Photo creds:Bill Kramer and Cora Clark
The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died there from exposure even in the Summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad.” US Forest Service Mount Washington Signage
When we hear someone mention the White Mountains, the first thing that often comes to mind is Mount Washington — and for good reason. Standing at 6,288 feet it is the highest point in the Northeast and home of the world’s worst weather and the second highest recorded land wind speed; 231 mph. While Mount Washington is certainly a highlight of the Presidential Range, there are a whole variety of other trails that are worth exploring in their own right. From multi-day traverses to day summits, this iconic New England range has a lot to offer adventurers — you could spend years exploring every nook and cranny along those trails.
For the past 3 years I called Crawford Notch my home, living at and working for the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Highland Center as an outdoor guide. I spent almost every weekend in the summers leading trips up the slopes of Mount Washington and along the Southern spine of the range. Now that I am living down on the New Hampshire Seacoast, I try to spend as much time in my former home as possible, exploring new trails and revisiting some old favorites.
I’d like to share some of the range’s highlights and my favorite ways to experience them.
The largest and most strenuous trek you can do in the Presidential Range is the Presidential or “Presi” traverse. This 22 mile hike will take you across each of the 7 Presidential Peaks, gain close to 9,000 feet of elevation, and has the option to tack on Mt. Jackson and Mt. Webster if you are feeling up to it. This hike is typically done in one long grueling day or can be split up by staying at the AMC’s huts. The huts you will encounter in order from North to South are Madison Spring, Lakes of the Clouds, and Mizpah Spring. You can also camp along the route, but remember that it is illegal to camp above tree-line in New Hampshire in the summer, and water can be scarce.
Most traversers prefer to go North to South. This allows you to get your big elevation done early in the first day while you are feeling fresh and ready to go. Park your car at the Mt. Clinton Road USFS parking lot ($5/day parking fee required) and either take the AMC Hiker Shuttle from the Highland Center or have a friend drive you to the Appalachia Trailhead on Rt. 2. Take the Valley Way trail to Madison Spring Hut and refill on water before you run up to tag Mount Madison. From there you will follow the Gulfside Trail along the ridge, summiting Mount Adams and Jefferson along your way to Mount Washington. Stop for a rest on the summit of Mount Washington for some water and a well–deserved chili dog, then continue South along the Crawford Path. You will stay on the Crawford Path all the way back to your car. Summit Mt. Monroe and Eisenhour, with your final official Presidential Peak being Mount Pierce. If you are feeling up to it you can diverge from the Crawford Path here, hiking passed Mizpah Springs Hut to Mount Jackson. While in the range Mount Jackson is not technically a “Presidential” summit. It was named after a New Hampshire state geologist. Between Mizpah and the summit you will pass through a unique alpine bog which is certainly worth the extra miles. Descend the Jackson Trail to Rt. 302 and enjoy a short walk around Saco Lake on the way back to your car at the Mt. Clinton Road parking lot.
Mt. Washington Day Summit
There are several ways to reach the summit of Mount Washington for a day hike, and each of them presents their own set of challenges and rewards. My preferred route is up the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail. On the Western side of the range this trail sees far less traffic than the ever more popular Tuckerman Ravine Trail, and still has great views to boot. Starting at the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trailhead on the Cog Base Road, hike 2.7 miles to Lakes of the Clouds hut where you can fill up on water and purchase delicious baked goods from the Croo. This trail is for the sure footed as you will encounter bare granite slabs, which are entirely traversable on foot. From there you can connect with the Crawford Path as it heads North towards the summit cone. This last 1.5 miles to the summit can feel like eternity, but on a clear day the views are unparalleled. After your obligatory summit selfie take the Gulf Side Trail to connect with Jewel Trail to make a nice loop back to your car, being sure to take in the views of the Great Gulf as you hike along the edge of the ravine. At the end of the day you will have hiked 11.2 miles and gained 4100 feet of elevation.
Mt. Pierce Day Summit
For those looking for a little more casual hike, or if the weather is particularly nasty, Mt. Pierce is the perfect option. Coming in at a little over 6.5 miles round trip and 2400 elevation gain Mt. Pierce is a great option for those wanting a 4000-footer with a great view and relatively good shelter from the weather. Park at the Mountain Clinton Road parking lot and head up the Crawford Path, diverging only if you wish to stop by Mizpah Spring Hut on your way to the summit. Pierce is unique in the fact that it is sheltered by the trees until the summit, allowing you to poke your head out in bad weather to get an outdoor experience and then retreat to the relative safety of the trees. Mt. Pierce was my first big hike when I moved to New Hampshire and it will always be a special summit for me because of that. Return down the Crawford Path, or take the Webster-Jackson trail to Mizpah Spring, then follow the Mizpah Cutoff back to the Crawford Path. The junction outside the hut can be a little confusing, but the Croo is always happy to lend a hand!
Great Gulf Wilderness
While the summits get all the attention the surrounding areas are often left untouched by the crowds. When I am looking for an escape, but still wanting to stay in the Presidential Range I like to head into the Great Gulf Wilderness. Located on the Northern shoulder of Mt. Washington, this wilderness area boasts a few great trails and campsites (the latter of which I’ll let you explore on your own). If you are looking for a unique perspective on the Presidentials, I recommend hiking to Spaulding Lake. While a relatively small and shallow lake, it does sit at just over 4000 feet and has a great view looking up the Great Gulf Headwall. Try to point out the hikers on the ridge or see the elusive beaver that lives at the lake. Chandler Brook Trail makes for an exciting climb to tree–line, following Chandler Brook as it cascades into the ravine.
I could speak for hours about my favorite places in the Presidentials, and these selections barely scape the surface of the range. My best advice is to pick a hike based on your priorities. Do you want a view? Are you trying to tag as many peaks as possible? Or are you simply out to enjoy nature away from the crowds? Regardless of your destination or route you can expect beautiful views and unparalleled hiking along the Presidential Range — just be sure to come prepared and check the forecast!
Travis Gagliano is one of NEMO’s Customer Service Pros who loves helping customers and repairing their gear so it can last for a lifetime. Former Flatlander turned New England Transplant, Travis is an adventure enthusiast, budding fly fisherman, and lover of trails and gear.