Owl’s Head: The Best or Worst of N.H.’s 4000 Footers?

Sep 16, 2019

Owl's Head mountain in Franconia was briefly in the news after a hiker died there last week. Officials say it was a medical emergency made more complicated by the trail's remote location.

Among hikers, Owl’s Head is a regular topic of conversation. To some, it's the best hike in the state....for others, the worst.

NHPR's Sean Hurley has recently set out to reach the summit of all of New Hampshire’s 48 mountains over 4,000 feet. Owl's Head was a natural place to start.

I knew a few things as I crossed the suspension bridge in Lincoln Woods and began my hike along the river. 

I know it’s about 9 miles to the summit of Owl’s Head and I knew the first 8 miles are basically flat.  
[NOTE:  All italicized text in the story indicate my recorded musings during the hike.] 

The trail to Owl's Head stays flat for a long long time.
Credit Sean Hurley

I also knew that the mountain we call “Owl’s Head” doesn’t officially have a name. That people just call it that because of a prominent feature on the southern side of the mountain that looks vaguely owlish and bears that name.    

Frank Parrott and Cathy Merrifield
Credit Frank Parrott

And from the blogging couple Cathy Merrifield and Frank Parrott, from Nashua, I knew that this might be the worst hike of my life.  

“This is going to be terrible just plan on it being terrible,” Merrifield warned.

“What makes it bad? When you do a big hike usually the big payoff is the view from the summit,” Parrott added, “and you don’t get that reward.”

“I know there are hikers who really do love it,” Merrifield continued, “I can't really grasp the concept.”

From one of those beyond-grasp hikers, freelance blogger Rebecca Sperry, who lives in Manchester, I knew that Owl’s Head had the potential to be…maybe the best hike of my life?

“The first time I did it was like my favorite,” Sperry told me.  “It was like, I'm out here in the middle of nowhere like in the middle of the Pemigewassett. And I think for me it was more just that feeling of being someplace that not a lot of people go.”

Rebecca Sperry on the summit.
Credit Rebecca Sperry

At four miles now and the air really smells strongly of pine.  There's no wind at all. Very distant sound of water. One bird. One bug. And me.  

The quiet, pine scented woods
Credit Sean Hurley

“Definitely one of the features that really drove me crazy,” Frank Parrott said, “was all the water crossings. It's like OK you've crossed it. Why did you bother to make the trail going back across it?”

Rebecca Sperry had a different take. “I don't mind water crossings,” she said. “I wear trail runners so I just walk through the water.” 

Sean going across the river...again.
Credit Sean Hurley

At the river and this is pretty much the five mile mark, I think I can make it across without my water shoes.  But if this was really raging I could see this being a swim.

Two watercrossings, three, four...

Seven miles and I'm still close to the water. This trail cannot not be a mountain forever. It has to start being mountain at some point. Right?

At 7 and a half miles I come upon Mark Duckworth from Merrimack.  Working his way through the NH 48, he’s just come down from the summit. “This is number 41,” Duckworth says. “It wasn't really until this year when I felt comfortable doing this one alone because it's so far remote from everything.” 

In fact, Fish & Game strongly recommend that anyone planning on hiking Owl’s Head be fit and prepared to stay overnight due the remoteness of the mountain and the dangers and difficulties of the final rock-slide ascent. 

“All the hard part is yet to come,” Duckworth says. “The first eight miles is easy. The last mile takes almost as long as the first 8.”

The rock slide begins.
Credit Sean Hurley

Ok. Eight miles. There's a cairn, a little path going off.  So I have like one mile up a slide to the summit.

“So you're kind of lulled into this false sense of security before the slide where you're like this hike isn't hard,” Cathy Merrifield said, trying to prepare me. “But then you get to the slide and you're sliding backwards and you're like ‘Oh OK.’"

One of those hand over hand spots on the slide.
Credit Sean Hurley

Hand over hand in some places. Crawling up a loose ladder of stones and then finally into a cooler forest at the top of the mountain where I meet Carsten Turner. I tell him about the diverging assessments – best and worst.

“I mean it's a ballbuster,” Turner says, “but it's not the worst.”

I ask him what the worst might be.

“I don't think there is one,” he says. “We do these things not because they're easy but because they're hard right?” 

I scan the trampled forest, trying to identify the path to the official summit.

“I've never seen a summit that has so much you know criss crossing paths that seem to lead to nowhere,” Frank Parrott said. “The first thing it made me think is that these are from all the people looking around for the actual summit going ‘this pile of rocks in the middle of the woods can't be the summit. It has to be something else.’”

The cairn in the woods -and the summit of Owl's Head.
Credit Sean Hurley

This could be it - a little pile of rocks. I'm not 100 percent sure. 

I sit by the cairn to each lunch in a crooked forest of storybook trees, and am soon joined by Ray Carpenter and Lori Brodeur from Goffstown.  

“I think this is it but I don't know?” I say as they arrive.
“Yeah, I believe it is,” Ray Carpenter says. “Someone said you can't go any further and there's a cairn.  And this seems to meet the requirements doesn't it? It's her 46th.”
“I didn't want to end on it,” Lori Brodeur says, “so I wanted to get it done before I finished so I could end on a nicer one.”

Ray and Lori don’t stay long. I sit for a while longer by myself. 

And then it’s down the steep slide and back along the flat 8 miles to the parking lot, an endless seeming stretch that Frank Parrott warned me about - “It just seemed like it kept going on and on and on!” - but the part of the hike where Rebecca Sperry realized Owl’s Head was her favorite. “I just remember feeling just really content and really at peace,” Sperry recalled, “and just like this is where I am and this is my home.”

Back along an endless seeming stretch...
Credit Sean Hurley

A little more than 18 miles, a little more than 10 hours. No cell phone service, no view from the summit.  

Really beautiful walk. Tiring. Strange. Different.

And as far as Owl’s Head being the best or the worst - even Frank Parrott and Cathy Merrifield acknowledge, there’s something about the nature of hiking itself that kind of means there’s no such thing. 

“Whether you love it or you hate it,” Parrott said, “I think it's that whole shared experience in the hiker community of just talking about it and sharing the stories which makes it a good experience no matter what, you know.” 

And you know what that means? That means the story is over.  For NHPR News, I'm Sean Hurley. 

Frank Parrott and Cathy Merrifield's adventure and hiking blogs: Roar Loud - and Nothing But New England. 

Rebecca Sperry edits and writes for The Trek hiking blog.