all sizes) to navigate and scramble on once on the Bondcliff trail as well as along the ridgelines. Milo did great hiking to all 3 summits but when coming back from West Bond and re-summiting Mount Bond, he started to drag behind when he often leads the pack. When we took a break on Mount Bond, he wanted to go straight to sleep! We had to carry him for a bit and even used his leash to coax him onward. There were also a few scrambles and some “steps” to Bondcliff that your pooch may need an assist getting up and over. Milo needed to be picked up over some of the larger hurdles. After the 20+ mile hike, his pads weren’t doing so great. So please keep in mind your dog’s ability on this hike and take special care of their pads whether using something like Musher’s Secret on their pads or having your furry friend wear booties to save from wear and tear.



© Elizabeth Tran 2011-2017