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.
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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.

Like too many modern journeys, this one begins on the Web. I'm surfing for something or other, getting distracted by random e-waves, when chat room static about crowding in New Hampshire's White Mountains catches my eye. Old song, new singer, I think to myself. I grew up in New England. I've hiked thousands of miles on the region's trails and written a guidebook to the area. Folks probably have complained about crowds in New Hampshire's signature mountains since English settler Darby Field first climbed Mt. Washington in 1642.

I moved from New Hampshire to Idaho only 2 years ago; things couldn't have worsened that much in so little time. Nonetheless, always curious about what's going on back in "my" peaks, I read on. And what I read shocks me:

  • Backpackers lament having to race to campsites that fill up quickly on summer and fall weekends.
  • Some endorse a reservation and permit system, an idea anathema in "live free or die" New Hampshire.
  • One writer reports, "Went hiking by the Guyot campsite and counted 20 tents. Looked like a Phish concert."

I phone Roger and Janet Scholl, Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) trip leaders. When I ask Roger whether the Whites are more crowded, he says without hesitation, "Absolutely. There are a lot more people than even a few years ago."

At the once-roomy Appalachia trailhead parking lot, cars now line the highway half a mile in either direction, Roger tells me. Last summer, at Garfield campsite, "We were packed in like sardines. There were probably 25 tents in the overflow area." Even on the once-obscure Montalban Ridge, he says, he had to hike miles to find a tiny, unoccupied tent site.

Janet adds some disturbing advice: "You want solitude? Try November."

But the most toxic evidence comes from the AMC's field supervisor for White Mountains campsites and shelters, Kevin "Hawk" Metheny. To whit: The composting toilets at the AMC's 14 backcountry campsites now require 10 tons of bark annually (users "flush" with a handful of bark). That tonnage is nearly double that needed before 1990. Though the increase is attributable partly to replacing some pit toilets with composters, it also reflects a nearly 50 percent leap in the number of campers since the early 1990s.

My mind buzzing with images of sewage streaming down my beloved boyhood trails, I have no choice. I must visit the Whites and see if I can find the forest among the people.

After a stiff, 2,500-foot uphill warm-up, Keith Ratner and I scramble up an improbable granite outcrop on the Bondcliff Trail and find ourselves suddenly above the treetops, gazing out over a sea of mountains that fade to blue in the distance. The scene dusts off memories of my first hikes here, when these thrones of ancient stone excited and intimidated me-when they still embodied wilderness in the mind of a young hiker who did not yet feel the closeness of surrounding towns or the claustrophobic press of other mountain travelers.

It's our second day on the trail. We've come in early June, midweek, to better our odds of avoiding the masses. Keith is a good partner for this mission. An old friend with whom I've logged innumerable miles, he just moved back to New Hampshire after several years in Denver.

"Sure, the Whites get busy," Keith offers, "but so do many of Colorado's 14ers." I nod, point taken.

Even with as much time as I've spent in bigger, grander Western ranges, I still love the Whites, with their airy ridgetop trails, weathered granite faces, and extravagantly green valleys. Those are many of the same reasons that millions—millions—of other people love the Whites, too. Is that a problem?

I put that question to Gene Daniell, editor of the AMC's White Mountain Guide and a member of their Four Thousand Footer Committee, which registers hikers who reach all 48 White Mountain summits above 4,000 feet. In recent years, the number has leapt from 160 annually to around 220.

Gene puzzles over some hikers' "unreasonable expectations" of avoiding crowds in banner destinations like the Presidential Range and Franconia Ridge. But, he adds, most "hiking in the White Mountains is concentrated along a few trail corridors. There are places you can go and be virtually guaranteed of having the place to yourself."

Walking Bondcliff's alpine ridge, with cliffs plunging off to our left and 360-degree views, Keith and I seem to have found one of those places. We're standing in the heart of the Northeast's largest federal wilderness, the Pemigewasset, a long day's march from asphalt. To the southeast, Mt. Carrigain looms like a resting elephant. Mt. Washington shows scattered patches of snow through a veil of haze. West of us, the long rampart of Franconia Ridge seems an impregnable wall of forest and stone.

And we have only clouds of black flies for company. Our solitude seems to push the invisible wilderness boundaries back even farther, to swell distances and contours. Sharing this spot with 7 or 23 other people would shrink it in our minds and rob us of this expansive quietude; it would stifle our whispered conversation with the wind.

We climb the boulder-strewn trail up Mt. Bond, plop down against a summit boulder for lunch, and watch the sky grow overcast. From Bond, we descend into subalpine forest where lady's slipper blooms, then ascend to the flat top of Mt. Guyot, bright with the tiny white petals and rich green bedding of diapensia. We slog up 4,902-foot South Twin Mountain, where the wind throws roundhouse punches of arctic air cold enough to chase off any crowd. Then, down yet another rock-strewn trail to the AMC's Galehead hut, we find refuge from a brief rain among 15 to 20 guests there on a Thursday afternoon.

The AMC's huts have their supporters and detractors. Some say the huts increase crowding by attracting people who otherwise would not sleep in the mountains. Others maintain the huts manage crowds by concentrating impact. There's truth to both arguments, but I've stayed in huts and don't begrudge folks the experience.

Keith and I plunge back onto the trail, which bounces up and down like a kid on a trampoline until the day's last half mile—a hands-and-feet scramble up wet ledges and boulders that more closely resemble cliff than footpath. The challenging conditions beg the question, "How could this draw a crowd?"

Soon, we're smack dab on the Appalachian Trail, Hiker Highway Number One in the Northeast. At the top of our quad-busting ascent, we stagger into Garfield campsite, the busiest in the Whites. Most of the tent platforms are already occupied, but we find an empty one and pitch our tent in a wind that wants to whisk it off to the Atlantic.

We chat with caretaker Mike Millette, whose main job is crowd control. Garfield campsite saw 2,235 visitors use its shelter and five platforms from June through September in 1999. Even weeknights saw the 40-person capacity squeezed. "There are nights we get 50 to 60 people," he says. "Then I have to get creative," or tired hikers will go a short distance, then camp illegally beside the trail, exacerbating erosion.

Two other campsites on or near the AT, Liberty Springs and Guyot, ranked right behind Garfield last year, with 2,169 and 1,981 overnighters, respectively. But that's the way it is on the AT, the length of which was walked by a record 500-plus thru-hikers in 1999 (up from 200 a decade ago). As the AMC's Metheny told me, "If you're on the AT in the Whites, you're going to see a lot of people. If you don't stay at a designated site and are more self-sufficient, you will see people, but not the hordes we see at the popular sites."

Throughout the night, gusts roll down the mountain like bowling balls, slamming our tent. We awaken to showers and fog thicker than a good lie. Mike learns via radio that summits today will see fog, rain, and winds of 50 to 60 mph, so Keith and I forgo Franconia Ridge for the more protected Franconia Brook Trail.

We scramble cautiously down rain-slicked rocks. As we drop in elevation, the rain stops and the sun fires traces of warmth at us. We reach the valley and cruise along a flat, former logging railway bed. The forest erupts in a green so intense it seems you could float atop the tree canopies like they were ocean water. We pass a small pond with a beaver lodge.

On the way back to our car, more than 12 miles, we see just one family (near the trailhead) and a man hiking alone who smiles and says, "It's so quiet." And it is.

No, crowds are not a new problem in a national forest that lies within a 10-hour drive of one-quarter of the country's population, but the problem does seem worse. That may be inevitable with the public's growing passion for the outdoors and improvements in equipment, not to mention the prolific work of guidebook writers and outdoor magazines. As Gene Daniell puts it, among the things we should carry with us to popular summits is a reasonable expectation of seeing other people.

And yet, as Keith and I discovered, most of the time, in most of its corners, the Whites do not resemble a Phish concert. Solitude may elude the unimaginative here, but the best things are never achieved easily, and to me, the Whites will always remain a place worthy of the quest.

EXPEDITION PLANNER

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 www.backpacker.com/bookstore.

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, www.mountwashington.org.

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.

Walk softly: Camping is prohibited above timberline, within 200 feet of any trail, within a quarter-mile of any hut or shelter except at authorized tent sites, and in designated Forest Protection Areas. Timberline begins roughly where trees are less than 8 feet tall and is often indicated by trailside signs. Stay on the trail in the alpine zones to avoid damaging fragile vegetation. Fires are prohibited in many areas; check with the WMNF office before your trip.

Fees: A WMNF parking pass is required at all WMNF trailheads, which are marked by signs. The pass costs $20 for 1 year, $5 for 7 days, and $3 for 1 day, and can be purchased in numerous area businesses or from any WMNF office; an order form is also available on the WMNF Web site (see Contact below). A night in any AMC backcountry lean-to or campsite costs $6 per person. The AMC operates a hiker shuttle between some trailheads ($7 for members/$8 for nonmembers).

Contact: White Mountain National Forest, (603) 528-8721; www.fs.fed.us/r9/white. Appalachian Mountain Club Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, (603) 466-2721; www.outdoors.org.

The author's route: The best views on this 29-mile loop are from the alpine ridge connecting Bondcliff and Mt. Bond, and the summits of West Bond, Guyot, and South Twin. From the Lincoln Woods trailhead on the Kancamagus Highway (NH 112), 5 miles east of Lincoln, follow the Lincoln Woods Trail/Wilderness Trail, the Bondcliff Trail-including the 1-mile round-trip to West Bond-the Twinway, and then the Garfield Ridge, Franconia Brook, and Lincoln Woods Trails.

Pilot Range traverse: This little-known northern section of the WMNF harbors a beautiful birch forest, a secluded pond, and long mountain views from Rogers Ledge, The Horn, and Mt. Starr King. You'll need to shuttle vehicles. The 24-mile traverse starts at the South Pond Recreation Area, off NH 110 between Stark and West Milan, and ends at the Starr King trailhead off US 2 in Jefferson, .25 mile east of the junction of US 2 and NH 115A. Follow the Kilkenny Ridge Trail

for more than 20 miles, then the Starr King Trail for 3.6 miles.

Mt. Isolation-Dry River: This 20-mile traverse crosses the ridge due south of Mt. Washington, with great views of the Presidentials from Isolation's summit-more than 7 miles from the nearest road-and descends into the spectacular Dry River Valley. Start at the Rocky Branch trailhead on NH 16, 8 miles north of US 302, and finish at the Dry River trailhead on US 302, .3 mile north of the Dry River Campground. Link the Rocky Branch and Isolation Trails, Davis Path, and Dry River Trail.

Lonely heart of the Pemigewasset Wilderness: This 30-mile loop from Sawyer River Road follows valleys and bags one big peak, 4,403-foot Mt. Hancock, which boasts views, but two wooded crowns. If you link the Signal Ridge, Carrigain Notch, Wilderness, Cedar Brook, Mt. Hancock, Hancock Notch, and Sawyer River Trails, expect a 2-mile hike on Sawyer River Road if you don't have a second vehicle. Extend the trip 10 miles by looping around the Shoal Pond, Ethan Pond, and Thoreau Falls Trails from the Wilderness Trail.

Northern Presidential Range: You're thinking, "Huh? One of the most overrun places in the Whites?" Yup. This 20-mile loop is admittedly a bit contrived, taking some of the most arduous and indirect trails on the Whites' tallest peaks, but that's exactly the reason for doing it. You'll encounter other folks at the Appalachia trailhead and on the summits of Madison, Adams, and Jefferson, but otherwise you'll see relatively few people.

From the town of Appalachia on US 2 near Randolph, follow the Air Line, turn left on the Sylvan Way, then take the Howker Ridge Trail to the top of Madison. Descend the Osgood Trail to Madison Hut, then follow the Star Lake Trail up Adams. Backtrack to the Buttress Trail, descend it to the Six Husbands Trail, climb it to Jefferson's summit, then descend the Castle Trail to The Link and follow it back to Appalachia.