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Joyce Endee

Chandler Brook Trail is a little-known gem

Into and out of the Great Gulf

The middle section of the Great Gulf Trail offers some of the most scenic riverside walking in the White Mountains. From this trailside spot, about 3.3 miles from the Great Gulf Wilderness trailhead on Route 16, hikers can enjoy a view up the West Branch of the Peabody River to the steep spur of Mt. Jefferson known as Jefferson's Knee. Steve Smith. (click for larger version)
June 18, 2009
Of the seven steep, rough trails that shoot up from the floor of the Gulf to its craggy rim, the Chandler Brook Trail on the north side of Mt. Washington's Chandler Ridge was the only one I had not traversed. Earlier this month I finally paid a visit to this path.

On the day of my hike the weather was gorgeous; cool and breezy with bright sun and puffy clouds.

Making the trek even more appealing was the plan of two friends, Allen Koop and John Compton, to drive up the Auto Road to the summit of Mt. Washington, spend a few hours wandering around the trails on the cone, and drive back down mid-afternoon. If I timed it right, I could catch a ride down, saving a knee-jarring descent and long walk back out through the Gulf. I'll be the first to admit that this is, umm, sort of cheating, but why not take advantage of a lucky break?

There were no other cars in the Great Gulf parking area off Route 16 (four miles north of Pinkham Notch) when I pulled in at 9 a.m. After signing in the trailhead register, I crossed the suspension bridge over the Peabody River and followed the Great Gulf Trail on an easy walk through spruce and hemlock above the West Branch of the Peabody. Ladyslippers, both pink and white, were on full display along this stretch.

About 0.7 mile from the trailhead, I dropped a few yards left to a picturesque spot on the West Branch where broad ledges slope down to a cascade and pool. This is a great objective for a short and easy hike.

A mile farther, shortly after entering the Wilderness, I turned right to make a loop up the lower Osgood Trail, across Osgood Cutoff, and back down to the Great Gulf Trail at the viewpoint called The Bluff. This gave me a chance to check out the Osgood tentsite, which looks like a fine place to camp and to enjoy a striking view up the Great Gulf from an open spot above a small old landslide. I reached this unobtrusive vantage point via a short unmarked path from the Osgood Cutoff just after it starts to descend to The Bluff. The centerpiece of the vista was Mt. Jefferson, its barren upper slopes spotted with lingering snowfields.

Back down on the Great Gulf Trail, I noted that tree growth continues to gradually obscure the views from the gravelly opening at The Bluff. But a scramble up a trailside boulder rewarded with open looks up at pyramidal Mt. Adams and Mt. Washington's massive Chandler Ridge.

Continuing on the Great Gulf Trail, I descended steeply to cross Parapet Brook, an easy rock-hop this day, but potentially troublesome in high water, and climbed briefly to the junction with the Madison Gulf Trail. The Great Gulf Trail plunged again to cross the West Branch on a bouncy suspension bridge, shot up the opposite bank, and then settled into a long, gradual climb along the West Branch.

Though the footing is rocky, the next few miles of the Great Gulf Trail offer some of the best streamside walking in the Whites. The constant sound and frequent sight of the tumbling, boulder-strewn river, and the mossy, primeval look of the forest, give the inner Gulf an almost Amazonian sense of remoteness, even though you realize that the Auto Road and Cog Railway brush up against the ridges above.

A little ways past aptly-named Clam Rock, I stopped for a break at a scenic spot where you can sit and gaze upstream to the stupendous ridge called Jefferson's Knee. Look closely and you can trace the route of the bodacious Six Husbands Trail.

The Chandler Brook Trail leaves the Great Gulf Trail 3.9 miles from the trailhead. When I reached the junction I took a deep breath, knowing that this path would climb 1,300 feet to the Auto Road in less than a mile.

Chandler Brook was one of several wild routes opened in the Great Gulf during a trail-building spree from 1908 to 1910 led by AMC trailmaster Warren Hart. Among the first hikers to use this trail was Walter James, whose photographs and hike journals are featured in the two "Our Mountain Trips" books edited by his grandchildren, Ben English of Jackson and his sister Jane.

James and several companions ascended Chandler Brook Trail during a Great Gulf camping trek in 1910, the year the path was cut. "I think I never had a wilder walk, nor a more enjoyable one," wrote James in his journal.

The description in the AMC guidebook notes numerous cascades along this trail, and after a quarter-mile of surprisingly moderate climbing the first waterfalls appeared on the brook. And they kept coming, in a continuous display of splashing water and mossy ledge. It reminded me of the lower mile of the Beaver Brook Trail on Mt. Moosilauke, the waterfall climb against which all others are measured.

The narrow trail soon became very steep at times, though there was no difficult scrambling. It crossed the brook three times, in each case on ledges perched at the top of a cascade. Some caution was required at these crossings, and they could be tricky in high water.

When I stepped out onto the open brookbed at the second crossing, looking upstream there was…another cascade. But when I turned to look downstream, I was literally stopped in my tracks: staring me in the face was a perfectly framed Mt. Adams, its rocky crown soaring 3,500 feet above the floor of the Gulf. This stunning viewspot is just 0.4 mile and 500 feet in elevation above the Great Gulf Trail and is worth visiting even if you go no higher up Chandler Brook Trail.

I couldn't stay long as there was steep climbing still to come, and I was thinking about that ride back down. I slowly ascended past more waterfalls, made the third crossing, and tackled a long scramble in the open up a jumble of talus blocks. One flat boulder provided a comfortable seat for enjoying the impressive view back to Jefferson's Knee, Jefferson Ravine and Mt. Adams.

An hour and a half after leaving the Great Gulf Trail I staggered off the top of Chandler Brook Trail onto the Auto Road. (A blistering pace of 0.6-mile per hour!) I walked a hundred yards down to the large parking area at "The Horn" and plopped down on some nearby ledges to enjoy the wide views.

It being midweek in June, the Auto Road was very quiet. During my 40-minute stay at The Horn, only one vehicle pulled into the parking area. The next one that did was the one that mattered to Allen and John, and fellow hiker Rick B., on their way down after several hours of rambling around Mts. Washington and Monroe. I happily accepted Allen's offer of a ride and the four of us talked hiking as he wheeled us down four miles to the base. It was a fine way to end a spectacular day in the Great Gulf.

The one-way hike to the Auto Road at The Horn, via the Great Gulf and Chandler Brook Trails, is 4.8 miles with 2,800-feet of elevation gain. For an easier loop in the lower Gulf, with vistas at and near The Bluff as described above, use the Great Gulf Trail, lower Osgood Trail and Osgood Cutoff; this circuit is 5.9-miles with 1,150 feet of elevation gain.

NOTE: As recently publicized in a Forest Service press release, the eastern half of the Boulder Loop Trail off Passaconaway Road will be closed for reconstruction through July 8, so until then hikers looking to access the great views from the cliffs at the top must go up and down on the west half of the loop.

Editor's note: Pick up "The AMC White Mountain Guide" for maps and descriptions of these and other trails in the White Mountains.

Steve Smith, author of "Wandering Through the White Mountains: A Hiker's Perspective," has hiked and written about the White Mountains for more than 20 years. He owns the Mountain Wanderer Map and Book Store in Lincoln, and lives with his wife, Carol, in Lincoln.

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