Mount Jefferson via Caps Ridge Trail

Destinations:  Mt. Jefferson (5716'), Lower Cap (4422'), Upper Cap (4830')
Trails:  Caps Ridge Trail, The Cornice, Gulfside Trail, Mount Jefferson Loop, Appalachian Trail
Region:  NH - Central East  
White Mountain National Forest, Presidentials
Location:  Thompson and Meserves Purchase, NH
Rating:  Difficult  
Features:  Summit, views, 4000-footer, alpine zone, rock scrambles
Distance:  5.5 miles  
Elevation Gain:  2720 feet (cumulative)  
Hiking Time:  Typical: 4:35  
Outing Duration:  Actual: 6:00   Typical: 6:30  
Season:  Summer
Hike Date:  09/03/2007 (Monday)  
Last Updated:  09/14/2009  
Weather:  Clear and sunny
Author:  Kathy Astrauckas

Kathy and Bob on Mt. Jefferson (photo by Kathy Astrauckas) Route Summary   

This is basically an out-and-back hike (with a small loop near the top) to Mount Jefferson, a 4000-footer with 360-degree views. Caps Ridge Trail will be followed much of the way up and all the way down. There are a few "caps" along the way which are simply rocky knobs providing viewpoints.

  • Start on Caps Ridge Trail on Jefferson Notch Road.
  • Follow Caps Ridge Trail for 2.1 miles (going straight at the junction with The Link at 1.1 miles).
  • Upon reaching the junction with The Cornice, turn right and follow The Cornice for 0.5 mile where it ends at Gulfside Trail.
  • Turn left onto Gulfside Trail, which is also the Appalachian Trail, and follow it for 0.1 mile until it meets Mount Jefferson Loop.
  • Bear left here to get on Mount Jefferson Loop and follow that for the final 0.3 mile up to the summit of Mount Jefferson.
  • For the return trip, descend from the summit on Caps Ridge Trail and follow that trail for 2.5 miles all the way back to Jefferson Notch Road (turn right upon reaching the junction with The Cornice after 0.4 mile).

Place         Split
Caps Ridge Trailhead on Jefferson Notch Road (3008') 0.0 0.0
Jct. Caps Ridge Trail/The Link (3800') 1.1 1.1
Lower Cap (4422') 0.4 1.5
Upper Cap (4830') 0.4 1.9
Jct. Caps Ridge Trail/The Cornice (5025') 0.2 2.1
Jct. The Cornice/Gulfside Trail (AT) (5325') 0.5 2.6
Jct. Gulfside Trail (AT)/Mount Jefferson Loop (5375') 0.1 2.7
Mt. Jefferson summit (5716') 0.3 3.0
Jct. Caps Ridge Trail/The Cornice (5025') 0.4 3.4
Upper Cap (4830') 0.2 3.6
Lower Cap (4422') 0.4 4.0
Jct. Caps Ridge Trail/The Link (3800') 0.4 4.4
Caps Ridge Trailhead on Jefferson Notch Road (3008') 1.1 5.5

Feel like flying (photo by Kathy Astrauckas)

Bob climbing Mt. Jefferson (photo by Kathy Astrauckas)

"Dead" hiker taking photographs from a reclined position (photo by Kathy Astrauckas)

Asters (photo by Kathy Astrauckas)


Map of hike route to Mt. Jefferson (map by Webmaster)

Trail Guide   

Mt. Jefferson crenellated ridge (photo by Kathy Astrauckas) On Labor Day, Sept. 3, 2007, we (Kathy Astrauckas and Bob Hagen) decided to take on a very challenging hike. Although the hike is short (2.5 miles one way on the Caps Ridge Trail), many people mistakenly think that it will be quick and easy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. While it may take less time than the 10 to 13 miles to reach the summit via other routes, it is much harder than several other longer options.

In the 2.5 miles up, you get to climb 2,700 feet. That's over 1,000 feet per mile, and even steeper since the first 1.1 miles rise "only" 800 feet. Anyone planning to hike in the White Mountains should definitely get a copy of the brand-new (April 2007) 28th Edition of the AMC's White Mountain Guide. The trail descriptions are very accurate, informative and detailed when they need to be.

Not wanting to rouse ourselves too early on Labor Day, we left our home in Vermont at 8:15 and got on the trail at approximately 10:00. The day seemed warm, most likely because we were going immediately, steadily uphill with plenty of rounded rocks on the trail. We started in spruce woods, but it wasn't long before the trees got shorter and the sun brighter on our heads.

Mt. Jefferson "moonscape" (photo by Kathy Astrauckas) Mt. Jefferson "moonscape" (photo by Kathy Astrauckas)

At approximately 1 mile there was a nice granite rock to climb for a lovely view of the "Caps" and the Jefferson/Clay ridge as well. The boulders were marked by potholes, which are indicative of glacier action (from the streams formed by the melting glacier). Some white asters were in bloom, and the bark of some of the spruce trees really looked more like birch. We didn't spend too much time admiring the woods, lovely though they were, since we were more focused on the fact that the trees were rapidly getting shorter and we got a feeling of being "up there" already.

At 1.1 mile, The Link cuts off to the left. We had contemplated returning from the summit via Castle Trail and The Link, which would be longer (no sweat, since the out-and-back on Caps Ridge would only be 5 miles), but some hikers we met said they were told by the caretaker at The Perch (an open log shelter) that The Link wasn't often used and therefore more time-consuming and more difficult than you might expect, and their personal opinion was that going down Castle Trail (having just come up it themselves) would be harder than going down Caps Ridge. Anyway, back to our hike.

Climbing Mt. Jefferson (photo by Kathy Astrauckas) The trees kept getting scrubbier and views more expansive. Then suddenly, steep scrambling. The "Caps" are three distinct "summits" on the ridge, all very ledgy, from the 1.5 to 1.9 mile points on the trail, with the Lower Cap at 4,422 feet and the Upper Cap at 4,830 feet. "Four wheel drive" is definitely needed; in other words, I, who always use trekking poles, actually stowed them in my pack so I could use both hands and feet. Always keep three points on the rock. Sometimes you need to count on momentum to get you up. And don't think about how you'll get down just now.... In fact, if you're afraid of heights, don't look down at all, though the views are magnificent.

After the Caps, the trail continues to climb up the steep, rocky ridge. Basically, it's rock hopping. You have to concentrate and pay attention. But you really must find a spot now and then to take in the astounding views. Up to the left is the ridge with the rock formations that give the Castle Trail its name (they look like crenellations). Up to the right are the former Mount Clay (now Mount Reagan, I'm told, but the guide books don't seem to think so, either) which somehow does not count as a 4000-footer, and beyond that, Mount Washington. You can't miss Mount Washington from this angle (unless it's socked in); it's the one with the enormous building (observatory, cafeteria, gift shop, etc.) and towers. You can also see the smoke and hear the whistle of the cog railway on Mount Washington. All around, the place looks something like a moonscape (or my imagination of one), that is to say, all rocks, no trees, just some sedge grasses. As the signs say in alpine zones (though I'm not sure why I didn't see any on today's hike): "It's a tough place to grow". So try to stay on the rocks (there are plenty of them!) and not walk on the vegetation.

Tree at our nap/rest spot on the descent (photo by Kathy Astrauckas) At 2.1 miles there's a trail junction, with signs, which we misinterpreted, so we ended up ascending via Monticello Lawn by way of The Cornice trail instead of straight up, which brought us to the summit via a scenic 0.9 mile route (adding an unplanned half-mile to the trip). Up there, it was VERY windy. I'm guessing at least 30 m.p.h., since the wind was blowing me around. It was also quite cold. How cold? No idea; I put on a lightweight long-sleeved micro-fleece pullover and gloves and felt fine. But since I have perhaps a bit beyond a "healthy" respect for big mountain weather, I was quite scared. There was really no threatening forecast, just a very slight chance of showers, but strong winds can make weather change very quickly, and there would be no way to get off the ridge fast, certainly not in the direction of our car.

We met a man coming down who wished us enjoyable views; it was all socked in when he was up there. It didn't look far but still took us another hour to get there, I think. The wind literally took my breath away, so I wasn't bothering to think about my watch or anything else except putting one foot in front of the other. Scared as I was, I also did not stop to snack until the summit, at 1:00. By then I was beyond hungry, but ate quickly; did not even bother to read the view guide in the 4000-Footers book (The 4000-Footers of the White Mountains: A Guide and History), though I did take a glance around, made sure I tagged the actual summit, and headed down.

"Dead" hikers recovering our energy on Mt. Jefferson (photo by Kathy Astrauckas) "Dead" hikers recovering our energy on Mt. Jefferson (photo by Kathy Astrauckas)

We descended straight down on the Caps Ridge Trail (discovering where we had erred on the way up), and also discovering a few sunny spots in the lee of rock piles, where finally I relaxed, rested, and soaked up some of summer's last rays. Going down was indeed harder than coming up, in terms of knees and fear factor. That is to say, with poles, I trounced merrily down the first part (above the Caps), but needed to rest my knees several times. On the parts that had been really hard to pull myself up on the uphill, the sliding down was scarier, on the edge of, but still within my ability. On a perfectly dry day, that is. I shudder to think what this trail would be like on a rainy or damp day, as the rocks were all covered with lichen, and quite a few of them were smooth (many were very rough, too, another reason for those gloves!). A very different feeling looking down the trail as opposed to looking up, on the uphill. It really gave you the feeling you might be able to fly, or at least the desire to dream about it.

Once we got down off the Caps and back into the woods, we took advantage of a lookout point we had spied on our way up, to rest, relax, eat, drink, nap. All told, it was 3 hours up and 3 hours down, but there were more rests on the downhill.

For me, it was a scary hike, but I'm glad I did it, and even happier I picked a day when the weather forecast was near perfect, with no threatening weather for several days.
On the trail - Mt. Jefferson (photo by Kathy Astrauckas)

On the trail - Mt. Jefferson (photo by Kathy Astrauckas)


NH - Central East

  Driving Directions   

The Caps Ridge Trailhead is located in Thompson and Meserves Purchase, New Hampshire, on Jefferson Notch Road which can be accessed indirectly from either Route 302 or Route 2.

Heading West on Route 302:
  • Heading west on Rt. 302, turn right onto Mount Clinton Road which is 0.2 mile past the AMC Highland Center.
  • Travel 3.6 miles then, at a crossroads, go straight onto Jefferson Notch Road.
  • Follow Jefferson Notch Road for 3.4 miles and the Caps Ridge Trailhead and parking area will be on the right.

Heading East on Route 302:
  • Heading east on Rt. 302, turn left onto Base Road (the road that leads to the Cog Railroad). The turn is about 4.4 miles east of the junction of Routes 3 and 302.
  • Travel about 4.5 miles then, at a crossroads, turn left onto Jefferson Notch Road.
  • Follow Jefferson Notch Road for 3.3 miles and the Caps Ridge Trailhead and parking area will be on the right.

From Route 2 in Randolph:
  • Turn south onto Valley Road (Valley Road is about 3.4 miles east of the junction of Routes 2 and 115).
  • After 1.2 miles, turn left onto Jefferson Notch Road.
  • Follow Jefferson Notch Road for 5.3 miles and the Caps Ridge Trailhead and parking area will be on the left.

Restricted Access: Jefferson Notch Road is open only in the summer and early fall.

Other Notes   

WMNF Recreational Pass

A parking permit is required to park at White Mountain National Forest trailheads and parking areas. You can purchase a WMNF permit from the forest service and other vendors and can also pay-by-the-day using self-service kiosks located in many parking areas.

For more information on parking passes please refer to the White Mountain National Forest website.

  • $5 per day
  • $30 for a year-long pass
  • $40 for a year for a household

More Mt. Jefferson Trail Reports   



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