I have long held Presidential aspirations — that is, to complete the Presidential traverse hike across the highest peaks of New England including Mount Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison.
I love the high open alpine terrain of these summits, and the sense of being on top of the world.
But the weather is predictably unpredictable in the mountains, especially on 6,288-foot Mount Washington, which is known for creating its own weather. In any given June, only 10 days of the month are sunny or partly sunny.
But even a hike through the clouds would be awesome. Stretching my Presidential hike over three days, with two nights in alpine huts operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) increased the odds of hiking at least one day under sunny clear skies.
My son, aka the Seal, was up for the challenge — his first big overnight hike – even if he didn’t know exactly what he was getting into. His friend, wearing thin sneakers and carrying an oversized school backpack, was also game.
Spoiler: we didn’t get to complete our Presidential hike. But our three days in the mountains reminded me of these truths about hiking.
Your kids will eventually hike faster than you can, but only if you don’t torture them when they are young.
We began our hike under partly cloudy skies, with rain in the forecast, so I decided to start out on the Valley Way trail, the most protected route to Madison Spring Hut. The boys quickly raced ahead on the trail, waiting for me to catch up at each junction.
If the weather held off, I planned to cross over, via the Scar Trail, to the Air Line Trail so we could take in the drama of King Ravine. My pack felt heavier than a couple of weeks earlier, when I had carried a full load into the Desolation Wilderness. The terrain was steeper, but I think I mostly felt slow, creaky, and weighted down in contrast to the 14-year-olds.
My son is definitely not a hard-core outdoorsy kid, but I have spent years choosing shorter easier hikes with interesting features to make hiking palatable and (hopefully) interesting and fun. Now comes the payoff for not torturing him when he was young: torture for me!
When it rains, you get wet.
Having good rain gear and stay-dry clothing helps in weathering the storm, but the rain eventually leaks into the jacket, the boots get waterlogged from sloshing through too many puddles, and invariably some item gets waterlogged because you forgot to wrap it in plastic.
A warm and dry bunk in an alpine hut is better than a suite at a luxury hotel, especially when said bunk (multiplied by three or four people) costs as much or more.
Ah, Madison Spring Hut! This historic hut, on the site of mountain hospitality since 1889, was rebuilt in 2011. I love the new layout and little luxuries: a dining room that doesn’t feel as crowded, individual bunk lights that energy-efficient lights, and best of all, the third-level bunk private-ish suites. The boys quickly climbed up the ladder to these bunks, designed to be impossible to fall from, with a wall on one side of each bunk, and a heavy wooden platform screen connecting two bunks (with four bunks total stretching across the rafters). They promptly took possession of their suite, laid themselves out to dry, and passed out like two-year-olds taking a long-delayed afternoon nap.
Being on a mountain at sunset is awesome.
One of the greatest benefits of staying in an alpine huts experiencing the last rays of the day from a mountain top. The 5,367-foot summit of Mount Madison rises a half-mile above the hut, making for an easy (albeit strenuous) climb.
New England weather is fickle, especially in the mountains.
Yes, yes, everyone knows this, but why does this truism always have to be true?? For days, I had been checking the long-range forecast, thinking that I might reorganize the trip by a day if the weather looked bad. (Although not well publicized, AMC, known for their ironclad no-refund policies, will let you make a one-time switch to your itinerary on a space-available basis). On Saturday, the weather looked great! But by the time we hit the trail, the forecast had evolved from great to gray to grim: high winds, severe thunderstorms, heavy rain, and flash floods.
I held out hope that the weather front might pass through early, or hold off until later, but on Tuesday morning, after providing the weather forecast, the hut “croo” at Madison strongly discouraged anyone from walking across the six-mile exposed Gulfside Trail towards Mount Washington and the hut at Lake of the Clouds, our destination for Tuesday night.
More than 140 people have died in these mountains over the past 150 or so years, in all four seasons. I knew that we had to abandon our plans. I switched our reservation to Highland Center down in Crawford Notch and debated options for the next day, when the weather would clear.
The thought of putting on wet socks and then lacing on waterlogged boots is worse than the reality of doing so.
We hiked out the Valley Way trail in the pouring rain. My pricey Marmot jacket quickly became a wet skin. At one point, I had to take off my glasses so that I could sort of see the trail. The rain eventually let up, and we reached the Appalachia parking lot, where a kiosk provided shelter from the rain when it started up again. I was so grateful when The AMC shuttle arrived ahead of schedule.
After a hard hike, the cheapest glass of wine tastes great.
Mondavi Chardonnay, with dinner at the Highland Center, preceded by afternoon coffee at The Met in North Conway while the boys filled up on “penny” candy at Zeb’s General Store. We even managed a visit to White Birch Books.
Sometimes driving a car up a mountain is better than walking.
I briefly contemplated a day hike up Mount Washington for our third day. Strong winds were slamming the summit, but hikers coming up the southeastern side of the mountain wouldn’t feel the full force of the northwest winds until reaching the summit cone. But then I looked at my wet boots, and remembered my rule about not torturing children.
It’s not much fun to hike for any length of time when the wind is blowing hard. But strong winds make a great day for driving the Mount Washington Auto Road.
When we arrived at the summit, the wind was blowing a steady 40-45 mph, with gusts in the 60 mph range. That doesn’t sound so bad – and it isn’t, if you aren’t try to move forward on your feet. In fact, it’s great fun to lean in to the wind, and then let it chase you around.
Inside the State Park building, we milled around with senior citizens and tourists who had come up on the Cog Railway and visited the new “Extreme Mount Washington” exhibit that features a compelling account of the April 1934 record-setting wind, when observers clocked the wind speed at 231 mph.
But we couldn’t experience Mount Washington without a hike, so after lunch, we began the steep descent towards Tuckerman’s Ravine to do a two-mile loop hike down to and through the Alpine Garden trail, an alpine plateau that blooms with rare wildflowers in June.
Heading downhill, we soon left the wind behind as we encountered a steady stream of hikers on their final leg up the mountain. The walk down was slow going for me, but the boys continued their mountain goat act. The trail through the Gardens was easy and open, although I expected to see more flowers for this time of year. Either I just missed them, or they hadn’t yet come out in full bloom, or “garden” is a relative term in Mount Washington’s harsh environment.
As we climbed uphill again, towards Ball Crag and the summit, we again felt the wind’s full force. By the time we reached the car, I was feeling pretty beat up, but strong enough to move the car in the empty parking lot to take advantage of perfect westerly views towards Franconia Ridge.
An imperfect trip to the mountains is always better always better than going to the office (or doing housework, running errands, going to doctor appointments).
I had hoped to climb Mount Jefferson on this trip, and touch upon Mount Monroe, two 5,000 footers on my to-climb list. But as a glass half-full type, I see this year’s loss as next year’s opportunity. I’ll be back—along with at least one other hiker who already is strategizing on how to get some additional teenagers on the trail.
Sources and resources
For information on hut stays, visit the Appalachian Mountain Club website. The AMC also offers a shuttle service at key trailheads and lodges so that hikers can do point-to-point hikes across the mountains. Hikers can also use a shuttle service to or from Mount Washington — see the Auto Road website for details.
The Mount Washington Weather Observatory Higher Summits forecast provides detailed information on weather for both the region and the higher summits in the Presidential Range.
For more reading about Mount Washington, see some of my posts from my week-long stay on the summit in January, 2014: