The Best Hikes in the White Mountains

By Michael Lanza

If you’re a hiker in the Northeast and especially in New England, you know about the White Mountains and either love them already or are eager to explore the tallest peaks north of the southern Appalachians and the most rugged mountains in the East. If you’re a hiker who lives outside the region, don’t be deceived or dissuaded by the fact that the highest in the Whites, Mount Washington, rises to a mere 6,288 feet. You risk missing out on hiking dozens of rocky summits with breathtaking panoramas, alpine ridges that stretch for miles above treeline, and some of the most challenging—and rewarding—trails found anywhere in the country.

The hikes described below draw upon my personal experience of hiking thousands of miles in the Whites over more than four decades, including several years as an author of a hiking guidebook to all of New England, the 10 years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine, and even longer running this blog. I have hiked most of the peaks and trails described below countless times but I’m also drawing suggestions from my good friend and longtime hiking partner David Ports, a New Hampshire local and avid Whites hiker (who you can recognize on the trail as the dude who’s surprisingly fit for 60, moving fast, and always willing to stop and talk).


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A hiker on Bondcliff in the White Mountains, N.H.
Mark Fenton hiking Bondcliff in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, White Mountains, N.H.

While I do most of my dayhiking and backpacking in the West, I return nearly every year to hike in the Whites because I love these rocky little mountains that feel so much bigger than they are.

The Whites have over 1,200 miles of trails within a national forest spanning about 800,000 acres—bigger than Yosemite—including about 90 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

This story describes dayhikes and multi-day treks that can be backpacked or hiked hut to hut using the Appalachian Mountain Club’s extensive system of mountain huts throughout the Whites—which, besides enabling you to carry just the weight of a daypack, eat good meals, and sleep every night on a thick mattress indoors, offer an experience that’s much less common in the U.S. than in other countries like Switzerland, New Zealand, and Italy.

Sunset at the Appalachian Mountain Club's Lakes of the Clouds hut, below Mount Monroe in the Presidential Range, N.H.
Sunset at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Lakes of the Clouds hut, below Mount Monroe in the Presidential Range, N.H.

Most of these hikes are rugged and strenuous undertakings; that’s the nature of the White Mountains. But many of them can be done by fit novice hikers and kids with the stamina for relatively hard days. And this article points out shorter, relatively easier trails and dayhike options.

The descriptions and photos below link to stories at The Big Outside that have more images and information about these trips (most of which require a paid subscription to read in full)—including detailed tips on planning each one yourself and when to apply for a backcountry permit, which is generally months in advance of a spring or fall trip.

See all stories about hiking in the White Mountains at The Big Outside and my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan any of these hikes or any trip you read about at The Big Outside.

A hiker on Wildcat Mountain high above Carter Notch in the White Mountains, N.H.
Marco Garofalo on Wildcat Mountain high above Carter Notch in the White Mountains, N.H.

The Whites have grown extremely popular and, admittedly, you won’t find solitude on many of the trails and summits in this article—at least, not on nice days during the peak hiking season, which runs from May to October, with alpine wildflowers usually blooming in June and foliage reaching peak color in late September and early October. However, you can find more solitude by taking these hikes on the fringes of the peak season or by going out on days of marginal but not terrible or dangerous weather; many hikers stay indoors with even a chance of showers in the forecast.

Please share your questions or suggestions for other hikes in the White Mountains in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments.

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A teenage boy dayhiking up Mount Washington in the Presidential Range, White Mountains, N.H.
My son, Nate, at age 14, hiking up Mount Washington on a 17-mile, four-summit dayhike in the Northern Presidential Range, White Mountains, N.H.

Mount Washington

At 6,288 feet, Mount Washington represents the crown of the White Mountains, lording over the tallest and longest alpine ridge in the Northeast, the Presidential Range. A hard hike from any direction, with more than 4,000 feet of uphill and downhill and frequently rocky, steep trails, Washington nonetheless attracts thousands of dayhikers every year. While the crowds on the most popular trails can diminish the experience, the hike is spectacular and presents a serious challenge rewarded with a 360-degree panorama from the crown of the White Mountains, stretching across the range and into western Maine’s mountains.

Tuckerman Ravine Trail
8.4 miles, 4,250 feet of uphill and downhill

The standard route and most direct way up Washington is the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, which begins behind the AMC visitor center in Pinkham Notch. It ascends the steep, rocky ravine headwall, with dramatic views across Pinkham Notch to the Carter Range, and then crosses the upper slopes, which help explain the mountain’s nickname: “The Rockpile.” While many hikers descend Tuckerman, an easier way, if slightly longer way down is via the Lion Head Trail, which diverges off the Tuckerman Ravine Trail just below the summit and then rejoins it just below Hermit Lake.

A hiker on the slabs of the Huntington Ravine Trail on Mount Washington, N.H.
David Ports hiking the slabs of the Huntington Ravine Trail on Mount Washington, N.H.

Huntington Ravine Trail and Lion Head Trail Loop
8.7 miles, 4,250 feet of uphill and downhill

Want to add a little spice to your hike? Go up the Huntington Ravine Trail and descend the Lion Head Trail on a stout loop from the AMC visitor center in Pinkham Notch. Considered the most difficult regular hiking trail in the White Mountains, the Huntington Ravine Trail ascends the ravine headwall, involving exposed scrambling up steep slabs with a fall potential, especially if they’re wet, snowy, or icy. But for hikers comfortable with exposed scrambling, few outings in the Whites compare with Huntington Ravine for scenery and adventure—and likely no crowds.

The loop is 8.7 miles if you go to the summit via the Nelson Crag Trail and descend via the Tuckerman Ravine and Lion Head trails, the latter crossing the edge of the Alpine Garden. Foregoing the summit to follow the Alpine Garden Trail—where wildflowers bloom profusely in June—trims at least a half-mile and 800 feet of up and down off the hike.

Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail-Jewell Trail Loop
9.6 miles, 3,800 feet of uphill and downhill

While this scenic loop from a parking lot on the Cog Railway Base Road on the west side of Washington presents a longer route up Washington that’s also quite steep at times, it involves less elevation gain and loss and offers entirely different views and an opportunity to visit the Lakes of the Clouds and the AMC hut located there. Although the parking lot often fills on weekends, it’s much less busy than Pinkham Notch.

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A hiker in the Northern Presidential Range in New Hampshire's White Mountains.
Mark Fenton hiking the Northern Presidential Range in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

The Presidential Range Traverse

20 miles, 8,500 feet of uphill and downhill

The Presidential Range—which has seven summits higher than 5,000 feet—is one of the very best continuous alpine trail hikes in the country. That’s right: in the country. Walking north to south, the traverse involves about 20 miles and 8,500 feet of uphill and downhill if you hit all nine summits along the way, from Mount Madison to Mount Pierce, including the Northeast’s highest, 6,288-foot Mount Washington.

The traverse has many possible trail combinations and distances. Starting from the north, the most commonly hikes routes up are probably the Airline directly to the AMC’s Madison Spring Hut, where you can hike out-and-back to tag 5,366-foot Mount Madison in about 30 minutes; or the Valley Way to the Watson Path directly to Madison’s summit. But the Osgood Trail, reached via the Great Gulf Trail, ascends a long, open ridge with great views of the Great Gulf and Northern Presidentials, while the Howker Ridge Trail—the least-traveled of all of these—ascends a rugged ridge up Madison that feels more remote.

A hiker enjoying the view at dusk from Mount Monroe in the Presidential Range, N.H.
David Ports enjoying the view at dusk from Mount Monroe in the Presidential Range, N.H.

The traverse follows the Gulfside Trail, with detours to the summits of Mounts Adams, Jefferson, and another that’s not an official summit but has a great view of the Great Gulf, Mount Clay, as well as the top of Washington. From there, follow the Crawford Path south to Crawford Notch, with shorter side trips to tag Mounts Monroe, Eisenhower, and Pierce. Continuing south to 4,052-foot Mount Jackson, which has views of Crawford Notch, before descending to the notch adds more than two miles but is well worth it—as is continuing on the Appalachian Trail over ledges atop the Webster Cliffs overlooking the notch.

The AMC has three huts in the Presidentials situated a moderate day’s hike apart: Madison Spring, Lakes of the Clouds, and Mitzpah Spring, enabling traverse variations of two to four days. Backpacking the Presidentials is complicated by the prohibition against camping in the alpine zone and considerable distance separating the four possible spots to spend a night at the north end of the range—Valley Way tentsite, Crag Camp, Gray Knob cabin, and The Perch shelter—and the Nauman tentsite near Mitzpah Spring Hut.

A teenage boy hiking over Mount Madison in the Northern Presidential Range, N.H.
My son, Nate, hiking over Mount Madison in the Northern Presidential Range, N.H.

Dayhiking it—known as the Presidential Range Death March—has been something of a regional test piece for decades, probably since not long after Eugene Cook and George Sargent, of Randolph, N.H., became the first to hike it in a day on Sept. 27, 1882. And before puffing up your chest too much over accomplishing the Death March, consider that Cook and Sargent hiked 24 miles and 10,000 vertical feet over the Presidentials to Crawford Notch, had dinner, and walked the Jefferson Notch Road 18.5 miles back to Randolph that evening.

See my story “Step Onto Rock. Repeat 50,000 Times: A Presidential Range ‘Death March’” and “Extreme Hiking: America’s Best Hard Dayhikes.”

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A hiker on the Zeacliff Trail, White Mountains, N.H.
Mark Fenton at Zeacliff in the White Mountains, N.H.

Crawford Notch to Franconia Notch

23 miles, about 8,300 feet of uphill and downhill

Sandwiched between the better-known Presidentials to the north and Franconia Notch to the west lies a wonderful, 23-mile traverse from Crawford Notch to Franconia Notch, mostly on the Appalachian Trail. Hiked over two to three days, it begins on the Avalon and A-Z trails mostly through quiet forest to magnificent Zealand Notch, where you’ll pick up the AT on an increasingly scenic, high walk over five 4,000- to 5,000-footers—Zealand, South Twin, Garfield, Lafayette, and Lincoln—with possible side hikes to at least five others. (Tip: Definitely take the very short side trip to the overlook at Zeacliff, just a bit over a mile south of Zealand Falls Hut.)

A view from the Twinway/Appalachian Trail on Mount Guyot, White Mountains, N.H.
A view from the Twinway/Appalachian Trail on Mount Guyot, White Mountains, N.H.

Culminating with more than three miles of continuous alpine hiking over the burly Garfield Ridge and beloved Franconia Ridge, the traverse finishes with a descent of the steep and rugged Falling Waters Trail, passing some beautiful waterfalls. Shorten it by about a mile by descending the Greenleaf Trail and Old Bridle Path from Mount Lafayette—but do that only in bad weather or if someone’s really tired because you don’t want to miss that section of Franconia Ridge.

Lengthen this hike by 1.7 to 2.4 miles by continuing south on the AT over Franconia Ridge to Mounts Liberty and Flume; both have rocky summits with great views of the notch and east across the Whites and see far fewer hikers than Lafayette and Lincoln. The descent of the Flume Slide Trail is steeper and harder than the Falling Waters or Liberty Spring trails.

Backpackers have potential camps at Guyot, Garfield Ridge, and Liberty Spring campsites, while the route has three huts along or near it: Zealand Falls, Galehead, and Greenleaf, the last one a mile and 1,000 vertical feet below the summit of Mount Lafayette.

See my story “Still Crazy After All These Years: Hiking in the White Mountains.”

Planning your next big adventure? See “America’s Top 10 Best Backpacking Trips
and “The 25 Best National Park Dayhikes.”

A hiker on Bondcliff during a dayhike of the 32-mile Pemi Loop in the White Mountains, N.H.
Mark Fenton hiking up Bondcliff on a dayhike of the 32-mile Pemi Loop in the White Mountains, N.H.

The Pemi Loop

32 miles, 10,000 feet of uphill and downhill

The 32-mile Pemi Loop from the Lincoln Woods Trailhead on the Kancamagus Highway (NH 112) crosses eight official 4,000-foot summits, from the rocky, open ridges and summits of Bondcliff and Mount Bond in the heart of the Pemigewasset Wilderness to South Twin, Garfield, and the alpine traverse of Franconia Ridge. Overlapping significantly with the best stretch of the Crawford Notch to Franconia Notch (above), it offers the convenience of a loop and the greater sense of remoteness and higher degree of solitude you’ll find on parts of it.

Backpackers can make this a four-day hike using the backcountry campsites at Guyot, Garfield Ridge, and Liberty Spring, and the route has two huts along or near it: Galehead and Greenleaf, the latter a mile and 1,000 vertical feet below the summit of Mount Lafayette.

Don’t underestimate this hike’s beauty or difficulty: The Pemi Loop may rank as the hardest hike, mile for mile, on this list.

See my story “Being Stupid With Friends: A 32-Mile Dayhike in the White Mountains” and “Extreme Hiking: America’s Best Hard Dayhikes.”

Click here now to plan your next great backpacking adventure using my expert e-books.

Franconia Ridge

A hiker on the Appalachian Trail on Franconia Ridge, White Mountains, N.H.
Mark Fenton hiking the Appalachian Trail over Franconia Ridge, White Mountains, N.H.

8.5 miles, about 4,000 feet uphill and downhill

Certainly one of the most popular dayhikes in the White Mountains, this loop over Mounts Lincoln (5,089 feet) and Lafayette (5,260 feet) features not just the expansive views of Franconia Notch and the entire Whites from the nearly two miles of alpine ridge hiking along the narrow crest of Franconia Ridge, but also the waterfalls of the Falling Waters Trail and the open ledges of the Old Bridle Path, looking up at the long, formidable ridge. The AMC’s Greenleaf Hut sits in a grand position on the Greenleaf Trail, a mile below Lafayette’s summit.

Want a longer, more rugged adventure along all of Franconia Ridge that includes some much lonelier trails and summits? Hike the 10.7 miles from the Liberty Spring Trailhead to the Greenleaf Trailhead, with about 4,500 feet of uphill land downhill, over the four summits of Franconia Ridge—Flume, Liberty, Lincoln, and Lafayette. Go up the Flume Slide Trail—ascending the very steep path of an old rockslide, with some scrambling—and descend the Greenleaf Trail, which meanders through rough, fascinating terrain overlooking the notch where you may see no one else. Shuttle between the trailheads or walk or bike about four miles along the bike path between trailheads.

Get the right pack for you. See “The 10 Best Backpacking Packs
and the “The 10 Best Hiking Daypacks.”

Hikers on the Carter-Moriah Trail on Mount Hight in the Carter Range, White Mountains, N.H.
Marco Garofalo and Skye and Mark Fenton hiking the Carter-Moriah Trail on Mount Hight in the Carter Range, White Mountains, N.H.

Wildcat Mountain and the Carter-Moriah Range

19.5 miles, about 7,200 uphill and downhill

One of the great, long ridge walks of the Whites, the Carter-Moriah Range pushes seven summits over 4,000 feet, four of which are official 4,000-footers. Wildcat’s four summits include two more 4,000-footers. The trails traversing them wriggle over ridge crests through countless ascents and dips that amplify their grueling nature. The Carter-Moriah Trail and Wildcat Ridge Trail meet in the floor of Carter Notch, a strikingly narrow defile where walls of rock and forest soaring more than a thousand feet upward press in on both sides. From the notch, the hike up either 4,832-foot Carter Dome—ninth highest in the Whites—or 4,422-foot Wildcat Mountain entails crazy-steep trail with scrambling where you’ll learn the value of a tree trunk or branch for a handhold.

A hiker the Wildcat Ridge Trail up Wildcat Mountain, White Mountains, N.H.
Anna Garofalo and Mark Fenton hiking the Wildcat Ridge Trail up Wildcat Mountain, White Mountains, N.H.

The payoff for all that effort comes in the numerous rocky summits and ledges along the Wildcat Ridge Trail and Carter-Moriah Trail—some of which have, arguably, the best views of Mount Washington and the Presidential Range, towering immediately to the west. A traverse of both trails constitutes 19.5 hard miles with vertical gain and loss that may feel like more than it is.

While ambitious hikers knock it off in a day—a challenge not undertaken nearly as frequently as the Presidential Range Death March, even though it compares for difficulty—backpackers can make use of the Imp campsite between Mount Moriah and North Carter, and the Carter Notch Hut sits in an ideal position for hikes up Carter Dome or Wildcat Mountain, which can also be dayhiked via the Nineteen Mile Brook Trail; make a 9.6-mile lollipop loop over Carter Dome and 4,675-foot Mount Hight, which has perhaps the best panorama in the range.

See my story “The Hardest 20 Miles: A Dayhike Across New Hampshire’s Rugged Wildcat-Carter-Moriah Range.”

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A hiker on Mount Clay overlooking New Hampshire's Northern Presidential Range in the White Mountains.
Mark Fenton hiking over Mount Clay overlooking New Hampshire’s Northern Presidential Range in the White Mountains.

The Northern Presidentials

Although the three peaks of the Northern Presidential Range—5,366-foot Mount Madison, 5,799-foot Mount Adams, and 5,716-foot Mount Jefferson—exist in the shadow of Mount Washington, many avid Whites hikers prefer these rockpiles over “the” Rockpile because they have the most interesting, varied, and elaborate trail network in the entire range.

Adams, the second-highest peak in the Northeast, commands one of the best prospects of the entire range from its summit. When hiking north to south, Madison looms as the first summit and provides an imposing perspective on what lies ahead. Jefferson, the third-highest in the Northeast, is, like the others, a great hike on its own or in a link-up with other peaks.

Favorite trails can make up a lengthy list, but some to highly recommend include (from north to south) the Air Line, Chemin des Dames, Osgood, and Star Lake; the Howker Ridge Trail on a loop with the Pine Link; the Castle Trail and the shortest footpath to any peak in the Presidential Range, the Caps Ridge Trail (3.1 miles, 2,700 feet); and the Six Husbands, Chandler Brook, and Madison Gulf trails in the Great Gulf.

And on weekdays or in mixed weather or shoulder seasons, you can even find something that almost resembles solitude on these peaks—or certainly on some of the harder, more obscure trails up them.

See my story “Big Hearts, Big Day: A 17-Mile Hike With Teens in the Presidential Range.”

See my “10 Tips For Getting Your Teenager Outdoors With You
and my very popular “10 Tips For Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids.”

A hiker on South Twin Mountain in the White Mountains, N.H.
David Ports hiking South Twin Mountain in the White Mountains, N.H.

North and South Twin Mountain

11.2 miles, 3,500 feet uphill and downhill

More overlooked than they deserve, the eighth- and 12th-highest peaks in the Whites, 4,902-foot South Twin Mountain 4,761-foot North Twin Mountain, tower high above their closest neighbors, their bald, open summits affording unique views from very near three of the major defining natural features of the White Mountains: the Presidential Range, Pemigewasset Wilderness, and Franconia Ridge.

South Twin sees more hikers for its location along the AT and just a mile uphill from the AMC’s Galehead Hut. But the North Twin Trail will give you one of the less-traveled routes up a 4,000-footer. Hike both in an 11.2-mile near-loop—the same distance as hiking both out-and-back, but requiring a short shuttle or bike ride between trailheads—combining it with the Gale River Trail. Break up that loop with a night at the AMC’s Galehead Hut, perched high above the northern edge of the Pemi Wilderness (also along the Pemi Loop).

Mount Moosilauke

7.6 miles, 3,100 feet uphill and downhill.

Sprawling, bare-topped Moosilauke, rounding out the top 10highest mountains in the Whites at 4,802 feet, dominates the southwest corner of the range because no peak of comparable size lies near it. The Appalachian Trail crosses over the summit, which is reached on a relatively short, out-and-back hike of 7.6 miles on the Beaver Brook Trail (part of the AT). But Moosilauke has numerous, fun and scenic trails from all sides.

A hiker approaching the Appalachian Mountain Club's Lakes of the Clouds hut in the Presidential Range, N.H.
David Ports hiking up to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Lakes of the Clouds hut in the Presidential Range, N.H.

Guidebook and Maps Get the definitive White Mountain Guide from the Appalachian Mountain Club, amcstore.outdoors.org. See the complete list of 48 official 4,000-footers in New Hampshire s in the White Mountain Guide and at 4000footers.com/nh.

Shuttle Service The AMC operates two regular hiker shuttles daily from June 1 to mid-September and weekends and holidays through Oct. 22, serving several trailheads between US 2 at the north end of the Presidential Range to Franconia Notch, accommodating many point-to-point hikes described in this article. See outdoors.org/shuttle.

Huts The AMC’s eight popular mountain huts in Whites offer bunkrooms, dinner, and breakfast and lie a moderate day’s hike apart. Make reservations months in advance. See outdoors.org/destinations/new-hampshire.

Lodging and Food There are many lodging and restaurant options in the small towns situated around the White Mountains, including Gorham, Jackson, North Conway, Lincoln, Learn more about traveling in the White Mountains and New Hampshire at visitnh.gov. I’ve stayed at and recommend The Glen House on Route 16 north of Pinkham Notch and south of Gorham; theglenhouse.com.

Want my help planning the details of this trip, including an itinerary appropriate for your group? See my Custom Trip Planning page to learn how I can help you plan this or any trip you read about at this blog.

See all stories about hiking in the White Mountains at The Big Outside.

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free; if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “12 Expert Tips for Planning a Backpacking Trip,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

See all stories with expert backpacking tips at The Big Outside, including these:

How to Prevent Hypothermia While Hiking and Backpacking
8 Pro Tips for Preventing Blisters When Hiking
5 Tips For Staying Warm and Dry While Hiking
7 Pro Tips For Keeping Your Backpacking Gear Dry

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