In Defense of the Cornice Trail on Mt Jefferson

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VFTT Supporter
Sep 3, 2003
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Gorham NH
Over the years I have seen and heard many less than complimentary references to the northern segments of the Cornice trail on Mt Jefferson. Despite it being in my relative "backyard" I had not done the segments from near Edmands Col to Castle Trail and the segment from Castle trail to Caps Ridge until recently. I did the first segment last summer on a hike and at the end of it I was curious why the bad rep? We were heading elsewhere so we skipped the second segment but assumed that second segment must be really bad. Well I had a chance to do both yesterday and came to conclusion that I cannot agree with those who dump on this trail. My guess is its a victim of hikers ignorance. The key with these two segments is they are easy to underestimate. On a map both segments looks like an easy short cut to avoid the summit of Jefferson or add some variety to an Jefferson hike. My guess is folks dont really plan to use these segments they are predominantly spur of the moment decisions. Therein lies the problem, the segment from Castle to Caps is not a spur of the moment trail. The RMC guide comments that this route is emphatically not recommended as a bad weather bypass of the Mt Jefferson summit.

On paper the math is pretty simple. Taking the Cornice from Edmands Col to Caps ridge is 1.3 miles. It gains about 300 feet fairly gradually from the turn off the Randolph Path just north of Edmunds Col in 5 tenths of mile. The 2nd segment starts and ends at just about the same elevation with very little elevation gain or loss over 8 tenths of mile. So 1.3 miles and approximately 300 feet of elevation gain (with minimal loss) versus a climb over Mt Jefferson with 750 feet up and 430 feet down Caps Ridge totaling 4/5ths of a mile. I expect the math looks good to some in the spur of the moment looking at a map and who reads the trail descriptions these days?. Personally with no research and someone else calling the shots I might take that bargain at the end of the day. I was in that mode as I had coincidentally met a small group by shear coincidence at the trail head in the AM and invited me along on a hike from the Caps Ridge trailhead over to Madison and back. I assumed they did their research and since the 2nd segment was new trail I had not been on I was up for it.

The leader had underestimated the hike and we did a turn around at Adams. I didnt know anyone except the leaders but discovered later that many had decided to do the fast and light hike approach and carry minimal water assuming they could tank up at Madison Hut. With our turn around on the summit we did not go to the hut. It was a clear blue sky day with zero clouds and light breeze/wind just about ideal for using up a lot of water. As we headed back towards Edmands the group decidedly switched over to a slowing but steady pace and I could see the early signs of dehydration on several members. After a break at Edmands we headed a short distance down Randolph Path and took the turn onto the Cornice. This segment of the Cornice is right on the edge of treeline and its dry. There are patches of softwoods and rarely if ever does the trail go over actual soil. There are numerous cairns but no obvious trail, its just "path of least resistance" rock hopping over fractured tilted rock. It is a bit more sheltered than going up and over the summit but it ends up on the long Castle Trail ridge on the up hill side of the Castles which is far more exposed. We then encountered the Castle trail junction and I went into my personal terra incognita. My first impression is this is very similar to the Katahdin trails to the north of the summit heading towards Russell pond. Its a rock hop over rough angular boulders. There is zero cover and no hope of finding water. In late afternoon its in full sun. This is a full exposed face looking NW, not a place to be with bad weather coming in. Like the first segment, there is no obvious path. Its just path of least resistance between cairns. The cairns are spaced fairly closely but I still expect it would be spooky when the summit is in the clouds. The views down into the rarely visited Dartmouth range are great and with the exception of the Caps Ridge trail its very remote. Even the dissonant air horns of the cog are mostly blocked by the summit.

Eventually the trail rounds a corner and the Caps Ridge trail is quite obvious down to the right, I have no doubt some take their chances on a shortcut but we elected to go to the junction. I didn't keep track of the time but on a sunny day carrying minimal water after a long hike it felt a lot longer than expected. I think the group in general agreed the climb over the summit would have been preferable.

Was the Cornice a beast and something to be avoided at all costs? Not really. There are similar extended bony boulder hops in the whites, The upper Nelson Crag is quite similar with slightly larger boulders. Its also similar to the upper Great Gully trail in Kings Ravine. I found the Cornice to be a nice break from the crowds on a busy weekend and would not hesitate to take it again as long as there is no weather coming in, clear visibility and mild winds. Its a destination not a shortcut or bypass. I expect it might be nice way to stretch out Jefferson hike by taking it in the AM over to Edmunds or the Castle trail to get break from the crowds, add in Gulfside from Edmands over to south with quick trip up the south Mt Jefferson Loop to bag the summit and it cuts out the worst of the crowds while adding in some nice views.

So like the nearby upper Link Trail to Caps Ridge from the Castle trail I am most likely in the minority ;)
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