Alpha Guide: Day Hiking Mount Washington

 

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The region’s tallest peak, Mount Washington is a prize of the Northeast and one that can be climbed over and over by numerous different routes. 

A long and notable history, the distinction of being New Hampshire’s tallest peak, and a reputation for being the “home of the world’s worst weather” are just a few reasons Mount Washington tops many peakbaggers’ lists. And, with routes varying from serene to scary, there are plenty of different paths to the peak.

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Turn-By-Turn

Most Mount Washington day hikes start on either the east or west side. For starting on the east side with the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, Lion Head, or Boott Spur, hikers should park at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center in Gorham, just north of Jackson on Route 16. It’s about a 25-minute drive from North Conway to Gorham.

For a west side hike, such as the Ammonoosuc Ravine and Jewell Trails, hikers should park at the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trailhead. From Route 302, turn onto Base Road at the intersection of Bretton Woods and Fabyan’s Restaurant. The parking lot is on the right, several miles down the road. Confused? Just follow the signs for the Mount Washington Cog Railway.

Pro Tip: Get an early start. On most weekends, the lots at Pinkham Notch and the Ammonoosuc Trailhead fill up quickly. For Pinkham, there’s overflow parking just south of the Visitor Center and additional parking on the street.

The summit from the top of Tuckerman Ravine. | Credit: Tim Peck
The summit from the top of Tuckerman Ravine. | Credit: Tim Peck

East Side Trails

Tuckerman Ravine Trail

Quick Facts

Distance: 8.2 miles, round trip.
Time to Complete: 1 day
Difficulty:★★★
Scenery:★★★★


Season: May through October.
Fees/Permits: None
Contact: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/whitemountain/recarea?recid=78538

Of all the routes to the summit, an ascent via the 4.1-mile, one-way Tuckerman Ravine Trail is perhaps the most sought after, as it climbs directly up the notorious glacial cirque and backcountry ski destination. Because snow and ice may cover the terrain from late fall to early summer—making it more of a mountaineering route than a hike—and due to its popularity, this trail may be busy when in prime condition.

Starting just behind the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, the Tuckerman Ravine Trail begins rather benignly. The wide-yet-rocky trail gradually works its way up the roughly 2.5 miles to Hermit Lake and the base of Tuckerman Ravine. As a note, this section may be particularly busy, as Hermit Lake is a popular destination itself. Above Hermit Lake, the trail climbs a series of narrow, steep, and often slippery switchbacks that deliver hikers to the top of the ravine.

From here, the tops of the summit buildings come into view, and it may seem like the difficulty is over. However, you still have a long way to go. Arguably, the final mile of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail is its most challenging, as it involves as much rock-hopping as it does hiking. As you near the top, the sounds of the Auto Road get increasingly louder, and eventually, the trail runs into the road. Here, hikers tackle the ascent’s final challenge: a steep staircase that deposits you near the summit sign. Because of the trail’s steep and slippery nature, hikers should descend via the Lion Head Trail.

Crossing the Alpine Garden. | Credit: Tim Peck
Crossing the Alpine Garden. | Credit: Tim Peck

Lion Head Trail

Quick Facts

Distance: 8.4 miles, round trip.
Time to Complete: 1 day
Difficulty:★★★
Scenery:★★★★


Season: May through October.
Fees/Permits: None

The Lion Head Trail is a popular alternative to the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. The trip offers hikers less exposure, gives you a bird’s-eye view of the ravine, and gets you to the peak when the Tuckerman Ravine Trail’s conditions aren’t ideal. The trip up actually follows the Tuckerman Ravine Trail for large portions; however, it veers off to skirt the ravine’s northern edge, rather than ascend directly up it. Commonly thought to be one of the “easier” routes to the summit, the Lion Head gains roughly 4,200 feet of elevation along its 4.2 miles, and is challenging for even seasoned hikers.

Before leaving home, make sure you know which version of the Lion Head Trail—Summer or Winter—is open by checking the Mount Washington Avalanche Center’s trail information. While both leave from the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, the Winter route branches off shortly before Hermit Lake, and the Summer route starts at Hermit Lake. The latter is less steep and a bit quicker than the former. However, it also crosses an avalanche path, and is only open when there is no possibility of the snow sliding. Want to learn more about the Lion Head in winter? Check out this goEast article about it.

Above treeline, the Lion Head Trail affords an incredible view of Tuckerman Ravine from its granite ledges—if the weather allows, that is. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, and especially if it’s windy, be careful. A good gust could blow an unsuspecting person into the ravine. Yes, the trail is that close to the ravine’s rim! The Lion Head Trail rejoins the Tuckerman Ravine Trail at a well-marked junction for the final 0.4 miles to Washington’s summit.

Looking down on the Boot Spur. | Credit: Tim Peck
Looking down on the Boott Spur. | Credit: Tim Peck

Boott Spur Trail

Quick Facts

Distance: 10.8 miles, round trip.
Time to Complete: 1 day
Difficulty:★★★
Scenery:★★★★


Season: May through October.
Fees/Permits: None

Looking for a little bit longer and less crowded hike up Washington’s east side? Check out the Boott Spur Trail, which climbs the ridge forming the southern side of Tuckerman Ravine. Once above treeline, hikers get spectacular views of Hermit Lake, Tuckerman Ravine, and, in the distance, Mount Washington’s summit cone as they ascend the steps of the Boott Spur, a 5,500-foot sub-peak of Mount Washington.

To access the Boott Spur Trail, hikers begin at Pinkham Notch and hike an easy 0.4 miles on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. The Boott Spur Trail begins at a signed junction where the Tuckerman Ravine Trail makes a sharp right turn and begins climbing uphill. Hikers will quickly cross the John Sherburne Ski Trail and then climb forested terrain up the ridgeline. Above treeline, the trail summits Boott Spur and then traverses along the edge of Tuckerman Ravine, until it joins the Davis Path. From there, there’s approximately two miles of rock-hopping to the summit. Overall, climbing Washington via this route is 5.4 miles, with an elevation gain of 4,654 feet. And, since so much is above treeline, make sure to save it for a nice day.

The Pinnacle and the Huntington Ravine Trail. | Credit: Tim Peck
The Pinnacle and the Huntington Ravine Trail. | Credit: Tim Peck

Huntington Ravine Trail

Quick Facts

Distance: 4.5 miles, one way.
Time to Complete: 1 day
Difficulty:★★★★★
Scenery:★★★★


Season: May through October.
Fees/Permits: None

One of the White Mountains’ hardest and most dangerous trails, the Huntington Ravine Trail should only be attempted by experienced hikers who are comfortable with exposure. To get there, follow the Tuckerman Ravine Trail 1.3 miles to the junction with the Huntington Ravine Trail and then follow the trail 2.1 miles as it climbs 2,450 feet to the Alpine Garden. The trail initially climbs through forested terrain, before it reaches a junction with the Huntington Ravine Fire Road. It then enters Huntington Ravine, gradually transitioning from a trail to rock-hopping through the bottom of a huge open boulder field called “The Fan.” Navigating up, over, and around these boulders is fun and challenging.

After working through The Fan, continue on the Huntington Ravine Trail as it ascends steeply toward the top of the ravine. Some portions of the upper section require scrambling and rock climbing-like moves to ascend. These sequences have serious exposure and may be difficult to reverse if you get stuck or the weather deteriorates, so only attempt this route on nice days when the trail is dry. On a clear day, though, this section offers a fantastic perspective of the Huntington Ravine.

At 2.1 miles, the Huntington Ravine Trail exits the ravine and intersects with the Alpine Garden Trail. Hikers heading for the summit should continue on this moderate section for 0.3 miles until it ends at the Mount Washington Auto Road and the junction with the Nelson Crag Trail. From there, it’s 0.8 miles of rock-hopping on the Nelson Crag Trail to the summit.

Pro Tip: The Huntington Ravine Trail is hard enough to ascend. Don’t use it as your descent route.

Lake of the Clouds and Mount Madison from Washington's summit cone. | Credit: Tim Peck
Lakes of the Clouds and Mount Monroe from Washington’s summit cone. | Credit: Tim Peck

West Side Trails

Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail

Quick Facts

Distance: 9 miles, round trip.
Time to Complete: 1 day
Difficulty:★★★
Scenery:★★★★


Season: May through October.
Fees/Permits: Ammonoosuc Ravine Trailhead is $5 a day

The Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail (“The Ammo”) is the quickest route up to the Lakes of the Clouds Hut (3.1 miles) and a beautiful way to start a hike to the summit of Mount Washington (4.5 miles). The trail follows a crystal-clear stream up the ravine, eventually climbing steeply as it passes several waterfalls. A little way before Lakes of the Clouds, the trail pokes above treeline, crossing a series of open ledges to the hut. These ledges offer hikers fantastic views of Washington’s summit cone and back west, and are a great place to catch your breath.

At the hut, refill your water bottles, grab a snack (the hut crew’s baked goods are delicious), and enjoy the views. When you’ve recovered, take the Crawford Path 1.4 miles up Washington’s summit cone. This portion is above treeline and open to the elements, so before you head up, reassess the weather and layer up. If the weather is deteriorating or you’re just too tired, the summit of Mount Monroe is a relatively easy, 0.3-mile side hike in the opposite direction. The views are almost as good, and it’s a lot less crowded.

Pro Tip: With replenishment opportunities at the Lakes of the Clouds Hut and again on the summit proper, this is the route for hikers looking to carry a lighter pack.

Descenting the Gulfside Trail. | Credit: Tim Peck
Descending the Gulfside Trail. | Credit: Tim Peck

Jewell Trail

Quick Facts

Distance: 10.2 miles, round trip.
Time to Complete: 1 day
Difficulty:★★★
Scenery:★★★★


Season: May through October.
Fees/Permits: Ammonoosuc Ravine Trailhead is $5 a day

Another popular west-side route to Washington’s summit is the Jewell Trail to the Gulfside Trail. Although it’s a tad longer than the route via the Ammonoosuc Ravine (5.1 miles one way versus 4.5 miles) and has a little more climbing (4,000 feet of elevation gain versus 3,800 feet), overall it is a slightly easier route, as the Jewell Trail is neither as difficult nor as steep.

The Jewell Trail begins at a trailhead directly across the road from the Ammonoosuc Ravine parking lot and climbs gradually on moderate terrain (at least by Mount Washington standards) up an unnamed ridge on Mount Clay. Near treeline, the views dramatically improve, and the trail gets a little rockier as it nears the intersection with the Gulfside Trail at 5,400 feet.

From the junction, hikers have another 1.4 miles on the Gulfside Trail to Washington’s summit. After skirting Mount Clay, the Gulfside Trail hugs the upper rim of the Great Gulf, a massive east-facing glacial cirque framed by the summits of Washington, Clay, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison. Since it holds the Great Gulf Wilderness, New Hampshire’s smallest and oldest wilderness area, hikers should definitely stop to check it out.

The Gulfside Trail with the Northern Presidentials. | Credit: Tim Peck
The Gulfside Trail with the Northern Presidentials. | Credit: Tim Peck

Longer Options

If a simple ascent of Mount Washington isn’t challenging enough, you have numerous popular ways to incorporate summiting Mount Washington into larger hiking objectives. The most notable is the Presidential Traverse, the White Mountains’ classic point-to-point hike.

Of course, if a full Presidential Traverse seems too daunting, half Presidential Traverses are also popular. Typically, half Presidential Traverses start from the north (at Mount Madison) or the south (at Mount Jackson or Pierce), and hikers will work their way across the range, which culminates in an ascent of Mount Washington.

Another longer, more off-the-beaten path way is via the complete Davis Path. Originally built in 1845 as a bridle path, the Davis Path fell into neglect and disrepair before being re-opened as a footpath in 1910. Today, the Davis Path takes hikers roughly 14 miles over Mount Isolation, crossing over Boott Spur, and eventually joining the Crawford Path beneath Mount Washington’s summit.


Washington and Lake of the Clouds from Mount Monroe. | Credit: Tim Peck
Washington and Lakes of the Clouds from Mount Monroe. | Credit: Tim Peck

The Kit

  • It’s not uncommon for an ascent of Mount Washington to take longer than anticipated. So, bring a headlamp to avoid having to make a death-defying descent in the dark. We like the Black Diamond ReVolt.
  • Spending time on Mount Washington involves a lot of above-treeline hiking, which often leaves you exposed to the sun. The Black Diamond Alpenglow Sun Hoody (men’s/women’s) is an easy way to avoid getting sunburned on your trip.
  • Mount Washington has a well-deserved reputation for being “home to the world’s worst weather.” Prepare for the worst by bringing a lightweight insulated coat, like the EMS Feather Pack Down Jacket (men’s/women’s).
  • The record high temperature on Mount Washington’s summit is 72 degrees. Be prepared for a chilly summit by bringing a winter hat (we like the Smartwool NTS 250 Cuffed Beanie) and gloves (like the Black Diamond Midweight Windbloc Fleece), even on summer ascents.
  • A cold Coke and a slice of pizza from the summit’s cafeteria have saved more than one trip for us, so don’t forget to bring your wallet with cash. Keep your outdoor cred and distinguish yourself from those who drove up or took the train with The North Face Base Camp Wallet.
  • All of the trails on Mount Washington are rugged. Because of this, we always pack trekking poles, like the Black Diamond Distance FLZ (men’s/women’s), for added stability and to reduce the wear and tear on our joints.

The Gulfside Trail. | Credit: Tim Peck
The Gulfside Trail. | Credit: Tim Peck

Keys to the Trip

  • It’s easy to get disoriented on Mount Washington, especially above treeline. Get the Waterproof White Mountains Trail Map, study your route beforehand, and then bring it along—just in case.
  • After a big day on the Rockpile, east-side hikers can cool off with a cold pint from one of Barley & Salt’s 32 drafts on tap in North Conway, while west-side hikers can find cold brews at Fabyan’s Restaurant, conveniently located on the way back to Route 302.
  • Or, stop into a local store, and pick up a six pack of Tuckerman Brewing’s aptly named Rockpile IPA to celebrate when you get home.
  • Let your friends and family know about your successful summit by sending a postcard from the post office located on Mount Washington’s summit.
  • If you’re leaving from Pinkham Notch, make sure to sign the climbing register inside the visitor center, just in case something goes wrong.
  • Any trip to Mount Washington is going to be influenced by the weather. Check the Mount Washington Observatory’s Higher Summit Forecast to know what weather to expect, and read up on how to interpret their predictions.

Mount Washington's Summit. | Credit: Tim Peck
Mount Washington’s Summit. | Credit: Tim Peck

Current Conditions

Have you hiked Mount Washington recently? Which route did you use? Post your experience and the conditions (with the date of your climb) in the comments for others!


The MWOBS Staff's Must-See Mt. Washington Highlights for Seek the Peak

The White Mountains, and Mount Washington in particular, are one of the region’s most densely-packed trail areas. This means you have several options when you head up for Seek the Peak. But, to figure out your route, what’s better than to start with advice from the folks who spend day after day working on the mountains? So, check out the favorite trails and sections from these Mount Washington Observatory employees—the guys who know the region better than anyone.

Credit: Tom Padham
Credit: Tom Padham

Mount Jefferson via Caps Ridge Trail

By Tom Padham, Meteorologist/Education Specialist

While not a hike up Mount Washington, this trail has so much to offer: great views, a relatively short length, and some interesting rock scrambles. The trail starts on Jefferson Notch road at roughly 3,000 feet—the highest of any trailhead in the White Mountains. As such, things open up only a mile or so into the hike, and after a short while, unobstructed views of the Presidential Range and Mount Washington emerge.

The “Caps” section consists of three short rock scrambles. It’s nothing requiring technical gear but enough to offer a great change of pace—and may be the first time you use all four limbs to climb a mountain! Overall, this hike is far shorter than many of the other routes to summit a Presidential Peak, but it still offers some challenges, with nearly 2,700 feet of vertical gain in only 2.4 miles. This is my favorite hike, because it manages to pack so much into just a few short and very beautiful miles!

The view from the Southern Presidentials. | Credit: Sean Greaney
The view from the Southern Presidentials. | Credit: Sean Greaney

Davis Path

By Brian Fitzgerald, Director of Education

Totaling roughly 14 miles from Crawford Notch to the summit of Mount Washington, the Davis Path is one of the oldest and longest approaches to the Northeast’s highest peak. Constructed back in 1845 as a bridle path, this trail is an exhausting ridge hike for an ambitious day-hiker, and a very pleasant multi-day approach for backpackers. Along the way, hikers get stunning views as they summit Mount Crawford, Stairs Mountain, Mount Davis, Mount Isolation, and Mount Washington itself.

The Westside Trail

By Brian Fitzgerald, Director of Education

At over 5,500 feet in elevation and just below the peak of Mount Washington, the Westside Trail is one of the best places to escape the crowds on a pleasant summer day. At 9/10ths of a mile, the trail follows the mountain’s contour, providing excellent views to the west between the Crawford Path and Gulfside Trail. For staff who live and work on the mountain, this is the perfect loop to run when you want to get outside!

Looking North from the Bootspur trail towards Mt. Washington. | Credit: Matthew Charpentier
Looking north from the Boott Spur Trail towards Mt. Washington. | Credit: Matthew Charpentier

Ball Crag via the Nelson Crag Trail

By Ryan Knapp, Meteorologist

After you summit Mount Washington, this can be made into a spur hike or an alternate route down (via the Nelson Crag Trail). While Ball Crag’s technically not a summit and is instead classified as a subsidiary of Mount Washington, the rise in land does come to an elevation of 6,066 feet, based on the Washburn map. From the summit, take a 0.18-mile hike down the Nelson Crag Trail, which will bring you to this rise in land. Here, get sweeping views of Pinkham Notch to the east, the Great Gulf to the west and north, and a unique perspective of Mount Washington to the south.

Boott Spur Trail

By Ryan Knapp, Meteorologist

If you’re looking for a more intimate mountain experience on the east side, away from the crowds on the Tuckerman Ravine/Lion Head Trail, Boott Spur Trail is an excellent choice. This 5.7-mile, one-way trail is a longer route to and from the summit and can be significantly more challenging for hikers. For those willing to put in the time and effort, it provides great views, with plenty of flora and fauna to take in the entire time.
This trail puts hikers above treeline quickly, and for a large portion of the trip, you’ve got those great views. However, you will also be exposed to the elements for significantly longer. So, check the forecast and pack and prepare for any changes in the weather you might experience over the course of a day. And, since this route is longer, it requires more time to ascend and descend.
Mount Washington from Madison. | Credit: Tim Peck
Mount Washington from Madison. | Credit: Tim Peck

Mt. Madison via the Valley Way Trail

By Taylor Regan, Weather Observer and Research Specialist

Weather and fitness permitting, this route could be the start of a Presidential Traverse or simply a nice and fairly challenging hike on its own. Mount Madison via the Valley Way Trail rises relentlessly from the Appalachia Trailhead, gaining over 4,000 feet of elevation in roughly 3.8 miles while passing close to several detour-worthy cascades and waterfalls. This sustained effort brings you to the outermost edge of the Northern Presidentials, with sweeping views of Mount Washington and the ribbon-like Auto Road tracing its way upward in the foreground. The summit of Madison is easily one of my favorite vista points.

Mount Washington via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail and Lion Head Route

By Taylor Regan, Weather Observer and Research Specialist

The Lion Head summer route begins along the Tuckerman Ravine Trail out of Pinkham Notch. Two of my favorite sections actually bookend this hike. Shortly after leaving the parking lot, take a slight detour to Crystal Cascade: a stunning waterfall with a total drop of 100 feet, split in two by a small pool. Much farther along, once you’ve crested Lion Head, views open up along a relatively flat traverse flanked by the Alpine Garden on your right—check for rare alpine flowers—and Tuckerman Ravine, often with snow and ice remnants along the headwall, on your left. The summit proper is then only a moderate scramble away.


3 New Hampshire 4,000-Footers That Everyone Avoids

It’s too long, it’s too far out of the way, it’s too flat, and it’s too hard are just a few of the reasons people give when somebody suggests hiking Owl’s Head, Mount Isolation, or Mount Cabot. But, hikers putting off these three New Hampshire 4,000-footers are missing out. Here’s what to tell your friends next time they start making excuses for skipping these hidden gems.

Crossing a stream en route to Isolation. | Credit: Tim Peck
Crossing a stream en route to Isolation. | Credit: Tim Peck

It’s too long!

We get it. Owl’s Head and Isolation are long hikes. Indeed, the normal route on Owl’s Head—the Lincoln Woods Trail to the Franconia Falls Trail to the Lincoln Brook Trail and up Owl’s Head Path—is roughly 18 miles long, while Isolation involves an approximately 14.5-mile round trip via the Rocky Branch Trail, Isolation Trail, and Davis Path.

But, don’t let the length of these hikes deter you. Isolation’s summit rewards hikers with some of the White Mountains’ best views. Seriously, please forgive us for not including Isolation in this piece. Although the same can’t be said for the tree-enclosed summit of Owl’s Head, the hike itself takes you into the middle of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, one of the coolest places in the White Mountains. Moreover, the majority of the terrain isn’t very challenging, so you’ll barely notice the effort—at least until you begin climbing the Owl’s Head slide.

Looking north from near Cabot's summit. | Credit: Douglas Martland
Looking north from near Cabot’s summit. | Credit: Douglas Martland

It’s too far away!

At approximately 10 miles round trip, the hike up and down Cabot seems “too long.” So, expect your buddy instead to claim that it’s too far out of the way—and they’ll have a good point. Cabot is out of the way, with the normal route beginning at the Berlin Fish Hatchery, about 30 minutes north of Berlin. It’s a long way, especially for out-of-staters.

But, here’s the thing. The drive deters everybody else as well, so you won’t encounter the hordes typically on the Whites’ most popular mountains. Also, Cabot is a great hike, weaving through a hardwood forest to a ridgeline with intermittent views of northern New Hampshire’s mountains.

Nearing Owl Head's mediocre summit. | Credit: Tim Peck
Nearing Owl Head’s mediocre summit. | Credit: Tim Peck

But, you only get one summit

Since Cabot, Owl’s Head, and Isolation stand alone, they’re difficult to combine with other peaks. So, we totally get it if your Type-A peakbagging buddy throws some shade on your suggestion to hike one of these summits. But, here’s where you need to remind your buddy to look at a map. The Presidential Traverse, Pemi Loop, and Franconia Ridge aren’t the only routes that link multiple peaks.

Seeing that Cabot is a half-day outing for many, you can easily broaden the loop to add two peaks from the New Hampshire Hundred Highest List: the Bulge and the Horn. Another option is a point-to-point hike traversing Cabot and Waumbek, with a car stashed at the end for a quad-busting, 16-mile day with almost 5,000 feet of climbing. For the even more ambitious, there’s the Kilkenny Ridge Traverse, which extends the Cabot-Waumbek traverse another 11 miles north.

Options abound on Isolation and Owl’s Head, too. One interesting combination and big-mileage day can be found by summiting Isolation and then using the Davis Path to link up with the Southern Presidentials near Lake of the Clouds. After Isolation, much of the hike is above treeline with spectacular views. For Owl’s Head, consider making it part of a Pemi Traverse, beginning at Lincoln Woods, climbing Owl’s Head, and then exiting up and over Garfield.

Get creative, and you’ll discover a bunch of other interesting ways to tick these peaks off with other mountains. And, if all that doesn’t work, remind your buddy that hiking all three is essential to finishing all 48 New Hampshire 4,000-footers and becoming a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Four Thousand Footer Club.

Mount Washington from Isolation. | Credit: Tim Peck
Mount Washington from Isolation. | Credit: Tim Peck

They’re too flat

If you’re like us, when thoughts turn to peakbagging, images of stout climbs and exposed ridges spring to mind—not long grinds along flat trails through the forest, which is something that both Owl’s Head and Isolation have plenty of.

Of course, if you’re looking for bragging rights, those long, flat sections allow you to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time. For example, Owl’s Head is just a few miles shorter than a Presidential Traverse, but can be done in a half-day by a fit hiker. Start early on a summer day, and you can be at an afternoon BBQ later, impressing your friends with the fact that you did an 18-mile hike and summited a 4,000-footer that morning.

Like Owl’s Head, most ascents of Isolation also start on the Rocky Branch Trail, an old logging road. Offering just under four miles of moderately graded terrain, the Rocky Branch Trail connects with the Isolation Trail for another relatively gentle two and a half miles. Unlike Owl’s Head, the terrain is less-conducive to moving fast. However, the climb’s gradualness allows hikers to spend an unusually long amount of time in various zones—you can almost feel the changes as you move up the mountain—and delivers a unique experience not found on many other 4,000-footers.

Franconia Ridge from Owl Head's slide. | Credit: Tim Peck
Franconia Ridge from the Owl Head’s slide. | Credit: Tim Peck

 

They’re just too hard!

Although the common routes to the summits of Owl’s Head, Mount Isolation, and Mount Cabot are far from the Whites’ most challenging, they are not without their difficulties. On Owl’s Head, hikers face a few formidable water crossings that stymie even experienced peakbaggers, and its slide’s reputation for being steep and loose is well deserved.

Likewise, hikers heading to Mount Isolation’s summit will encounter numerous water crossings. If you’re lucky enough to survive them with dry feet, conditions on the Isolation Trail typically vary between wet and muddy. Many hikers are left hoping that summit conditions will allow them to dry their shoes off for a few minutes while they take in the expansive view from the heart of the Dry River Wilderness (ironic, we know).

Finally, although Cabot presents comparatively lesser difficulties, watch for your friends to claim “It’s too hard to do in a day” because the drive is so long. If the drive really is too much to do in a day from where you live, you can turn Cabot into an overnight by staying at Cabot Cabin, 0.4 miles from the summit. And, if glamping is more your style, there’s car camping (free with your White Mountain Pass) right near the Fish Hatchery.

Have you avoided a mountain due to its reputation, only to eventually discover that you loved it? If so, tell us about it in the comments.


Alpha Guide: Mount Washington via the Lion Head Winter Route

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

Take on a genuine mountaineering challenge by going for a winter ascent on the Northeast’s tallest peak. 

Mount Washington is the pinnacle of winter mountaineering in the Northeast, and the Lion Head Winter Route is the trail of choice for many looking to summit this iconic mountain. Although this is the least technical way to summit the “Rock Pile,” mountaineers will be challenged by everything from the route’s steep, icy terrain to the mountain’s notorious “worst weather in the world.” Depending on the day, you could find yourself huddling behind one of the summit’s buildings, trying to escape the wind, or proudly posing in front of the summit sign while taking in grand views of the Presidential Range.

Quick Facts

Distance: 8.2 miles, out-and-back
Time to Complete: 1 day
Difficulty: ★★★★
Scenery:★★★★★


Season: November through March
Fees/Permits: None
Contact: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/whitemountain/recarea?recid=78538

Download

Turn-By-Turn

Parking for the Lion Head Trail is at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center in Gorham, just north of Jackson on Route 16. It’s about a 25-minute drive from North Conway or Gorham.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Gearing Up

The Pinkham Notch Visitor Center (44.257320, -71.253052) is a great place to get ready. The gear room, in the basement, has tables and benches that are perfect for getting organized, tying your boots, and doing those last-minute gear checks. It also has bathrooms and a water fountain, and snacks and meals can be purchased upstairs.

Equally important, the AMC posts the Mount Washington Observatory’s daily Higher Summits Forecast and the Mount Washington Avalanche Center’s daily avalanche forecast on a cork board in the visitor center’s basement. Make sure to read both! And, while you’re there, sign the winter hiker register, too.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Starting Out

To get on the trail, leave the basement, and follow the sidewalk towards the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center’s main entrance. Continue past the entrance and around the back of the building to the large sign marking the beginning of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, which you’ll take for the first 1.7 miles and more than 1,000 feet of elevation.

The easy-to-follow Tuckerman Ravine Trail begins as a very rocky dirt road and is wide enough to allow side-by-side hiking. Depending on the weather, trail conditions range from ice-covered rocks to packed snow. In most cases, starting out in MICROspikes is usually a good idea.

From the Visitor Center, the trail is moderate for the first few minutes, and then begins to climb consistently. As it climbs, an occasional path cuts off to the left, heading over to the Sherburne Ski Trail. A bit higher up, there is also a signed cutoff to the right for the Huntington Ravine Trail (44.261887, -71.269882). Hikers should ignore all of these cutoffs.

Trees protect this portion of the trail, keeping the wind and wind chill at bay. And, although the trees also limit the views—especially compared to the awesome ones you’ll get once you’re above treeline—the Tuckerman Ravine Trail does pass a few key scenic spots as it climbs out of the valley. The most notable are the two bridges that cross the Ellis River and the Cutler River and the waterfall—or icicle, in this case—Crystal Cascade. It might be tempting to dig the camera out, but don’t stop. You have a long way to go, and the days are short this time of year.

If the weather permits, you’ll also get a preview of the Lion Head as you move up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, giving you an appreciation for the route’s expansive scale and how much distance you have left to travel.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Cut Off

After about 1.7 miles, the junction with the Huntington Ravine fire road (44.263844, -71.277946) is on the right. The junction is well-marked, with a sign pointing toward the base of the Lion Head Winter Route. The wide, flat fire road makes for easy hiking. Take it a short distance to a junction (44.264603, -71.279106). Look for a rescue cache on the trail’s opposite side for confirmation.

The flat area at the Winter Route’s base is a great spot to grab some food and water and add a layer. Most people, too, put their crampons on here and get their ice axe out.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Rock Step

The steeps on the Lion Head Winter Route come pretty quickly. Climbing along a tree-lined trail, the route gains almost 1,800 feet in elevation.

While most of the climbing is on steep but easy snow, there is a short, 30-foot, rocky section near the beginning that has some exposure. Almost all the guided parties carry a short section of rope to use as a hand line, but it is probably unnecessary if you are comfortable climbing in crampons.

Pro Tip: The Lion Head Winter Route is the Whites’ most popular guided winter route, and there is sometimes a bottleneck at the rock step. So that you can maintain your pace, try to stay ahead of guided groups, if you see them gearing up at the base.

Above the rock step, the route continues up, staying in the trees until it eventually breaks treeline. Around treeline, you’ll find numerous spots along the side of the trail to take a break (44.264332, -71.286575) and enjoy the excellent view of the Wildcat Mountain Ski Area across the notch. Since you’ll be fully exposed to the wind from here on, now is a great time to don your above-treeline gear. On windy days, remember full-face protection, including goggles.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Lion Head

From treeline, the trail continues up over open, rocky terrain towards Lion Head proper (44.264.042, -71.291275). As you climb, you’ll probably feel the wind speed increasing. And, be on the lookout for another steep and exposed section just before the Lion Head. It’s easy, but you don’t want to fall.

As you approach the Lion Head, you should evaluate the weather, the wind, and your group’s motivation. If the wind’s too strong, the weather’s getting worse, or it has taken longer to get here than anticipated, this is a good place to turn around without significant consequence.

Crossing the Alpine Garden

Above the Lion Head, the trail continues along the edge of Tuckerman Ravine, crossing the Alpine Garden. If it is a nice day, enjoy the view of the ravine in all its splendor. But, don’t get sucked too far left, especially if it’s windy. You don’t want to get blown in!

This section is also likely to be one of the hike’s windiest segments. Since the trail here is mostly flat, it’s a great idea to hustle across as quickly as possible. The prevailing wind is west to northwest; so, once you are in the shadow of the summit cone, you’ll likely get a brief reprieve.

After a short time, the trail intersects with the Alpine Garden Trail (44.265045, -71.295603). Some scrub here makes a passable wind break, but you’ll probably want to keep going. From the junction, continue straight on the Lion Head Trail.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Split Rock

The trail begins climbing again after the junction, crossing a couple of open snowfields on the way towards Split Rock (44.265850, -71.301437). Since there are few landmarks here, route finding is critical. Moreover, the consequences of a sliding fall on this section are significant, so make sure to have your crampons on and ice axe ready.

Split Rock is easily identifiable: As the name implies, it’s a large boulder that is split in half. Split Rock is also the last place that offers passable protection from the weather before you reach the summit. Many parties choose to take advantage of the flattish area and windbreak to grab a snack, make a final determination of the weather, and prepare for their summit push before following the trail through the boulder itself. Once you’re ready, the next junction (44.265980, -71.302155) is just a few minutes ahead.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Summit Cone

The Lion Head Trail traverses west for a short ways before connecting with the Tuckerman Ravine Trail at a large cairn. From here, turn right and follow the cairns uphill on the final 0.4 miles to the top. Frequently, this section provides a respite from the wind. Enjoy the break, as the wind will only increase as you near the top.

The Tuckerman Ravine Trail leads to the first sign of civilization—the Auto Road (44.269550, -71.302048). Shortly thereafter, you’ll pass the tracks for the Cog Railway, before you come to the final small hill leading to the summit (44.270424, -71.303375).

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Summit Pose

If it is a nice day, spend some time to enjoy the summit view of the Presidentials and the surrounding White Mountains. More likely though, ripping winds and cold temperatures will have you taking shelter by the buildings and putting on an extra layer before you make your way to the summit sign to get the requisite shot.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Getting Back in One Piece

To quote the world-famous mountaineer Ed Viesturs, “The summit is just a halfway point.” Although getting back to Pinkham Notch is as simple as reversing course, you have ample opportunities to get lost or disoriented above treeline, especially when the weather is at its worst. So, take the time at trail junctures to ensure you’re descending in the right direction, and look for memorable landmarks. Most notable are the large cairns marking the Tuckerman-Lion Head junction, Split Rock, the scrub at the Alpine Garden Trail junction, and the flat area on top of the Lion Head. As you make your way towards treeline, look for several sets of reflectors attached to the trees for descending at night or in deteriorating conditions.

The final crux for hikers will be reversing the rock step and the terrain just above it. Once again, many guided parties use a rope here, but those comfortable climbing in crampons should be fine simply downclimbing.


Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Kit

  • The Lion Head Winter Route is steep and often icy. Because of this, an ice axe and crampons are essential equipment. The Black Diamond Raven Ice Axe and Contact Crampons are great choices.
  • The combination of high winds, snow, and ice often necessitates the use of goggles, like the Smith I/O 7, to protect your eyes and maintain vision. We suggest bringing a second pair in the event one freezes.
  • Summiting Mount Washington in the winter is a long day even in the best conditions—not to mention, the days are shorter this time of year. A headlamp like the Black Diamond Revolt helps prevent getting caught in the dark and provides peace of mind if you fall behind schedule.
  • It’s easy to get disoriented or lost above treeline on Mount Washington, especially if it’s snowing and the wind is howling. A route plan, pre-set waypoints on a phone-based mapping app like GAIA GPS, and a map and compass as backup are all extremely valuable when you’re trying to stay on course no matter the weather.
  • A heavy puffy coat, like the Black Diamond Stance Parka (Men’s/Women’s), and summit mittens, such as the EMS Summit (Men’s/Women’s), are must-haves for extreme cold. Using chemical hand warmers is also a great way to keep your hands warm.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Keys to the Trip

  • Mount Washington’s reputation for the “world’s worst weather” is well-deserved, and weather conditions play a huge role in any successful ascent via the Lion Head Winter Route. Before you head out, make sure to read the Mount Washington Observatory’s Higher Summits Forecast. If the conditions don’t look right (for instance, high winds are forecast or the temperatures at higher elevations are just too cold), consider a different trip for the day: A hike up to HoJo’s at the base of Tuckerman Ravine or skiing the Sherburne Trail is a nice alternative that never leaves the protection of the trees.
  • Similarly, if the weather starts to turn during your hike, bailing is a smart decision. After all, the weather rarely gets better the higher you go, and the “Rock Pile” isn’t going anywhere.
  • Before leaving the Visitor Center, take a moment to make sure the Lion Head Winter Route is actually open. Its opening depends on the amount of snow received, and in recent years—like the 2017-2018 winter season—it has not opened until late December.
  • Early starts on Mount Washington are par for the course. The AMC’s Joe Dodge Lodge is a great place to stay if you want to roll right from bed to the trail. Accommodation options include private and bunk rooms, with most options encompassing breakfast and dinner.
  • Not confident doing this journey yourself? Consider a guided ascent of Mount Washington with the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School. EMS guides have climbed the “Rock Pile” hundreds of times each winter, and have the skills and knowledge to get you up and down the mountain safely. And, if you’re looking for more than just the up-and-back, consider combining a guided climb with an overnight at the Mount Washington Observatory.
  • Moat Mountain Smokehouse & Brewing Co., or simply The Moat, is the place for Conway-area climbers to eat, grab a pint, and brag about everything from their successful summits to just how bad the weather was above treeline.

Current Conditions

Have you hiked the Lion Head Winter Route on Mount Washington recently? Post your experience and the trail conditions (with the date of your hike) in the comments for others!


Alpha Guide: Skiing in Tuckerman Ravine

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

Who says the East doesn’t have bigtime, open backcountry skiing? A classic not just among Northeast skiers, Tuckerman Ravine is a serious challenge for all skiers and boarders.

“Skiing Tucks” is a rite of passage for almost every East Coast skier. The glacial cirque offers some of the best terrain east of the Mississippi, with high alpine conditions, steep chutes, and cozy gullies. The birthplace of “extreme” skiing in the 1930s and ’40s, it’s now the East’s most well-known and highly traveled backcountry skiing destination. Amongst its beautiful, rugged, and powerful terrain, its rich community, and addicting atmosphere, Tucks keeps the locals and the travelers alike coming back year after year.

The trip is easily done in a day, but staying multiple days allows for more skiing, earlier starts, and bigger weather windows.

Quick Facts

Distance: 2.9 miles to Tuckerman Ravine Floor, one way.
Time to Complete: 1 day
Difficulty:★★★★★
Scenery:★★★★


Season: December through April; best February and later.
Fees/Permits: None
Contact: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/whitemountain/recarea?recid=78538 

Download

Turn-By-Turn

Parking and trailhead access to the Tuckerman Ravine Trail are at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center located on Route 16 between Gotham and Jackson. Weekend parking fills up quickly, but an overflow lot is located just south of the Visitor Center. Stop in the Visitor Center for last-minute supplies, trail conditions, and weather information before starting your ski up the trail.

DJI_0015
Credit: Andrew Drummond

The Approach

Follow the Tuckerman Ravine Trail from Pinkham Notch Visitor Center for 2.4 miles to the Caretaker Cabin at Hermit Lake Shelters (44.13269° N 74.85318° W). From the Visitor Center, the trail switchbacks before straightening out for a sustained climb to the intersection with the Huntington Ravine Trail. From there, you’ll pass the Harvard Cabin Fire Road junction before climbing to the Hermit Lake Shelters, where you’ll finally gain stunning views of the ravine. Chat with a Ranger or stop into the Caretaker Cabin for up-to-date weather, snow, and safety information before heading up into the ravine. From the Caretaker Cabin, continue up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail for just over a half-mile to reach the ravine’s floor.

While skiers can hike or skin to the floor, once you choose your runs for the day, climbing on foot is necessary to get to the top of the steep slopes. It is strongly recommended to climb up what you intend to ski down to get an accurate view of the conditions and terrain. Remember that the runs are always changing due to the amount of snow and how the snow fills into each run.

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Credit: Andrew Drummond

After Your Ski

The fastest and most enjoyable way down is the Sherburne Ski Trail, which is accessible from the Caretaker Cabin at Hermit Lake. This trail is roughly three miles long, would equate to a “Blue Square” in difficulty at your local ski resort, and, at the end, drops you off at the south side of the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center parking lot. The “Sherbie” is also a great objective when avalanche danger is high for the day, or if you just want to go for a quick ski tour. As spring progresses, however, Sherburne’s skiable area decreases. So, keep an eye out for a cross-cut back to the Tuckerman Ravine Trail when the coverage gets thin.

If you are looking to spend the night, check out the AMC Hermit Lake Shelters for a winter camping experience and quick access to the ravine; Harvard Cabin for a cozy, rustic night halfway up the trail; or Joe Dodge Lodge next to the trailhead for a bunk, a shower, and a meal.


The Runs

Courtesy: Colin Boyd
Courtesy: Colin Boyd

Hillman’s Highway

Aspect: East-Northeast
Steepest Slope Angle: 40 degrees
Vertical Distance: 1200 feet

Hillman’s is slightly removed from the main “bowl” and is located under the Boott Spur Buttresses. Get a great view of the run from Hermit Lake Shelters’ visitor deck. Easy access is found by heading up the Sherburne Ski Trail from the Caretaker Cabin. Points of reference on Hillman’s include “the dog leg,” the skiers’ left-hand curve near the bottom; the top of “the Christmas Tree,” an area of vegetation to the climber’s right of the slide path that, when filled with snow, looks like a Christmas tree from a distance; and the fork near the top of the run, where skiers have a choice of two different variations.

TuckermanRavine1.3.2017-0011
Credit: Jamie Walter

Left Gully

Aspect: East-Northeast
Steepest Slope Angle: 45 degrees
Vertical Distance: 850 feet

The ravine’s left-most prominent run is Left Gully. In the ravine, this run is often the first and last to be skied over the course of the season, as its northeast orientation helps the slope hold snow a bit longer due to decreased sun exposure. The top offers two general entrances to get into the run. When climbing up the gully, look to the right for a steeper entrance, or continue straight up for a slightly more mellow one. About halfway down, the run narrows a bit before making a left turn to drop you back into the bowl.

Credit: Andrew Drummond
Credit: Andrew Drummond

Chute

Aspect: East
Steepest Slope Angle: 50 degrees
Vertical Distance: 750 feet

Chute is easily identified by the hour glass-shaped choke point near the center. The steep entry funnels skiers through this 30-foot-wide point into open skiing and lower slope angles below. Use caution when climbing through the choke point, as skiers (and their sluff) may be descending. A great spot for a rest on the way up or down, a natural bench is under the rock buttress to the climber’s left of the choke point. It’s ideal for taking a minute to decide whether to keep going, to have a snack, or to take in the great views across the ravine.

Credit: Jamie Walter
Credit: Jamie Walter

The Lip

Aspect: Southeast
Steepest Slope Angle: 45 degrees
Vertical Distance: 750 feet

The Lip is located on the climber’s right-hand side of the headwall, where a gap in the steep wall of rock and ice lets skiers sneak through and make big, open turns into the bowl. When skiing into The Lip, trend to the left to avoid going over the icefall area. The Lip becomes progressively steeper as you ski into it; this decreases the visibility of the run below you, until you reach the steepest pitch. As such, find visual landmarks as you climb up, and use them as a route-finding tool on the way down. All eyes are on you when you’re skiing The Lip, so make it count!

Credit: Andrew Drummond
Credit: Andrew Drummond

Sluice

Aspect: South-Southeast
Steepest Slope Angle: 50 degrees
Vertical Distance: 700 feet

Sluice is found between The Lip and Right Gully. Its entrance is steep and has a tricky double fall-line, when the obvious ski run dictates one direction of travel, but gravity wants to take you in another. A good reference point for this climb is Sluice Ice, a cliff that holds vertical ice a few hundred feet up from Lunch Rocks. Use caution with your route-finding in the spring, as ice begins to shed as the temperatures rise. Skiers finish the run by skiing to the left side of Lunch Rocks.

Credit: Andrew Drummond
Credit: Andrew Drummond

Right Gully

Aspect: South
Steepest Slope Angle: 45 degrees
Vertical Distance: 700 feet

The most prominent gully on the south-facing wall is Right Gully. Because of their orientation, this run and Lobster Claw see the most sun in the ravine, so keep this in mind when searching for the perfect soft spring corn. Though it’s a bit shorter than some of the others, the consistent slope angle and half-pipe-like feel make this a favorite. A great place to scope out the line, decide whether to keep climbing, or have a snack is on the natural bench that forms under the climber’s right side of the slight choke point, just under halfway up the run.

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Credit: Andrew Drummond

Lobster Claw

Aspect: South
Steepest Slope Angle: 40 degrees
Vertical Distance: 700 feet

Once you locate Right Gully, look a few hundred feet to the right to find Lobster Claw. This run is under the ravine’s Lion Head area. Slightly narrower than Right Gully, the slope angle is a bit mellower and gets about the same amount of sunlight. Lobster Claw is home to quite a bit of vegetation and can often take longer to fill in enough to be skiable. When the ravine is crowded with skiers, however, Lobster Claw is often a less-crowded option. Use caution exiting the run, because plenty of rocks and trees sit below the main part of the gully.


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The Kit

  • Your avalanche rescue kit and the skills to use it are crucial when you’re traveling into the ravine. A popular combo is the PIEPS DSP Sport beacon, Black Diamond Transfer 3 shovel, and Black Diamond QuickDraw 280 probe.
  • Though they are not a substitute for crampons on steep slopes, Kahtoola MICROspikes are useful on lower-angle trails, or if you have to hike with your ski boots on a slick surface.
  • The slope angles in Tuckerman are steep! Having a small, lightweight ice axe, like the Black Diamond Raven Ultra, and knowing how to use it are extremely valuable tools for steep skiing and can add a bit of extra security.
  • An ultra-portable sunscreen like the Beyond Coastal Natural Lip and Face Sun Protection will help protect your face from burning while skiing in the ravine. Remember that snow is highly reflective and can amplify the effects of your goggle tan to a very unpleasant point.

Credit: Andrew Drummond
Credit: Andrew Drummond

Keys to the Trip

  • Avalanches are real and happen very regularly in the ravine. Check out the Mount Washington Avalanche Center forecast online in the morning, before you head into the ravine, and then, check in with USFS Avalanche Rangers or the AMC Caretaker for up-to-date beta on the best spots of the day.
  • On the way through North Conway, stop by Frontside Grind Coffee Roasters for a hot brew and bagel before you start your climb.
  • For beers and burgers after the trip, check out Moat Mountain Smokehouse & Brewing Co. and Tuckerman Brewing Co.
  • For some early morning pre- or afternoon post-skiing yoga, check out the yoga classes at The Local Grocer. This is a great way to both warm your body up before a big day and recover after by stretching and keeping your body moving before the car ride home.
  • North Conway has many quirky shops that are unique to New Hampshire. Some of my favorites are the candy counter and hot sauce aisle at Zeb’s General Store; Dondero’s Rock Shop, where any geological nerds can find local and global samples of rocks and minerals; and Beef & Ski for truly bangin’ sandwiches.

Top 5 Winter Hikes Under 5 Miles in the White Mountains

Winter hiking in the White Mountains can be extremely rewarding. Not only can you avoid the crowds, but also, you’re able to see the mountains in a vastly different light. You’ll further find that there’s nothing quite like the tundra experience atop some of New Hampshire’s tallest peaks. Here, you’ll see pines encased with perfectly white snow, and trails full of fresh powder or slicked with ice. And, whether you’re new to winter hiking, or looking for a quick lunchtime trek to burn off those holiday calories, the Whites have a winter-wonderland of options.

Credit: Maxwell DesMarais
Credit: Maxwell DesMarais

Mount Willard

Mount Willard is easily one of the Whites’ most rewarding hikes. Specifically, with minimal effort, you can experience stunning views of Crawford Notch. The notch’s southern slopes rise over 1,500 ft. to the summit, and to the left, the exposed rocks of Mount Webster’s cliffs are ice covered. Together, these features create a striking contrast of dark rocks and pure white ice. As you make your way to the thousand-foot cliff rising from the valley floor, you wonder how you could have ascended so quickly.

The trailhead begins at the train station just east of the AMC Highland Center at Crawford Notch. The Mount Willard Trail then climbs gradually over 1.6 miles to the cliff overlooking Route 302 and the Saco River. If you have never hiked in winter, Willard is the perfect starter peak. Particularly, the gradual incline keeps ice and snow manageable for all levels, without the need for crampons or other more serious gear.

Credit: Maxwell DesMarais
Credit: Maxwell DesMarais

Cannon Mountain

A winter hiking essential, Cannon is one of the few New Hampshire 4,000-footers that you can hike round-trip in under five miles. Located in Franconia Notch, it has incredible views of Mount Lafayette and Franconia Ridge to the east and North and South Kinsman to the south. Here, the strong winds and elevation create multiple layers of ice that envelope the summit tower. The 360-degree views show off the flat lands to the northwest, the white-tipped pines of the Kinsman Ridge Trail, and the steep valley of Franconia Notch. You’ll even get a glimpse of the ski lift up Cannon.

The Kinsman Ridge trail (a.k.a. Hi-Cannon Trail) can be accessed from the Cannon Mountain Ski Area parking lot off I-93, and offers a very short four-mile round-trip hike to the summit. The trail is fairly steep and likely requires MICROspikes, but the views from the observation tower are worth it. As you ascend, the incline will get your heart pumping, and the breathtaking sights will keep it going long after you stop.

Credit: Chris Picardi
Credit: Chris Picardi

Arethusa Falls

Also in Crawford Notch, Arethusa Falls involves a 2.6-mile round-trip hike to a stunning waterfall. Over the 1.3 miles from the parking lot, you’ll climb roughly 800 feet along the Bemis Brook Trail, which parallels Bemis Brook. Here, you can always stop to listen to the falling waters, or take a look at the unique rock formations carved by the brook. And, at the end, there’s nothing like seeing a 140-foot ice wall looming over you. If you come at just the right time, you may be lucky enough to see water rushing down the middle, flanked by ice walls on either side.

Credit: @ayu_river
Credit: @ayu_river

Ripley Falls

Ripley Falls is located just a couple miles up the notch from the trailhead for Arethusa Falls, with parking clearly marked along Route 302. At only 1.2 miles round-trip, this short hike along the Ripley Falls Trail is great if you only have an hour or two to spare. While Ripley Falls isn’t quite as steep as Arethusa Falls, it still creates a giant ice slide that can completely cover the entire cascade, leaving no rock exposed. Consider combining both in a day via the Arethusa-Ripley Falls Trail.

Glen-Boulder-Winter

Glen Boulder

The Glen Boulder trailhead is located just south of Pinkham Notch on Route 16 at the Glen Ellis Parking Area. The trail up is a steep 3.6-mile round-trip hike—perfect for those wanting a more challenging workout. In less than 1.5 miles, you will the reach treeline, where you’ll get to see gorgeous views of Mount Washington and Pinkham Notch. In winter, you may need snowshoes, and should bring MICROspikes for traction. Glen Boulder appears to beg for a nudge off the mountainside. So, if you’re bold, stand on top of it.

Going beyond Glen Boulder gives you even better views. But, understand that snow drifts can create very deep powder on the ridge to Boott Spur. To prepare, snowshoes are recommended. For a bonus, check out Glen Ellis Falls at the trailhead. To get here, a short trail leading under Route 16 takes you a short distance to what may be New Hampshire’s best waterfall.


Alpha Guide: Franconia Ridge in Winter

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

Take on one of the Northeast’s most stunning ridgelines while tagging two of New Hampshire’s 10 tallest mountains.

A true classic, this winter hike crosses one of the White Mountains’ most prominent features, Franconia Ridge; delivers moderate climbing that doesn’t require the use of an ice axe; and features a roughly 1.5-mile above-treeline ridge run between Little Haystack and Mount Lafayette. With 360-degree views of the Whites from the ridge, it is one of the Northeast’s most beautiful hikes. And, with a large section of above-treeline hiking, it’s also one of the region’s most exposed hikes, making it a fantastic winter test piece.

 

Quick Facts

Distance: 9 miles round-trip
Time to Complete: 1 day
Difficulty: ★★★★
Scenery: ★★★★★


Download

Turn-By-Turn

Most hike Franconia Ridge as a loop, beginning and ending at the Falling Waters and Old Bridle Path trailhead and parking lot on Interstate 93N (44.142048, -71.681206) in Franconia Notch State Park.

Hikers driving north on I-93 will find the parking lot just after the exit for The Basin trailhead. Hikers coming from the other direction should park in the Lafayette Place Campground parking lot and use the tunnel that goes under I-93 to access the lot and trailhead. The trailhead is opposite the entrance to the parking lot, where it climbs a short, paved incline to an outhouse and then becomes dirt as it heads into the woods.

Hikers, take notice: This ultra-classic hike is super-popular on weekends and holidays. So, get there early to find a parking spot.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Time to split

Just 0.2 miles in, hikers will come to the junction (44.139702, -71.679512) of the Falling Waters Trail and the Old Bridle Path. The loop is best done counterclockwise, first up the Falling Waters Trail and then descending the Old Bridle Path. The Falling Waters Trail, which veers right at the junction, gets extremely icy in winter and is much easier to go up than down. Plus, the various waterfalls are more scenic on the approach, as well as more easily overcome with fresh legs early in the day.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Following Falling Waters

From the junction, the Falling Waters Trail heads southeast on a moderate track, until it reaches Dry Brook. From there, the trail intermittently steepens and poses some small technical challenges, as it crisscrosses the icy stream climbing under, around, and over a series of semi-frozen waterfalls. Between the water and ice, the footing along here is often slick, and you’ll probably want your MICROspikes and a pair of trekking poles to negotiate the potentially treacherous terrain. Take care not to slip or plunge a foot into the brook.

Eventually, the trail leaves the brook and begins a series of long, gradual switchbacks up toward Shining Rock. As the trail moves away from the brook, the short, steep, and technical sections dissipate, and the terrain and grade become more consistent—especially once the snow on the ground is packed and covering the ordinarily rocky and rooty terrain.

Shining Rock

After 2.5 miles, the Falling Waters Trail reaches a junction with a short spur trail (44.140186, -71.650940) that heads downhill to Shining Rock, a large granite slab flanking Little Haystack Mountain and visible from Interstate 93. If you have time (remember, darkness comes early in the winter), consider the brief detour.

The Shining Rock junction is also a great place to refuel, add an extra layer and traction devices (if you haven’t already), and get your above-treeline gear ready (such as a balaclava, warmer gloves, goggles, etc.). From the junction, continue upward on the Falling Waters Trail, which steepens and gradually becomes more exposed to the weather for the final 0.5-mile push to the 4,760-foot summit of Little Haystack.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Little Haystack

Shortly after departing the junction for Shining Rock, hikers will push past the treeline to the rocky and icy landscape of Little Haystack Mountain’s summit (44.140362, -71.646080). Although Little Haystack isn’t one of the 48 New Hampshire 4,000-footers (it’s technically a subpeak of Mount Lincoln, the next stop on your journey), it is an awesome summit with fantastic views. Find the hard-to-miss summit cairn, and then, head north on the Franconia Ridge Trail toward Mount Lincoln.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Mount Lincoln

From Little Haystack, it’s 0.7 miles to Mount Lincoln’s summit. The path is easy to follow and, at first, quite moderate. Then, it begins to climb on rockier terrain and crests an ego-deflating false summit, all the while offering fantastic views in every direction and fully exposing you to the wind and weather.

Once you get to the summit of 5,089-foot Mount Lincoln (44.148682, -71.644707), the first of two New Hampshire 4,000-footers on the traverse, take a moment—or more, if the weather allows—to soak in the dramatic landscape and fantastic views. From here, you get views in all directions, with the Kinsmans, Lonesome Lake, and Cannon Cliff to the west and the Pemigewasset Wilderness to the east. To the south, the pyramid-like tops of Mount Liberty and Mount Flume dominate the view, while to the north lies your next objective, the summit of Mount Lafayette.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Mount Lafayette

Standing one mile away on the Franconia Ridge is the day’s high point, the 5,260-foot summit of Mount Lafayette. To get there, you’ll give up much of the elevation you’ve gained since Little Haystack by descending rocky, slabby terrain similar to what you just ascended. The saddle has a scrubby pine grove, which provides a brief respite from the weather on less-optimal days. Beware that snow can build up in the trees, making this section more difficult and take longer than you may have expected.

From the trees, the Franconia Ridge Trail makes a sharp ascent—the steepest section since the climb from Shining Rock to Little Haystack—to Mount Lafayette’s summit. Relatively straightforward, the climb does contain a few slabby sections and rock outcroppings that warrant your full attention before you get to the summit.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The High Point

Lafayette’s summit (44.160717, -71.644470) is well marked with both a large cairn and sign, and is quickly recognizable, as it’s the region’s highest point. If the weather is good, grab a seat in one of the summit’s windbreaks—rock walls built to shield hikers from the elements—and soak up the views. The 4,500-foot Mount Garfield looms in the north, and on clear days, the Presidential Range is visible behind it. To the south, you can admire the distance you’ve traveled, as the peaks of Mount Lincoln and Little Haystack are both visible from this vantage point.

The windbreaks are also a great place to have a quick snack. And, don’t de-layer just yet, as there is still some exposed trail left on the descent.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Descent

From Lafayette’s summit, take the 1.1-mile Greenleaf Trail toward the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Greenleaf Hut. This section is well defined, but the vast majority of it is above-treeline and is very exposed to the weather—in particular, winds blowing from the northwest.

With the hut visible most of the way, progress can feel sluggish. The slow-going is often exaggerated by the trail’s rugged nature, made even more difficult by patches of snow and ice.

As you near the Greenleaf Hut, the trail dips into tree cover, the first real break in exposure you’ve had for nearly three miles. You’re not out of the woods yet, though, as the area around the hut is often very icy.

Unlike during the summer, there is no hot chocolate, soup, or delicious baked goods in your future—unless you brought your own—as Greenleaf Hut (44.160206, -71.660316) is closed in the winter. However, the building itself provides a good windbreak and is a logical place to stop for a snack and to de-layer.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Old Bridle Path

From the hut, take the Old Bridle Path for 2.7 miles to the Falling Waters trail junction, and then, enjoy the short walk back to the car. Below treeline, hikers may feel that the crux of the day is behind them, but the Old Bridle Path’s upper third is challenging and, in places, exposed. Use care negotiating these ledges, slabs, and steep sections.

As you descend the ledges, take a moment to peer back up at the ridge. It’s nice to enjoy the relative warmth of the sun found on these protected ledges while you peer up at the ridge and remember the bone-chilling cold experienced only a short time ago.

After the ledges, the Old Bridle Path begins to mellow, getting more forested with progressively easier switchbacks. From here, it’s a straightforward, albeit longish, walk back to the junction and then to the car.


Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Kit

  • Trekking poles and traction devices, like Kahtoola MICROspikes, are essential for negotiating the icy terrain on the ascent and descent. And, although the wind often blows the snow off the ridge proper, it, too, can be quite icy.
  • Bring a vast array of winter accessories to contend with unpredictable, above-treeline winter conditions. A winter hat, balaclava, multiclava, and gloves of varying warmth are a good place to start. And, if there’s wind in the forecast, goggles should also be included.
  • A warm down or synthetic parka, like the Outdoor Research Incandescent Hoody, is great for staying warm during rest breaks, cold traverses and descents, and emergencies.
  • Because it gets dark quickly in the winter and the Old Bridle Path descent is treacherous, add a headlamp, like the Black Diamond Spot, to your pack.
  • Snickers bars and gels are great in the summer but can freeze in the frigid temperatures. Nature Valley bars, trail mix, and leftover pizza—just to name a few—are all excellent winter food choices that won’t freeze in your pack.

Have more questions about what gear to bring? Check out “What’s in Our Winter Peak-Bagging Packs.” Don’t be that guy in jeans and a hoodie hiking across the ridge.


Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Keys to the Trip

  • Need a good reason for an alpine start? The parking lots fill up fast! In the summer, excess traffic even goes along the highway, but depending on the amount of snow the mountains have received, that might not be an option in winter.
  • Start cold, so you won’t have to stop after 10 minutes to lose a layer. More importantly, if you’re not over-layered, you’re less likely to sweat through your garments and will stay warmer in the long run.
  • Bring a thermos of something hot to drink. It’s great for warming up your core temperature and a nice morale booster when the going gets cold.
  • Know when to say when. If you get above treeline and decide that it’s too windy or too cold, or you just have a bad feeling, don’t hesitate to turn around before committing to the traverse.
  • Have a backup plan. If you live a few hours from the mountains, like many people do, it can be hard to know exactly what the weather will be doing until you get there. If the weather isn’t cooperating for a traverse, Mount Liberty and Cannon Mountain are close by and are less committing than Franconia Ridge.
  • After a cold day in the mountains, warm up at One Love Brewery in Lincoln, New Hampshire. Their Meat Lover’s Burger features grilled pork belly, BBQ pulled pork, jalapeño slaw, and Swiss cheese, and is a great way to replace some of the calories you burned!

Current Conditions

Have you hiked Franconia Ridge recently? Post your experience and the trail conditions (with the date of your hike) in the comments for others!

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

3 Early Winter Hikes on the Kank

Fall in the White Mountains sometimes feels ephemeral. One week, you’ll be hiking along in short sleeves, admiring the stunning foliage. The next, you’ll be trudging through the year’s first snowfall, wishing you’d remembered your traction for that icy descent.

Luckily, the period from late fall into early winter is the perfect time to explore the region around the Kancamagus. Specifically, the leaf-peeping crowds have dissipated, while the temperatures and conditions remain comparatively pleasant. For those looking to experience the Kank beyond the overlooks, here are three hikes from the highway that offer something for everyone.

Credit: Hannah Wohltmann
Credit: Hannah Wohltmann

The Hancocks

One of the most popular hikes off the Kancamagus is the 9.8-mile lollipop loop hike of both South and North Hancock. Leaving from Hancock Notch Trailhead, this hike ticks off two New Hampshire 4,000-footers via the Hancock Notch, Cedar Brook, and Hancock Loop Trails. It remains fairly low in elevation, reducing your chances of encountering snow and ice, and stays in the trees for a long portion, keeping you from prolonged exposure to cold wind. And, because this hike gains and loses the majority of its elevation in short, sustained sections, it’s not surprising to find yourself done with the almost-10 miles a little bit faster than anticipated.

Deciding which direction to hike the Hancock Loop Trail is the hardest part, however. As a tip, head to South Hancock first. It’s a little bit easier to traverse from the South to the North Peak than vice versa, despite the latter actually being higher than the former. Also, North Hancock tends to have better views. Specifically, a large slab here gives you a chance to enjoy a snack as you look out at the Osceolas and the Sandwich Range. Thus, doing it this way lets you save the best for last.

However, summiting South Hancock first also leaves the day’s steepest part for the descent, which can be an adventure in slick or snowy conditions. So, to prepare, don’t forget to bring MICROSpikes and trekking poles.

Credit: Tim Sackton
Credit: Tim Sackton

The Tripyramids

Accessing the Tripyramids from the Pine Bend Brook Trailhead lets you tick off two other 4,000-footers: North Tripyramid and Middle Tripyramid. At about 10 miles round-trip, with almost 3,500 feet in elevation gain, hiking the Tripyramids is much like the Hancocks. Specifically, hikers spend the majority of their time at lower elevations, protected from the elements by the forest. In fact, even their summits are mostly forested, allowing hikers to find shelter from cold weather around the day’s highest points.

While the views here aren’t going to make any “best of” lists, you can look out at Waterville Valley from North Tripyramid, while Middle Tripyramid offers a nice sight of its sister to the north and Passaconaway and Whiteface to the west.

Hikers approaching from the Kancamagus should be prepared for steep terrain. And, even in dry conditions, the section of trail connecting the two summits can be challenging. It’s also worth mentioning that, despite the trek being below treeline, temperatures and conditions change from the parking lot to the summit, so pack accordingly.

Credit: Ben Themo
Credit: Ben Themo

Hedgehog

For hikers looking for a little less mileage, there is Hedgehog Mountain via the Downes Brook and UNH Trails. Although you won’t ascend a 4,000-footer, it will get you to the top of a “52 With a View” peak, and delivers greater vistas and more exposure than its taller neighbors. In fact, at just 2,532 feet, Hedgehog is the shortest “52 With a View.”

Because of the lower elevation, Hedgehog is perfect for those late fall days when snow and ice are starting to accumulate on the higher summits, but you’re not quite ready for hiking in full-on winter conditions. Those tackling Hedgehog are treated to an almost five-mile loop trip that delivers moderate grades, open slabs, and great views of the Presidential Range and Mount Chocorua. Much like when you hike the Hancocks, the hardest decision of the day—other than how long to lounge on the ledges—is which direction to go. We’ve always liked to go clockwise, which allows us to tackle the ledges earlier in the day while our legs are still fresh.

A word to the wise: Don’t be fooled by the minimal elevation. Hedgehog delivers terrain similar to the region’s larger peaks. Because of this, pack not just for the trek, but also for the season. Still bring traction devices for potentially icy terrain, a windshirt for the exposed ledges, and a puffy coat for the summit, in addition to other essentials.

 

Just because the leaves are almost all off the trees, that doesn’t mean it’s time to put the hiking boots away. Now is one of the best times for hiking in the Whites, so get out for a short trek before snowshoes become required gear. Already took one of these hikes from the Kank? Tell us about your trip in the comments.

 


Crawford Notch Slab Climbs for Fall Foliage

Fall is the perfect opportunity for rock climbers to take advantage of the cool air and increased friction, escape the White Mountain crowds, and do a little high-angle leaf peeping. And, those seeking out moderately-rated routes and great views won’t need to look any further than the slab climbs found in and around Crawford Notch.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Central Slab on Mt. Webster

Mt. Webster’s Central Slab has some of the region’s best climbs. Popular moderates—Lost in the Sun, Direct, and A Bit Short—all go at 5.6 or less and have bolted cruxes and belay anchors. About 1,000 feet long, each offers bird’s-eye views of Crawford Notch, Willey’s Slide, and, in the distance, the Pemigewasset Wilderness. Even better, the 30- to 40-minute uphill approach is such a good crowd deterrent that you’ll rarely encounter too many parties.

For first-time visitors, acing the approach might be more of a challenge. If you’re coming from Conway, park in a small dirt pullout on Route 302, just after the Willey House on the left. Climbers coming from the I-93 side of 302 should use the slab itself as a reference, as the pullout is almost directly across. From here, walk across the street and cross the Saco River. Orange ribbons and small cairns lead you uphill on a climbers’ path into the approach gully and the base of the climb. Pro Tip: Leave some post-climb beers in the Saco to chill.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Lost in the Sun and Direct both leave from the toe, while A Bit Short starts a little up on the right. All three climb interesting slab, interspersed with some fun flakes and overlaps on mostly clean rock. Every belay station offers great views, but be sure to check out the flattish one at the end of Lost in the Sun and Direct. Here, sit down, take off your climbing shoes, have a snack, and soak in the expansiveness of Crawford Notch’s foliage, before you transition to the rappel. Note: The route requires two ropes, and there is no walk-off.

In terms of gear, first-timers should bring a standard rack up to two inches, along with a few doubles of smaller cams. As well, some of the pitches—especially on Direct—have several bolts. So, to prepare, consider adding multiple quickdraws to your normal assortment of runners and alpine draws.

Credit: Doug Martland
Credit: Doug Martland

The West Wall of Mt. Oscar

If long approaches are a turn-off, then check out Mt. Oscar’s West Wall, home to New Hampshire’s most European approach. Simply park at the Bretton Woods ski resort, walk 100 yards to the chairlift, and take it ($5 per person) to the top. From here, hike west on a gravel road for 10 minutes towards the West Mountain summit, enter the woods, and turn left at a wooden sign for West Wall. Then, walk downhill through a pine forest for 10 to 15 minutes to the wall’s base.

The 300-foot tall West Wall has about nine multi-pitch routes ranging in difficulty from 5.4 to 5.7. The slab climbing is fun, with bolts where you want them and generally good gear interspersed. Moreover, it’s a great place to take less-experienced leaders. Specifically, the pitches are short, and every belay station includes bolted anchors with rap rings. However, the shade-induced dampness does make the climbs’ first 10 feet a little slippery.

Once you get above the second pitch, make sure to turn around and enjoy the wilderness behind you. From left to right, you’ll see Mt. Tom, Zealand Notch, the Pemigewasset Wilderness, Mt. Hale, and the Sugarloafs. As you climb higher, look for Mt. Carrigain looming in the distance.

Most West Wall climbs eventually converge into Guides Route, which becomes markedly easier on the fourth and fifth pitches. As a result, many try a route’s first few pitches, rappel to the ground, and then head back up another route. When you’re done, simply keep climbing up Guides Route, until you can scramble on third-class slabs to the West Mountain summit. From there, savor the views as you unrope and pack your gear for the short hike back to the chairlift.

Credit: Doug Martland
Credit: Doug Martland

The Main Slab of Mt. Willard

Mt. Willard’s two-tiered slab looms as one of Crawford Notch’s most prominent landmarks. Home to some of the Whites’ first technical climbing, this is the place for fantastic views and fun, history-steeped routes.

To get to Willard’s Main Slab, park on Route 302 at the dirt pullout just south of the Silver Cascade parking lot. A well-tread trail leaves from the back, heading directly uphill to Hattie’s Garden and a railroad track. Turn right, and follow the track for five to 10 minutes to the loose gully that climbs up to main slab’s bottom left side. Pro Tip: Put your helmet on here. Hugo’s Horror Revisited, the slab’s “easiest” route, begins here. The starts for two other popular routes—Time-Space Continuum and Across the Universe—are along the climbers’ path to the right.

Compared to similarly-rated routes on West Wall and Central Slab, the climbing on Willard is stout. Further, although you’ll find some bolts in between the bolted anchors, the runouts sometimes feel spicy, and you won’t always find good gear in between. Some loose, crumbly rock on a couple segments also complicates matters.

All that said, the view down is unparalleled, especially during peak foliage season. Mt. Webster’s slabs command it to the southeast, soaring above the Saco River and Route 302 to the notch’s southern end. In the west, Mt. Willey’s forest and slides reach 4,000 feet in elevation.

 

Credit: Doug Martland
Credit: Doug Martland

There is much to love about climbing in Crawford Notch, and in the fall, these crags get even better, as the bugs go away and friction improves. Best of all, after a rope-length or two, you’re far removed from the leaf-peeping masses and get rewarded with a view that beats anything they’re seeing down below.


Alpha Guide: The Presidential Traverse

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

This Northeast classic is one of the region’s most sought-after trips, and for good reason.

The Presidential Traverse is one of the most challenging and beautiful point-to-point hikes in the Whites, and the Northeast at large. It summits up to eight of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot mountains—including the five tallest in New England—with the most notable being the iconic Mount Washington. Because most of the hiking occurs above tree line, hikers can expect a day full of incredible views…if the weather holds, that is.

 

Quick Facts

Distance: 21.7-mile thru-hike
Time to complete: 1 day (but with overnight options)
Difficulty: ★★★★★
Scenery: ★★★★★


Season: May through September
Fees/Permits: $3/day for parking at the Appalachia Trailhead and/or Crawford Path Trailhead
Contact: https://www.fs.usda.gov/whitemountain

Download

Turn-By-Turn

Most begin the Presidential Traverse at the Appalachia Trailhead and end at the AMC’s Highland Center Lodge in Crawford Notch. Doing the Presidential Traverse from north to south is easier, as it gets the majority of the elevation gain out of the way early in the trip, while leaving smoother, easier trails for the end.

If you have two cars, leave one at each trailhead. If not, take advantage of the shuttle service provided by the Appalachian Mountain Club.

Getting to the Appalachia Trailhead from Interstate 93 is straightforward. Follow I-93 to exit 35, US 3 North. Stay on US 3 North for 12 miles to NH 115 North. After roughly 10 miles turn right onto US 2 East, follow it for a little over 7 miles, and the Appalachia Trailhead will be on your right.

If you’re coming from the Route 16, follow Route 2 West for 5 miles west after its juncture with 16, and look for it on your left.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Climbing up Valley Way

Depart Appalachia on the Valley Way Trail. Although the trail’s start is easy to find, an early morning and a maze of trails leaving Appalachia can make it a careful task to ensure that you start—and remain—on the Valley Way Trail. Otherwise, you’ll spend the morning trying to get back on track.

The Valley Way Trail is initially moderate, but gets progressively steeper as you approach Madison Spring Hut (44.328037, -71.283569). There are numerous trail junctions throughout the trail’s 3.8 miles, but all are well-marked. After 3.1 miles, you will pass the Valley Way Tentsite, one of the few designated camping areas along the Traverse. From the tent site, you will get occasional glimpses of Mount Madison looming above on your left as you close in on the AMC’s Madison Spring Hut.

Overall, the Valley Way Trail gains 3,500 feet of elevation—more than a third of the trip’s total—over 3.8 miles. Equally important, it stays below treeline until the hut, allowing you to get in some miles without being too concerned about the weather.

Mount Adams from Madison's Summit. | Credit: Tim Peck
Mount Adams from Madison’s Summit. | Credit: Tim Peck

The Summits Begin

From Madison Spring Hut make the one-mile roundtrip dash on the Osgood Trail to the summit of Mount Madison (44.328846, -71.276688). Don’t be fooled by the relatively short distance to the summit and back, the Osgood Trails is rugged and steep, gaining 550-feet of elevation. On top of Madison—the Traverse’s first 4,000 footer—take in the inspiring 360-degree views, highlighted by Mount Washington to the south, and your next objective, Mount Adams. However, don’t linger too long before heading back the way you came to the hut, there is still a long way to go.

Back at the Madison Hut refill your water, scrounge for leftover breakfast, or buy baked goods. On a big trip like the Presidential Traverse (especially if you’re doing it in a day) every minute and ounce counts. Since the route after the hut is above treeline for the next 12 miles, the hut is also a good place to reassess the weather. If it is deteriorating, considering bailing here, before the turnaround logistics get too complicated.

Star Lake and Madison from Mount Adams. | Credit: Tim Peck
Star Lake and Madison from Mount Adams. | Credit: Tim Peck

Mount Adams (44.3203, -71.2909) is the next summit on the Traverse. To get there from the hut, follow the Gulfside Trail to the Airline Trail. It is a 0.9 mile trip, gaining 950-feet of elevation up rocky and rough terrain. From Adams—the second highest mountain in New England—enjoy dazzling 360-degree views of Mount Madison and Star Lake behind you, and Mounts Jefferson and Washington before you.

Mount Jefferson and Clay. | Credit: Tim Peck
Mount Jefferson and Clay. | Credit: Tim Peck

Mount Jefferson

From Adams, drop down 0.3 miles through a boulder field to Thunderstorm Junction and rejoin the Gulfside Trail. After 1.2 more miles hiking alongside the Great Gulf, you’ll be longing for smooth trail by the time the Gulfside reaches Edmunds Col. Unfortunately, the 0.6 mile-long hike on the Jefferson Loop Trail across Jefferson’s summit (44.304237, -71.316597) is anything but smooth, climbing 800 vertical feet in some of the most challenging hiking yet on the Traverse. Warning: False summits abound on the way to the actual summit.

Jefferson—the third highest mountain in New England—doesn’t disappoint on views. Take a moment to enjoy them, with Mount Adams behind you and Mount Clay and Mount Washington towering before you. Once you’ve had your fill, continue south along the Jefferson Summit Loop until it rejoins the Gulfside Trail. Before you leave the summit though, evaluate the weather, mindful of how much exposed hiking is left.

If you have any doubts, from here there are numerous trail options that will bring you back to your car at the Appalachia Trailhead, albeit with some difficulty. One way back is to backtrack the Jefferson Summit Loop Trail and connect with the Gulfside Trail. Follow the Gulfside Trail for 0.7 miles to the Israel Ridge Path which you will take for 0.8 miles to the Perch Path. Hikers will want to follow the Perch Path for a short distance—passing the Randolph Mountain Club Perch Shelter—before connecting with the Randolph Path. Backpackers might want to stay the night at the Perch Shelter and try and wait out unfavorable weather, or give themselves an extra day before making the long 6.1 mile trek along the Randolph Path as they drop 3,700-feet in elevation to the Appalachia Trailhead. The Perch Shelter costs $10 (for non-Randolph Mountain Club members) to stay the night, and has a spring to fill your water bottles.  

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

To Clay or Not to Clay

Following the Gulfside Trail 0.5 miles from Mount Jefferson to Sphinx Col, hikers encounter the first “optional” summit of the trip: the 5,533-foot tall Mount Clay. Since Clay is really a sub-peak of Washington (and thus not one of the 48 official New Hampshire 4,000 footers), it’s not always necessary, but it is still worth the short loop detour for the views of the Northern Presidentials and the ground you’ve already covered. That said, many on the Traverse bypass Clay’s summit and the extra 0.3 of a mile and few hundred feet of elevation by continuing on the Gulfside Trail for 1.4 miles to the summit of Mount Washington.

The Cog Railway and summit of Washington from Clay. | Credit: Tim Peck
The Cog Railway and summit of Washington from Clay. | Credit: Tim Peck

Once past Clay, the hike up Washington on the Gulfside often feels like the longest part of the Traverse. Although the summit looks just minutes away, appearances are deceiving and it’s still more than a mile away. The trail also remains unrelenting and rough. Thankfully, you’ll have great views of Burt’s Ravine, the Great Gulf, Mount Washington and the Cog Railroad to motivate your climb. And if at any point you stop to catch your breath, turn around to admire the distance you’ve already traveled, with Jefferson, Adams, and Madison laid out behind you.

Climbing towards the top of Mount Washington. | Credit: Tim Peck
Climbing towards the top of Mount Washington. | Credit: Tim Peck

The Worst Weather in the World and Busiest Summit of the Day

The summit view from New England’s highest peak (44.270584, -71.303551) certainly don’t disappoint. To the east, the Carters and Wildcats dominate the foreground, with, on a clear day, the Atlantic Ocean in the distance. Looking north, Madison, Adams, Jefferson, and Clay take up the skyline. West is the Bretton Woods ski area, followed by the peaks of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. Finally, to the south, the remainder of the Traverse is laid-out before you: Monroe, Eisenhower, Pierce, and Jackson.

Of course, Washington—home to the “world’s worst weather”—doesn’t offer any summit views on some days. But even on rainy, cool, or cloudy days, you’ll also encounter more people on the summit than you will have on the entirety of this trip thanks to the mountain’s popularity, the auto road, and the Cog Railroad.

Civilization isn’t all bad though if you brought your wallet, as the cafeteria in the Sherman Adams building on the summit offers the opportunity to eat and drink something different from regular hiking fair. On more than one occasion a Coke or piece of pizza has boosted morale, busted a bonk, and been key to a successful traverse. Additionally, it also offers a great place for hikers to refill water bottles and hydration packs.

However, don’t let the warm food, places to sit, and great views, lure you into lingering too long on the summit. You still have 7.7 miles and several hours left.

Lakes of the Clouds and Monroe while descending Mount Washington. | Credit: Tim Peck
Lakes of the Clouds and Monroe while descending Mount Washington. | Credit: Tim Peck

The Crawford Path

After Washington, the character of the Traverse changes, as you leave the rugged Gulfside Trail and continue for the duration of the trip (if ending at Mount Pierce) on the more gentle Crawford Path. Almost 200 years old, the Crawford Path is the oldest hiking trail in the contiguous U.S., and at one time was used to guide tourists to the summit of Mount Washington on horseback. Also worth noting is that despite some small climbs, the majority of the trip is downhill from here.

This is especially true of the 1.5-mile descent to AMC’s Lakes of the Clouds Hut (44.258831, -71.318817), the highest and largest hut in the White Mountains. Views of the Southern Presidentials dominate this portion of the hike. As you approach the hut, look for Lakes of the Clouds, a set of small ponds, on your left. Re-filling your water at the hut avoids the lines often found in Mount Washington’s summit, making it a faster and easier option. But again, don’t linger too long, unless they’re serving fresh-baked desserts or you’re planning to spend the night here as part of a multi-day traverse.

Looking back at Mount Washington. | Credit: Tim Peck
Looking back at Mount Washington. | Credit: Tim Peck

From the hut, continue on the Crawford Path for 0.3 miles before connecting with the Mount Monroe Loop Trail. The Mount Monroe Loop trail climbs 350 feet to the open summit of Mount Monroe (44.255089, -71.321373), the fifth 4,000-footer of the trip. From here you get a striking view of Washington and Lakes of the Clouds behind you, and before you, the Crawford Path is visible as it snakes its way to your next objective Mount Eisenhower. Before departing, look east, down Monroe’s sheer cliffs and towards Oakes Gulf.

Hiking from Monroe to Eisenhower. | Credit: Tim Peck
Hiking from Monroe to Eisenhower. | Credit: Tim Peck

Mount Eisenhower

Dropping off Monroe, connect again with Crawford Path and begin working your way across the 2.1 miles and the 500-foot climb up Eisenhower. Along this stretch you’ll encounter some of the most gentle terrain of the trip, and most likely not a moment too soon for your tired legs. It’s also here that you might begin to feel the effects of an even pleasant day spent above the tree line, as the sun and the wind can start to weather your resolve.

After a steep, but quick, climb up Eisenhower’s flanks, you’ll encounter a giant cairn marking its summit (44.240688, -71.350342) and the sixth four-thousand footer of the trip. Take a moment to look back, take in the view, and appreciate the enormous distance the Traverse has covered so far. Then, if you have the energy, turn south and try to pick out the summits ahead: Mount Pierce (your next objective) and, if you continue further, Mount Jackson and Mount Webster.

Monroe and Washington. | Credit: Tim Peck
Monroe and Washington. | Credit: Tim Peck

Leaving Eisenhower, rejoin the Crawford Path heading south towards Mount Pierce. Follow the Crawford Path for 1.3 miles to the split with the Webster Cliff Trail. Follow the Webster Cliff Trail 0.1 miles to the summit of Mount Pierce (44.227802, -71.364769), the seventh 4,000 footer of the Traverse.

On the 1.4 miles between Eisenhower and Pierce you’ll begin to dip in and out of the trees, the first section of below treeline hiking since your ascent of Madison. While only picking up nominal elevation, the rolling nature of this part of the Crawford Path will have you legs feeling weary with the Traverse’s 8,700 feet of elevation gain. The summit of Mount Pierce also signals an exit from the high mountains, as it’s the day’s only peak that doesn’t offer views in every direction.

Mount Pierce's summit. | Credit: Tim Peck
Mount Pierce’s summit. | Credit: Tim Peck

Decision Time

Traditionally, the Presidential Traverse “ends” at Pierce. If this is your final summit, follow the Webster Cliff Trail back to the Crawford Path. The beginning of the 3.2-mile descent to the Highland Center in Crawford Notch is surprisingly rugged and is characterized by rocks and roots. After a short time, the trail becomes significantly more moderate. As you get closer to Route 302, the sound of traffic is oddly comforting, letting you know that you’re almost there.

If you’re not ready to be done, extend the Traverse by instead hiking south on the Webster Trail for 2.4 miles to Mount Jackson (44.2031, -71.3742), the eighth 4,000 footer of the trip. On the way, you will pass the Mitzpah Hut, giving you the opportunity to refill your bottles and bladder, buy dessert, or even stay for the night. Although Jackson’s summit delivers great views to the north, west, and south, the 2.4-mile trail is rough in parts and rarely a quick trip, especially with almost 20 miles under your belt already. Except for an open rocky section near the top, the 2.5-mile descent to Crawford Notch from the summit of Jackson on the Webster-Jackson trail is moderate and a little bit shorter than the descent from Pierce.


The Kit

Light is right on the Presidential Traverse. So if you have a good weather window and you’re trying to do the Traverse in a day, here are a few tips for trimming your kit.

  • A super lightweight windshell like the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Lite is indispensable on a trip like the Presi that covers so much ground above treeline.
  • If you picked the “right” day to do the Presidential Traverse, plan on getting a lot of sun, especially when hiking north to south. A sun hoody, hat with a brim, and sunglasses are great ways to protect your skin and eyes.
  • Even if the forecast is favorable, the Presidentials are notorious for bad weather. Be prepared for it with a lightweight puffy coat like the Black Diamond First Light and a rain shell such as the Arcteryx Beta SL.
  • The weather changes fast in Presidential’s, make sure you’re ready for it with a winter hat and gloves.
  • You’ll be crossing some of the most rugged terrain the White Mountain’s have to offer. Give your legs some support when they eventually get wobbly with a pair of collapsible trekking poles like the Black Diamond Alpine FLZ.
  • Boots are great but trail runners like the Brooks Cascadia 12 are key for trying to quickly cover 20 plus miles.

Descending Mount Jefferson with Mount Washington in the background. | Credit: Tim Peck
Descending Mount Jefferson with Mount Washington in the background. | Credit: Tim Peck

Keys to the Trip

  • Hiking the Presidential Traverse is a big day in itself. Consider shuttling cars the night before to ease logistical challenges and ensure your vehicle a spot in the lot.
  • If doing the full Presidential Traverse in a day seems like too much, there are three AMC Huts along the route (Madison, Lake of the Clouds, and Mitzpah). Using the AMC huts allows you to follow the lightweight ethic while getting to savor the traverse over multiple days. However, don’t expect to find much camping on route due to alpine zone restrictions.
  • Because this hike is almost entirely above treeline, it’s not one to do in bad weather, so check the Mt. Washington Observatory Forecast before you go.
  • If you get caught in bad weather, there are lots of trails to bail below treeline on, but they will create significant logistical problems and could make it difficult to get back to your car in a hurry. Many of the trailheads they end on are fairly isolated. Don’t count on weathering a storm in Mount Washington’s summit buildings.
  • Getting an early start is a great tactic to avoid late afternoon thunderstorms.
  • Even though the route is well marked, it’s a good idea to bring a map in addition to a route mileage table to monitor your progress.
  • If you’re looking to refuel post hike, check out Catalano’s Pizza in Twin Mountain on the way back towards I-93. If your phone has reception, call in your order ahead of time to make sure dinner is waiting for you. If you feel like you deserve a drink after a long day on the trail, Fabyan’s Restaurant has a decent beer selection, along with traditional pub food.

Current Conditions

Have you done the entire traverse or even a piece of it recently? Post your experience and the trail conditions (with the date of your hike) in the comments for others!