White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire.
Mount Jackson is a beautiful peak, reaching just above tree-line in the southern Presidential Range. At 4,052 feet above sea level, the peak provides a sweeping vista east and west of the Presidentials, across the Dry River Wilderness to the east and the Pemigewasset Wilderness to the southwest, up the spine of the Presidential Range to Mount Washington in the northeast, and across an unending sea of mountain peaks in all directions. The trail takes you through an amazing variety of terrain and ecosystems from dark labyrinths of hemlock, dank, lichen-draped alpine swamp forests, lush alpine bogs, and the wind-blasted, glacier-scoured basalt peak.
The hike is a challenging all-day hike for the average couch potato and, frankly, challenging enough that you might not want to go there if your group includes people with mobility or stamina problems. If it is within your reach, the experience of the peak is well worth the effort. Older children can manage this hike, but they have to be prepared for a long, hard day.
Weather in the White Mountains, and particularly in the alpine zone of the Presidential Range is notoriously unpredictable, so be prepared for almost anything. Carry a sweater, even in the middle of summer, and carry a poncho, even if the forecast calls for cloudless skies all day. Especially in winter, the weather in the Presidentials is often literally deadly, so be prepared or don't go.
Keep the changeable weather in mind. You won't always get a great view!
I chose Mount Jackson as "the big hike" of my annual camping trip because it provides a convenient loop. I don't have to spend half the day hiking out along trails that I just hiked in on. I first hiked this loop in the early to mid 1990s, and I have hiked it at least once a year, sometimes twice, every year since that first time.
I consider Mount Jackson my age-indicator. When I can't make this hike on the Friday nearest my birthday, then I'll be old. But I won't quit hiking. I'll just find a smaller mountain.
There are several trails up and down Mount Jackson, and several choices of routes. Most descriptions I've read say to go up the western side and down the northern side. I prefer to go the opposite direction, up the more gradual northern side and down the steeper western side.
I park at the big meadow just north of Crawford Notch on Mount Clinton Road and take the Crawford Connector to Crawford Path. Then up Crawford Path to the Mizpah Cut-Off. At the end of Mizpah Cut-Off, I take a small detour to stop for a glass of lemonade at the Appalachian Mountain Club's Mizpah Spring Hut. From there, I take the Webster Cliff Trail (which is part of the Appalachian Trail) to the summit of Mount Jackson. After an hour or so for lunch and a kick-back, I take the northern fork of the Webster-Jackson Trail down to Crawford Notch. The final leg of the hike is just walking along Route 302 back to Mount Clinton Road and the parking lot. (If you still have the energy and the daylight, you could detour around the Saco Lake Trail to prolong your walk in the woods. Take a right at the dam about 200 feet north of the Webster-Jackson Trail, and you'll come back to the road about 100 feet south of Mount Clinton Road.)
The entire loop is about seven and a half miles around.
There is a $3.00 per day fee to park in the National Forest, or you can purchase a season pass for your car.
Although this is National Forest, camping and campfires are restricted in many areas along these trails, due to very heavy usage. Regulations can change, so check the posted signs at the trail heads. Generally, camping is not permitted within a quarter mile of Mizpah Spring Hut, nor within a quarter mile of any trail or watercourse in the alpine zone. (Convenient, that: In spring, there's not much difference between a "trail" and a "watercourse.")
I can't describe winter hiking on Mount Jackson from first-hand experience. I know that the lower trails are reasonably passable, but I've never gone above timberline in winter. (There are signs at the trail heads warning you not to go there unless you are in "top physical condition." Being a borderline couch potato and not too eager to get my name in the newspapers, I don't go above timberline in winter.)
Here are a few bits of trivia about Mount Jackson and the trails described on this page.
How to Get There
If you're near the coast of New England, from Rhode Island to Maine, your best approach is probably up the Spaulding Turnpike (go to Portsmouth, NH via I-95 and you'll find it). I hardly ever go this way myself, so here's the best of my recollection. Somewhere along the way, the Spaulding becomes State Route 16. Continue to follow that to North Conway, then start looking for U.S. 302 west (the intersection is actually in Glen, NH, but it's pretty much continuous strip mall from Conway on up). Follow U.S. 302 west for 18 miles or so, and you'll find yourself in Crawford Notch State Park. After eight more miles or so, you'll leave the park. You'll know it, because the road stops climbing. Pass Saco Lake on your right and the AMC Highland Center and Crawford Depot on your left. Turn right on Mount Clinton Road. The parking lot is about a hundred yards in, on the left.
From almost anywhere else, follow U.S. 3 or I-93 north. Doesn't matter which, as they come together above Manchester. If you're on U.S. 3 north of Nashua, stay on the Everett Turnpike and I-293 as you pass Manchester, and you'll get back to I-93. Once you're on I-93 north of Manchester, stay on it. U.S. 3 will come and go, and cross a few times, but just stay with I-93 until you get to Franconia Notch. A mile or so north of Franconia Notch State Park (and Cannon Mountain ski area), U.S. 3 splits off again. Follow it this time, toward Twin Mountain and Carroll. In Twin Mountain, at the only traffic signal, you'll come to U.S. 302. Turn right (east) toward Bretton Woods. Soon the road will curve around toward the south-southeast. Maybe 14 miles after Twin Mountain, you'll see a very large meadow on the left, and the road begins to climb rather sharply. Just before the top of this hill, turn left on Mount Clinton Road. The parking lot is about a hundred yards in, on the left.
There is a sign at the beginning of Mount Clinton Road warning that the road is gated in winter. The parking lot is just before the gate, so you can get there even in winter.
The trail starts at the northeast corner of the parking lot.
If you are approaching the Presidential Range from the Twin Mountain side, take a look ahead. As you pass Mount Washington and the palatial Mount Washington Hotel, the ridgeline ahead is the Presidential Range. You can clearly see the defile of Crawford Notch. The first peak north (left) of the notch is Mount Webster. The second peak is Mount Jackson.
Terrain and Ecosystems
The trails I take climb up Mount Pierce along the canyon of Gibbs Brook, then cross the flank of Mount Pierce and the shoulder of Mount Jackson through the great sponge of swampy balsam forest just below the alpine zone, crossing in and out of the true alpine zone. On the final climb to the peak, the trail enters an alpine spruce forest and passes through a couple of alpine bogs and into the treeless peak. On the descent, the trail passes through very similar habitats in reverse, following the canyon of Tisdale Spring and Silver Cascade before following the heavily forested ridge of Webster Cliff. In its final plunge into Crawford Notch, the trail passes into mixed hemlock and beech forest.
As you might imagine, this variety of ecosystems on this long trail lets you observe one unfamiliar and interesting phenomenon after another.
I'll just gloss over the typical beech and hemlock forests. They're interesting enough, of course, but I've described much of what you can see there in my descriptions of other hikes, such as Arethusa Falls, Mount Willard, and Elephant Head.
What's new here are the swampy balsam forests, the alpine spruce forest, the alpine bogs, and the peak zone.
In the high balsam forests, you can observe how the mountains provide a continuous supply of water to the lower streams and rivers. The soil, if you can call it that, is a vast sponge of moss that holds nearly all the rain that falls on it. Slowly, the water oozes through this sponge and makes its way to the streams. Where the Mizpah Cut-Off trail has been cut through this sponge down to bedrock, you can see this oozing in action. Try to visualize that the great quantity of water trickling noisily across the trail is also percolating silently through the spongy moss all around you. That's a lot of water!
This sign marks the beginning of the protected alpine zone on Mizpah Cut-Off.
In the alpine zone, the Mizpah Cut-Off trail consists largely of loose rocks, sometimes held
in place with log frames. This allows water to flow through, which it does abundantly in spring.
These forests are home to some rather exotic birds and animals often found farther north, near the Arctic. The boreal chickadee is slightly but noticeably different from his lowland black-capped cousin, both in appearance and in voice. And there are more lemmings here than there are lower down, especially in the peak population years. The forest itself is comprised mostly of balsam, with the usual mixture of white birch, white spruce, and hemlock. Most of the trees here are festooned with lichens, reminiscent of the Spanish moss that grows a thousand miles farther south, though these lichens are not as long and pendant as the Spanish moss.
Trees in the swampy balsam forest are draped with streamers of lichen.
In this closer view, the stringy lichen looks much like miniature Spanish moss.
The alpine spruce forest lives on the thin soil above timberline between Mizpah Springs and the bare peak of Mount Jackson. These trees are largely black spruce, with only some of the red spruces more common at lower elevations. They do not grow very tall, barely taller than a person, but this is due to the harsh wind and cold of the alpine zone rather than to any inherent characteristics of the trees. They have an odd habit of growing and dying in "waves," as succeeding generations deplete the meager soil on the ridges of bedrock. Notice the alternating bands of thriving green trees and dying red-brown trees as you pass through, then look at the pattern again when you get to the summit.
This forest shelters many of the same animals as the balsam forest, but you will also see new birds there, especially the spruce grouse and the gray jay. Both of these birds are remarkably bold, and you will be able to get amazingly close to them.
In the alpine bogs, you will see a whole new array of plants that thrive in the water-rich but nutrient-poor mud. There are even a number of insectivorous plants, including rare but large pitcher plants and tiny, abundant sundews. All throughout the bogs are myriads of tiny plants that you'll probably never see anywhere else. The substrate of the bog is, of course, the basalt bedrock, but then a very thick mass of peaty lichen has formed a sponge many feet deep, much thicker than the moss sponge in the swampy forests.
The larger and lower of the two bogs on the northern flank of Mount Jackson.
Yes, there is a difference between a "bog" and a "swamp."
So, the two small treeless wetlands on the northern slopes of Mount Jackson are bogs.
The peak zone is not as devoid of life as you might expect. Stunted spruces and bushes grow along the cracks in the rock, or in depressions where a little soil has accumulated. In spring, there are masses of flowers lining the cracks. The gray jays spend a lot of time here, hoping for a handout (or accidentally dropped snack) from the hikers. You'll sometimes see spruce grouse here, too. And there are always strange insects crawling along the rock. Take a close look at the rock, and you will find that it is not bare at all, but covered with a thin layer of all kinds of lichens and other tiny plants.
You could spend days studying the rarely-seen life forms in any of these habitats. Well, I could, anyway.
These are the approximate distances of each segment of the hike up and down Mount Jackson as described here. Note that the distances are not necessarily the total lengths of these trails, but the distance that you hike along these trails before turning off onto another trail.
||Length (mi.) this hike|
|Webster Cliff Trail
|U.S. Route 302/Mt. Clinton Road
As you start off on the Crawford Connector, you'll pass a tiny meadow just above the parking lot. If it's late summer, look for blueberries. The trail then passes through a somewhat moist hemlock forest, climbing slightly for a third of a mile or so, until you cross Gibbs Brook and reach Crawford Path.
Blueberries in the little meadow just above the parking lot along the Crawford Connector.
Crawford Path climbs beside Gibbs Brook ascending, sometimes steeply, sometimes very steeply, up the western slope of Mount Pierce. About 3/4 of a mile or so along the trail is a very short spur trail to Gibbs Falls. This pretty little waterfall is worth a look, and it's a convenient place to rest a moment and check your bootlaces. After another mile and a quarter, you enter the swampy balsam forest and reach the Mizpah Cut-Off.
Gibbs Falls along Crawford Path.
Mizpah Cut-Off ascends somewhat steeply at first, but then it is more level for most of its 3/4-mile length. Here you are in the alpine zone, and the black-capped chickadees are abruptly replaced by gray-capped boreal chickadees.
Exposed bedrock on the Mizpah Cut-Off.
When you get to the Webster Cliff Trail, take a left for the short side-trip to Mizpah Spring Hut. Have a glass of slightly cool lemonade. Or two. And a brownie. And chat with the other hikers and the AMC crew as they prepare lunch or dinner for the guests. (They're always cooking something.)
This is a "hut"? I suppose the Mount Washington Hotel
could be described as a cozy little bungalow.
Best lemonade for five miles around!
From the hut, go back the way you came along the Webster Cliff Trail past Mizpah Cut-Off. The trail descends gently for more than a mile. (And yes, you'll have to climb back up all that altitude that you're losing.) Then it climbs a little unnamed peak. From here, you may be able to get your first view down into Crawford Notch on your right, and ahead to the peak of Mount Jackson.
After descending from this unnamed peak for a third of a mile, you'll start to climb again at a moderately steep slope. When you emerge into the first bog, you'll have a very clear view of the peak, still high above you, but now very close. A few more steps up a gentle incline bring you to the second, smaller bog.
Then the real climbing starts. The trail just gets steeper and steeper, and you're using your hands to grip the cracks in the exposed bedrock. Suddenly, you're out on bare rock above the trees, and a couple more scrambles get you to the top of the mountain.
One last scramble up the rock, and you're above timberline.
Kick back for a while. Enjoy the view. And the cool breeze. There are plenty of places to spread out for a picnic lunch, either in the broad sunshine or sheltering from the wind behind a boulder, as conditions require.
Looking west from the peak of Mount Jackson. The large bare cliff is Mount Willard.
Two trails descend the southwestern side of Mount Jackson. Take the Webster-Jackson Trail, the steeper one that goes nearly west (to the right).
Webster Cliff Trail continues southwest to Mount Webster.
On the other side of the sign, you see that it directs you westward, down the cliff, along the Webster-Jackson Trail.
(The gentler descent is the continuation of the Webster Cliff Trail, which goes nearly straight south before curving southwest toward Mount Webster. I've never gone that way, but you can take the southern fork of the odd Y-shaped Webster-Jackson Trail from Mount Webster to end up in the same place we're heading on the eastern fork of the trail.)
From the peak of Mount Jackson, the Webster-Jackson Trail descends very steeply, so that you are out of the treeless zone in no time. Tumbling down past Tisdale Spring, the trail quickly takes you out of the alpine spruce forest, too.
The trail continues descending precipitously along the stream that will become Silver Cascade. After about a mile and a quarter, you come to the fork with the other branch of the Webster-Jackson Trail, coming in from your left. Take the now-combined Webster-Jackson trail to the right.
Here the trail is more level, and even climbs a few times, as it follows the crest of Webster Cliff nearly northward. There are no broad views, as the trail passes through thick forest.
About a third of a mile past the fork of the trail, you'll cross Flume Cascade. This is another good place for a sit-down rest. Rinse your feet and face in the frigid stream, but it is not considered safe to drink.
Another third of a mile past Flume Cascade, you pass a little spur trail leading out to Bugle Cliff on the left. The sign faces away from you, so you'll have to look for it. The vista from the top of Bugle Cliff is worth the hundred-foot detour, and the twenty-foot climb will feel like a relief after descending for so long!
The sign for Bugle Cliff faces away from you as you head down the Webster-Jackson Trail.
Looking norhtwest from Bugle Cliff. Saco Lake and Crawford Depot on right, the swamp across
from Elephant Head at center-left. The tiny patch of bare rock overhanging the swamp is Elephant Head.
About a third of a mile after Bugle Cliff, the trail turns sharply to the west (left) and begins descending steeply again. After a third of a mile or so, you'll pass the Elephant Head Trail on your left, and another tenth of a mile brings you back to the road.
Hike northwest along Route 302 for a half-mile or so back to Mount Clinton Road, and back to your car.
Plants and Animals
Virtually all of the animals and plants to be seen below about 3,000 feet are the same as those I have described in other hikes in the White Mountain area. This list concentrates on the living things you can see in the alpine zones on this hike. Take a look at my descriptions of Arethusa Falls, Mount Willard, Elephant Head, and others to see lists of the subalpine flora and fauna.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, by any means. This is just a list of the most common things you might see there, and some of the more interesting things you might see there.
- Northern bog lemming (Synaptomys borealis). Sometimes very abundant around the intersection of Crawford Path with the Mizpah Cut-Off, and rather common at the peak of Mount Jackson. Their populations seem to cycle, much as their tundra cousins do. Most years, you won't see a sign of them, but some years they're all over the place, especially in the wet areas. When their population is at its peak, they tend to be diurnal, and not too shy.
- Moose (Alces alces). Tracks can be seen surprisingly high, even in the bogs just below the peak, but I've never seen the moose themselves out on the trail.
- Boreal or gray-capped chickadee (Poecile hudsonica). Common in the swampy balsam forest, less so in the alpine fir forest. Not as bold as the lower black-capped chickadee (P. atricapillus).
- Gray jay (Perisoreus canadensis). Not numerous, but highly visible at the mountain peak. They will gather around if they think you might have food. They will eat out of your hand, even robbing you if you did not intend to feed them. They cache much of the food they take, and come back quickly for more.
A gray jay at the peak of Mount Jackson.
I assume these gray jays with freckles near their beaks are the young of the year.
- Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis). You'll often see them in the vicinity of the peak. Not too shy, but not nearly as bold as the gray jays, they'll come looking for dropped crumbs as you eat your lunch.
A dark-eyed junco at the peak of Mount Jackson.
Stunted black spruce in the background, balsam fir
on the right, and bearberry willow in lower right.
- Spruce grouse (Falcipennis canadensis). You may see these bold birds along the trails anywhere in the alpine spruce forests or up to the peak.
A spruce grouse on the Webster Cliff Trail not far from Mizpah Spring Hut.
Black spruce all around, and glacial striations in the bedrock
(as well as cracks).
- Toads. American toad (Bufo americanus americanus) and Fowler's toad (B. fowleri) are rather common. In mid summer, there are little dime-sized toadlets everywhere in lower elevations.
- Slugs (order Pulmonata, possibly family Arionidae). Any time there has been a recent rain, you'll find yellow slugs along the trail, but not in the immediate vicinity of the peak.
Three yellow slugs beside Webster Cliff Trail.
- Green frog (Rana clamitans). I was very surprised to find one of these in Tisdale Spring, just below timberline. It was small for its species, but it was most definitely a green frog and not a mink frog (R. septentrionalis), which are known to live at higher altitudes.
- Balsam fir (Abies balsamea). Dominant in the higher swampy forests, present in the fir forest and even on the peak in stunted form as "wild bonsai" or "krummholz." Difficult to distinguish from hemlock without close examination.
- Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). Present in the swampy forests in the lower reaches of the alpine zone.
- Black spruce (Picea mariana). Dominant in the higher alpine zone, and as stunted krummholz at the peak.
There's a lot to see in this view, looking northeast from the summit of Mount Jackson.
The high peak is Mount Washington, and the white structure on the near shoulder of
Mount Pierce is Mizpah Spring Hut. But look at the trees! Some of the stunted spruces
in the foreground take the classic "krummholz" (German for "twisted wood")
form, with flags of branches pointing down the prevailing winds. The spruce forest spread out
below shows red dying zones, which move in waves across the forest over a period of years as the
trees deplete the sparse soil.
- Red spruce (Picea rubens). Present in the swampy balsam forests and in the higher alpine zone.
- Heart-leaved white birch (Betula cordifolia). Present but uncommon in the higher alpine forest. This is pretty much the only hardwood to take a true tree form in the alpine zone. It often takes a stunted shrub-like form as well when it grows in a wind-exposed area.
- Alpine birch (Betula glandulosa). This is the most common hardwood shrub in the alpine zone.
- Mountain birch (Betula minor). Stunted shrub of the peak zone, and on the edges of the bogs and other clearings in the spruce forest.
- Bearberry willow (Salix uva-ursi). Common in the peak zone, you can recognize it by its small shiny leaves and thick woody stem trailing along the rocky ground.
- Alpine bluet (Houstonia caerulea var. Faxonorum). These tiny flowers line every crack in the bedrock with white in mid-spring. (Wish I had a good picture. Maybe next year.) They are found in abundance in lower elevations, too, but the way they grow in the peak zone is especially striking. (And despite the name, the flowers are white with a yellow center. The main variety of this species is blue with a yellow center. And despite the "alpine" part of this variety's name, all I ever see in New Hampshire are the white variety, whether on the mountain peaks, along the roadsides, and even in Mine Falls Park in Nashua, at the hardly-alpine altitude of 250 feet above sea level.)
Alpine bluets. Photographed in Mine Falls Park, Nashua, but they are also abundant on Mount Jackson.
- Bluebead lily (Clintonia borealis). Fairly common in the swampy balsam forest, where it flowers later than in lower elevations.
Bluebead lily berries along Crawford Path. Some are still green in late August.
Also visible, illustrating the lushness of this forest: shining clubmoss,
several species of true moss, bunchberry (with neither fruit nor flowers, but distinctive leaves),
and wood sorrel.
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Common in the peak zone, flowering all summer long.
- Wood aster (Aster acuminatus). Common along Crawford Path, uncommon higher up, but present even into the alpine zone. Flowers late in summer and into fall.
- Three-toothed cinquefoil (Potentilla tridentata). Fairly common in the peak zone.
- Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia). Common, but hard to see, in the bogs on the north slope of Mount Jackson.
Close-up of the surface of the lower bog on Mount Jackson, showing myriad tiny plants.
The red things are the insect-catching leaves of sundews, each about an eighth of an inch across.
- Bakeapple berries (Vaccinium macrocarpon). This is actually a wild cranberry, also called bear berry, and distinct from the bakeapple berry of Newfoundland (Rubus chamaemorus), also called cloud berry. But it tastes like a baked apple, complete with cinnamon. They grow in the bogs on the northern slope of Mount Jackson.
Bakeapple berries in the lower bog on Mount Jackson.
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