Still Crazy After All These Years: Hiking in the White Mountains
By Michael Lanza
The sun beams down approvingly as Mark and I start hiking from Crawford Notch, the head-turning cleavage in the heart of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The temperature sits in a perfect zone somewhere between warm and cool. Not a trace of humidity moistens the air, while an idyllic breeze stirs it enough to keep the ravenous mosquitoes and black flies at bay. Recognizing the rarity of this meteorological gift, the birds sound like they’re singing an enthusiastic ode to the morning.
This early-June day has launched so idyllically for these mountains that we instinctively wonder how long it can last. That concern looms particularly relevant, under the circumstances.
My good friend Mark Fenton, who lives in the Boston area, and I are setting out on a two-day, roughly 24-mile hike from Crawford Notch to Franconia Notch. We’ll spend tonight at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Galehead Hut, perched on a ridge overlooking the tortured topography of the Pemigewasset Wilderness—“the Pemi”—in the remote interior of the Whites. Most of our trek follows the Appalachian Trail—including the high, exposed stretch across Garfield Ridge and Franconia Ridge, which we’ll hit tomorrow, when the forecast suggests that the skies may turn unwelcoming and rain hard on our party.
Our adventure has launched auspiciously enough. If you’ve hiked much in the Northeast and fail to recognize this morning’s perfect weather as evidence that Lady Luck is working your corner, you have bigger issues than a good hike can resolve.
But as we ascend the steep, rocky Avalon Trail, sweating hard despite the mild temperature, I’m reminded—as I am every time I revisit the Whites, which I have come to know intimately over many, many years—that hiking here is really hard.
It should come as no surprise to me by now. I’ve hiked more miles in these mountains than I could estimate; I even authored a hiking guidebook to New England for several years. Still, like jumping into an icy lake, the constant high-stepping and relentlessly arduous nature of these trails shocks me every time I come back.
Mark and I have a habit—our wives might describe it as an addictive behavior, or just plain stupid, accusations we make no attempt to refute—of packing in more miles of hiking than would seem reasonable for the amount of time we have allocated. That’s just how we roll.
Living on opposite sides of the country, we shoot for at least one hike together every year; in a good year, we get in two. And we like to go big, partly for the challenge, but mostly because we want to see as much beautiful backcountry as we can in what limited free time we have. We have shared some huge adventures, including dayhiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim, hiking 50 miles across Zion National Park in a day, a one-day Death March of the Presidential Range, and thru-hiking the John Muir Trail in a week. Maybe we do it because we need to convince ourselves we still can hike those distances. It may also be that we partner for these hikes because we are both among the few people who can tolerate how much the other talks on the trail.
Several times now, we have taken big dayhikes in the Whites. The Whites are the most spectacular mountains in the Northeast, so we love coming here. Our outings here have ranged from just under 18 miles—a distance that can cause some hurt on these strenuous trails—to an extreme 32 miles with about 10,000 feet of elevation gain and loss.
This year, though, Mark and I have embraced the wisdom that has come to both of us slowly and reluctantly: We are bowing to certain realities. I’m nursing a three-day-old, deep bone bruise in my left foot, suffered in a short rock-climbing fall. (With perhaps just a little more wisdom, I might instead be resting it. But that’s a lesson for another day.) And Mark had been lobbying hard via e-mail over the past few weeks to lower our expectations for this get-together, complaining that his schedule hasn’t permitted much time for exercise lately. Although he’s one of the fastest and strongest hikers I know, he seems relieved that my foot has given us a viable excuse to temper our ambitions, spreading out over two days a hike that we would normally make in one.
Nonetheless, we’re excited about our plan. Mark will hike some trails and tag some summits he has not set foot on before, and I’ll see parts of the Whites I haven’t been to in years.
Zealand Notch to Galehead Hut
By early afternoon, from the Twinway west of Zealand Notch, Mark and I detour a few minutes down the Zeacliff Trail. Atop cliffs facing east, we look out over Zealand Notch, Mt. Carrigain, the Willey Range, and in the farther distance, the Presidential Range—surely one of the best views of the Pemi Wilderness.
A few hours later, conscious that the 6 p.m. dinnertime at Galehead Hut is rapidly approaching, we hustle up the rugged ascent to the 4,902-foot summit of South Twin Mountain, pausing only briefly to soak up a 360-degree panorama of the Whites. We had considered making the 2.6-mile, out-and-back trip over to North Twin—which I have not stood on in many years and Mark has never hiked. But that would definitely make us late for dinner. The depth of the hole between the two peaks only solidifies our resolve to hike that mountain another day.
So after the steep descent of nearly a mile off South Twin—a knee-pounder that I remember as brutal, and feels even more unforgiving than I remember—we step inside Galehead Hut at 5:50 p.m. We’re greeted by the hut “cru” of five college-age men and women, who let us know that we’re the only guests on this Wednesday night. The hut just opened for the season four days ago; by this Saturday, it will be full.
Rebuilt in 2000, with small, quieter bunkrooms and a bright dining room, Galehead isn’t the most popular of the AMC’s mountain huts. But it’s cozy and in a great location roughly midway between Crawford Notch and Franconia Notch.
Mark and I have arrived during the AMC’s yearlong celebration of the 125th anniversary of its immensely popular mountain huts. The eight backcountry structures that now comprise the system—stretching from Carter Notch across the Presidential Range, to Zealand Notch, the edge of the Pemi Wilderness, Franconia Ridge, and Lonesome Lake—host nearly 40,000 visitor nights every year. Untold numbers of future avid hikers, backpackers, and conservationists—including many children—received their introduction to the mountains through a stay at an AMC hut.
On my first Presidential Range traverse, in my twenties, two friends and I stayed at Lakes of the Clouds and Madison Springs huts. I’ve shared many great adventures with my mom, who started hiking in middle age: We’ve backpacked in the Grand Canyon, hiked in Zion and Glacier, and made three trips to Yosemite. But one of the most memorable was our traverse of the Presidentials, staying at Madison and Lakes.
Standing outside Galehead in the evening, listening to the familiar trill of the white-throated sparrow pierce the calm air, I think about how my personal history in the Whites, tracing back three decades, weaves together the many disparate threads of my life.
Classic White Mountains Hikes
At one time in my life—many years ago, when I had fewer responsibilities and a surplus of free time, a notion so foreign to me now that it seems like someone else’s life—I hiked in the White Mountains every weekend possible from June through October (before I discovered winter hiking and backpacking). I fell in love with these mountains—their severe contours and the physicality of hiking here, their wind-blasted heights and lesser-known corners reached only through a mountain of effort. I wasn’t very well traveled then; I’ve seen many magnificent natural landscapes across this country and around the world since. The Whites struck me back then as still wild, too rugged to ever tame completely.
Today, I look out at specific peaks and remember people in the past with whom I was once very close. I walk trails here accompanied by the memory of the person I was at different times in my life, which helps me understand who I am today.
Sharing the trail again with Mark, we recall past hikes together. Last year, I hiked the nearly 14-mile length of the Carter-Moriah Trail over the Carter Range, while Mark—nursing plantar fasciitis in one foot—joined me on North Carter to traverse five of the seven summits in the range, before we descended the nearly four miles of the Nineteen-Mile Brook Trail. It was a hot but sunny day on peaks that offer arguably the best views of the Presidential Range.
The summer before, in stifling heat and humidity on a July day that topped 100° F in Boston, we hiked a 17.4-mile loop from the floor of Franconia Notch over the five summits of Franconia Ridge: Flume, Liberty, Little Haystack, Lincoln, and Lafayette. A lot of people hike those last three summits every summer; far fewer venture up Mts. Liberty and Flume, missing out on some incredible—and often solitary—panoramas. As we took a break in Greenleaf Hut, Mark recalled his family staying there a few years back, and his kids “practically running down the ridge after we summited Lafayette. We couldn’t keep up with them. Lisa and I would see hikers and ask, ‘Did you see two kids go by here?’”
But our apex effort came seven years ago, when Mark and I knocked off the Pemi Loop: a 32-mile, approximately 10,000-vertical-foot circuit from Lincoln Woods Trailhead on the Kancamagus Highway over Bondcliff, Mts. Bond and Garfield, and Franconia Ridge. We laugh recalling that brutally hot and humid July day, each of us drinking at least 10 liters of water in 14 hours and still finishing dehydrated. Even as a thunderstorm poured rain on us while we descended through the woods on the Osseo Trail, we sweated profusely from the humidity. I’ve been itching to repeat that hike ever since, though whether for the scenery, the challenge, or because I’m a glutton for punishment, I’m not sure.
Garfield Ridge, Franconia Ridge
Fortunately, it’s not nearly that steamy when we leave Galehead Hut at 7:15 a.m. on our second day for the traverse of Garfield Ridge—a name that strikes fear in Mark’s heart and mine, thanks to our memory of perspiration streaming from us in buckets that day on the Pemi Loop. Today, it doesn’t actually feel quite as grueling (possibly because we hit it fresh instead of halfway through a 32-mile day… maybe?).
The updated forecast posted at the hut this morning still showed rain arriving later today. But the sky remains mostly blue even four hours later, as Mark and I stroll up onto the 5,260-foot summit of Mt. Lafayette—another battle with Garfield Ridge behind us, although, as usual, it’s never entirely clear who emerged victorious, us or the trail.
There are places I have now visited so many times over the years that you might expect their magic has worn off a bit for me. But this has not happened. It may have something to do with the breathtaking character of the view, or the scale of nature as seen from that spot. Or receiving the invaluable gift of experiencing it anew through the eyes of companions who are seeing it for the first time—often, these days, my kids—absorbing some of their excitement and awe. Perhaps it’s for a combination of those reasons and emotional factors deeply rooted in us, as a species that evolved to live in the natural world yet too often distance ourselves from it for long periods of time.
The Whites hold that kind of status with me, but possibly for an additional reason that distinguishes them from other special places. I have now hiked here for longer than I have lived in any one place in my life. I have hiked here for twice as long as I’ve now been married, for almost three times as long as I’ve been a parent. I’ve hiked the Whites even longer than my adult working career. I’m fortunate to have friendships that span longer than the three decades I’ve been hiking here, but there aren’t that many of them, either. You could say the White Mountains are among my oldest friends.
Of course, we can only gaze backward in time; we always travel inexorably forward. And we all have a few places that store an unusually large collection of memories, stretching across a broad span of personal history. So as much as for the views, the insane ruggedness, and the pleasure of getting together with a good friend and hiking partner, I return eagerly to the White Mountains year after year to visit with myself.
Atop Mt. Lafayette, Mark and I consider our options. We have a few hours before we have to catch the AMC hiker shuttle from Lafayette Place, at the end of our hike in Franconia Notch, back to Mark’s car at the AMC’s Highland Center in Crawford Notch. And the weather’s holding up nicely for us. So instead of descending the Greenleaf Trail and Old Bridle Path—the most direct route down—I convince Mark that there’s enough time for us to traverse Franconia Ridge and descend the Falling Waters Trail, another path I haven’t walked in many years.
So for the umpteenth time over the past 30 years, we stroll along that famous, narrow crest of rocky earth dappled with tiny wildflowers, stopping frequently to look out in every direction at the most magnificent mountain range in the Northeast.
I haven’t grown tired of this view yet.
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR moderately fit hikers, including children, capable of walking several miles a day on very rugged trails. Even strong hikers will find their pace is slower on White Mountains trails than on many trail systems elsewhere, so plan accordingly.
Make It Happen
Season The prime hiking season in the White Mountains is June through mid-October. Winter hiking skills and gear are generally required from November through mid-spring, and deep but soft snow can make hiking difficult in late April and May.
The 24-mile hike from Crawford Notch to Franconia Notch begins at the Avalon Trailhead and finishes at the Falling Waters/Lafayette Place Trailhead. Hiking from Crawford to Franconia, the trails in order are the Avalon, A-Z, Zealand, Twinway, Zeacliff (a five-minute side trip out to the overlook and back), Garfield Ridge, Franconia Ridge, and Falling Waters. From Crawford Notch, it’s about 12.6 miles to Galehead Hut; from Galehead, it’s about 11.4 miles to Lafayette Place if you go over Mt. Lincoln and descend the Falling Waters Trail.
Huts The AMC’s eight mountain huts are popular; make reservations at least a few months in advance, further in advance for summer and early-fall weekends, at outdoors.org/lodging/whitemountains/index.cfm.
Shuttle Service The Appalachian Mountain Club’s hiker shuttle bus operates daily from early June through mid-September, and on weekends and holidays from mid-September through mid-October, stopping at several trailheads throughout the White Mountains. See the schedule at outdoors.org/lodging/lodging-shuttle.cfm.
Permit No permit is required for dayhiking or backpacking.
Map/Guidebook The AMC White Mountain Guide describes all trails and includes topographical maps, $24.95, (617) 523-0655, outdoors.org/amcstore.
Concerns Weather is the biggest hazard, including thunderstorms, strong winds, rain, snow, and whiteout conditions on summits and exposed ridges. Check the forecast for the summits, posted daily at all AMC mountain huts and the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, and available from the Mt. Washington Weather Observatory, mountwashington.org/weather.
Contact Appalachian Mountain Club, (617) 523-0655, outdoors.org. Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, White Mountains, (603) 466-2721.