Owl’s Head, Conserving Wilderness

Owls Head and the Pemigewasset Wilderness from the Franconia Ridge Trail in New Hampshire.
Owl's Head from Franconia Ridge, New Hampshire

Owl’s Head, Conserving Wilderness – This remote 4025-foot mountain in the western region of the federally designated Pemigewasset Wilderness creates much debate. The controversy isn’t really about Owl’s Head its more about wilderness management. Hikers unhappy with the management of the Pemigewasset Wilderness use Owl’s Head as a stepping stone to criticize the Wilderness Act.

Established in 1984 under the New Hampshire Wilderness Act, the 45,000-acre Pemigewasset Wilderness is managed under the National Wilderness Preservation System and the Wilderness Act. Considered to be one of the greatest conservation laws ever passed, the Wilderness Act has protected over 109 million acres across the United States. And yet some are against the Wilderness Act.

Fresh Axe work along Franconia Brook Trail in the Pemigewasset Wilderness of New Hampshire during the summer months.Because the Pemi Wilderness is a designated wilderness trail work has to be done with hand tools and non-motorized equipment. This trail follows the Franconia Branch of the old East Branch & Lincoln Railroad.
Fresh Axe Work – Franconia Brook Trail, New Hampshire

Designated wilderness areas are managed in a way to keep the wilderness in a primitive state which is very different than how the rest of the White Mountain National Forest is managed. Trail work is minimal and done in such a way, so it looks natural. Trail blazing is non-existent, and man-made structures are not allowed within wilderness areas. And trail work has to be done with hand tools and non-motorized equipment.

Franconia Brook Trail in the Pemigewasset Wilderness of New Hampshire during the summer months.
Franconia Brook Trail – Pemigewasset Wilderness, New Hampshire

Owl's Head has seen its share of human and natural impact. In the 1900s, around 1903, the East Branch & Lincoln Railroad made its way into the Owl's Head region to harvest timber. And a lightning strike on the eastern side of the mountain, fueled by logging slash, burned an estimated 10,610 acres in August 1907.

Today, the pristine backcountry around Owl's Head is protected from the greedy hand of man. The trails around the mountain utilize old logging roads and the railroad bed of the East Branch & Lincoln. It's a beautiful region of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. But because of increased hiker traffic to Owl's Head, there is concern for potential overuse (human impact). Human impact is the number one issue in the White Mountains.

Storm (rain) clouds engulf Owls Head Mountain from the summit of Bondlcliff Mountain in the Pemigewasset Wilderness.
Owl's Head from Bondcliff, New Hampshire

Owl’s Head is one of the 48 mountains on the White Mountain 4000 footers hiking list. And it’s no secret that the popularity of this hiking list has put a strain on conservation efforts in the White Mountains. For some hiking the list, the 18-mile round trip hike to Owl’s Head is their first experience in primitive wilderness. The majority are only doing it because it's on the list. And this hike determines if they love or hate wilderness characteristics.

Hikers hiking lists are called peakbaggers, a subgroup of the hiking community. Because hiking lists put hikers on all the same mountains and trails, the lists are contributing to the overuse problems. Of all the hiking lists, the 4000 footers list is one of the few governed by an established committee.

Trail marker (blazing) along an illegally cut trail near Black Pond in Lincoln, New Hampshire. This unauthorized trail starts at Black Pond and ends near Lincoln Brook Trail. Many hikers bushwack this area when hiking to Owl's Head Mountain. And more than likely this trail was cut and blazed by hikers.
Unauthorized Trail Blaze – Black Pond Bushwack, New Hampshire

Owl’s Head is within the Pemigewasset Wilderness so trail work is minimal and there's no trail blazing or summit sign. And the unofficial trail leading to the mountain isn’t maintained. In short, the trails in the area are not suitable for flip flop travel. Hikers have to rely on their own outdoor skills when in this wilderness. Well, some don’t support this approach to conserving our public lands. And they take it upon themselves to do unauthorized trail work in the area. These rogue hikers believe they are bettering the White Mountains.

There has been a feud between Forest Service and peakbaggers for years. A hiker does unauthorized trail work in the Owl's Head area, and Forest Service comes along and removes it because it does not adhere to wilderness guidelines. Add the herd paths (from hikers) on the summit, and we have human impact concerns.

OH (Owl’s Head) carved into in a softwood tree along Owl’s Head Path in the Pemigewasset Wilderness.
OH (Owl’s Head) Carved into Tree – Owl's Head, New Hampshire

The official White Mountain 4000 footers hiking list, originally consisting of 46 mountains, was published in Appalachia in June 1958. Bondcliff and Galehead were added later. At the time, Franconia Ridge and the Presidential Range were seeing heavy use, and the intent of this list was to disperse hikers across the White Mountains. It seemed to have worked for a while. But because of the huge surge in peakbagging the intent of this list might be backfiring in the 21st-century. Many mountains are seeing heavy use now.

Scenic view of Owls Head Mountain from the summit of Bondcliff in the Pemigewasset Wilderness of New Hampshire during the summer months.
Owl's Head from Bondcliff, New Hampshire

Based on the number of hikers pursuing the White Mountain 4000 footers hiking list there's no denying that hiker traffic has increased in the western region of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. And while the human impact on Owl’s Head is minimal for now, between the increased hiker traffic and rogue trail work, it could worsen.

Scenic view of the Pemigewasset Wilderness in the New Hampshire White Mountains from Franconia Ridge. Owl's Head is in the middle of the scene, and Mount Washington is snow-capped. The area around Owl's Head was logged during the East Branch & Lincoln Railroad era (1893-1948).
Owl's Head from Franconia Ridge, New Hampshire

When it comes to conserving our wilderness areas, its irrelevant that Owl's Head was on a hiking list before the area became a designated wilderness. And this thought that altering the Wilderness Act, so that the trails in the Pemigewasset Wilderness can be maintained to state park standards will alleviate human impact is smoke and mirrors. As long as this mountain remains on a hiking list, there is great potential for overuse.

However, controlling overuse in the future is simple – remove Owl's Head from the hiking list. It's the easiest solution, so maybe its time to tweak the list. After all, it would be much easier to remove a mountain from a hiking list than trying to alter the Wilderness Act, so it accommodates a subgroup of the hiking community.

Why not take action now to conserve Owl’s Head from human impact?

Happy image making


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2 Responses to “Owl’s Head, Conserving Wilderness”

  1. Skip Willis

    Love your unbiased take on this problem, and the seemingly too easy fix.  I can't visit and see for myself, since Santa Barbara to the White Mountains is a bit far,  I'll trust you for the images and interpretations.


    Skip Willis

    • Erin Paul Donovan

      Thank you, Skip. I try to look at every issue with an open mind. While removing the mountain from the hiking list wouldn’t eliminate all the human impact around Owl’s Head, it would definitely help control it in the future.

      The hiking lists have been instrumental in getting people into the White Mountains, but they are part the overuse problems.


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