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August 2007

Perfect Substitutes: Crowd-Free Destinations

You know that the big-name parks draw big-time crowds. But each of those outdoor icons has a lesser-known replacement that offers some of the same classic features and epic scenery–and you get it all to yourself.

Swap out: The Presidential Range
Swap in: Mahoosuc Mountains, ME

What a difference a few thousand feet makes. That’s the vertical divide between the Mahoosucs and the Presidentials. Both ranges claim physically challenging trails. Both boast long sections of treeless ridgetop hiking with whoa-inducing views. Though separated by the Androscoggin River and a state border, the Mahoosucs and Prezzies are kin, both part of the White Mountain system. What the Mahoosucs lack that the Dead Presidents have in abundance is foot traffic. Maybe it’s that just one of its peaks exceeds 4,000 feet, but the Mahoosucs attract a fraction of the humanity that flocks to Washington and its ilk. Though smaller in stature, the Mahoosucs’ sharp climbs and open summits deliver a big-mountain experience. Appalachian Trail thru-hikers know the Mahoosucs as the place where they slow to a crawl, literally: The only way through the obstacle course of boulders in Mahoosuc Notch–widely considered the hardest of the AT’s 2,150 miles–is by slithering, backpack removed, through slots barely wider than Nicole Richie.

"The Mahoosucs have a reputation for being rough, but some people are still overwhelmed by their ruggedness," says Scot Holt, who spent last summer as the Appalachian Mountain Club’s "Mahoosuc Rover." Not that Holt heard many complaints. "Most people are impressed by the beauty and isolation."

2 Days
The open vista from 3,870-foot Goose Eye Mountain takes in the Presidentials and Carter Dome, as well as a fair chunk of western Maine. Walk north on the Mahoosuc Trail-AT, and as you continue through wide-open heath to Fulling Mill Mountain, the hits keep coming. Holt calls these 5 miles the "beauty spot of the Mahoosucs." On a 16-mile trek utilizing the Speck Pond, Mahoosuc, and Carlo Col Trails, you’ll wiggle through the Mahoosuc Notch jungle gym and splash in rock-lined Speck Pond, one of Maine’s few alpine kettles. Camp at Full Goose, near the hike’s midpoint, and at the end hike several miles on unpaved Success Pond Road to link trailheads.

3 Days
Big loops hereabouts are about as common as a Mainer pronouncing his R’s. Which explains the buzz surrounding the 42-mile Grafton Loop Trail, scheduled to open this year (see "Thrown for a Loop," May 2006; check for details). To fit an adventure into a long weekend, bite off the western half: 21 miles of freshly blazed trail that departs ME 26 to tag Sunday River Whitecap and a string of previously inaccessible peaks. The views are sublime, but trail designer Mike Cooper also has subtler treats in store. "I sought out specimen trees, glacial erratics, pretty little streams, and fern beds," he says, "that might not make it into a guidebook, but that add to the experience."

Plan It
Find everything you need to know in the Appalachian Mountain Club’s White Mountain Guide ($25;

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