Traverse Via Castle Trail (1.3 miles), Israel Ridge Path (.4 miles), Castle Ravine Trail (1.5 miles), The Link (.6 miles), Castle Trail to Summit (1.5 miles) and Descending Caps Ridge Trail (2.2 miles) Total Miles= 7.5
Mt. Jefferson located in Coos County New Hampshire is part of the Northern Presidential Range. It is the third highest of New Hampshire’s mountains at 5,712 feet above sea level. The mountain is named after the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Mount Jefferson sits between Mount Clay (to the South) and Mount Adams (another 4,000 footer, to the North).
Besides the summit of Mount Jefferson having amazing 360-degree views including Mt. Washington to the South, it also has several other features, making it a popular hike. There are two ridges that lead up to the summit: Ridge of the Caps and Castle Ridge, both offering spectacular views early in your hike. Mount Jefferson is surrounded by 3 dramatic glacial cirques of Jefferson Ravine, Castle Ravine and the Great Gulf. There is a large area of alpine grass near the summit called The Monticello Lawn, which is special because this area would normally be covered by talus.
There are numerous ways to approach Mt. Jefferson as a day hike or in combination with surrounding peaks for a multi-day trip. We chose to do a traverse from the Castle Ridge Trail located off a parking area on NH 2, through the lower part of Castle Ravine and then across Jefferson via the Link trail and up the Castle Ridge Trail to the summit and descending on the Caps Ridge Trail. This took coordination and two cars, leaving one at the Caps Ridge Trailhead located on the Jefferson Notch Road, accessed via the Base Road and Rt. 302. From there we drove back to NH 2 and left a car at the Castle Trailhead parking area, where we began our ascent. Neither parking area has any facilities. The Caps Ridge Trail parking area does collect a White Mountain National Forest fee of $3.00.
From the parking area head along the power line clearing for a short distance and look for a break in the woods, there is a sign for the Castle Trail to the left. The first 1.3 miles of the Castle Trail is very pleasant and well graded. It crosses the Israel River at mile .4 at high water this crossing may be difficult. The trail runs parallel to the stream and up a bank, to a junction with the Israel Ridge Path at 1.3 miles. This was a short stint for us on the Israel Ridge Trail, following it up at moderate grades for .4 miles with one water crossing. 1.7 miles from the trailhead we turned right onto the Castle Ravine Trail, this trail is scenic but has many water crossings and in places is rough with very poor footing. It is well marked but lightly used, evident by the amount of moss still clinging to rocks centered in the trail. Due to the multiple brook crossings, this trail would not be recommended for times of poor weather, even in fair weather this path is arduous. We chose to leave the Castle Ravine Trail to ascend a Mt. Jefferson via a trail with less steep of a headwall, so at mile 1.5 from the Israel Ridge Junction we diverged on the Link Trail to re-connect us with our original trail the Castle Trail for the remainder of our ascent. The Link trail also looked as though it was rarely used it was very green along the trail, as though few boots damaged the natural flora of the path. Views to the north peeked though the thinning trees as the trail leads across the west side of Mt. Jefferson through steep and uneven footing to the Castle Trail. The link would provide a good escape route from a more exposed trail to a sheltered one if bad weather were encountered along your hike. It was a slippery .6 miles from the Castle Ravine Trail to the junction with the Castle Trail but not unpleasant or too difficult for a hiker of some experience. From here the Castle Trail ascends quickly above tree line and the views are astounding, the terrain however is quite challenging. With the views comes the lack of shelter and protection from weather, it is only 1.5 miles to the summit cone from here but it is a long and rough distance.
The ascent was challenging for both of my dogs, the larger one in particular needed special attention and assistance climbing the castles. While the distance of this hike was particularly short at 7.5 miles, these were very difficult miles with wet slippery conditions below tree line as well as multiple brook crossings, and once above tree line the route is extremely exposed. While this makes for brilliant views the rock can be tricky to negotiate. The Randolph mountain club does a fantastic job of marking the trail with cairns and blazes so getting lost above tree line would be difficult unless you were working against some bad weather conditions. Even in the best of weather there is still a long section of the Castle Ridge Trail that is steep, with talus slopes, moving rocks and a few scrambles. Keep a keen eye on your dogs in this section, there is also some sharp rock so if your pet allows it check their feet to be sure they haven’t cut their paw pads and do your best to keep them on trail at all times.
I would not recommend that a novice hiker or inexperienced dog owner attempt to recreate this route, it is dangerous, exposed and challenging. The Caps Ridge Trail may seem a tempting short ascent for anyone considering a go at Mt. Jefferson, but although the Jefferson Notch Road brings you to 3,000 feet the remainder of the 2,712 feet are gained in just over 2.2 miles. The caps are smaller rock formations than the castles but they present challenges of their own, descending here we had to have several dog pass offs to assist them getting down some particularly steep and high rock scrambles. I believe they would have faired better on an ascent of Cap Ridge Trail but taking them down the Castle Trail would have been dodgy at best. We had 7 times during this hike where we had to “hand off” my larger dog and 2 times for the smaller one, this is the first hike where we have ever had to assist the smaller of my dogs in any sort of capacity, she is normally quite agile and well equip to handle herself in the mountains. If Jefferson is what you would like to undertake be aware that it is a big mountain, weather changes quickly and is very different at the summit than at the base. Plan accordingly and turn around if you have any doubts about your safety. The mountains are only fun if you make it out to tell your tale, and some, sadly have not returned from Jefferson in the past.