I joined my old friend, Madison Jon, in Connecticut Sunday evening July 2, 2017. Early Monday morning we drove up I91 to St. Johnsbury, VT. We then headed east on Hwy 2 to Gorham, NH and south on 16 about ten miles to Joe Dodge Lodge (in Pinkham Notch) –our base station while we hiked The Presidential Range, in the White Mountains of NH. We would start there and end there after four days of hiking.
We had dinner and spent the night at Joe Dodge where we left our vehicle while we hiked. Early next morning, Tuesday July 4th, after a great breakfast, we began our journey -taking a shuttle to AMC’s Highland Center (in Crawford Notch), where we started hiking north to the AMC Mizpah Spring Hut -our first day’s destination. Mizpah Hut is adjacent to the Nauman Tentsite, and both are located along the junction with the Appalachian Trail (AT). The hike from Highland Center was only about 3 miles with a 2,100′ elevation gain to Mizpah. However the first mile had a gain of 1,700′ coming up a rocky, bolder-strewn creek bed/trail -welcome to the Whites! And, for the record, AMC is the Appalachian Mountain Club, with over 19,000 members -myself and Madison Jon included.
The Crawford Path is one of the oldest hiking trails in the country, it was originally built in the 1800’s. It was used as a horse trail from the ‘Crawford House’ (now AMC’s Highland Center) up to Mt. Washington. It coincides with the AT for 5.2 miles, and extends an additional 3 miles to Highland Center.
Reservations at Mizpah (and all AMC Huts) are recommended. It accommodates 60 guests using several rooms with bunk-beds. Restrooms, potable water, kitchen and dining hall, breakfast and dinner, and a full staff are provided. Additional information on the lodges is available on the AMC website.
Nauman Tentsite is adjacent to the Mizpah spring Hut. Most Tentsites have a caretaker, and usually charge a nominal daily fee for their daily use. Tentsites provide some type of composting toilet facility, and a water source is usually nearby. All water should be filtered/purified (or boiled/treated with a chemical).
Many huts are open year ’round and are heated. Winter hiking and skiing are popular in many parts of the White Mtns. Again, check the website for details, including special programs.
We arrived at Mizpah Hut in early-afternoon, Tuesday. We explored the immediate area, including Nauman Tentsite, and got our gear put away in our room. We met Jess, the hut caretaker and ‘guy-in-charge’ -he assigned us our room and also served as a great cook and baker, and seemed to always be busy in the kitchen. The hut also had a nice library upstairs. Dinner and morning breakfast were served family-style, and everyone had plenty of delicious food to eat.
We were planning to stay in huts each night out, with two meals a day provided. That meant we didn’t have to carry our meals, a stove, cookware or fuel -very nice indeed! We did each carry a small backpacking tent, and a water filter -just in case severe weather forced us off a mountain or ridgeline. And we each carried 2-3 liters of water daily. Severe weather is always a possibility in these mountains, so we had to be prepared for that, with raingear, maps, compass, head lamp and batteries, etc. I’m guessing we each carried 20-25 lbs. -very light weight.
Wednesday morning after breakfast, Jon and I hit the trail by 8 a.m. and headed north along our planned route -Crawford Path and the AT to the AMC Lakes of the Clouds Hut, just past Mt. Monroe.
We climbed right over Mt. Pierce and I didn’t even realize it – at 4300′ it was only a couple of hundred feet gain at the top. At Mt. Eisenhower we skirted the peak (which was only a 200′-300′ climb) staying on the main, more traveled AT route.
As we approached Mt. Monroe, the ridgeline began rising and we encountered more boulders along the trail, slowing our pace significantly. We decided to break for a drink and maybe an energy-bar, but swarms of biting gnats and flies soon chased us away. The AT skirted Mt. Monroe to the east and then around to the north again. As we rounded a corner of boulders, the trail began dropping and suddenly the Lakes of the Clouds Hut came into view below us in the distance. A welcome sight!
The helicopter crew was taking advantage of good weather and hauling in large waste storage tanks for the Clivus composting toilets, and probably kitchen waste as well, along with lumber. There must have been 10-15 deliveries that day. When the full systems are disconnected, they will be hauled out and the new tanks will be installed. This needs to be done every couple of years.
Lake of the Clouds Hut was well above treeline, with very scenic views. It accomodates 90 guests and has a small retail store with energy bars, safety-related items, maps and some clothing.
All huts provide morning weather forecasts for today and the next day. The reports come in by radio and are hand transcribed on a std. form. I believe amateur radio frequencies are used, because one fellow mentioned he doesn’t operate the radio because he doesn’t have the FCC license. But they may use a combination of radio systems, I couldn’t find out for sure.
At each hut I spotted thru-hikers on the AT. They might have been hanging around outside around the hut, or inside -bartering for food and/or sleeping space. I’d been out here before and met them on the trail. I’d shake their hands and congratulate them, enjoying the smile it brought to their faces. This trip I met a couple of groups that had started in Georgia in late Feburary and early March, hiking north. They had already accomplished an amazing feat, and they had nearly completed their trip – another few weeks and they’d be climbing Katahdin in Maine. I climbed it in 2014! It was always fun talking with these folks as they approached the end of their journey. Congrats to them!
In dim light, heavy rain or snow, or foggy conditions, the cairns mark the trail. Even in clear weather, it can be hard finding the trail in large boulder fields. We actually found ourselves on the wrong trail and had to backtrack for twenty minutes to find where we had missed the correct trail -and that was a clear day. In good conditions, we could sight 3-5 cairns in the distance and plot a straight course through the boulders, avoiding the zig-zag between individual cairns. There really was no trail, only the cairns pointing the way across the unending boulder fields.
It was a good climb up and through numerous boulder fields to get out of Lake of the Clouds and back on the AT/Crawford Path trails. After about 3/4 mile, we took a fork north on the Westside Trail through more boulder fields and avoided the direct climb up to the peak of Mt. Washington -a climb of an additional 600′-700.’ There is a roadway and a railroad that gets people all the way up to the top (from the lowlands below), and a weather station and snack bar to boot! It actually gets crowded up there. We avoided the boulders, the climb and the crowd, and probably saved ourselves a couple of hours in the process. Alas, no pictures from the top.
The Westside Trail connected us with the Gulfside Trail (also the AT), which would take us past Mt. Clay, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Adams, to the Madison Spring Hut. The first mile was an easy walk along a ridgeline that followed a relatively constant elevation.
After passing Mt. Clay, the trail elevations began going up and down through boulder field after boulder field, hour after hour. Hiking got difficult. And it stayed that way as we circled the ridge around the top of the Great Gulf Wilderness cirque, on our way to Madison Spring Hut. This is where we didn’t want to hit bad weather, because escape routes off the ridge were relatively few and most would be challenging in bad weather -very steep and rocky.
From this point on, the trail became very challenging and I took nearly no photos. The boulder fields were deeper now, and hiking poles tended to get stuck in cracks and holes between the boulders. Breaking and/or bending hiking poles was a distinct possibility, to say nothing of falling and breaking a wrist or arm or ankle. We were also being hit with wind gusts that must have been 50+ mph, which impacted our ability to hike/jump boulder to boulder safely. I was getting tired. The boulders were getting bigger! Where the hell is the Hut!
We climbed down the boulders into a narrow ravine -it was difficult to fit between the walls of what was a dry, narrow waterfall. We dropped hiking poles and grabbed rocks, easing ourselves downward, tossing packs ahead, jumping to lower levels -wondering if this was even the dam trail! I’d sure hate to have to climb back up and out of this if we were wrong -this late in the day!
We reached the bottom and crossed a dry stream bed, then began climbing boulders and following cairns again. After 50 yards, we stopped, dropped our packs and sat down along the trail -it was break time. We each had an energy bar and a half liter of water, rested five minutes, put on our packs and hit the trail again, glad we were still on the trail!
The best sight we’d seen since passing Mt. Clay earlier in the morning, before hitting the boulder fields. But there were still more boulders all the way down… we wondered what was for dinner!
All the huts used solar energy, most had a dozen 750 watt panels on the roof and some also had hot water panels to pre-heat water, then used on-demand propane water heaters. I believe all huts had back-up propane generators for charging batteries and providing emergency power. Human waste and kitchen waste was composted using aerobic processes and recycling. Restrooms used the Clivus Multrum composting system. Most huts used electric water pumps, and required about 2-3 kwh/day. We had headlamps and AAA batteries to meet our needs whenever required.
We had nearly completed our journey. Madison Spring Hut was the last in the Presidential Range hike. The huts were a nice feature -I’d never done that before. I’d always backpacked with a tent, carrying all my food and cooking gear. I often carried 55-60 lbs. or 40% of my body weight. I liked the hut option!
It was great to arrive at Madison Spring Hut! I was exhausted. We got our room assignment and dumped our packs, saying hi to others sharing the room -there must have been a dozen of us in our room. I took off my boots and put on my Crocs to relax and walk around the hut and meet a few other hikers. We also got out the maps and explored our options for returning to Joe Dodge Lodge Friday morning.
Dinner was great! We hit the sack early Thursday night, and slept well! Friday morning we could definitely feel the effects of Thursday’s hike. I took a Tylenol and went to get breakfast. We savored the food and enjoyed the hot coffee.
The Friday morning forecast included a good chance of rain. Our original plan was to take the Osgood Trail/Madison Gulf Trail/Old Jackson Road Trails south, back down to Joe Dodge Lodge. It was a 8+ mile hike and included a 3,500′ loss in elevation, including a 1 mi. section that dropped 2,000.’ It looked like it would be difficult, especially in the rain.
Examining the map, we found two other trail options (the Valley Way and Air Line Trails) that departed north and down the backside of the cirque to a shuttle stop on Hwy 2. Both were about 3 miles long and would be tough -but they didn’t include anything like a 2,000′ drop in 1 mile (Osgood option). We talked with the Hut manager and he recommended the Air Line Trail route over Valley Way for good reasons related to slope. The Air Line Trail it would be! We had to make a shuttle pick-up at 11:30 a.m to get us back to Joe Dodge Lodge for the night. We figured it would take us at least 3 hrs. to reach the shuttle stop at Hwy 2.
We departed Madison Spring Hut at 7:45 a.m. Friday, heading down the Air Line Trail. While we were headed down, we first had to head UP! Seemed natural, we hiked up and over a high point on the horizon, then faced another… and then we finally headed DOWN!
It was exhausting. After an hour, I could already feel the effects of yesterday’s workout. My upper thighs, the muscles, were yelling at me. This was new. In the old days, before my heart surgery (triple bypass in 12/16), I’d be out of breath, stopping for a break and nearly panting! I never got winded on this trip -at no time! My new limiting factor was muscular! Amazing! I can build those muscles. I can deal with that.
How fast were we moving? Did we have time for a break -my legs were killing me. At one point, Jon yelled, Mike! I’d inadvertently started hiking a drainage, and had gotten off the trail. Easy to do, but dangerous! Glad I wasn’t hiking alone, I might have missed the shuttle! Finally nearing the roadway (I figured), I had to sit down on a flat rock on the forest floor to give my legs a rest – maybe a minute or two. I got up and what a difference a couple of minutes rest made! We continued and reached the shuttle stop with fifteen minutes to spare. We dropped our packs. I was done! Totally!
What a trip! We had a long ride back to Joe Dodge Lodge -going west for 90 minutes around the mountain, rather than 30 minutes southeast. It was all good -I needed a rest anyway. I used a shuttle stop to pick up some ice for some warm beer back at Joe Dodge Lodge – and that was my first task upon our return… putting the beer on ice! Then a hot shower, and a great dinner. Then a cold beer out back with a small Cohiba… this was an amazing trip! Sooo glad we did it! Thanks Jon!
And, my sincere thanks to Dr. Peter Dyrud and the team!! 😉 Thanks all!
73, de Mike, KEØGZT