Thursday, October 13, 2011

Owl's Head and Roaring Brook Falls: 10/09/2011

Looking up Cascade Pass from Owl's Head.

The Saratoga Skier and Hiker, first-hand accounts of adventures in the Adirondacks and beyond, and Gore Mountain ski blog.

It turns out that one of the nicest weekends of the summer fell in mid-October. With bright skies and temperatures in the 70s, the peak autumn foliage (at least at lower elevations) was just icing on the cake.

Owl’s Head may be the easiest family hike we’ve done. At 1.2 miles round trip and just under 500 vertical feet of climbing, it’s so short that the kids never even asked “how much further?” Although the hike is easy, it’s got great views that begin within a few hundred yards of the trailhead. Owl’s Head is situated in a commanding position above Keene and part way up Cascade Pass, but nearby Cascade and Porter Mountains – nearly 2000’ higher in elevation – block views of the rest of the High Peaks.

Cascade Mountain

Pitchoff Mountain

I’ve heard that the leaves this autumn aren’t as vibrant as usual, but you wouldn’t have known on Sunday. At times, we were literally surrounded by yellows, oranges and reds – Owl’s Head’s relatively low elevation meant that the foliage was about at peak, whereas the surrounding higher elevations were already past peak.

Looking towards Giant Mountain

Owl's Head summit cliffs

If you’ve read any of my other accounts of family hikes, you know that I try to select hikes with more than just a view - usually a stream or waterfall or caves – to hold the kids’ interest. This hike doesn’t have a secondary attraction like that, but since it’s so short I figured we’d combine it with a short hike in to Roaring Brook Falls. It turns out that the kids discovered their own secondary attraction: rock climbing (bouldering really) on the summit. The kids must have each done a dozen short laps, and it was really fun watching their enthusiasm and seeing them getting hooked on the same challenge and joy of motion that hooks adults.

Owl’s Head is actually a fairly popular climbing crag, with about a half dozen moderate (5.6-ish) crack climbs on the summit cliffs. The climbs are all short (around 50’) and setting up a top rope can be tricky (you’ll need to set gear for an anchor), but the rock is good quality and the setting is spectacular. Unfortunately nobody was climbing while we were there on Sunday. I’ve climbed at Owl’s Head once or twice quite a few years ago, and our hike got both Beth and me pretty psyched to return with a rack, a rope and climbing shoes.

Following Owl’s Head we did the short hike in to the base of Roaring Brook Falls. We’ve used this as a combo with other short hikes (like Big Crow) in the past, and the kids just love being right next to (and even in) the stream and waterfall. Since our last visit a year ago, the falls seemed noticeably scoured and raw from Irene – it’s a starker place now. I’ll have to see if I can put together a before-and-after set of photos to show the difference.

We had been anxious to return to the Keene Valley area to see how the recovery from Irene was progressing. On one hand, things looked almost normal and streets, shops and trailheads appeared absolutely packed with tourists. On the other hand, knowing the damage that had occurred, it was not difficult to pick out damaged homes and roads, scoured streambeds and silted fields. There’s still lots of work to be done and plenty of people who still need help.

Bouldering on the way out from Roaring Brook Falls

Ski season is not far away now, but we’re hoping we’ll still be able to squeeze in another family hike or two and perhaps even a peak or two towards Beth’s 46.


  1. Nice report and thanks for the trip down memory lane. Kids are natural climbers and it is cool to see you are encouraging them to be adventurous (unlike many parents these days).

    My buddies and I spent a lot of time in the Keene Valley area when we were college students in Montreal. I've climbed at Chapel Pond a number of times, Owl's Head once, and had a few very nice dips at the base of Roaring Brook.

    I seem to recall reading about a big slide or avalanche at RB some time ago, which may account for the "scouring."

  2. Thanks SBR. I think the slide event you're referring to is the June 1963 avalanche that not only closed Route 73 for several days but also altered the course of the falls. DEC Rangers re-channeled the stream to restore the flow over the falls. What we saw on Sunday was evidence of the recent damage from Irene: raw, newly exposed rock, stripped vegetation.

  3. The climbing on top is really fun with kids! I have TR'd them with Leah and her friends when she was about 12. also nice views for its height!
    Looking forward to doing a winter ascent with you and Beth of something she and I both have left on our short list!