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The High Life: White Mountains Traverse, NH

Hike our quieter insider's variation on this classic route.
NOV12HUT_SEAVER_GreenleafHut_445x260Greenleaf Hut (Photo by Tim Seaver)

The seven-day, 62-mile trek across the White Mountains from Franconia Notch to Pinkham Notch is arguably America’s premier hut trip: Think alpine zones sprayed with wildflowers, 50-mile views across some of the most remote wilderness east of the Mississippi, and cozy nights in the classic Appalachian Mountain Club hut system, famous for plentiful, family-style meals, rustic accommodations in gorgeous mountain settings, and live entertainment from the hut “cru.” Interested? So is every other backpacker on the East Coast—but savvy hikers can still find solitude on this life-list trip. Here’s how to do it.

Start by traversing Franconia Ridge (the second-biggest alpine zone in the Whites) on the Appalachian Trail. Shake the crowds on the .6-mile out-and-back to 4,459-foot Mt. Liberty’s bald crown—it sees fewer hikers simply for not being on the AT. Chase that with a 2.2-mile round-trip, after-dinner hike from Greenleaf Hut to 5,260-foot Mt. Lafayette for a sunset panorama on night one. Over the next three days, you’ll tag the summits of 4,000-footers like Mt. Garfield and South Twin Mountain and pass through Zealand Notch and Crawford Notch, where cliffs soar hundreds of feet tall. Stay in Galehead, Zealand Falls, and Mitzpah Huts.

On days five and six, follow the AT northbound to tackle the trip’s pièce de résistance: eight peaks along 15 miles of the Presidential Range. Six summits require short side trips off the AT, and they’re worth every step. On night five, hike 15 minutes from Lakes of the Clouds Hut to the bald summit of 5,372-foot Mt. Monroe for sunset. Don’t miss the commanding view of the Great Gulf’s deep cirque and the Northern Presidentials from atop 5,533-foot Mt. Clay on day six—because it’s considered a shoulder of Mt. Washington and not a true peak, most hikers skip it. Later that same day, from the top of Mt. Adams, descend the steep, lightly traveled Star Lake Trail to Madison Spring Hut, instead of the busier AT. And from the hut, if you have the juice left, watch the sunset from atop 5,366-foot Mt. Madison, a 30- to 40-minute round-trip. (Done for the day? You’ll pass over Madison in the morning anyway). Not enough? Make a complete traverse of the Whites on the AT, from Kinsman Notch on NH 112 to US 2 east of Gorham, but be prepared for three killer days: The first, to Lonesome Lake Hut, and the last two, to Carter Notch Hut and on to US 2, require hiking 13 to 15 miles each.

 

Season Target late September through early October, when foliage peaks in a palette of scarlets and golds, or June, when alpine wildflowers bloom.

Guide BACKPACKER PRO Map White Mountains Traverse ($20; backpacker.com/promaps)

Get there Start at the I-93 trailhead in Franconia Notch; catch the AMC shuttle from Pinkham Notch to return (outdoors.org/lodging/lodging-shuttle.cfm); National Forest Recreation Pass required for parking ($20/year, $5/week; fs.fed.us/r9/forests/white_mountain/passes/

Cost/info $108-$143/person/night (discounts for children and AMC members); reserve several months in advance, beginning on September 1 for the following year; outdoors.org/lodging

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