Thursday, June 17, 2010


I wanted to "redline" the Parapet Trail on Mt. Madison, one of those less-used Northern Presidential routes that traverses a slope across rough talus. Never had any reason to do this one before. Of the various loop options that would include this trail, an ascent via Madison Gulf Trail and descent via the Daniel Webster Scout Trail had a lot of appeal, as I hadn't been on either of these trails since 1986. Madison Gulf, especially, is a wild, beautiful and challenging route. My hiking buddy John Compton had never been on any of these three trails, so we agreed to do a traverse-with-carspot on a gorgeous sunny day.

We spotted a car at the Dolly Copp Campground near the bottom of the Scout Trail, then drove up Route 16 to the Great Gulf parking area and set off on the Great Gulf Trail. After crossing the Peabody River on a big suspension footbridge, we enjoyed a nice warmup along the gentle lower part of the trail.

There's a beautiful ledgy spot on the West Branch of the Peabody at 0.6 mile, which is always worth at least a quick visit.

In another mile of easy walking we entered the Great Gulf Wilderness.

Farther along, the trail comes by the the big, bouldery West Branch again. Lots of hangout rocks here, if you're so inclined.

At 2.7 miles, the trail comes to the gravelly opening known as The Bluff - a nice objective for a short, fairly easy hike (950 ft. elevation gain to this point). There are neat views up to Mt. Adams (below), Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Washington's Chandler Ridge.

We dropped down for an easy rock-hop across Parapet Brook (the water level was low), and climbed to the junction with the Madison Gulf Trail atop a nifty little hogback ridge. As the Madison Gulf Trail starts up the hogback, there are views of Mt. Adams and Jefferson's Knee.

The next part of the trail is moderate with good footing, leading through deep woods.

A nice fern garden near the trail.

The Madison Gulf Trail makes several crossings of Parapet Brook as it winds up through the ravine.

One section of trail is high up on the slope with some interesting framed vistas, such as this peek at Mt. Clay.

John crosses a tributary brook amidst a jumble of big rocks.

After some moderate but fairly rough climbing, with numerous blowdowns to negotiate, the trail leveled out on the floor of Madison Gulf.

We soon came to the appropriately named Sylvan Cascade.

Through the trees we had views of the impressive cliffs on the headwall of Madison Gulf.

At the foot of the headwall is a mini-cascade known as Mossy Slide. Here the steep and strenuous climb of the headwall begins, something like 850 ft. of elevation in less than a half-mile.

The first ledge scramble.

Just above is what I think is the trickiest spot on the trail - a large, steep open slab with seams for your feet but not many handholds.

Looking down from the top of the slab.

From here there was a nice view over the valley to Carter Dome and Wildcat.

The climb up the headwall is pretty relentless, lots of hand-and-foot scrambling over steep rocks, a full body workout. You definitely stash the trekking poles for this one.

John is enjoying this fun climb.

Tricky spot #2 is best approached via a series of handholds and footholds on the L side, in rather tight quarters.

Looking down from the rock chimney just above.

Farther up there's another ledge that demands focus from the hiker.

The upper part of the trail leads through a tumble of huge boulders.

John emerges at the top - a spectacular day above treeline, with a brisk NW wind.

The Madison Gulf Trail ends at its junction with the Parapet Trail.

We turned L and headed west to little Star Lake, which enjoys perhaps the most picturesque setting of any pond in the Whites. It was named by 19th century guidebook editor Moses Sweetser, "on account of its extreme height and because it mirrors so perfectly the constellations above." Mt. Adams rises 1000 ft. higher to the SW. The whole scene seems straight from the Scottish Highlands, where lochans like Star Lake are sprinkled liberally amidst the bare and craggy peaks.

Mt. Madison rises close by to the NE.

For a late lunch, we headed over to the ledgy swell known as The Parapet, poised at the brink of Madison Gulf.

Naturally, this perch opens a wide view over the Gulf to the Carters and Wildcats beyond.

From here we could see the next leg of our hike, the Parapet Trail, girdling the steep flank of Mt. Madison.

A short way beyond the Madison Gulf Trail junction is an impressive crag on the R side of the Parapet Trail.

This spot may be an even better vantage point than The Parapet itself.

A zoom on the Madison Gulf headwall cliffs.

John captures the scene from atop the crag.

Looking back along The Parapet to Mt. Adams.

The Parapet Trail was pretty much as advertised, a rough sidehill route over the rocks, pretty slow going, though there were a few mild-mannered stretches.

Around the corner, we started approaching Osgood Ridge.

Most of the trail is in the open, with fine views of Mts. Washington and Clay and the headwall of the Great Gulf.

There was one "interesting" up-and-over ledge scramble halfway across.

The Parapet Trail saved its best for last - a gnarly talus slope hop-and-scramble for the last 0.2 mile.

The east end of the Parapet Trail is at Osgood Junction (4822 ft.) on Osgood Ridge.

From here the Osgood Trail leads up to Mt. Madison, a rough and rocky way.

The jumble of scrubby knobs known as The Howks is seen to the north. The Howker Ridge Trail leads over four of these protuberances, providing one of the finest routes to Mt. Madison.

Late in the afternoon we headed down the Daniel Webster-Scout Trail, which stays above treeline down to 4100 ft.

In this upper section there are striking views down into the trailless, little-known basin of Culhane Brook.

The downside of the Scout Trail is that the footing down to treeline and even a little below is relentlessly rough, a jumble of talus. This makes for very slow and tedious going, as every step must be carefully chosen. Along the way we passed this cairn atop a cool boulder.

Farther down we had a great view of Carter Notch.

The talus went on...

...and on...

....until we finally got down into some scrub, where we could look back up at the steep slope.

There were still a couple more talus patches even below the treeline warning sign, then some steep rocky stuff in the woods. But for the rest of the way the Scout Trail had moderate and sometimes easy grades, with reasonable and only occasionally rough footing. Still, this trail seemed like a LONG 3.5 miles, and my feet and knees were relieved to reach the bottom, where John was waiting in his car. It had been a memorable day on the Presys. If you don't mind some rock scrambling, I highly recommend the Madison Gulf Trail, though I would suggest a descent via the Osgood Trail instead of the Scout Trail.


  1. Steve, I was so absorbed in the hike, that I neglected to shake your hand and give you a pat you on the back when we reached the Osgood Junction. So, please accept this sincere (albeit belated) congratulation for completing the redlining of the Parapet Trail.

    Your report of our adventure is excellent, and it's filled with the level of interesting detail that only you can provide.

    Also, I had to chuckle when I saw you photos and read your interspersed text relative to the upper part of the Daniel Webster Scout Trail, i.e. "The talus went on ... and on..."! That is such an apt description! For what seemed like an eternity, each step over that field of talus was like a Yogi Berra moment (déjà vu all over again!).

    Thanks for a terrific adventure!

  2. Thanks for a great day, John! I agree, that endless talus on the Scout Trail tests one's patience towards the tail end of a long day.


  3. Steve,

    That looks like a lot of fun and a lot of great scenery packed into 3.5 miles. Thanks for the trip report.

  4. Steve,
    We did a similar hike back in 2005. Up the Scout trail, across the Parapet, up Star Lake to Adams, down Star Lake to the Buttress trail, down the Buttress trail and out the Great Gulf trail. Wow what a day. June was very tired of rocks and boulders after that day. We had a blue sky day just like you guys did. Getting close to the end now aren't you Steve. :-)

    Keep us posted. We'd like to join you at the end.

  5. Thanks, Miguel - it was a terrific hike. The full hike was about 10 miles - 2.8 miles on the Great Gulf Trail, 2.6 miles on Madison Gulf Trail, 1 mile on Parapet Trail, and 3.5 miles on Daniel Webster-Scout Trail. Elevation gain about 3600 ft.

  6. Wow, John - between upper Scout, Parapet, Star Lake up & back, and Buttress, that sounds like a "rock-full" day!

    Did 1.6 new miles on Presidential Range Rail Trail today. 7.2 miles to go - three full-day hikes and one short one.