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Backpacker Magazine – February 2001

Two Shades of White Mountains

Lines at backcountry outhouses. Hikers competing for tent sites. Is there any solitude left in New Hampshire's White Mountains? Lots of it, if you know where to go.

by: Mike Lanza


White Mountains, NH

The White Mountain National Forest (WMNF) in northern New Hampshire covers nearly 800,000 acres-an area larger than Rhode Island. Fifteen percent of the land is federal wilderness divided into five wilderness areas: Caribou-Speckled Mountain, Great Gulf, Presidential Range-Dry River, Pemigewasset, and Sandwich Range. Terrain ranges from hardwood forest to the most extensive alpine area east of the Rockies and south of Canada.

Trails: There are 1,200 miles of trail in the WMNF, many of them steep and rocky. Seven summits top 5,000 feet and 48 rise higher than 4,000 feet; elevation gains of 4,000 feet or more from the trailheads to the highest peaks are common, as are constant ups and downs along the trails. Many backpackers average no more than 6 to 9 miles per day, and consider 10 miles or more a strenuous day. On the ridgetop trails, including some of the routes described below, water is scarce.

Guides: The Appalachian Mountain Club's (AMC) White Mountain Guide, edited by Gene Daniell and Jon Burroughs (Appalachian Mountain Club, 800-262-4455; $21.95), describes every trail in the Whites and includes maps. New England Hiking: The Complete Guide to Nearly 400 of the Best Hikes in New England, by yours truly (Foghorn Press, 800-364-4676; $18.95), describes 72 multi- and 1-day hikes in the Whites. Both guides are available for purchase through

Season: Prime hiking season stretches from mid-June, when high-elevation snow disappears and alpine wildflowers bloom, until the leaves hit the ground in October. Spring trails are muddy down low and buried under deep, slushy snow up high, but mid-October and into November offer cool days, cold nights, no bugs, few people, and often little or no snow.

September is often the best month for backpacking, with dry, comfortable days, cool nights, and few bugs. Black flies, or mayflies, emerge by late April or early May and pester hikers until late June or early July, while mosquitoes come out in late spring and dissipate by late summer. Fall foliage colors peak anywhere from mid-September to early October. Winter sets in at higher elevations by mid-November.

Weather: Summer high temps typically range from the 60s to the 80s, and lows vary from the 50s to below freezing. Days can be humid in the forests and windy above treeline. Snow may fall in any month at higher elevations. July and August see occasional thunderstorms, but July through September are the driest months. The AMC's Pinkham Notch Visitor Center on NH 16 posts the weather forecast daily, which also is available by calling the center (see Contact below) or checking the Web site of the Mt. Washington Observatory,

Critters: Black bears roam the woods, so hang your food properly. Keep a safe distance from moose, which may appear docile but can get aggressive, especially during the late-summer and autumn rut (mating season). You're at greater danger of hitting a moose while driving at night; they are hard to see in the dark, weigh hundreds of pounds, and can total a car and kill its occupants.

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