Joshua Huntington: A Winter on Mount Washington

To stand on Mount Washington’s summit in winter is to know the sheer cruelty of nature. The frozen landscape, biting cold, and ferocious wind all serve as a reminder that this is not a place for habitation. Yet, in the winter of 1870 and 1871, an expedition party of six—led by geologists Charles Hitchcock (New Hampshire’s state geologist) and Joshua Huntington (Huntington Ravine’s namesake)—spent the season here. In the process, they established the first high-mountain weather observatory in the United States and laid the groundwork for the Mount Washington Observatory. This winter marks the 150th anniversary of their feat.

A Scientific Quest

According to the book, The Worst Weather on Earth: A History of the Mount Washington Observatory, “Hitchcock’s effort to establish a year-round, mountaintop meteorological observatory was the first sustained scientific operation of its type in the world.” However, the idea wasn’t entirely new; In 1853, one of the builders of the Mount Washington Carriage Road urged Congress to construct a full-time observatory on the summit of the mountain to monitor Washington’s unique weather conditions.

As far back as 1856, Huntington, then a college student, was contemplating spending a winter on Mount Washington, going so far as to write a letter to the Smithsonian in search of funds for an expedition. Hitchcock soon learned of Huntington’s plans, beginning a decade of correspondence between the two men as they looked to turn the dream into a reality.

But anyone who has stood on the summit of the Rockpile during the winter understands the audacity of Hitchcock’s and Huntington’s aspiration. This was especially true in 1870—at that point, the summit’s hotels, open since the 1850s, closed every winter because the weather conditions made supplying food and materials too challenging. Moreover, by 1870 there had been just two recorded successful winter ascents of the mountain and “failure was universally predicted” of the expedition. As Hitchcock later remarked in Mount Washington in Winter, Or The Experiences of a Scientific Expedition, “fear of accident has prevented most people from attempting to climb Mount Washington in winter.”

Telegraphing from the Top

While many doubted the expedition’s chances of success, it did pique the interest of the United States Signal Service, a precursor to the National Weather Service. To support the expedition, the Signal Service sent Hitchcock and Huntington instruments, three miles of insulated telegraph wire to run from the summit to the Cog Railway’s base station, and an experienced telegrapher and meteorologist named Sergeant Theodore Smith. With the support of the Signal Service, the expedition now had the means to send weather reports from the summit of the mountain down to the railroad’s base station. But they also needed a place to stay.

Originally, Hitchcock and Huntington had hoped to reside in Tip Top House, a hotel built on Washington’s summit in 1853. However, their request was denied on multiple occasions. Instead, they ended up in the summit depot of the fledgling Mount Washington Railway Company, which had just opened the Cog Railway one year before. In October 1870, some of the party, with the assistance of a local carpenter spent “several days…upon the summit in preparing the building for occupation,” partitioning a room, setting up a stove to heat it, and laying double-floors to insulate it. The room was about 20 feet long, 11 feet wide, and eight feet high, with “[e]very inch of space…utilized” once the party arrived.

“An Excitement Found Nowhere Else”

Rounding out the six-member expedition party were observer S.A. Nelson and photographers A.F. Clough and Howard Kimball. Due to the parties’ various responsibilities, they all arrived on the mountain at different times. Huntington was the first—on November 12, 1870, he ascended to the summit and, the next day, recorded the expedition’s first weather observations. He remained there alone until November 30th, when Clough and Kimball arrived with two visitors. Smith arrived on December 4th. Hitchcock arrived on December 21st, the first day of winter.

Day-to-day life on the mountain offered “an excitement found nowhere else.” The party regularly observed “gorgeous” sunrises and “glorious” sunsets, “throwing a flood of light across a sea of clouds.” They also observed all the weather phenomena and fury the mountain had to offer, diligently recording their observations in their journals, then telegraphing them to the “lower regions.”

As noted in the book, Mount Washington: A Handbook for Travelers, “Full reports of the weather encountered were telegraphed daily, and the public interest in the enterprise was wide-spread and keen.” One notable measurement occurred on February 5, 1871, when they recorded a lowest temperature of minus 59°F. Using a hand-held anemometer, the peak wind gust they recorded that winter was 105 mph.

When not observing, the party spent time exploring the mountain, repairing their quarters, taking and developing photographs to give “those who cannot visit such places a chance to see the wonders and beauties,” receiving visitors, and mending the telegraph wire, a process that required traveling down the Cog to find the break, repairing the break, and then devising new ways to protect the wire from the elements. Some members also regularly returned to the valley floor for days at a time. Only Huntington, Nelson, and Smith spent every night that winter on the mountain.

After full days on the mountain, the group gathered around a stove which was “prized very highly on account of its marvelous heating properties.” There, they recorded their observations and wrote in their journals, the latter of which provide incredible insight into what life was like for the men.

Working in shifts over the course of the winter, their observations continued until May 12, 1871, when they departed the mountain.

The Aftermath

The Signal Service continued conducting weather observations atop Mount Washington until 1892, making the summit station the first of its kind in the world. Forty years later, another audacious group—led by Charles Brooks, a professor of Meteorology at Harvard, and Joe Dodge, the legendary AMC high hut manager—would carry on the early work of the Signal Services and resume recording the weather at the top of New England, laying the foundation for the Mount Washington Observatory as we know it today.

Four men manned the next-generation mountaintop weather station—Bob Monahan, Sal Pagliuca, Alex McKenzie, and Joe Dodge—working without pay or time off, but not without reward. Just two years later, on April 12, 1934, the Observatory recorded the world’s fastest surface wind speed ever observed by man: 231 mph. It would be almost a half century until that wind speed was even close to being attained again on Mount Washington—the second-fastest wind record at the observatory was 182 mph in 1980.

Today

The Mountain Washington Observatory is now one of the several permanently staffed mountaintop weather stations in the world and its forecasts are critical to outdoor endeavors across the region. It even hosts visitors—in non-COVID times, the EMS Climbing School leads overnights at the MWOBS—providing a glimpse into what life was like at the top of New England for the six men who spent the winter of 1870-1871 there.


The Dos and Don’ts of Winter Hiking

The pandemic encouraged a lot of people to take up hiking this year. If you’re planning to continue your mountain adventures even as the temperatures drop and the snow accumulates, keep reading for some tips on how to stay safe while winter hiking this season.

Credit: Tim Peck

Winter Hiking “Dos”

Tell a friend: Spending an unplanned night out in the mountains of the Northeast is potentially deadly, even during the mildest months. Leave an itinerary and a return time with a responsible friend or relative. If you fail to get back by the prearranged time, they can direct help to you, speeding up the rescue effort.

Save yourself: Self-sufficiency is something every hiker should strive for, especially right now when rescuers and resources in busy regions like the White Mountains are so stressed due to added demand. Having extra layers, an emergency bivy, sleeping bag, and/or pad in your pack can make all the difference in the event of an accident or unplanned overnight.

Plan for shorter days: Winter days are a lot shorter. Starting early is a good strategy for maximizing daylight, and a headlamp is a nice safety net if you’re running behind schedule while winter hiking. Keep in mind it’s not only harder to navigate after the sun sets, it also gets significantly colder.

Stay hydrated: Sweat evaporates quickly and we lose more fluids through respiration in winter’s cold, dry air. Also, our body’s thirst response is diminished by up to 40% in the cold! Make sure to sip every time you stop and to protect your water from freezing by using an insulated bottle or by adding some sports drink to your water (the sugar and salt in it lowers the freezing point). Even better—bring a thermos of hot chocolate or sugary tea for some mid-route warmth and hydration.

Credit: Tim Peck

Dress in layers: Having a variety of different layers allows you to adjust to both the weather and your level of exertion, minimizing sweating and keeping you dry and comfortable.

Remember your puffy at rest breaks: Leaving your puffy in the pack is a recipe for a rapid cooldown any time you stop for more than a minute or two. Putting it on while you’re standing still is a great way to maintain some of that warmth you’ve built up.

Feed the furnace: Studies show that exercising in cold weather like winter hiking burns more calories than exercising in warm weather. Eat regularly and pack cold-weather friendly foods that won’t freeze—PB&J, trail mix, and leftover pizza are all excellent options.

Study trail conditions: Reading trip reports from people who’ve recently hiked the same peak you’re planning to summit is a good way to get information about what you’ll be getting into. Pay close attention to information about deep snow and downed trees, two things that can really slow you down. If there are no recent trail reports, anticipate that you’ll likely be breaking trail from car to summit.

Credit: Tim Peck

And “Don’ts”

Underestimate the challenge: Shorter days, harder terrain, and less forgiving weather all conspire to make winter hiking more demanding. That June hike that you finished with time to spare might end in the dark during December.

Tackle too-big objectives: If you’re just getting into cold-weather hiking, start small with hikes you are familiar with and know you can accomplish in the time you’ve allotted. Consider a guided trip if you have a bucket-list winter hike in mind, like Mount Washington, but are unsure of your abilities.

Go barefoot: Wading through deep snow is slow and exhausting, and ice is outright dangerous; consequently, it’s essential to have the appropriate flotation/traction device—whether it’s snowshoes, crampons, or Ice Talons/MICROspikes. Remember, the clear conditions you encounter at the trailhead don’t always reflect what you’ll come across at higher elevations.

Get fixed on a single objective: Learn to take what the weather gives you. If there are high winds above the treeline, audible to a more protected objective. If you make a last-minute pivot in your plan before losing cell service, make sure to update the person you left your itinerary with.

Credit: Tim Peck

Fly blind: Know what weather you’re in for—and what type of hike to tackle— by checking Higher Summits Forecast (if you’re hiking near the Whites) before your trip. Remember the forecasted weather for the nearest town might be different from the surrounding summits.

Wear cotton: “Cotton kills” is a favorite saying of outdoorsy people. Cotton retains moisture (unlike synthetic and wool layers, which dry more quickly), nullifying its insulation properties—leaving you feeling cold and putting you on the path to hypothermia.

Start your hike too warm: Your body generates a lot of heat when hiking, especially in the mountains. Hitting the trail a little chilled and letting your excursion warm you up helps avoid soaking through critical layers early in your trip.

Think it can’t happen to you: Even if you’re with an experienced group, accidents happen; Sliding falls, fast-moving weather, and navigational issues are realities for even the most seasoned hikers. Being prepared for an unfortunate situation like this—both in terms of equipment and training—may make all the difference.

Lastly, whatever hiking trips you take this winter, DO remember to have fun and stay safe!

Credit: Tim Peck

A Beginners Guide to Hiking in the White Mountains

At almost 800,000 acres in size, containing approximately 1,200 miles of hiking trails, and topping out at 6,288 feet—higher than anywhere else in the Northeast—the White Mountain National Forest offers nearly limitless possibilities for human-powered exploration. Hiking options in the White Mountains expand with the inclusion of adjacent state parks like Franconia Notch and Crawford Notch (which includes the nation’s oldest continuously maintained hiking trail—the Crawford Path).

The proximity of the White Mountains to many of the Northeast’s biggest cities makes them an attractive option for the region’s hikers, but one barrier remains for some who want to explore this dreamy destination: where to start?

On top of Mount Eisenhower in the Presidential Range. | Credit: Tim Peck
On top of Mount Eisenhower in the Presidential Range. | Credit: Tim Peck

Start Small to Go Big 

Epic hikes like the Presidential Traverse, Pemi Loop, and Franconia Ridge are at the top of seemingly every hiker’s White Mountain bucket list, but they aren’t the best trips for hiking novices. Start small, build fitness, get familiar with the weather and terrain of the Whites, and start figuring out what gear works for you.

Some great 1-3 hour hikes for getting your feet wet include:

For a little more of a challenge, consider these moderate hikes:

  • Middle and North Sugarloaf
  • Welch-Dickey
  • Mount Willard
  • Hedgehog Mountain
  • Mount Pemigewasset

Ready to start ticking off 4,000 footers? Here are a few of the easier ones:

  • Mount Hale via Hale Brook
  • Mount Tecumseh via Tecumseh Trail
  • Mount Waumbek via Starr King Trail
  • Mount Pierce via the Crawford Path
  • Cannon Mountain via High Cannon
Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Carry Essential Items 

The “10 essentials” serve as a basic guideline of what you should carry in the event of an emergency or an unexpected night outside. The concept originated in climbing classes taught by the Mountaineers—an outdoor recreation organization founded in the Pacific Northwest—in the 1930s. However, it wasn’t until 1974 that the 10 essentials actually made it to print, when the long-standing tome of American climbing, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills included the list in its third edition.

In the near-century since their development, the 10 essentials have evolved to encompass modern technology but still fulfill their original intention. The 10 essentials are:

  • Navigation: Study your route before you leave home, then bring a map and compass, GPS, or a smartphone with a navigation app like Gaia.
  • Headlamp: Hikers are encouraged to carry a headlamp with extra batteries, but we live by the maxim that the best place to keep extra batteries for your headlamp is in another headlamp—after all, a powerful headlamp like the Black Diamond Spot only weighs three ounces.
  • Sun protection: Sunglasses for your eyes and sun-protective clothes and sunscreen for everything else.
  • First aid: Check out the goEast article How to Restock Your First-Aid Kit for ideas on what to carry.
  • Repair kit: A small knife or multi-tool and some duct tape for making trailside repairs like fixing a broken zipper or tapping the sole of a shoe back on.
  • Fire: Waterproof matches and a firestarter.
  • Shelter: A lightweight bivy to hunker down in the event of an unexpected overnight or while awaiting rescue.
  • Extra food: Our article Staying Fueled Up on Long Hikes outlines some basic nutritional principles for powering your adventure—as a rule of thumb, bring more than you need.
  • Extra water: Water is heavy, but tablets or a lightweight mini-filter offer safe, easy ways to stay hydrated in an emergency.
  • Extra layers: Everyone has different needs—some people run warm, some cold—but bring more layers than you think you need. Get an idea of what your hiking kit should look like in our article Top to Bottom: Gear to Hike the NH 48.
Crossing the Alpine Garden below Mount Washington. | Credit: Tim Peck
Crossing the Alpine Garden below Mount Washington. | Credit: Tim Peck

Mountain Weather 

The weather in town is often a lot different from what you’ll find in the mountains. Strong, chilly winds are commonplace on hikes above treeline, as are intense sun and even the odd out-of-season snow. Rather than trusting the weather app on your phone, check out the higher summits forecast from the Mount Washington Observatory for a clear idea of what’s happening weather-wise in the Whites.

Trail Conditions 

Weather isn’t the only difference between town and the mountains. For example, snow can linger in the woods for weeks after it has melted from sidewalks and backyards. Another thing to keep in mind before hitting the trail is water crossings, as spring snowmelt and heavy rains can turn small streams into raging rivers. The website NewEnglandTrailConditions.com is a handy resource for learning what conditions to expect on your hike.

Lake of the Clouds hut, below Mount Washington. | Credit: Tim Peck
Lake of the Clouds hut, below Mount Washington. | Credit: Tim Peck

Find Some Friends

Joining a more experienced partner or two for your first few outings is a sure way to get all the benefits of the Whites without any of the stress. An experienced friend can provide critical beta—like directions to the trailhead or which way to turn at the unsigned trail junction—while also offering feedback on questions you have about appropriate gear and your fitness level.

Stay Safe

A good reason to hike within your abilities, carry the 10 essentials, and know what you’re getting yourself into is that the State of New Hampshire has recently started charging people for rescues if they’ve demonstrated negligent behavior. To insure yourself against a bill for a rescue, and to support NH Fish and Game search and rescue efforts, consider purchasing a Hike Safe Card for $25 a person or $35 for a family. Don’t think you’ll need a rescue? The NH Fish and Game on average participate in 190 search and rescue missions per year.

Have any tips for new hikers? If so, leave them in the comments below.


Video: The Fifty on Mount Washington

Cody Townsend takes his mission to the East.


A Ride Fit For a President: Grant's Trip up Mount Washington

“Man looks so small against the universe,” remarked President Ulysses S. Grant as he stood atop Mount Washington in August 1869. He’d just ascended the mountain’s west side via the Cog Railway, and then strolled about the summit, smoking a cigar. Dressed in suits, top hats, and dresses, his party posed for a summit photo—the only inkling of the approaching fall chill was the blankets wrapped around the women’s shoulders. Skinning away from the Marshfield Base Station early on this mid-winter morning, it sure is a lot colder, but President Grant’s 150-year-old remark still rings true: This mountain puts things in perspective. And we have a long way to go.

President Grant (center left, holding his hat) atop Mount Washington. | Courtesy: New England Historical Society
President Grant (center left, holding his hat) atop Mount Washington. | Courtesy: New England Historical Society

The Cog Railway, which we’ve come to skin and ski today, was the brainchild of New Hampshire native, Slyvester Marsh, who’d made a fortune in Chicago’s meat-packing industry before returning to his home state. After struggling to hike up Mount Washington, Marsh was inspired to build an easier way up the peak. His idea, however, was mocked, with one legislator responding to Marsh’s request for a charter to build the railway with a suggestion that the Legislature instead authorize him to build a railway to the moon. The comment has dogged the Cog for a century and a half; You’ll still hear people call it the “railway to the moon” today.

From the Marshfield Base Station, the Cog, known in Grant’s time as the Sky Railway, ascends up the mountain between Burt and Ammonoosuc Ravines before making a gradual right turn toward the summit. President Grant ascended its 3,600 feet in elevation and roughly three miles in distance in the front of the passenger car. We don’t have that luxury—trains don’t typically run in the winter—and we’re relegated to skinning up the mountain on the open slopes on either side of the track.

His idea, however, was mocked, with one legislator responding to Marsh’s request for a charter to build the railway with a suggestion that the Legislature instead authorize him to build a railway to the moon.

Courtesy: The Mount Washington Cog Railway
Courtesy: The Mount Washington Cog Railway

The average grade is 25 percent and drops of perspiration start to appear on our caps shortly into our climb, despite the single-digit temperatures. Still, the first 1,000 feet of elevation go quickly and in no time we’re cruising by Waumbek Tank, a water tank where Grant’s train probably paused to take on more water and coal for the steam-powered engines.

At the time of Grant’s 1869 ascent, the Cog was the world’s first cog-driven railway, employing engines with cog wheels that mesh with a toothed rail in the center of the track for propulsion up and down the steep grade. The track we’re skinning next to this morning is thus the world’s oldest cog railway—running through 28 presidencies since Grant’s.

Near treeline, our skin track shifts out and left of the track as we approach Jacob’s Ladder. A marvel of engineering both in Grant’s era and now, the tracks at Jacob’s Ladder lay at a puckering 37.4 degrees and balance on trestles 30 feet in the air. On his ascent, Grant, sitting at the front of the train, would have been 14 feet higher than those in the rear of the coach. For us, the slope in the vicinity of the Ladder is the crux of the ascent, our skins searching for purchase we climb the steeps near the tracks.

Courtesy: The Mount Washington Cog Railway
Courtesy: The Mount Washington Cog Railway

Once above treeline, we continue along the Cog as it bends right, slowing down to take in the view. To the north and south, not much has changed since Grant’s time, with the rugged northern Presidentials running on our left and their gentler southern brethren to our right. Behind us today stands the Mount Washington Hotel—which wouldn’t be built for another 30 years after Grant’s visit—and Bretton Woods, which followed Grant by about a century. Grant would certainly have seen signs of civilization, however; logging and railroads were extremely active in the area and hiking in the Whites, especially on the Crawford Path, was rising in popularity.

On his ascent, Grant, sitting at the front of the train, would have been 14 feet higher than those in the rear of the coach.

Arriving on Mount Washington’s summit, we seek refuge from the wind behind the Sherman Adams Visitor Center and quickly dig out puffy coats, mittens, and balaclavas. Grant’s visit to Mount Washington’s summit predates the Sherman Adams building by about 110 years, but the Summit House hotel would have stood nearby. Our arrival on the peak is not met with the same fanfare as Grant’s. A cannon announced the President’s arrival on the summit and the railway’s founder, Marsh, was there to shake Grant’s hand. Between the cold and the wind, none of the few hardy souls milling about the summit this morning venture over to greet us as we transition for our ski down the mountain.

While Grant was our inspiration to come up the Cog this morning, we’re taking our descent cues from the railway’s early employees. They would descend the Cog on a slide board made of metal and wood. Called a “devil’s shingle,” the board fit into the tracks and riders descended toboggan-like using friction-inducing brake handles to control their speed. With the thin, windblown, and rocky snowpack up high, we won’t match the 60 mph speeds achieved on the contraptions, let alone the 2 minute and 45 second record-fast slide. But it does leave us wondering if this was what P.T. Barnum, another early passenger on the Cog Railway, was referring to when he described the railroad as the “second greatest show on earth.”

Courtesy: The Mount Washington Cog Railway
Courtesy: The Mount Washington Cog Railway

As we ski away from the summit and begin sliding downhill, we can only wonder what Grant thought during his descent. Maybe he was thinking back to earlier stops on his trip to New England—Newport, Rhode Island; Boston, Massachusetts; and Manchester and Concord, New Hampshire—or his night before at the Crawford House. Maybe he was thinking ahead to the tour’s next destinations—Littleton, New Hampshire, then off to Saratoga Springs, New York. Or maybe he was doing just what we’re doing now: taking in the serene beauty of the landscape as he cruised down Mount Washington.


It Can't Happen Here: 12 Myths About Northeast Avalanches

Many people believe that avalanches are a problem reserved for skiers and climbers recreating “out west.” However, unstable snowpacks and avy-prone slopes can be found throughout the East Coast’s mountain ranges. Read on for why you should be upping your avalanche awareness this winter.

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1. Myth: Avalanches Only Happen in the Presidentials

In 2018, Aaron Rice (the skier who famously climbed and skied 2.5 million vertical feet in 2016), triggered an avalanche in Vermont’s Smugglers’ Notch. Just days later, six soldiers in the Vermont National Guard were caught in a slide. In February of that same year, a skier was buried up to their waist in an avalanche on Wright Peak in the Adirondacks. Stories abound about recreationalists getting caught in avalanches in the Northeast, inside and out of the Whites. Here’s one about Trap Dike. And here’s another tidbit about two other avalanches in the ’Daks in February 2019. Just because you’re not in Tuckerman Ravine doesn’t mean you should let your guard down.

2. Myth: East Coast Avalanches Aren’t Fatal

The East Coast makes up only a small percentage of the fatalities caused by avalanches nationwide. With that said, even one death is too many. The past decade has seen two avalanche-caused fatalities in the East: one was a skier descending Raymond Cataract and the other was a climber in Pinnacle Gully. The right terrain (which the East has plenty of), plus the right snow conditions (which we also get), mixed with a lack of education and bad luck can definitely be fatal.

3. Myth: Eastern Avalanches are Only Deadly to Those Out Alone 

Although only solo travelers have been the victims of deadly avalanches on the East Coast in recent years, groups have not escaped fatalities resulting from avalanches. In 1996, two skiers were killed by an avalanche in Mount Washington’s Gulf of Slides. In 2000, one skier was killed and three others buried by an avalanche on Wright Peak in the Adirondacks. Groups are no less likely to cause avalanches, but if the members of a group are well-trained, they have the ability to rescue a buried friend. Soloists have no such luxury.

Credit: Jamie Walter
Credit: Jamie Walter

4. Myth: I’m With A Guide, It’s All Good 

According to the Utah Avalanche Center, avalanche professionals are far less likely to perish in an avalanche when compared to other users—less than 1 percent of all avalanche fatalities involve avalanche professionals. Having said that, a popular saying is that the avalanche does not know you are an expert! Last year, two AIARE certified Level 3s and one AIARE certified Pro 1 were caught in a slide in Oakes Gulf. Everyone makes mistakes and must practice the same good decision making.

5. Myth: I’m Experienced, I’ve Planned Well, I’m Safe

John Steinbeck said, “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” This is especially true with avalanches on the East Coast. You can take all the AIARE classes, read the avalanche reports, and have years of experience in avalanche terrain and still get caught just like the Ski The East team did on a trip to the Chic-Chocs. Vigilance is equally important at all experience levels.

6. Myth: Accidents Only Catch Unlucky Skiers and Climbers 

There are a lot of things in life outside of our control, but more often than not getting caught in an avalanche isn’t the result of bad luck. More than 90 percent of avalanche accidents are triggered either by the victim or someone in the victim’s party, and most could have been avoided by better decision making.

7. Myth: The East’s Comparatively Minute Snowpack Makes Avalanches Less Deadly

The East Coast may not have the dense snowpack of the west, but we do have an abundance of trees and rocks. While asphyxia is the primary cause of death of avalanche victims, trauma accounts for about a quarter of avalanche fatalities.

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8. Myth: Mount Washington Is Home to the Only Avalanche Center East of the Rockies

The Mount Washington Avalanche Center is the only US avalanche center east of the Rockies, but it’s not the only avalanche center in the Northeast. As anyone who’s visited the powder playground above the US border knows, Avalanche Quebec provides forecasts for the Chic-Chocs and has the distinction of being the only avalanche center east of the Rockies in Canada. But as we’ve seen, just because someplace like the Adirondacks or Green Mountains doesn’t have an avalanche center, doesn’t mean they are immune to avalanches. It just means you’re going to need to use your own judgement.

9. Myth: “Everything Will Be Fine, We’re On An Established Hiking Trail” 

Trails that seem simple in the summer, can be more complicated in the winter. Even if they don’t cross an avalanche path directly, they may sit below one, or travel in a gully or other terrain trap. Some trails, like the route up Lion Head on Mount Washington, transition to a winter route when the summer route is deemed to be too risky. But if you’re traveling the summer route before the switch is made, make good decisions.

That being said, as one university outing group recently found out the hard way, it’s easy to get off trail in the winter and stumble into avalanche terrain, even on the Lion Head Winter Route. Their adventures are touched on toward the end of these reports (1, 2) from the MWAC.

10. Myth: Avalanches Strike Without Warning 

The vast majority of avalanches provide warning signs well before they slide—cracks forming around your foot or ski as you move through the snow, a “whumping” sound coming from the snowpack, and signs of recent avvy activity all are indicators of avalanche potential (though you may only have seconds warning in some cases). So, too, are recent snowfall and visible plumes of blowing snow (which is a sign that the areas where the snow stops are loading up). Learn to recognize the signs by taking an American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) class.

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11. Myth: Packing an Avalanche Beacon, Probe, and Shovel Makes You Safe

Avalanche tools such as a beacon, probe, and shovel go a long way toward increasing your safety in avalanche terrain; however, a tool is only as good as the person wielding it. Studies show that 93% of avalanche victims are recovered alive if they are dug out within the first 15 minutes of burial, but the likelihood of survival diminishes significantly after that. The safest bet is to avoid getting buried, but practicing and familiarizing yourself with your beacon, probe, and shovel can mean the difference between life and death. Again, taking an AIARE class includes education for using these tools.

12. Myth: Ice Climbers are Safe if They’re Not Climbing in the Ravines

Popular ice climbing destinations like Shoestring Gully, Willeys Slide, and Mount Willard’s South Face have all avalanched in the past. So have some of the longer gullies on Mount Webster. Looking for an example? Check out S. Peter Lewis’ and Dave Horowitz’s recounting of one such avalanche on Mount Willard’s Cinema Gully in their classic Selected Climbs in the Northeast. Fortunately for them, everything turned out okay.

 

Hopefully that busts a few East Coast myths for you. When you’re out in the field this winter, keep an eye out for red flags like recent snowfall, signs of snowpack instability (whumping, collapsing, and shooting cracks), rapid warming, wind loading, and signs of recent avalanches. And take an AIARE class from EMS Schools to get you up to speed on safe decision making in avalanche terrain. You may not have realized how much we have in the East.


Support the Mountains of the Northeast With Your Purchase

At EMS stores this holiday season, customers making a purchase will have the option of donating to one of three outstanding outdoor-focused organizations: the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), and the Mount Washington Observatory (MWOBS). Vital to outdoor recreation in the Northeast, these organizations are making it much easier for all of us to get outside. So while you’re getting a great gift this holiday season, here are some reasons to consider making a small donation to one of these awesome orgs.

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Adirondack Mountain Club

The Adirondack Mountain Club has its roots in a store not all that different from EMS, at least at the time. In 1921, the club was conceived in the log cabin atop New York City’s Abercrombie & Fitch to improve the accessibility of remote areas of the Adirondacks through the construction of trails and shelters. From the first 40-person meeting at A&F in 1921 to the 75 (out of 208 certified charter members) attending the formal meeting a year later in 1922, the group has grown significantly. Today, the ADK boasts 28,000 members across its 27 chapters. However, one thing that has remained the same is the group’s mission to maintain trails, construct and maintain campsites, preserve a bureau of information about the Adirondacks, publish maps and guidebooks, and educate the public regarding the conservation of natural resources and prevention of forest fires.

Appalachian Mountain Club

From overnighting at a hut or tent site to maintaining the region’s historic trails to protecting wilderness in New Hampshire, the AMC has been providing assistance to hikers, climbers, and skiers in the White Mountains for generations. Born to encourage adventure and exploration in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the Appalachian Mountain Club predates the formation of the White Mountain National Forest by more than 40 years. Founded in 1876, the AMC is the oldest nonprofit conservation and recreation organization in the US. The AMC has grown up a lot over the last century and a half, swelling to more than a quarter-million members in its 12 chapters between Washington, D.C., and Maine. With age, the AMC’s mission has also morphed; in addition to adventure and exploration, the organization now supports conservation advocacy and research, runs youth programs, maintains 1,800 miles of trails, and provides hundreds of thousands of volunteer hours.

Mount Washington Observatory

Whether you’re a hiker, skier, or climber, the MWOBS’ Higher Summits forecast is a must read before any day in the Whites. Operating on the summit since 1932, MWOBS recorded the world’s fastest surface wind speed ever observed by man: 231 mph. Although the instruments and technology employed by the observatory have changed over the years, the goal remains the same: to observe and maintain a record of weather data, perform weather and climate research, foster public understanding of the mountain and its environment, and provide excellent forecasts for the public recreating in the White Mountains.

 

Edward Abbey famously said, “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” So, this holiday season, give a little extra to help preserve the places we all love by supporting these indispensable mountain services.


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.


Alpha Guide: The Crawford Path

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

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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

Download file: Crawford_Path.gpx

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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