By Michael Lanza
We started up the Daniel Webster Trail by the light of headlamps at a time of day that guaranteed we’d have the mountain to ourselves for hours: 3:30 a.m. My head had that squeezed, hungover feeling from not enough sleep; the four hours we grabbed on the floor of my friend Mark’s van the night before fell at least three hours short of rejuvenating. But we didn’t have the luxury of sleeping in. We were embarking on a one-day, 20-mile “Death March” across New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. And making our objective all the more lunatic, we had a bus to catch that afternoon—with nine summits between us and that bus stop.
We finished that big day with time for a beer at the Highland Lodge before the bus arrived. That was one of several long dayhikes I’ve made over the years in the Whites, a mountain range I first began exploring 35 years ago, and have returned to almost annually since moving across the country two decades ago. I keep coming back for the same reason: the unique wealth of beautiful and challenging, long dayhikes in the Whites.
When I started hiking, I immediately fell in love with the severe contours and wind-blasted heights of these old, eroded mountains. But at that time, I looked at the Whites from the same self-limiting perspective as most hikers, presuming that 10, 12, maybe 15 miles represented the upper limit of how far someone could hike in a day. I lacked the experience to understand what was really possible, and I had not yet met anyone who introduced me to the notion that one could walk farther than that through these brutally rugged mountains in a day.
I guess you could say I’ve come a long way since then.
Today, hiking a trail or standing on a summit in the Whites conjures memories of old friends and fun times reaching back across most of my life. But I also see the White Mountains differently—with, I think, a broader perspective. The topography, trail network, and road access in the Whites inspire aspirations for long dayhikes done as loops, partial loops, or traverses. It seems to me that these steep, rocky peaks act as a breeding grounds for a strange sickness: a passion for very long, hard dayhikes.
Compounding the challenge, though, is the relentlessly rocky character of trails here: I’ve hiked all over the United States and the world and found few places as hard, step for step, as New Hampshire’s White Mountains.
The plum everyone wants to pick—and perhaps the archetypal big dayhike in America, first knocked off way back on Sept. 27, 1882, by Randolph locals Eugene Cook and George Sargent—is the one-day “Death March” traverse of the Presidential Range: 20 miles and some 8,500 vertical feet, much of it high above treeline on the longest alpine ridge in the East.
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But there are several other outings that just beg to be done in a day, for their aesthetics—linking up several peaks along a continuous ridge—and because their distance and cumulative vertical feet add up to something that’s very hard, but still within the realm of possibility for very fit hikers.
• The traverse of Wildcat Mountain and the Carter-Moriah Range spans 20 miles, 7,200 feet, and eight summits. The 360-degree panoramas from many summits and overlooks validate a hike that is arguably harder than the Pressies Death March—mostly because of the punishing steepness of the trail sections in Carter Notch.
• The 24-mile traverse from Crawford Notch to Franconia Notch, much of it following the Appalachian Trail, is more typically done over two days with a night at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Galehead Hut (well worth the layover). But it’s a viable single-day goal, and while longer, probably not quite as hard as a Pressies Death March or the Wildcat-Carter-Moriah traverse (although you may not believe that while hiking Garfield Ridge).
• There are various ways to carve a big dayhike out of the Northern Presidentials. I wrote in this story about knocking off a tough, 17-mile, 6,800-foot loop from Pinkham Notch over four of the highest peaks in the Northeast, including Mount Washington, with three teenagers.
• The Franconia Notch area offers similarly broad possibilities. I’ve made a 17.4-mile loop from the notch over the five summits of Franconia Ridge—Flume, Liberty, Little Haystack, Lincoln, and Lafayette—that took in the sweeping views of the Whites on the long ridge traverse, as well as some trails and summits that see a lot less traffic.
• But the king of huge dayhikes in the Whites is the Pemi Loop, a 32-mile, approximately 10,000-vertical-foot circuit from Lincoln Woods Trailhead on the Kancamagus Highway over Bondcliff, Mounts Bond and Garfield, and Franconia Ridge. Two friends and I—all of us in our fifties—repeated it not long ago, 10 years after first doing it. See my feature story about that day.
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If you believe you have the stuff for one of these big days in the Whites—or if you’re planning shorter dayhikes or backpacking trips through these peaks and want a digital preview of what they look like—see all of my stories about the White Mountains at The Big Outside, including these:
“Still Crazy After All These Years: Hiking in the White Mountains”
“Step Onto Rock. Step Down. Repeat 50,000 Times: A 20-Mile, 9-Peak ‘Death March’ of the Presidential Range”
“Big Hearts, Big Day: A 17-Mile Hike With Teens in the Presidential Range”
“The Hardest 20 Miles: A Dayhike Across New Hampshire’s Rugged Wildcat-Carter-Moriah Range”
“Ask Me: What Are Your Favorite New England Hikes?”
Find information about Appalachian Mountain Club mountain huts, hiker shuttles, and other AMC services in the Whites at outdoors.org.