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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.

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.

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