A Family Adventure

Tyson, Emilie & Isaac

Garfield and Gale River Ski Exploration

January 5, 2020
Emilie Phillips

The northern slope of Franconia Ridge consistently has less snow than the rest of the Whites. Yet Goodman, in his acclaimed backcountry skiing guidebook, recommends a tour up Mount Garfield. My parents suggested we try it for something new to do. The tour starts on forest service road 92, then continues up the Mt Garfield trail on what used to be a fire tower access road.

Skiing in FR92

The 6 to 12 inches of snow on the ground protected our skis from the roadbed. The guidebook warned of missing bridges on FR-92, but we found all the bridges in good condition. FR 92 makes a sharp left where it crosses the Gale River. This is the summer trailhead for the Mt Garfield trail. Snowmobile corridor 11 merges onto FR 92 to use the road bridge across the Gale River.

On the west side of the river, we found an unmarked road with ski tracks. On the east side of the river, snowshoe tracks climbed the hiking trail. We chatted with a local snowshoer. He said the small road went to the pump house for the Bethlehem water supply. He said the Garfield hiking trail was too narrow and steep to ski. Up the hiking trail a ways, he said, you could see the old cross country trail. He suggested instead that we explore the Beaver Brook cross country trails since they are flatter.

Isaac and Grandpa

That was all good information. We calibrated his trail descriptions to our adventurous ski style. Our best guess was the road to the pump house was the ski route. It sure looked more skiable than the hiking trail sounded. We guessed it continued to the reported “old” ski trail. Winter trails can look abandoned in the summer. Our biggest concern was the stream crossing. Goodman had said to cross the stream on snow bridges, but the Gale river looked awfully big to cross on a snow bridge. We decided to attempt the road.

Historical Topographic Map Collection

I now know the road to the pump house is not the route described in the Goodman book. We could have figured that out if we had paid more attention to which stream we were supposed to cross. The old fire tower access road and the pump house road used to coincide, but they both have been rerouted. Compare the 1929 Franconia NH topo map to the right (from USGS historic topos) to the latest trails in open street maps. The lower section of the hiking trail moved to the east side of the Gale River and now follows a ridge in a hemlock forest. The pump house road stayed on the west side of the river, but moved up the hill. The original fire tower roadbed is visible at both ends, but overgrown with trees.

John and Trudy crossing the Gale River

We followed the ski tracks up the water supply access road. It was a nice rolling route. No blow downs or rocks. I reveled in the layer of fresh powder and more falling from the sky. We easily crossed the South Branch of the Gale River. Then we skied up into a birch forest, which sort of matched Goodman’s description. Next we passed an open area which looked suspicious, bent right, and crossed a bridge.

Snowmobile Map

The Goodman book had described an intersection with a snowmobile trail. He said to stay on the Garfield trail and not cross the bridges on the snowmobile trail. The only problem with this description is there was no matching trail on my snowmobile map. I have owned a snowmobile map ever since our adventures on the Nanamocomuck Trail and Hancock Notch. I don’t know why ski maps don’t show the snowmobile trails.

Was the bridge we crossed one of the mentioned snowmobile bridges? The answers we figured out were:

  • The water supply access road was not the route Goodman had intended. Our GPS track was diverging from the hiking trail and heading up a neighboring drainage.
  • Open Street Maps on Tyson’s phone had the old snowmobile trail marked. It appeared to intersect our tracks at the suspicious clearing and then go west across the hiking trail.
Water supply building.

Since we were this far up the wrong trail, we decided to finish exploring to its end. We found the pump house and the little dam for the reservoir. Then we returned to the abandoned snowmobile trail. I don’t know why they abandoned it. We had to duck under a few blow downs, but otherwise it was quite skiable. We crossed a substantial bridge and found the snowshoe tracks on the hiking trail.

This part of the hiking trail follows the old road. Unfortunately in true New England fashion, the fire tower road went straight up the fall line. Over the last 100 years, it has turned into a water drainage. It needed another foot of dense snow or three feet of powder to cover all the rocks. We turned around when the trail got too wet to be skiable. It happens, that was also where the trail gets steeper.

John descending Garfield Trail

The ride down was fun, except for the scraping rock sounds. We decided to continue down the hiking trail. The hiking trail progressively leveled out until we were almost back to the Gale River. There, it took a sharp right off the old road and up to the ridge with the hemlock forest. In case you have never visited a hemlock forest in winter, I should tell you that their dense needles catch almost all the sunlight and snow before it hits the ground. We had about two inches of snow for the rest of the trip. The hiking trail wiggled and squiggled around trees and roots, and thought nothing of plummeting down a hill and climbing back up again. For the finale, we launched off rock steps onto FR 92.

We survived, but we would all recommend you ski the pump house access road and the old snowmobile trail rather than the lower Garfield Trail.

We need to come back later in the season and explore more

  • is the other half of the abandoned snowmobile trail skiable and fun?
  • how are the Beaver Brook picnic area trails?
  • what is the Garfield trail like as it gets steeper? The map shows the hiking trail zigzaggingg. The historic maps show the road continued straight up the mountain.

Tyson’s Photos

GPS Track