The Madison Gulf Trail climbs the the Mt Madison headwall from the Great Gulf
The Madison Gulf Trail climbs the Mt Madison headwall from the Great Gulf (view from The Buttress Trail, foreground)

The Madison Gulf Trail is the hardest route up to Mt Madison in the White Mountain’s Northern Presidential Range. It ascends a narrow but very steep ravine ending at an alpine tarn known as Star Lake. It’s a magnificent trail, but seldom hiked because it requires hiking a few miles into the Great Gulf to get to. I climbed it for the first time at the beginning of July and can’t think of a better way to ascend Madison from now on.

Cross the suspension bridge over the Peabody River
Cross the suspension bridge over the Peabody River

You can get to the Madison Gulf Trail by hiking up the Great Gulf Trail from Rt 16. From that junction, the trail climbs steeply through forest to about 4000′. This section crosses Parapet Brook many times, and you can expect to get your shoes wet along the way. The trail can be a bit difficult to follow, so keep your eyes open for cairns that mark the route.

Parapet Falls on the Madison Gulf Trail
Parapet Falls on the Madison Gulf Trail (if it’s not called that it should be)

At 4100′, you come to a ledge that requires a difficult scramble. If you have short legs, I’d advise bringing a taller partner and a piece of webbing. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to climb it solo when I came to it, but I managed to scramble up. There’s an excellent viewpoint to your left of the ledges on the gulf headwall. I never knew those ledges were there before I saw them from this vantage point.

Ledges at the top of Madison Gulf
Ledges at the top of Madison Gulf

Starting at 4100′ until 4800′, the Madison Gulf Trail climbs at steep 700′ rock chimney that requires excellent scrambling skills to climb. Parts of it have water flowing down over the rock face, including one section where you’re climbing through a waterfall. Still, I’d rather be here in stormy weather than the exposed Osgood Trail to Madison, which provides no protection from wind, hail, and lightning.

The upper part of the Madison Gulf Trail is quite wet
The upper part of the Madison Gulf Trail is quite wet. That *is* the trail.

At the top of the trail, you emerge at The Parapet, a prow-like rock formation adjacent to a shallow, alpine tarn named Star Lake. The Parapet makes a good viewpoint over the gulf in calm winds. Alternatively, make a quick visit to nearby Madison Spring Hut for some cake and coffee, or climb to the Mt Madison summit which is a short distance away.

On my hike, I hiked past Star Lake to the Buttress Trail, which runs above the Madison Gulf ledges and wraps around the south side of Mt Adams, about 1500 feet below the summit. I was hiking a big lollipop loop, traveling back down to the Great Gulf and doubling back on the way I’d hiked in that morning.

Madison Gulf-The Buttress Lollipop Loop Route (click for GEOPDF)
Madison Gulf-The Buttress Lollipop Loop Route (click for printable GEO-PDF)

I hopped on The Buttress Trail which I hoped would be easier than the Madison Gulf Trail. It wasn’t really. The top mile is a combination of boulders and krummholz which made progress slow. The White Mountain Guide makes it out to be a fairly well protected descent from Star Lake, but I would avoid this trail in bad weather or high wind because it’s not protected enough. It improves after you start dropping elevation and duck down into forest again, but the bottom of the trail also runs through a boulder field, which I’d advise avoiding in wet or stormy weather.

The views from the Buttress Trail are magnificent though. At the top, you get great views of Madison and the exposed Osgood Trail, while at the bottom there are unique views of Jefferson’s Knee (below) and the adjacent Jefferson Ravine, on the right.

Jefferson's Knee and a look up into Jefferson Ravine
Jefferson’s Knee and a look up into Jefferson Ravine

When you get to the bottom of the Buttress Trail, there are two stream crossings you need to make before you can get to the Great Gulf Trail and hike out to Rt 16. The first crosses the brook in Jefferson Ravine and the second, the West Branch of the Peabody River. Both can be hazardous to cross in high water…when it’s best to avoid attempting them. How do you know when the water in both these watersheds is too high? They’re likely to run high for a few days if it rains an inch or more, so watch the weather before you attempt this hike and postpone it if necessary.

Once you get across the West Branch, it’s a pleasant hike down the Great Gulf Trail back to theRt 16 trailhead. There are a few designated campsites on the route out, if you decide to camp out the night before or after you complete the loop.

If you get decent weather, this loop hike is really magnificent and one of the best in the Northern Presidentials. It is quite strenuous and long however, so make sure you’re up for it. Eleven miles might not sound like a lot to you, but eleven miles in the Northern Presidentials is tough, rocky hiking, especially above treeline.

Total distance: 11 miles with 4000 feet of elevation gain

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