Climbing North and South Twin Mountains

Members of the UNH Outing Club crossing the Little River enroute to North Twin Mountain
Members of the UNH Outing Club crossing the Little River en route to North Twin Mountain

“South Twin must be the most climbed mountain on the 4000 footer list”, said my friend Lisa, “It’s on the way to so many other peaks”. South Twin Mountain is at a cross roads for anyone hiking from the Pemigewasset Wilderness to the Zealand Valley or Crawford Notch areas of the White Mountain National Forest. Every Appalachian Trail thru-hiker has to climb it, but they’re easily outnumbered by the thousands of people climbing the 4000 footers every year. I’ve climbed South Twin twice, just in the past month, and expect to climb it again before the year is over.

With an elevation of 4902′, South Twin is the 8th highest White Mountain 4000 footer. It’s the highest peak on the north side of the Pemigewasset Range, towering over neighboring Galehead Mountain, and Zealand Mountain, which is also nearby. There are three trails that meet at its rocky summit: The Twinway, the Garfield Ridge Trail and the North Twin Trail, which climbs South Twin’s 4760′ sibling first.

Previous Trip Reports to South Twin Mountain

On this trip, I hiked up the North Twin Trail which starts mellow, but quickly gets very steep (climbing from 1840′ to 4760′). I can only remember hiking this trail once before in 2009, when we glissaded down it on our butts after a winter backpacking trip. Climbing up it when the rocks and roots are exposed is a very different experience and requires a lot more energy. The secret to climbing a peak like this is to take small steps to avoid tiring the big muscles in your legs. Slow down to a pace that you can hike comfortably without breathing too heavily and you’ll get to the top and still have gas left in the tank.

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While we didn’t plan it this way, I played tag all the way up the mountain with the University of New Hampshire Outing Club, which was running a trip up North Twin on the same day. They stopped for a half-dozen rest breaks as they climbed the trail, while I kept going pretty much non-stop, repeatedly passing them, before they’d catch up and pass me. They were very nice trail companions, always making room for me to pass, and I chatted them as we climbed up the mountain.

The North Twin Trail starts out pretty level but starts getting steep about 2 miles in
The North Twin Trail starts out pretty level but starts getting steep about 2 miles in.

October has been shockingly warm this year. Actually, autumn has been kind of delayed and the red maples were only just coming into color this past weekend, when they’re usually peaking on Columbus day. While it was cool at the trail head, only about 40 degrees, I quickly heated up when I started hiking and stripped own to a single layer. The day heated up as the sun climbed higher, but it was still cool above treeline in the wind. Perfect hiking weather actually, dry and sunny, with just a touch of mist on the distance peaks.

The North Twin Trail begins at the end of Haystack Rd, a seasonal road which is gated and inaccessible by car in winter. The bottom of trail is a mellow walk along the Little River, crossing it three times before it starts climbing. The crossings can all be rock hopped but it takes time to scout them carefully. Marked (with cairns), the crossing points are also often not the best or easiest places to cross, which is pretty typical in the Whites.

View from North Twin Outlook
View from North Twin Outlook

The steep part climbs about 2000′ in 2 miles but levels off at about 4500′ where you enter a long stretch of krummholz at treeline. The dwarf trees provide plenty of wind protection up to the summit. There’s an outlook spur trail there, to a ledge that has a great view of Mt Garfield, Franconia Ridge, and the small peaks between Mt Garfield and Mt Galehead. The latter is a very strenuous section of trail to hike, full of mud, slippery ledges and large boulders.

The North Twin Trail drops about 200′ into the col between the North and South Twin summits. It’s a very pleasant stretch of trail, bordered by storm battered trees, before you start climbing again. After that, there’s a fine open ledge where you pop above treeline, before climbing the knob atop South Twin. I stood there for a while and watched as a glider from the Franconia Soaring Association soared silently above. A perfect day.

A glider from the Franconia Soaring Association flew silently overhead
A glider from the Franconia Soaring Association flew silently overhead

I hung out on South Twin for a while talking to the people I met there. A pair of backpackers recognized me. They’d just come over the Bonds that morning. They’d tried to summit Bondcliff the previous evening but couldn’t get across it because the wind speeds were too high. Scary stuff. That’s one cliff you don’t want to get blown off of. They camped below the Hillary Step and got across the following morning.

Philip at South Twin, October 2017
Philip at South Twin, October 2017

This being an in-and-out hike, I turned around and retraced my steps back down the North Twin Trail. It took a few hours to get back down, but I didn’t mind the walk. It’s been nice revisiting the 4000 footers this year and the trails leading to them.


Total Distance 10.75 miles with 3500 feet of elevation gain.

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