How to Leave no Trace on Winter Adventures

Backcountry use in the winter is gaining popularity, and for good reason: The solitude is greater, the views are wider (when the weather cooperates), and there are fresh, beautiful layers of powder to play in. Advances in backcountry skiing and snowboarding equipment and better access to Federal and Public Lands have driven more people to become cold-weather outdoor enthusiasts.

But all this increased use can lead to greater impacts on the landscape, wildlife and others seeking similar experiences. Winter can leave resources and wildlife more vulnerable to the damage of recreational users and there have been cited issues with trash, human waste, excessive noise and disturbances to wildlife that can be easily avoided with some knowledge of Leave No Trace principals.

In general, Leave No Trace encourages visitors of the backcountry to treat the outdoors with respect and limit the impacts of recreation on the environment and wildlife within it. For the most part, the guidelines are pretty straightforward and can be applied to varied seasons and conditions, but there are a few changes you should be making to your LNT practices in the winter.

Credit: Effie Drew
Credit: Effie Drew

Planning & Preparation

Planning ahead is especially important in the winter because it increases our safety and enjoyment while minimizing damage to vulnerable backcountry resources. Poor planning or underestimating conditions can result in putting yourself at risk and lead to damaging natural and cultural resources. Venturing outside in the snow is attached to higher risk. Extreme temperatures and wind, fast-changing weather, elevation and avalanches can lead to emergencies like frostbite and hypothermia. To manage your risk and prevent environmental damage, take the following actions:

  • Educate yourself on conditions in the area you’ll be traveling and always ensure you’re prepared with appropriate gear and proper clothing.
  • Monitor snow conditions frequently. The night before, the morning of, and at the trailhead if you’re able.Mountain-Forecast.com is a great resource to find accurate reports for specific peaks or mountain ranges. Weather can change quickly in the mountains and understanding your timeframe can be crucial. Wind draws heat from our bodies, making it feel much colder than it is, so be sure to check the wind speed too. Prepare for extreme weather by bringing extra layers, a headlamp, emergency hand warmers, and fat-heavy snacks.
  • Don’t rely on electronics for navigation. Keep headlamps, phones or other battery-operated devices close to your body heat and consider carrying an portable battery pack if you’re out overnight. Choose waterproof maps and have an excellent understanding of how to read them.
  • Backcountry skiing preparedness is a bag I won’t open here, but you should be highly experienced and carry proper emergency equipment (avalanche beacon and shovel).
  • Don’t go out alone and always let someone know what your plans are. Even the experienced outdoorsman or woman shouldn’t take on ambitious routes solo in winter conditions.
Credit: Effie Drew
Credit: Effie Drew

Backcountry Waste

Ever come across a wad of toilet paper alongside a popular trail during the Spring melt? It’s not pretty, and certainly not ethical. In the winter months, we need to give extra consideration as to how we pack out our trash and human waste during backcountry visits. Human waste (poop!) has serious impacts on ecosystems, so we need to do our best to properly dispose of it to ensure the area is not compromised when the snow melts. While the objectives of proper human waste disposal are pretty straightforward—minimize chances of polluting water sources and spreading disease, while promoting healthy decomposition—this can be much harder in the winter due to the temperature:

  • Use established toilets when possible. Some land management areas will continue to maintain trailhead and backcountry facilities in the winter. Research prior to your trip.
  • Scatter your liquid waste. Always urinate away from the trail and established camps. To help naturalize the area, throw some fresh snow on top (for your dog too).
  • Be prepared to carry out your poop. That’s right, the best way to Leave No Trace is to take ALL of your waste with you. Decomposition of solid waste is much tougher in the winter months and the ground is much too cold to dig a proper hole, so instead it ends up in a pile of snow. It simply freezes until the snow melts and results in potential ecological damage and spread of disease. The best way to dispose of waste in a sanitary and socially acceptable way is by using a WAG Bag (which contains a gel to help break down waste), or something similar. It’ll likely freeze inside the bag, making it easier to pack out until you reach a trash receptacle (not a pit toilet). Dogs typically don’t do their business in the proper LNT area, so it’s especially important to carry theirs out too. Check out the Poo Vault for safe and odorless packability. Check local regulations for recommended methods on high peaks.
  • Dig a cat hole as an alternative. At the very least, human and dog waste needs to be buried in a 6- to 8-inch cat hole at least 200 feet from water sources, camp, and trails. Be aware if you’re in a direct drainage where water will flow in the spring by looking at the vegetation and slope of the surrounding area. All toilet paper should be packed out in a separate ziplock covered in duct tape to help be discreet.
  • Pack out all trash. Minimize your waste and weight by choosing foods that won’t freeze and repackaging when necessary. Always carry extra ziplocks to pack all of your food waste out, this includes compostable food scraps like apple cores, fruit pits and banana peels. Practice good trail karma by picking up any micro-trash (small pieces of wrappers) left behind by others and help keep spring runoff free of plastic.
Credit: Effie Drew
Credit: Effie Drew

Path of Travel

We are simply visitors of the backcountry and we want to avoid any damage to the land as we travel through it. While it may appear that surface vegetation is protected by snow in the winter, the routes we take now will impact the trail later. By traveling on packable snow we can prevent soil erosion and the development of unintended trails.

  • Travel on durable or packed snow. By packing down deeper snow or walking on ice (using MICROspikes), the surface vegetation underneath is left unimpacted and our tracks will simply melt away come spring. If you’re breaking trail, gently shake snow-weighted trees and avoid avalanche paths, steep slopes, cornices and other unstable snow.
  • Separate ski and snowshoe tracks. Be courteous to others by establishing hiking, snowshoeing or biking paths separate from skin tracks used by uphill skiers and split-boarders. When ascending, yield to downhill traffic. If you are a skier or snowboarder, courteously avoid coming down the hiking trail.
  • Avoid creating new trails. In muddy spring conditions, do your best to stay on the snow, or walk in the middle (yes, in the mud!) to avoid creating new paths and damaging trailside plants. Watch out for thin snow where you may fall through.
  • Respect other adventurers. While the camaraderie of groups in the outdoors is a powerful thing, many skiers/riders/hikers/mountaineers come for the solitude. Keep noise to a minimum and help promote a cooperative, supportive culture by sharing safety information offering help when needed.
Courtesy: Dave Moore
Courtesy: Dave Moore

Camping

The great thing about camping in the winter is the surface area is coated in snow so our impacts are minimal. We’re left to our own devices to create a safe and comfortable campsite using the appropriate gear and the following strategies:

  • Camp on durable snow at least 200 feet from water sources. Stay clear of the trail and prep your site by packing down snow to create a durable surface for your tent (don’t forget longer stakes!). Choose a flat spot away from avalanche paths, steep slopes, and cornices. Trees can provide an ideal spot sheltered from the wind.
  • Dismantle any snow shelters or wind breaks. Naturalize the area before you leave.
  • Use huts or shelters where available. There are many backcountry shelters available for use (some require a fee) to make your winter camping experience more comfortable. Always leave them in better shape that you found by cooking outside when possible, sweeping before you leave and carrying out all trash to prevent mice intruders. Be considerate of other users and follow any instructions relating to the shelter.
  • Minimize campfire impacts. Where fires are permitted, use an established ring or keep them small. Cut only small dead or down trees and burn all wood to ash. Be sure all fires are out completely and leave a clean site by clearing your ash and never burning trash.

Curious to learn more? For the complete list of LNT practices, see here.


How to Keep Warm in the Winter Wind

Shorter days, colder temperatures, and the possibility for wicked weather are all factors to be considered when getting outside in the winter time. The winter wind is one such factor that, if unaccounted for, can sour even the bluest of bluebird days. Here are some tips to help keep you warm when the temps are down and the wind is up.

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Be Prepared

The first and best thing to do when considering a winter excursion is to be prepared. Local weather and trail conditions reports are critical, as is understanding how the wind—and the windchill factor—can affect temperatures. One useful tool is the National Weather Service’s Wind Chill Chart, which uses sustained wind speed and temperature to calculate the amount of time skin can be exposed before frostbite begins to set in. This is super important, especially for those fast-and-light, alpine-style objectives, where spartan packing lists may cause an important item to eschewed for the sake of weight.

Cover Up

Exposed skin is the most vulnerable to frostbite when the windchill index dips down—so cover it up! Boots, pants and jackets are obvious but make sure to also wear gloves and a hat. A good balaclava or neck gaiter are also essential to protecting your face, which is almost always exposed in other circumstances. Ski goggles, in addition to keeping your eyes out of the wind, limit exposure as well.

Pack Hand Warmers and Start Them Early

As the body cools, circulation slows, and the extremities—starting with fingers and toes—become extremely susceptible to freezing. Nip this in the bud at the trailhead by stuffing your gloves and boots with hand warmers. Do yourself a double favor by packing extra gloves and socks and stuffing them with activated hand warmers from the get-go. Should you wind up losing a glove or getting your socks soaked, you’ll have warm replacements ready to go.

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Layers on Layers

Layering is always important while traveling in the mountains but when the wind is up, it’s doubly so. A wicking base layer will keep you dry while an insulating mid-layer will help trap your body heat. On top of those as an outer-most layer—while moving, at least—should be a waterproof, windproof, hardshell jacket. Hardshell jackets are designed specifically for conditions like the biting winter wind—they tend to be lightweight and packable too, so they’re not too much to throw into a pack until you need it. Finally, have a packable insulated jacket to pop over everything else to keep that heat in on breaks. As an added bonus, the air trapped between each layer also acts as additional insulation.

Eat and Hydrate Well

Before heading out into the cold, fuel up with a big meal. It’s more energy to keep you moving and digestion helps bring the body temperature up. While you’re out, keep hydrating—it’ll encourage circulation and spread the warmth to vulnerable extremities.

Warm Up from the Inside-out

Warm up from the inside-out by carrying an insulated thermos full of something hot. A little coffee, tea, or plain-old hot water can make a huge difference, raising core temperatures and spirits alike in the coldest of conditions. Alcohol, despite it’s common renown for cutting the cold, is best avoided when the windchill factor is severe as it actually causes the body to lose heat faster—so save it for the aprés.

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Stay in the Lee of the Wind

When the wind is really bad, do what you can to stay out of it. In most cases this is as simple as staying in the woods but above treeline it means being strategic about route selection and where to take your breaks. Use natural and artificial features like boulders and cairns to catch your breath—the relief of even a minute spent out of the wind can make all the difference, mentally as well as physically.

Keep it Moving

The best way to combat frostbite when the windchill factor is high is to keep moving. Aerobic activity keeps the heart rate up, increasing circulation and spreading critical warmth to vulnerable fingers and toes. Remember to capture that body heat and keep your core temperature up while resting by throwing on an additional insulated layer.


How to Stay Warm While Sleeping Outside

Growing up, I had the fortune of having parents that took me camping. I had a thin foam sleeping pad and a 50-degree kids sleeping bag. I never slept well and I always froze at night. I thought that’s what camping was!

Turns out, I was wrong. Lucky for me, as I’ve gotten older and more experienced I’ve learned a lot about staying warm and comfortable while sleeping outside. For the past three years I’ve spent more than 100 nights a year sleeping under the stars. I get really cold really easily and I take my sleep seriously—I want to be comfy out there! Following these tips can go a long way toward keeping you warm and comfortable, and getting a good night sleep.

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The Basics

Step one: Get yourself a weather-appropriate sleeping bag. Duh. But something many people don’t think about is that the ground conducts tons of heat away from your body. The barrier you put between you and the cold earth plays a big role in how warm you’ll be. A foam pad is a good start. If you sleep cold or the temps are low, making the step up to an inflatable and even an insulated sleeping pad makes a huge difference. Pay close attention to the pad’s R-valueto know exactly how warm and insulating it will be. Not all pads are created equal. And don’t forget that sleeping pad insulation is additive, meaning on real cold nights or if you’re sleeping on the snow, stacking a foam sleeping pad and an inflatable pad increases the insulation even more.

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Debunk the Myths

Some people will tell you that you should sleep with hardly any clothes on, or even naked, to get the most out of your sleeping bag and that this will keep you warmer in the end. Those people have never slept outside, in the cold, naked in their sleeping bags.

Their theory isn’t totally baseless, though. The idea is that by wearing extra layers inside your sleeping bag, you crush the loft of your bag and thus take away from its insulating capabilities. It may seem like the best thing to do on a cold night would be to bundle up in all your layers then squeeze yourself into your sleeping bag, but if you’re wearing too much you can actually compromise the effectiveness of your sleeping bag’s insulation (not to mention your comfort). You can definitely wear some of those layers to bed (there’s no need to get in naked), but don’t wear so many that you feel your sleeping bag squeezing back in on you—Leave enough room for the down to expand to its full loft.

Keep these other tips in mind before heading to bed:

  • Keep a pair of “sacred socks” in your sleeping bag so you always have a warm and dry pair for sleeping. Never get in your sleeping bag with wet or cold socks.
  • Wear a hat. It’s not a myth that you lose a lot of heat through your head! Consider wearing a hood too, if necessary.
  • Make sure all your layers are dry. Dry clothes equal warm clothes.
  • If you’re winter camping or in really low temps, consider puffy booties, pants, and/or a jacket to sleep in. These are like mini sleeping bags for all your appendages and can work wonders! They’re also great pillows if you don’t sleep in them.
  • If you’re sleeping bag is too big for you and has extra space that you aren’t filling with your body, consider stuffing extra layers in those areas so your body can heat the air around you to keep you warm rather than losing all that warmth to dead space in your bag. This is especially helpful for shorter folks in longer bags. Keep those toes warm!

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Feed the Fire

Staying warm is all about keeping your internal furnace burning throughout the night. We’ve talked about insulating that furnace and now we’re going to talk about fueling it!

Eat a snack

Having some calories in your system right before bed gives your body fuel to burn and helps keep you toasty. If I’m not in bear country I like to keep a Snickers bar with me while I sleep. This gives me quick burning sugar for immediate warmth and the protein in the peanuts keep the burn going a while longer.

Drink something warm

The best way to get warm is to start warm. A hot drink helps warm you up from the inside. My favorite: Brew peppermint tea and put cocoa mix in it. If I want extra calories I’ll put in a scoop of butter or some light olive oil. Have you ever tried hot cocoa with peanut butter mixed in? It’s like drinking a Reese’s and adds some bulk to keep your furnace burning.

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Use a hot water bottle

Fill a small water bottle like a 16oz Nalgene with near-boiling water, put it at the foot of your bag and relish in your new personal sauna. If you’re super cold, hold the bottle between your thighs, right on your femoral arteries—Warming that blood as it circulates will keep the rest of your body warm.

Take a lap

My dad always said I had a heater in my tennis shoes and would send me on a little run if I complained of the cold. I might not like to admit it, but he was right. A brisk walk before bed, a set of jumping jacks, a quick dance party, or shadow boxing routine—whatever you need to do to get the blood pumping to keep you warm right before you tuck in for the night—can go al long way. Again, the easiest way to get warm in your sleeping bag is to already be warm when you get in it, but if you’re already in your bag you can simulate this by contracting all your muscles as hard as you can and then releasing them several times.

Bonus points: Go pee!

Seriously. I know it’s cold and dark out there. But go do it. Your furnace works really hard to keep all that liquid inside you warm, and when it’s doing that it has less energy to keep the rest of you warm. It may seem like getting out of bed will actually result in you being colder when you get back in, but the result is often surprisingly the opposite. Don’t hesitate to get up and take a leak.

 

Do you have other creative ways of staying warm? Have you found a sleep system that works well for you? Share your ideas in the comments below!

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Death and Haunting on the Crawford Path

June 30, 1900, William Curtis and Allan Ormsbee set off to make the 8.5-mile trip up the Crawford Path—w new but relatively well-established trail—to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s (AMC) annual meeting being held at the Summit House, a hotel on Mount Washington’s summit. By day’s end, both were dead.

Many ghost stories begin with a true story. This one is no exception.

William Curtis, circa 1870
William Curtis, circa 1870

In a story as old as mountaineering, Curtis and Ormsbee knowingly hiked into a fierce storm. Despite deteriorating weather and a warning about the conditions from two guides descending the Crawford Path, Curtis and Ormsbee continued toward the summit. On Mount Pleasant—known today as Mount Eisenhower—conditions were poor; the men signed the summit register adding “Rain clouds and wind sixty miles—Cold.”

As Curtis and Ormsbee forged ahead into the storm, their absence at the meeting created anxiety among the AMC members on the summit. Vyron and Thaddeus Lowe, two respected guides (and the trailbuilders of Lowe’s Path on Mount Adams), set out in search of the men. Their search was short lived. High winds quickly extinguished the Lowes’ lanterns and a thick coat of ice covered the top of the mountain. Realizing the danger of conducting a search in such conditions, the two retreated to the Summit House.

Meanwhile, as conditions worsened, Curtis and Ormsbee’s strength waned. They sought shelter in the scrub spruce near the edge of Oakes Gulf where the Crawford Path meets the Mount Monroe Summit Loop Trail. The body of William Curtis was found near there the following morning.

At some point, Ormsbee continued on. He made it within sight of the summit buildings on Mount Washington. His body was discovered there the next afternoon.

Many ghost stories begin with a true story. This one is no exception.

The duo’s deaths set off shockwaves in the northeast hiking community, particularly because 63-year-old Curtis was among the most accomplished hikers in the country. Considered “the founder of athletics in America,” he had taken to mountain climbing some 18 years earlier. An account of the tragedy in Above the Clouds—a newspaper published on top of Mount Washington from 1877 to 1908—reported that Curtis regularly “climb[ed] alone in all kinds of weather,” and was “confident…in his strength and skill,” as well as “perfectly fearless.” Ormsbee, by contrast, was a newcomer to New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Just the week before, he made his first hikes in the range, ascending Mount Lafayette, Whiteface, Passaconaway, Tecumseh, and Sandwich Dome.

Courtesy: Appalachian Mountain Club Library and Archives
Courtesy: Appalachian Mountain Club Library and Archives

While their bodies were brought down the mountain on the Cog Railway, local lore hints that the spirits of both men remained on the mountain. In the aftermath of the tragedy, a wooden cross was erected to mark Ormsbee’s final resting place, a bronze plaque commemorating Curtis was placed on a boulder on the saddle beneath Mount Monroe, and a since-removed shelter was placed on the saddle connecting Mount Monroe to Mount Washington.

He was found the next morning huddled in a cupboard under the hut’s kitchen sink, clutching an axe.

The legend about Ormsbee’s cross is that passing hikers critical of Curtis and Ormsbee’s decision to forge ahead into the storm are pushed or knocked over by an unseen force. Not wanting to tempt fate or raise the ire of Ormsbee’s spirit, AMC staff got into the habit of saying, “it could have happened to anyone” when passing the site where Ormsbee perished.

As for the plaque, AMC croomembers at Lake of the Clouds Hut—which eventually replaced the shelter constructed following the tragic hike—found Curtis’s plaque detached from its rock beneath Monroe and sitting on the hut’s threshold. As detailed in the book Haunted Hikes of New Hampshire, author Marianne O’Connor details how the croo repeatedly returned the plaque to the boulder, only to find it again in the hut’s doorway. Eventually, the plaque was bolted to the wall in the hut, hopefully putting an end to this ghostly episode.

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Neither superstitious sayings nor bolted plaques put an end to the ghost stories, however. Guests at AMC’s Lake of the Clouds Hut in the 1930s claimed to see a menacing face peering into the hut’s windows while other visitors felt the sensation of an icy hand gripping their shoulders in the middle of the night. Others reported hearing footsteps come up from the hut’s basement and doors opening and closing, despite the whole hut being in bed. But these are just bumps in the night compared to what one AMC croo member, who was staying there solo, experienced. He was found the next morning huddled in a cupboard under the hut’s kitchen sink, clutching an axe after a terrifying encounter with a ghostly face leering at him from each of the hut’s boarded-up windows.


Hiking by Helping: The Art of the Support Team

When my husband Troy told me he wanted to hike Vermont’s 272-mile Long Trail with his friend Brock, I was surprised. 

Troy and I have been hiking together since we met on the Appalachian Trail in 2017, and we’ve barely been apart for the last three years. But the Long Trail is a tough hike, and I knew I’d have a hard time keeping up with those long-legged men. So instead, we decided that I would support them on their journey by meeting them at trailheads in our van, providing food, drink, clean clothes, and dry socks. The Long Trail is remote in places and it would take an entire day to hitchhike into a town to resupply, wash clothes, get cleaned up, and hitchhike back, so keeping them fed would save them a lot of time and energy. By meeting up with Troy and Brock at regular intervals, they were able to make more miles and even take an occasional day off to rest.

Brock and Troy standing at the AT/LT trailhead in Williamstown, Massachusetts. | Credit: Karen Miller
Brock and Troy standing at the AT/LT trailhead in Williamstown, Massachusetts. | Credit: Karen Miller

Our planning began with the Guthook hiking phone app (an electronic guidebook), along with the Green Mountain Club’s Long Trail paper map, and a Vermont Gazetteer geographical guide, which allowed me to figure out which roads would be the best places to meet them, along with services, campgrounds, and grocery stores near the trail itself. A day before they started their hike, we went to Walmart and stocked up on all of the food they’d need for three weeks on the trail. And on August 23, I left them at the Appalachian Trail/Long Trail trailhead in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where they would hike a few miles to the Vermont border, the southern terminus of the Long Trail, and continue north until they reached Canada.

Troy and I have been hiking together since we met on the Appalachian Trail in 2017, and we’ve barely been apart for the last three years. But the Long Trail is a tough hike, and I knew I’d have a hard time keeping up with those long-legged men.

The Long Trail traverses almost all of the Green Mountains’ major summits, including Glastenbury Mountain, Stratton Mountain, Killington Peak, Mount Abraham, Mount Ellen, Camel’s Hump, Mount Mansfield, and Jay Peak. Our first meetup was to be at Kelly Stand Road, after 3 ½ days that included their first major climb, Glastenbury Mountain. The two hikers had big smiles on their faces when they saw me at the van with snacks, beer, and a cleanup station. We discovered a small camping area just down the road, where I served the hungry hikers barbecued chicken and coleslaw before turning in for the night. In the morning, Troy and Brock filled their food bags for another four days while I cooked them breakfast, and they were back on the trail in no time at all.

Troy and Brock filled their resupply boxes with food and supplies before they set out on the trail. | Credit: Karen Miller
Troy and Brock filled their resupply boxes with food and supplies before they set out on the trail. | Credit: Karen Miller

Our next meeting point was Clarendon Gorge, just a few miles from our friends’ home in Rutland. They had invited us to stay for the weekend, which was plenty of time for the hikers to take showers, rest, and resupply their food bags while I washed their clothes and shopped for our next meetup. After their “zero” day, I dropped them back on the trail and they “slackpacked”  nearly 18 miles into Killington, where I met them at the Inn at Long Trail for dinner. At this point the weather was turning colder and wetter, and Brock was getting discouraged. By the time the two had hiked into Brandon Gap a few days later, Brock was ready to head home. We were sad that he wasn’t enjoying his trip, and we hated to say goodbye, but that’s all part of life on the trail. Troy immediately got back on the Long Trail and hiked to Middlebury Gap, our next meeting place.   

By meeting up with Troy and Brock at regular intervals, they were able to make more miles and even take an occasional day off to rest.

Middlebury Gap is about halfway to the Canadian border, and this is where the hike becomes more difficult. Troy decided to take two days off before he would do the big push to the end of the trail. We stayed at Branbury State Park where we took walks, napped in our hammock, ate shrimp and grits, and watched an old Danny Kaye movie on my laptop. Troy was feeling well rested and strong as I dropped him off on the trail again. 

The next few days he would summit Mount Abraham, Lincoln Peak, Mount Ellen, and Camel’s Hump. On September 11, when I met him late in the evening at the Winnooski River, I could see he was exhausted, and cold. I cooked him a pot of Italian tortellini soup, and he slept long and hard into the next morning. I suggested he take another day off, but he was eager to go on, so after a breakfast of bagels with smoked salmon, cream cheese, and capers, he got back on the trail to do 37 more miles to our next meetup, climbing Mount Mansfield’s infamous Forehead, Lips, and Chin, along with Madonna Peak and Whiteface Mountain.

Nothing better than a cold beer after several days on the trail. | Credit: Karen Miller
Nothing better than a cold beer after several days on the trail. | Credit: Karen Miller

When we met at VT15, we took a day off at Elmore State Park, and after getting cleaned up we drove into Waterbury to visit the Green Mountain Club, Ben & Jerry’s, and a laundromat. At this point, Troy was well into the groove of the Long Trail, and eager to finish his trip. After going over the maps he decided he wanted to hike straight through to Canada, where I would meet him at the northern terminus, a place called “Journey’s End.” So the next morning after a hot breakfast, I left Troy at VT15 for the last 51 miles of his hike, while I hung out at Millbrook Campground in Westfield, just a 12-mile drive to the trailhead.

I felt closer to him than ever, knowing that being there for him helped him hike longer and stronger, and brought him back to me safe and sound.

On September 15, Troy hiked several short but steep climbs before his last big summit to Jay Peak. A few miles later, the trail became smoother and greener. “It’s like everything was improving as I got closer to Canada,” laughs Troy, remembering his last hours on the Long Trail. He arrived at the northern terminus at 5:11 p.m., and then took the approach trail to the Journey’s End parking lot where I was waiting for him in the van. My hiker man looked tired and cold, but he smiled broadly when I ran down the trail to embrace him.

To celebrate his success, we drove to Jay Village Inn for the night, where Troy enjoyed a well-earned sauna, shower, and a hearty meal of seafood and fine wine. After a good night’s sleep in a soft, warm bed, we talked about our hiking/supporting experiences over the last three weeks. I felt closer to him than ever, knowing that being there for him helped him hike longer and stronger, and brought him back to me safe and sound. We’re not sure where our upcoming adventures will take us, but next time, perhaps he’ll be supporting me!

Troy’s trail angel waits for the hikers’ arrival at Brandon Gap. | Courtesy: Karen Miller
Troy’s trail angel waits for the hikers’ arrival at Brandon Gap. | Credit: Troy Allen Lair

5 Reasons to Plan a Trip to Gros Morne National Park

Soaring fjords, sandy beaches, barren cliffs, boggy tundra, thick forests, and the Earth, naked. That’s Gros Morne National Park. Situated on the western coast of Newfoundland, the park was established in 1973 to protect a nearly 700-square-mile area of glacial and geological significance. It was later designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is one of the best examples of the effects of continental drift. The isolated mountain tops are home to the physical remnants of ancient collisions and separations, further shaped by massive glaciers. But even if you’re not into geology, one look at any of the best-known spots in the park makes it easy to see why it’s worth the trip. And thanks in large part to the park’s geological wonders, there’s an incredible variety of outdoor fun to be had.

Credit: Katie Levy
Credit: Katie Levy

1. Explore Massive Fjords

This spot at the top of Western Brook Pond is one of the most famous views in Gros Morne National Park. And it’s one of a few similar views depending on how hard you’re willing to work to get to them. Gros Morne’s fjords were carved by ancient glaciers, and when the glaciers receded, the land rebounded, free from an incredible amount of pressure, cutting the ponds and lakes off from the sea.

Just driving along route 430 gives you glimpses of the fjord, but there’s more than one way to get up close to Western Brook Pond’s towering cliffs. Take a boat tour if you only have a few hours, or sign up for a guided hike if your goal is to stand near the top of the fjord. If you have multiple days and wilderness navigation experience, reserve a permit for one of the backcountry routes to go beyond the top of the fjord. Views of Ten Mile Pond are equally spectacular and can be seen from the top of Gros Morne Mountain, a 10 mile round trip day hike.

Credit: Katie Levy
Credit: Katie Levy

2. Have a Real Wilderness Backpacking Experience

If backcountry experiences described by Parks Canada as “mentally and physically challenging” sound appealing, then you’ve come to the right place. Exploring the Long Range Mountains isn’t for the faint of heart, and requires hikers to be completely self-sufficient. Proficiency in GPS and map and compass navigation is paramount; There are no maintained or marked trails, and plenty of game trails to throw unsuspecting hikers off route. Terrain can be muggy, boggy, snowy, rocky, and slippery, and depending on the season, the bugs are relentless. Weather can change in an instant, and if you get yourself in trouble, rescue can be days away.

Aside from the many hazards, the scenery is incredible. The Northern Traverse, Long Range Traverse, and a combination of the two are the best ways to see the most of the wilderness in the Long Range Mountains, but choose wisely, and read up on documentation from Parks Canada before you go. The more prepared you are for the terrain, weather, and navigational challenges, the better. Permits are required and must be reserved in advance.

Credit: Katie Levy
Credit: Katie Levy

3. Take a Walk on the Earth’s Mantle

“This rock I’m standing on used to be at the bottom of an ancient ocean,” is a pretty incredible realization to have on a hike. Gros Morne Tablelands were once thought to be remnants of molten rock, but when geologist Robert Stevens discovered rocks much older than other rocks in the area lower in elevation, he proved otherwise. The rocks had eroded from the Tablelands, illustrating that the Tablelands aren’t old molten rock. They’re really old remnants of an ancient ocean, pushed up from below during the collision of two ancient continents.

The rock is high in toxic heavy metals and other minerals, making it challenging for things to grow and leaving the majority of the terrain completely bare. But there’s still so much to see. Choose an out-and-back hike ranging from 1.8 to 5.6 miles in length, or a 7.5 mile off-trail loop, all starting from the Tablelands Trail parking area, to get up close and personal with this fascinating landscape.

Credit: Katie Levy
Credit: Katie Levy

4. Watch Beautiful Sunsets Beachside

Whether you’re winding down after a long day of hiking or just love hanging out near the water, there are plenty of beach spots to watch the sunset from. Green Point, home to the park’s northernmost campground, is known for long sandy beaches and beautiful views. After dinner in camp, wander the Coastal Trail for a 3.7-mile round-trip hike as the sun sets. Though less beach and more rock pile, Lobster Cove is a spectacular sunset spot. Explore Lobster Cove Head Lighthouse and take the trails down to the water.

Interested in a more rugged, hard to reach beach? Make the 5.6-mile round-trip on the Green Gardens Trail to Old Man Cove, just be sure to check tidal charts before you head down to the beach or explore the sea caves along it. And just outside the park boundary in Trout River, the short Eastern Point Trail is all beautiful ocean scenery all the way.

Credit: Katie Levy
Credit: Katie Levy

5. Day Hike All Sorts of Different Types of Terrain

Whether you’re a waterfall seeker, wildflower lover, summit chaser, or just looking for a leisurely stroll, there a day hike for everyone. Start with a day in the southern end of the park on the Green Gardens Trail to see Tablelands rock, deep forest, beach views, and sea caves all in one 5.6-mile hike. Then, another day on a landscape that looks and feels like another world in the Tablelands on the off trail loop (7.5 miles round-trip), or one of the shorter out and back routes.

Next, spend a long day climbing Gros Morne Mountain (10 miles round-trip) for spectacular views on a rocky, tree-less summit before heading to the Berry Hill Campground for a shorter day on the Baker’s Brook Falls Trail. The walk to the falls traverses deep woods on narrow boardwalks, perfect wildflower spotting terrain, and ends at a stunning cascade. Finally, finish your multi-terrain hiking adventure with a walk along the beach via the Coastal Trail or Old Mail Road.


Alpha Guide: The Crawford Path

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One of the nation’s most historic and scenic trails runs across the ridge of New Hampshire’s Presidential Mountain Range.

One of the nation’s most iconic hikes, the Crawford Path leaves from the Appalachian Mountain Club’s (AMC) Highland Center, ascending through quiet forest before gaining one of the region’s most beautiful ridgelines, passing a stunning alpine hut, and culminating on the summit of New England’s highest mountain. The Crawford Path is steeped in history, too—it’s the country’s oldest continuously maintained hiking trail and a federally-designated National Recreation Trail. The segment between Mount Pierce and Mount Washington, which is part of the Appalachian Trail, delivers incredible views and opportunities to summit four New Hampshire 4,000-footers.

Quick Facts

Distance: 8.5 miles with 4,700 feet of elevation gain, one way
Time to Complete: Full day for most.
Difficulty: ★★★
Scenery:★★★★★


Season: May through October
Fees/Permits: None
Contact: https://bit.ly/2YjUC0P

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Turn-By-Turn

The Crawford Path begins across the street from the AMC Highland Center on Route 302. Getting onto Route 302 is easy from both the east, via Route 16, and from the west, via Route 3 (exit 35) and Interstate 93.

Hikers typically park in one of three areas near the Highland Center:

Highland Center: The AMC Highland Center is an ideal jumping-off point for Crawford Path hikers. While parking here is reserved for the Center’s guests, water, restrooms, and a staffed information center are available to all. If you do end up starting here, the trail begins across the street from the facility.

Crawford Depot: A stone’s throw south of the Highland Center is the Crawford Depot. Hikers will find free parking, bathrooms, water, information, and supplies here as well. To access the trail, simply cross Route 302 and walk north for 100 yards to where the Crawford Path heads into the woods.

Crawford Connector Trailhead: On the opposite side of the street just north of the Highland Center is Mount Clinton Road, which has a parking lot for the Crawford Connector Trailhead. The Crawford Connector Trailhead features pit restrooms but no other amenities. Hikers leaving this trailhead will also tack on an additional 0.4 miles of hiking to gain the Crawford Path. Joining the Crawford Path a little bit above its official start, hikers hoping to see the historic plaques, or simply start from the actual beginning, can either walk back along the road or backtrack after the Crawford Connector/Crawford Path junction to the trail’s well-marked start. Note:A daily recreation pass is required to park at this trailhead—they can be purchased with cash at the trailhead. Annual passes ranging from $30 (individual) to $40 (household) are also available online, at the White Mountain National Forest Information Center, and at White Mountain National Forest Offices.

Credit: Chris Shane
Credit: Chris Shane

Heading Up Mount Pierce

The sights and sounds of Route 302 and the bustling of numerous hikers surrounding the trailhead are left behind as soon as you step onto the Crawford Path. Shortly after entering the woods, hikers pass a sign detailing the trail’s status as the oldest continuously maintained hiking trail in the country. A few moments after that, hikers will pass a bronze plaque commemorating the Crawford Path’s status as a National Recreation Trail.

After 0.4 miles, hikers will encounter a short spur trail leading to Gibbs Falls. Dropping 35 feet into a shallow pool below, Gibbs Falls is a quick and scenic diversion for hikers who feel comfortable covering the 8.5 miles and 4,700 feet of elevation gain ahead. Above the Gibbs Falls spur, the trail begins to steepen and increases in ruggedness for 1.1 miles to the Mitzpah Cutoff (44.220695, -71.382462). If you haven’t done so yet, the Cutoff is an ideal place to stop for a quick snack or drink.

From the Mitzpah Cutoff, the Crawford Path continues for 1.2 miles to its intersection with the Webster Cliff Trail just below the summit of Mount Pierce. Watch your footing on this section as it’s often wet and slick. When the trail begins to level out and the trees start to thin, make sure your above-treeline gear (windshirt and, depending on the day, hat and gloves) is readily available—after this section, the trail is predominantly above treeline.

The trees begin to give way to rocky slabs just above the intersection with the Webster Cliff Trail and a short diversion (less than one-tenth of a mile) off the Crawford Path leads to the summit of 4,312-foot Mount Pierce (44.227802, -71.364769). Marked with a large cairn, the summit provides a semi-protected place to enjoy a snack—watch out for the ever-opportunistic gray jays! On the slabs below the summit, hikers are treated to a spectacular view of the Crawford Path as it continues on toward Mount Eisenhower, with Mount Washington (the Crawford Path’s endpoint) looming the distance.

Eisenhower's summit. | Credit: Chris Shane
Eisenhower’s summit. | Credit: Chris Shane

On to Eisenhower 

Backtrack from the summit of Mount Pierce and regain the Crawford Path at its junction with the Webster Cliff Trail. From here, it descends into the col between Mount Pierce and Mount Eisenhower. Primarily staying above treeline with views of Bretton Woods to the west and the pointy peak of Mount Chocorua, among many others, to the south, the Crawford Path then ascends out of the col before connecting with the Eisenhower Loop after 1.2 miles.

Peakbaggers will want to take the 0.8-mile trek from the Crawford Path onto the Mount Eisenhower Loop Trail to tick the summit of 4,760-foot Mount Eisenhower. Marked by a giant cairn, the bald summit of Mount Eisenhower (44.240688, -71.350342) is easily recognizable and treats hikers to a stunning 360-degree views. Make sure to admire the section of the Crawford Path you’ve just traveled and scope out the section that lies ahead—namely Mount Monroe and Mount Washington. On pleasant days, the summit of Mount Eisenhower is also a fantastic place to stop for a quick break.

The Crawford Path affords a more direct route than the Eisenhower Loop Trail. Traversing the east side of Mount Eisenhower, it shaves off 0.3 miles and some elevation from the Eisenhower Loop and is a great alternative in bad weather. It’s also perfect for hikers trying to capture the historic feel of the Crawford Path. Even if you’re planning on summiting Eisenhower, it’s worth following the Crawford Path a football field or so past the junction with the Eisenhower Loop Trail for a fantastic view of the trail ahead and the Presidential Range-Dry River Wilderness below. Much less traveled than Eisenhower’s summit, but with views that are almost as good, this might be the place for you if you’re looking for a momentary reprieve from the peakbagging masses. If you do pause here, try to pick out the summits of Mounts Davis and Isolation one ridgeline over to the east.

Monroe's summit, Lakes of the Clouds, and Mount Washington. | Credit: Chris Shane
Monroe’s summit, Lakes of the Clouds, and Mount Washington. | Credit: Chris Shane
Looking down on Lakes of the Clouds from Monroe. | Credit: Chris Shane
Looking down on Lakes of the Clouds from Monroe. | Credit: Chris Shane

Moving along to Monroe

Leaving from the Crawford Path’s northern junction with the Eisenhower Loop Trail, hikers will follow the path as it moves across the col between Mount Eisenhower and the prominent summit of Mount Monroe. Largely above treeline, hikers can take in a picturesque view of the Crawford Path as it winds toward Mount Monroe with the massive Mount Washington in the background. Just to the west is Mount Franklin—despite rising to 5,001 feet, Mount Franklin doesn’t count as a New Hampshire 4,000-footer due to its lack of prominence.

After 1.2 miles, hikers must again decide between staying on the Crawford Path proper or taking an alternate route to the summit of a 4,000-footer. The 0.7-mile Monroe Loop Trail brings hikers to the summit of one of the White Mountains’ prettier peaks, 5,372-foot Mount Monroe (44.255089, -71.321373). Here, hikers are treated to a stellar view of the AMC Lakes of the Clouds Hut to the north in the foreground with the Rockpile filling the background.

Below and to the east, the Crawford Path rolls toward the hut, delivering the same distance as the Monroe Loop Trail but on a packed dirt path and without the elevation gain. This portion of the Path follows the rim of Oakes Gulf, offering spectacular views of Oakes Gulf’s headwall, as the Presidential Range-Dry River Wilderness spills out below.

Lakes of the Clouds Hut with Monroe behind. | Credit: Chris Shane
Lakes of the Clouds Hut with Monroe behind. | Credit: Chris Shane

Lakes of the Clouds 

From the junction of the Crawford Path with the Monroe Loop Trail, hikers will travel a short way downhill to the Lakes of the Clouds Hut (44.258831, -71.318817). Taking its name from the two small alpine lakes sitting beside the hut on the col between Mount Monroe and Mount Washington, Lakes of the Clouds is the AMC’s largest hut. Always a welcome sight, the hut provides a sweet reprieve from the above-treeline elements—whether it’s shade on a sunny day, warmth on a cold day, or simply a break from the seemingly ever-present wind on the exposed ridgeline.

The hut also provides an ideal opportunity to refuel. An indoor faucet is available for hikers to refill their bottles or hydration bladders, and if you were smart enough to pack your wallet, coffee, lemonade, soup, and baked goods are available for purchase. If the full Crawford Path in a day feels ambitious, lodging is also available at Lakes of the Clouds from the end of May to the middle of September. As an added bonus, visitors staying overnight at the hut are served a full breakfast and dinner. If you’re planning on turning your Crawford Path trip into a multi-day adventure, this is the only place on the path that hikers can stay without running afoul of National Forest rules and regulations—other overnight alternatives require a substantial detour off the Crawford Path and are likely to add considerable elevation.

Credit: Chris Shane
Credit: Chris Shane

Up the Rockpile

The hike from the Lakes of the Clouds to the summit of Mount Washington delivers the most challenging and exposed section of the Crawford Path. Steep and rocky and covering a little over a mile, it’s here that hikers get a true taste of the rugged northern Presidentials. If the hike up doesn’t take your breath away, the view from here will. To the south, the Lakes of the Clouds Hut is picturesquely nestled between its namesake lakes while Mount Washinton’s summit cone stands starkly above to the north. On all sides are mountains and forests—take some time to pick out the peaks of the region’s other classic hikes, like Franconia Ridge and the Pemi Loop in the distance to the west.

The section of trail between the hut and Mount Washington has regular cairns to aid hikers in bad weather and low visibility. Pay attention to them, as the weather on the Rockpile can change in a heartbeat. Focus as well on the trail’s direction, as many other trails intersect this segment of the Crawford Path. Fortunately, the junctions with the Tuckerman Crossover, the Davis Path, the Westside Trail, and the Gulfside Trail are all well signed.

Nearing the summit, the quiet found along much of the Crawford Path begins to dissipate. The whistle of the Cog Railroad, the sound of cars motoring up the auto road, and the summit crowds—in conjunction with the numerous summit buildings—conspire to offer a picture of civilization on the summit of New England’s tallest mountain (44.270584, -71.303551). Fight through the crowds and take a photo at the summit sign.

While it’s easy to disparage the infrastructure on Mount Washington’s summit, hikers will find restrooms, a place to refill their water bottles, and a cafeteria here. If a piece of pizza or an ice-cold soda sounds appealing, remember your wallet. A cold drink or warm bite to eat has saved more than one Mount Washington trip. Even if you don’t plan on stopping, a few bucks tucked into your first-aid kit might be a welcome sight if the weather hasn’t cooperated or the day is taking longer than planned.

Credit: Chris Shane
Credit: Chris Shane

Choose Your Finish

Dead-ending on the summit of Mount Washington, Crawford Path hikers have a wide variety of options for descending the mountain. The Gulfside Trail to the Jewell Trail is the most obvious descent route, but hikers will do everything from backtracking to the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail to hiking down the Lions Head to continuing north and completing a south-to-north Presidential Traverse. Check out our Alpha Guide: Day Hiking Mount Washington for a detailed description of Mount Washington’s major routes.

Looking to hike the Crawford Path, but not sure your body can handle the rigors of 8.5 miles and 4,700 feet of elevation? Consider taking a ride up the Mount Washington Auto Road or the Mount Washington Cog Railway (which is celebrating its 150th year of operation this year), then hiking the Crawford Path in reverse, from Washington to Crawford Notch. Although it’s the same distance, the elevation gain is comparatively modest.


"STOP. The area ahead has the worse weather in America. Many have died there from exposure, even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad." | Credit: Chris Shane
“STOP. The area ahead has the worse weather in America. Many have died there from exposure, even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad.” | Credit: Chris Shane

The Kit

  • A pair of trail runners like the Salomon Sense Ride 2 (men’s/women’s) is an ideal choice for speeding across the relatively gentle above-treeline terrain between Mount Pierce and Mount Washington but burly enough to handle the rugged rocks of the Presidentials.
  • The Black Diamond Speed 22 is lightweight, trail-tested, and just the right size pack for carrying trip essentials.
  • Cash is king for snacks at the Lakes of the Clouds Hut, a soda in the snack bar at Mount Washington’s summit, or springing for a ticket on the Cog Railway. Keep your outdoor cred high and packweight down with the Flowfold Minimalist Card Holder Wallet.
  • The Black Diamond Distance Wind Shell (men’s/women’s) provides protection from the ever-present winds found above treeline and takes up virtually no space in your pack. (FYI—for 62 years, Mount Washington held the world record for the second fastest wind gust ever recorded: 231 mph!)
  • Conditions along the Crawford Path can be cool even in the dead of summer. A super lightweight puffy like the Arc’teryx Atom SL Hoodie (men’s/women’s) is a great choice for warm weather missions while the Arc’teryx Atom LT (men’s/women’s) is a reliable choice in colder conditions.
  • With the hut and summit of Mount Washington providing places to refill water bottles, hikers can cut down on the amount of water weight they carry. A standard 32 oz. Nalgene bottle or a 48 oz. Nalgene Silo water bottle are inexpensive, lightweight, and easy to refill on the fly.

Credit: Chris Shane
Credit: Chris Shane

Keys to the Trip

  • A large portion of the Crawford Path is above treeline, making it a hike to avoid in bad weather. Before you head up, check the Mount Washington Observtory’s forecast.
  • Speaking of bad weather, limited visibility is not uncommon in the above-treeline sections, particularly between Lakes of the Clouds and Mount Washington’s summit. Follow the cairns carefully and when in doubt turn around; the mountain will be there tomorrow.
  • The Crawford Path intersects with numerous trails which can make navigating confusing. This is especially true in bad weather. Stay on course with a waterproof map of the White Mountains.
  • If you descended the Jewell Trail or Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, cool off in the Ammonoosuc River at one of the numerous swimming holes lining Base Station Rd.
  • Grab a beer and a burger at Rek-Lis Brewing Company in Bethlehem—you’ve earned it!
  • Wondering what to pack for a day on the Crawford Path? Check out our blog Top to Bottom: Gear to hike the NH 48

Current Conditions

Have you hiked the Crawford Path, 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!

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Combine and Conquer: The White Mountain Trail Collective

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The forested trail on the Crawford Path echoed with the shattering of rocks, lively conversation, and heavy breathing. The oldest continuously used hiking trail in the country was undergoing a long-needed facelift in preparation of turning 200 this year. Volunteers and professional crew members from organizations such as the Randolph Mountain Club, the National Forest Service and the Appalachian Mountain Club were working side-by-side clearing water bars, repairing rock steps and cleaning debris from the path. Cooperation like this is a common sight these days, but none of this would have been possible a few years ago. 

They were gathered there by the White Mountain Trail Collective, a two-year-old nonprofit that coordinates resources, training and large scale projects in the White Mountains. The group has participation from 16 clubs and crews which traditionally haven’t worked together on larger or longer-term endeavors.

Coordination is important these days because the trails are experiencing historic levels of usage, without the concomitant upkeep to properly maintain them. There are over 1,400 miles of non-motorized trails in the White Mountains which are frequented by 6 million people each year. 

A majority of the work falls on the shoulders of volunteer groups who maintain “their” regional areas. These self-organized and self-funded trail clubs have been in operation since before the the White Mountain National Forest existed, and established many of the paths used today. The regional clubs are having a hard time keeping up, and the National Forest Service doesn’t have the budget or capacity to cover all the work that needs to be done.

Courtesy: Joe Klementovich/WMTC
Courtesy: Joe Klementovich/WMTC

“Our own crew is getting smaller and older,” says Ken Smith, President of the Chocorua Mountain Club, one of these local groups. “We’re only able to complete Level 1 maintenance once per year but heavy use and huge rainfall can wash away a day’s work in a matter of minutes.” 

Stewardship projects are broken into three levels: Level 1, like Smith mentions, consists of light maintenance like clearing brush, cutting back foliage, and digging out water bars (the rocky troughs you see in a path, which acts like a gutter to funnel water to the side of the trail). This generally doesn’t involve hard labor. 

Level 2 is heavier work where actual repairs need to be made, like cleaning bogged ditches, or installing drainage. Level 3 are issues beyond repair. This is about re-building, such as pulling out dilapidated stair steps and building new ones. This involves quarrying rocks, splitting them, and moving them up and down the trail.

Level 2 and 3 projects are needed for long-term stewardship and are the least likely to get done because regional clubs don’t have the manpower or resources. These projects require a larger budget for materials, specialized tools, a dedicated crew for weeks or months (not days), and specific expertise to complete the work. Without a dedicated workforce, maintaining existing trail conditions is difficult, while improving the paths for the long-haul is nearly impossible. That’s where the WMTC decided to pool resources to help. 

“Our goal is to think 5 to 10 to 20 years out about how trail maintenance is going to get done.”

The organizing capacity of the WMTC offers the first opportunity for long-term planning to take place in the White Mountains. 

“Our goal is to think 5 to 10 to 20 years out about how trail maintenance is going to get done,” said Melanie Luce, the group’s executive director. The WMTC focuses on the large-scale challenges that need a long-term strategic plan, serving as the organizing force to build the plan and utilize smaller groups where they’re most useful. By uniting these groups around a single shared project, the WMTC allows them to divide and conquer. 

The WMTC also makes it easier for donations and fundraising to go directly towards trail maintenance. “Like most established trail maintaining clubs, our biggest challenge is always how to find funding for our pro crew each season,” said Bob Drescher, the Trails Co-chair of the Randolph Mountain Club. “Without grants, it would be nearly impossible. But instead of competing with other clubs for the same funding, the idea of combining our efforts [through the WMTC] to secure larger amounts seemed worth a try.” 

As if that weren’t enough, the WMTS also puts together specialized trainings for local trail crews, such as stone work and alpine rigging, maintain a tool cache for participating organizations to use, and organize additional volunteers to bring even more hands to projects.  

The Collective kicked off with a two year project on the Crawford Path in 2018, thanks in part to a grant, the help of the US Forest Service, and participation from many of the local trail clubs. The first project—now wrapping up its second year—was a success, and has grown to involve over 200 volunteers on the project. For 2020, the group plans to move into the Mount Washington Valley. 

“Instead of competing with other clubs for the same funding, the idea of combining our efforts to secure larger amounts seemed worth a try.” 

After each project is complete, on-going maintenance of the trails remains in the hands of the volunteer trail crews, often comprised of members who are aging out. To help develop the next generation of stewards, the WMTC partnered with Plymouth State University to help connect students to the local trails.

“With PSU this year, we helped start a conservation corp,” said Luce. “Students are being paid this summer, with funding that we raised, to learn how to do trail maintenance, so that they can come back next year to help do the work.”

This is a long-term commitment that needs leadership dedicated to the cause. Luckily, Luce is up for the challenge. “It’s not really a job for me. It’s a passion,” she says.

Thanks to the coordinated effort of the local trail crews, the Forest Service, and the WMTC, the trails of the White Mountains may very well celebrate centennials for years to come.

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The Old Route: Hiking For History on the Crawford Path

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Editor’s note: The alpine along the Presidential Range is extremely fragile and off-trail travel can do irreparable harm to the delicate plant life. For that reason, goEast does not recommend hikers venture off-trail along the Crawford Path and specific details about the exact location of the former trail have been removed from this article. The authors took specific steps to ensure they made no impact on the environment. 

From the comfort of our home computers, it didn’t seem that daunting. Finding the remnants of a 100-year-old abandoned shelter along the original route of the Crawford Path, somewhere between Mount Monroe and the summit of Mount Washington couldn’t be that hard. After all, traces of the original route are discernible on Google Earth. We just needed to hike to the general vicinity, find the trail, and then follow it along until we (hopefully) stumble upon the shelter. Easy! But having spent our adult lives hiking in the region, we should have known that the White Mountains wouldn’t give up their secrets so easily.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Winding its way across the southern Presidentials toward Mount Washington’s summit, the Crawford Path has captured the hearts of hikers for centuries. Built by Abel and Ethan Crawford in 1819, the trail marked the birthplace of wilderness activity in the White Mountains. It’s opening, as Christopher Johnson writes in This Grand & Magnificent Place: The Wilderness Heritage of the White Mountains, coincided with a burgeoning outdoor movement, where “Americans were beginning to view the mountain wilderness as worthy of exploration for personal, aesthetic, and scientific reasons.”

While an increasing number of visitors used the trail in those early years, often guided by Ethan Crawford or, later, one of his employees, they’d be shocked by how many hikers have followed in their footsteps now. So far today, we’ve already encountered hundreds of people. And we’ve barely even left the parking lot.

The vast majority of the nation’s oldest continuously maintained hiking trail still follows the original route. It leaves Crawford Depot at the top of Crawford Notch, then climbs gradually up Mount Pierce. Just below Pierce’s summit, the trail turns north, a streak of well-trodden dirt amongst a sea of alpine green as it traverses near the west rim of Oakes Gulf, past Mount Eisenhower and Mount Monroe. Around the seven-mile mark, the trail begins its final ascent, climbing a little over a mile up Mount Washington’s rocky summit cone. The one exception is the section between Mount Monroe and the Westside Trail on Mount Washington—that section of trail was relocated from the long, open ridge and tucked in next to Lakes of the Clouds before climbing up the less-windy underside of the ridge. It’s the original path we’re heading for today.

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Several hours into our hike, we’re standing on Mount Monroe’s summit, our eyes tracing the Crawford Path below us, first as it traverses north along the western rim of Oakes Gulf, then as it descends down toward the relative shelter of the Lakes of the Clouds. Once we spy the Lakes of the Clouds Hut, we visually backtrack, working back up the Crawford Path until it reaches a flat area near the rim of Oakes Gulf. Now oriented, we begin scanning the area to the northeast, where our intuition suggests we’ll see the remnants of the old trail.

One thing we’re looking for is terrain capable of being climbed by a horse. Although the trail’s origins are as a footpath used by Abel and Ethan Crawford to guide tourists to the summit of Mount Washington, in 1840 it was converted to a bridle path by Abel’s grandson (Ethan’s son), Thomas. Shortly thereafter, Abel made the first ascent of Mount Washington by horseback at the age of 74.

Interest in the area continued to grow during the 1850s and 1860s, and the summit of Mount Washington was a happening place, with five bridle paths to the summit along with a carriage road and the Cog Railway (which, coincidentally, happens to be celebrating its 150th anniversary this year). Two hotels also dotted the summit. And although the era of bridle paths was short lived due to a decline in mountain tourism in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, how the public accesses Mount Washington and its surroundings remains a recurrent theme.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

From Mount Monroe, we’d spotted a greenish path winding through the rocks and rubble heading up a gradual incline running across the Camel Trail toward the intersection of the Tuckerman Crossover and the Davis Path. Generally consistent with our Google Earth imagery, it seems like the perfect route for a horse to take up Mount Washington (even though the Crawford Path had largely reverted to a footpath by the 1870s). Thus, our plan is to hike from the hut to the Tuckerman Crossover, then follow that to its intersection with the Davis Path.

As we traverse this web of trails, it is clear that the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) and other trail crews have been busy—large, well-maintained cairns mark the current Crawford and Davis Paths. Much of this trail building energy dates to 1876, which Guy and Laura Waterman, the preeminent historians of hiking and climbing in the Northeast, describe in Forest and Cragas “a pivotal year” for hiking in the White Mountains. That year, the AMC was founded, the first hiker-focused guide book was published (A Guide to the White Mountainsby M.F. Sweetser), and the “first sustained period of trail building began in the White Mountains.” Essentially, the trails, as we know them today anyway, date to that period.

Courtesy: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts
Courtesy: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

Crossing the Tuckerman Crossover, it becomes clear why the AMC, about a century ago, relocated the Crawford Path to the more sheltered terrain by the Lakes of the Clouds Hut. This area is wide open, fully exposed to the wind and weather. Fortunately for us, the weather is clear and pleasant today. But that was hardly the case on June 30, 1900, when William Curtis and Allan Ormsbee, two of the foremost hikers of the era, traversed the same area while hiking up the Crawford Path for an AMC meeting on Mount Washington’s summit. They got caught in a storm and perished. In response to their deaths, in 1901 the AMC constructed the long-since-removed shelter we’re hoping to find the remnants of today.

Near the junction between the Tuckerman Crossover and the Davis Path, we begin rock hopping, heading off trail to a large dirt patch that we’d spied from Mount Monroe and have been keeping an eye on since. It’s the only flat dirt patch in the vicinity and it looks human made. Careful to stay on solid surfaces and avoid the delicate plant life that calls this inhospitable place home, we make our way toward it.

While the contours of the original path are discernible from a distance, they seamlessly blend into the rocky terrain up close. As we get closer to the dirt patch and explore the area, it is challenging to pick out where, exactly, the path went.

Venturing off the trail, we bound between boulders and locate the dirt patch. Protected by higher ground on three sides and surrounded by gentle terrain, the dirt patch seems like a logical place for the shelter to have stood. Hidden from other hikers by our vantage point, we step out of the past to retrieve our iPhones and align our position on Google Earth. The map confirms we’re in the correct vicinity; however, researching the path that evening shows that, while we found the re-routed Crawford Path, we never found some old iron rods that may still remain from the shelter.

Courtesy: Appalachian Mountain Club Library and Archives
Courtesy: Appalachian Mountain Club Library and Archives

Eventually, we head south, trying to follow the Crawford Path’s original route toward Mount Monroe. When we reach the Camel Trail, we turn west to regain the Crawford Path near the Lakes of the Clouds Hut. Drawing near the throngs of hikers by the hut and on the Crawford Path, it’s sobering to think that much of this hike was almost a road—the Presidential Skyline Drive. Proposed in the 1930s while the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, the 25-mile scenic drive would have skirted the summits of Pleasant, Franklin, Monroe, Washington, Clay, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, catering to motorized recreationists instead of human-powered travelers like ourselves. We’re thankful for the foresight that earlier generations had to preserve this wonderful range for us and so many others—a blueprint we hope our generation will follow.

With about a mile left of our ascent, we head up the Crawford Path toward Mount Washington’s summit. Somewhere above the intersection of the Crawford and Davis Paths, we turn around. Much of the Crawford Path is visible from here—the well-packed dirt path running along the spine of the southern Presidentials. The view is amazing, but soon our gaze wanders more toward the east, as we attempt to follow the rolling green that once was the Crawford Path. It’s there again, the faint green stripe running along a gentle depression on Mount Washington’s rugged, rocky southern flank. Now 200 years old (and counting), we’re sure Abel and Ethan Crawford would be proud of the simple pleasures the Crawford Path has provided to generations of hikers.

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