Prior to embarking on this hike, I made a deal with a doctor. He agreed to remove the six stitches from my chin a day earlier than scheduled if I wore a bandage and took it “easy” over the weekend. I didn’t ask for clarification, but it seems logical that two days on the New Hampshire Appalachian Trail is easier than four. Surely this was what he meant. Bring on the Presidential Range!
New Hampshire has no shortage of premier hiking destinations, and the Presidential Range from Mt. Webster to Mt. Madison holds the most prized pearls in the state’s peak-bagging sea. Eight summits on the 19-mile Presidential Traverse are on the list of 48 4,000-footers, including the top five to tickle the sky. Having already covered Mt. Webster and Mt. Jackson on the previous post, I began this hike with the Crawford Path connecting to Mizpah Spring Hut.
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The Crawford Path is teeming with history. Originally cleared in 1819, its claim to fame is being the oldest continually used mountain trail in America. Once a bridle path, the Crawford Path is a great morning wake-up for its gradual ascent of Mt. Pierce. Wanting to stay fully connected on the Appalachian Trail after exiting here on my last trip, I took the Mizpah Cut-Off, and was enchanted by sections of forest rich with moss around the Mizpah Spring Hut that could have been ripped from the pages of a fairy tale.
The climb from the Mizpah Spring Hut is steep and rocky for a stretch before coming to a viewpoint overlooking Mt. Jackson.
From here it’s a short stretch to the summit of Mt. Pierce, also known as Mt. Clinton. Northbound AT hikers step out of the treeline at the summit opening and are treated to the first of many “Oh my God” moments on this hike.
As I admired the view, clouds quickly enshrouded the Presidential Range.
The Appalachian Trail descending Mt. Pierce squeezes through a sliver of rock worn by years upon years of hikers’ tread. There’s a dip back into the trees before reaching the southern junction of the Mt. Eisenhower Loop. To stay connected on the section hike, I followed the AT through the krummholz around Mt. Eisenhower and made the ascent from the north. This side of the loop trail begins with a steep but short headwall climb followed by an easy but longer than it looks stint to the top.
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The Mt. Eisenhower summit cairn has a worn path around it enclosed by a ring of loose rocks. It felt as if I was standing at Stonehenge, a grander purpose somehow at play, and so I added a rock to the pile to pay homage to the mountain Gods. It seemed the thing to do.
The Presidential Traverse from Mt. Eisenhower to Mt. Franklin is smooth sailing. Bear in mind it’s all out in the open so plan accordingly in inclement weather. The summit of Mt. Franklin is reached via an unmarked, 130-yard path on the right. Merely 0.3 mile further along is the southern junction with the Mt. Monroe Loop. Once again I followed the AT around Mt. Monroe and ascended from the northern side. From this side it is 0.4 mile to the Monroe summit, elevation 5,075 feet. Except for one tricky spot, it’s a tame climb.
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Mt. Monroe also signifies an increase in hiker congestion—especially on weekends—from the Mt. Washington foot traffic. I completed this hike on Labor Day weekend with full knowledge the trail would be packed. It was worth the experience, but probably something I’d avoid in the future.
The Lakes of the Clouds hut was swarming around lunch time, and the stream of people making their way from here to the summit of Washington were like a procession of ants. Pilgrims, all of us, drawn by the majesty of the mountains. The higher we climb the more humbling the experience becomes, cleansing insignificant burdens and restoring perspective. For this we joyfully brave blisters, sore muscles, and, of course, “The world’s worst weather.” Fortunately my contribution to the mountain Gods on Mt. Eisenhower paid off with the clouds breaking apart into blue skies as I approached Mt. Washington.
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The Mt. Washington cone climb to the summit is steep, rugged, and overall tougher than it looks. The summit itself is the hiking version of Disneyland with the Mount Washington Auto Road and Cog Railway increasing crowds exponentially. Attractions include the Mount Washington Observatory, museum, gift shop, café, and, yes, even a Post Office—sorry thru hikers, it’s for outbound mail only (rumor has it the Pinkham Notch Visitor’s Center accepts mail drops, but definitely call first). All that’s missing is a McDonald’s.
On this Saturday of Labor Day Weekend the line to get a picture taken with the summit sign was at least fifteen minutes long. This seemed excessive to me, especially since Santa wasn’t there, and so I carried on. The Appalachian Trail continues north from behind the Tip Top House and the summit sign. Shortly thereafter the trail crosses the Cog Railway tracks and joins the Gulfside Trail.
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The Appalachian Trail follows the Gulfside Trail for most of the northern portion of the Presidential Range, weaving around the summits of Mt. Clay, Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Adams. Though rocky with several climbs, the trail is quite hospitable across this stretch. There are spots—most notably the traverse past Adams to Mt. Madison—where the rocks have been rearranged to provide the type of flattened footpath one would expect to find in a flower garden. Also important to note is that most of the Gulfside Trail portion is marked with yellow blazes, not the traditional AT white.
With daylight expiring I worked my way down the Valley Way trail (connects just below the Madison Springs Hut) to the Valley Way Tentsite. There are about five or six dirt sites here, each with enough room for two small tents. When I arrived all spaces had at least one occupant and I was lucky enough to share a spot before full capacity was reached shortly thereafter.
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The goodwill I’d earned on Mt. Eisenhower expired the following morning when it began raining shortly after I woke, adding fun to the rocky climb of Mt. Madison. There was only a twenty percent chance of rain for the day, which goes to show hikers should always be prepared for all weather conditions in the Presidential Range. Enshrouded in clouds the hike over the summit was cairn to cairn, followed by a tricky descent of the exposed Osgood Ridge and its numerous mounds of rock. The Osgood Trail doesn’t get any easier below treeline, adding a web of roots to the steep and rocky theme. Moral of the story here is that hikers should plan on the Osgood Trail portion taking longer than expected.
From the side trail to the Osgood Campsite there’s about five easy miles through the Great Gulf Wilderness to the Pinkham Notch Visitor’s Center. It’s a relaxing change of pace with only a few ups and downs throughout highlighted by Low’s Bald Spot, where a short climb up a rock headwall affords the view shown above. Even with the easy-going ending I strolled into the Pinkham Notch Visitor’s Center a couple hours later than planned, but with my chin still in one piece. So I had that going for me.
Amenities at the Visitor’s Center include lodging, flushable toilets, metered showers and a café. It’s also worth noting that with proper planning hikers can complete this entire hike without ever having to treat water. Potable water is available along the way at all huts, in the Sherman Adams Summit Building on Mt. Washington, and in Pinkham Notch.