When we last left off, Babushka and I were enjoying the pine forests of the Green Mountain Range of Vermont. Our journey northbound along the Appalachian Trail continues. We are now in Maine! In this update, I will be focusing on our journey through the New Hampshire.
Since our last post, we have hiked several hundred miles north, traversing through temperate and rainy boreal forests, over rocky mountain peaks, across crystal clear streams (providing refreshingly cold and tasty drinking water- filtered of course), and down the main streets of several small towns and hamlets as we made our way into into New Hampshire’s White Mountains and Presidential Range. With each footstep north, it feels as if we are getting deeper into a hidden realm, rugged and unsurpassed in natural beauty. From the summits of 4,000 footers, looking out across the green valleys below, where low hanging white clouds linger, it feels like we have arrived at the gates of a hidden world.
Indeed, the landscapes are the most dramatic we have witnessed and the climbs are getting more challenging. For the first time on our journey, we find ourselves hiking mountains that reach above tree line. (Tree line is an elevation where the environmental conditions, including cold temperatures, excessive winds and lack of water make it impossible for trees to grow. Above this line you will find rocky mountain peaks scattered with stunted underbrush and grass, providing for stunning views when visibility is good.) We first encountered this on the summit of Mount Moosilauke. What was most memorable on that mountain though wasn't the view, but our descent, parallel to, and sometimes on top of, a giant waterfall. There were parts of the AT that dropped nearly straight down, where iron rods had been blasted into the rock, along with crudely fashioned wooden steps, to help hikers navigate the steep and slippery terrain. This made for fun, but slow hiking.
After a brief overnight hostel stay at The Notch Hostel in North Woodstock, we made our climb up Kinsman’s Mountain, our first challenging ascent in the Whites. This area also marks the beginning of the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) hut system. The AMC is a non-profit organization whose mission is to help people connect with the outdoors and foster conservation. They operate a network of huts, which are basically lodge-like structures that are only accessible by hiking in and offer bunks, meals, clean water (hot and cold, but no showers) and composting toilets. They are called huts, but really are bigger permanent structures than that term belies. A one-night stay costs about $127, but they offer work-for-stay for a limited number of thru-hikers each night. Their official policy is that in exchange for 2 hours of work, thru-hikers get to sleep on the dining room floor and eat leftovers. The arrangement with food helps the hut crew avoid hiking out the leftovers (they have to pack out all trash) and helps out hungry hikers (we are ALWAYS hungry). Babushka and I took advantage of this twice during our hike through the Whites.
The White Mountains of New Hampshire
The climb up to the top of Kinsman was exhausting. We were still pretty tired from the previous day, where we had climbed down a part of the AT that was waterfall adjacent, on Mt. Moosilauke. We moved more slowly. As we gained in elevation, our feet dragged and the air got thinner, making our breathing heavy. However, reaching the top made all of the effort worthwhile.
We arrived at the south summit of Kinsman’s Mountain as the sun was beginning to set, lighting up the western sky. The conditions up top were beautiful. We watched the sky transform from dark blue to hues of purple and magenta as the sun began to set. From the summit we could see into the Presidential Range (a branch of the White Mountains farther north) and what was to come. We were both overcome with elation and awe as we peered into the horizon. All around us were mountains and beyond those more mountains, and adjacent to them, banks of low ceiling clouds hovering at about 2,000 feet (just enough to cover the valleys, but to leave the peaks exposed). We have been looking forward to New Hampshire and the Whites since starting our trip and it was rewarding to know our bodies carried us here all the way from Georgia.
From the summit of Mt. Lafayette, Franconia Ridge
The leaves are slowly changing
The Cog Railway carrying passengers to the summit of Mt. Washington
As we made our way upwards onto the Franconia Range, a stretch of the southern branch of the White Mountains where several peaks align atop a single ridge line, we were fortunate to experience excellent weather conditions. We climbed Liberty, Lafayette and the rest of the range on a relatively clear, warm and windless day. From the summit of Lafayette I recognized the unique profile of Mount Washington far away, but looming. Washington, also known as Mount Agiocochook by local Native American tribes, is the highest mountain in the Northeast United States and is known for having the worst weather in the world. In 1934, a record-breaking wind speed of 231 mph was recorded at the summit, the fastest wind speed ever recorded on earth outside of a tropical cyclone. The mountain is also notorious for having the “most dangerous hiking in America”, because of its unpredictable and at times nasty weather. It can snow up top in the middle of summer and hypothermia is a year-round risk.
Two Summit Attempts on Washington
Looking back towards the Presidential Range (Washington is the highest peak, in the middle. The AT follows the ridgeline above
The day we began our ascent of the Presidential Range had started out with weather conditions that were similar to what we had experienced earlier on Franconia Ridge. That morning the weather forecast called for cloudy skies later in the day, with light winds. With the forecast, we believed we could make it to Lake of the Clouds hut, located in a small valley between the summits of Mount Monroe and Mount Washington. We made our climb up the rugged terrain and cliffs and the views were spectacular. We eventually made it to Mizpah hut, a few miles from Lake of the Clouds Hut, and took a quick break, enjoying some coffee and snacks. As we were sitting there, light rain began to roll in. The hut crew and guests said the forecast had changed and thunderstorms were predicted for late-evening (around 2 am). Rapidly changing weather is common in the Whites and it is a good idea to plan on having your plans change when hiking through them. We decided to make a break for Lake of the Clouds before the weather worsened, so we would not be stuck at Mizpah and get some more miles in.
Although it was raining and the winds were picking up, it was a beautiful hike. We encountered more hikers than I thought we would, given the foul-turning weather. They were mostly hiking down to Mizpah or back to parking lots at the base of the mountain. As we continued north, we re-emerged above treeline several times, periodically dipping down into shallow valleys and emerging back on top of mountain summits and high points. It took us about 3 hours to travel from Mizpah to Lake of the Clouds (about 4.5 miles), where we were relieved to arrive and get warmed up. I had first visited this hut on a trip with my dad and brother when I was 11 or 12 and have wanted to spend a night ever since.
Lake of the Clouds Hut, above Tree Line
The hut is nestled in a surreal landscape. It sits south of the summit of Washington, next to several small bodies of water collectively called Lakes of the Clouds, the hut’s namesake. It is above tree line and the views into the the surrounding mountains and forested valleys below are stunning. Babushka and a dozen other hikers and I settled into our sleeping bags just as the predicted thunderstorms hit. The wind outside howled, and the window panes vibrated with the gusts. It was a neat experience.
The following morning we had coffee and breakfast and peered through the cloud-covered window for signs that the weather was rolling out. For most of the morning all we could see was white fog, we were socked in. As the morning went on we waited to see if the storm would abate, and the most recent weather report said it would clear up by early afternoon. The hut staff asked the thru-hikers to leave as the weather was supposed to improved and after a nice breakfast, Babushka and I decided it was time to head out. Conditions were windy and we were still socked in when we left but the rain had let up. We had modified our original itinerary and decided we would only try to get to Madison hut, about 7 miles north across exposed ridgeline, rather than push for the valley a few more miles beyond.
As we left Lake of the Clouds, the winds were fierce. The fog clouded our view, but we could see cairns (human-made rock structures that act as beacons above tree line) marking the way north to the summit. As we made our climb, we kept getting blown down. We were surrounded by banks of rapidly moving clouds, and the wind was fast and loud. The rocky ground was slippery in places, but the wind was to our backs and carried us upwards. After what felt like a long time, we reached a part of the trail that briefly flattened out. Instead of climbing, we found ourselves going over comparatively level terrain. The wind was so strong though that Babushka and I were basically forced to crab walk. I finally had to say it was time to turn around and try again the following day. Out of an abundance of caution, we decided to change plans again and head back to Lake of the Clouds. When you are in the Whites, you should plan on changing plans.
We now needed to go about .7 miles down, but this time we had to walk against the wind and though on a clear day we would be able to see the hut, we could not see more than a few feet in front of us. It was both physically and mentally challenging. I think human instinct is to avoid going against the wind, but we needed to get back down to the safety of the hut. On our way back we ran into another thru-hiker who we spent the evening with, one of two other North-bounders, and told him conditions were too poor to try for the summit. He decided to go down Tuckerman’s Ravine, another trail that went down the mountain, rather than push on or go back to the hut. The other northbound thru-hiker, Friendly Nate (who we are on-again off-again hiking with), had left earlier that morning for the summit and we met up with him the next day. He had apparently reached the summit and conditions were awful. He was able to get a staff shuttle at the weather station taking employees down the autoroad (a roadway up to the summit area) and safely got off the mountain.
We made it back to the hut and explained to staff what conditions were like. They were friendly and let us do second night of work-for-stay. When we were attempting to reach the summit, wind gusts were recorded at 101 mph with 75 mph sustained winds. In any case, we made it down okay and the following day reached the summit. Although it was cold, and we navigated through patches of ice in some spots on the way up, the sky was clear and the winds were around 40 mph (much better than the previous day!). At the top there is also a visitor center with hot coffee and snacks, where we hung out, charged phones and people-watched as the Cog Railway and autoroad delivered tourists to the summit. A state park employee told us this was one of the nicest days they had all summer, with views extending out about 80 miles, far enough to see the Atlantic Ocean (although you take the word for it that it's the ocean you are seeing).
Happy Hikers, thrilled to have reached the summit
Looking out to Mount Washington as we descend from the Presidential Range
We are now out of the Whites and enjoying southern Maine. As we continue our journey, signs of fall’s approach are already here. Leaves are slowly changing color down in the valleys below and the weather is getting noticeably cooler. We also experienced our first frost since May. We are excited to keep going north and look forward to sharing the rest of our journey. Baxter Peak is getting closer. Thanks for following and keep checking back for updates.
Shoutouts: I want to thank the Thayer family, who put us up in their home and were so generous to us when we arrived at the Vermont/New Hampshire border. Not only did they provide us with a place to stay, along with coffee and beer, but they let us borrow their Subaru to run errands in town! We enjoyed staying with you all and getting to spend some time together. Thank you.