7-18-2020 Parsons-Caps Ridge Trail

Climbing the Caps Ridge Trail, Mount Jefferson. (ED PARSONS PHOTO)

The 2.5-mile Caps Ridge Trail to Mount Jefferson (5,716 feet) is a favorite for many hikers.

Starting at 3,008 feet on the dirt Jefferson Notch Road, it requires less elevation gain than any other trail to reach a Presidential peak over 5,000 feet.

However, this doesn’t make it easy, as there is substantial scrambling up the three “Caps” on the ridge to reach timberline. For those who like that, it is all-round fun.

This Wednesday was a good day to hike, with cool temps, shade from plentiful clouds and intermittent sun. When I drove up through Crawford Notch to Bretton Woods at 9:30 a.m., the upper slopes of the Presidentials were in the clouds.

I drove down the Base Station Road to the Jefferson Notch Road (directly across from the Mount Clinton Road). In 3.4 miles on that road, I reached the height of land and the trailhead parking on the right.

Starting up this trail in the Canadian Zone evergreen forest, you feel like you are already up on the mountain. You look forward to the great lookout located one mile up the trail. It is a classic mountainside perch located at 3,791 feet, with a couple of big rounded granite boulders to stand on.

Above, one’s eye is drawn to the sharp peak of Mount Jefferson, and then follows the range marching south. In the deep ravine ahead, I could easily hear a rushing stream.

On top of these boulders where you stand are glacial potholes, created about 12,000 years ago when the glacier was “down-wasting.” The top of Mount Jefferson was already free of ice and a stream formed on melting glacial ice to the immediate west of the mountain, creating the potholes.

This lookout is well worth a trip in itself. Later on my way down I met a couple who had only gone that far.

From there the upward trail soon gets interesting on the first Cap. Scrambling commences in earnest. Winding your way up the ridge you encounter the sharp merciless rock called the Littleton Formation. It originated as sediment on the bottom of the Iapetus Ocean.

Later, as tectonic plates closed 200 million years ago, it began to metamorphose into its present form. It is rough on Vibram soles.

Scrambling up the rugged Caps, I was reminded of the evacuation of Derek Tinkham, who died of hypothermia up on the main ridge in January 1994. Rescuers climbed up Caps Ridge Trail in extreme weather conditions, including high winds, put him in a litter and brought him back down the same way, quite an accomplishment.

It was perfect hiking conditions with no wind, mild temps and cloud cover above to protect from the hot sun when I reached the top of the Caps and soon bore left toward the summit of Jefferson. I had met a half-dozen people on the trail and knew that I would encounter more on the summit. Climbing up the last leg of the Caps Ridge Trail to the summit was mostly balancing from one sharp rock to another.

On top, I was lucky enough to encounter friends. A Wednesday hiking group of 12 was attempting a Presidential Traverse that day. We spoke briefly and they took off on their mission.

The next day, I talked to one of them. They had left Appalachia parking lot at 5 a.m., did all the summits except Mount Clay, and reached Crawford Notch after 15 hours of hiking.

After they left, it was quiet on the summit in the cool air. About 10 people were scattered about the summit area.

Later, I decided to take the Gulfside and Cornice Trails down to reconnect with Caps Ridge Trail, instead of descending the gnarly upper Caps Ridge Trail. I met a number of folks later on the way down the trail that had done the same thing.

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