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Life List: Moonlit Presidential Traverse, New Hampshire

An after-hours trek on one of the Northeast's best hikes yields unexpected sights.

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We were on the rocky shoulder of Mt. Madison when the sun sank behind Mt. Adams. No matter which way we went from here, we’d be hiking in the dark. Time to hit the panic button? Not quite; this is how we’d planned it. The sun would set 4.5 miles into our hike. 

Up until now, night-hiking had mostly been a novelty for me, done in short bursts, usually out of necessity. Tonight’s mission was different: 19 miles and six 4,000-foot-plus peaks, all bathed in moonlight. The “Presi” Traverse offers miles of highest-around, above-treeline hiking, plus a chance to summit Mt. Washington and see clear to the Atlantic. My friend Mike and I knew that if we forsook certain daytime perks, like 100-mile views, summer sun, and easy (read: visible) footing, the mountain would show itself in a new way. This trail, usually busy as Vatican City on Sunday, would empty right out, and there we’d be, two people in the vastness of an empty cathedral. To get that sort of feeling, sometimes you have to sneak around in the dark. 

We’d been watching the calendar all summer, waiting for the perfect convergence of weather, weekend, and lunar cycle. And then at the end of August, there it was: a blue moon, a Saturday night, and a good-enough forecast. We set out from the Appalachia trailhead near Gorham at 4 p.m., when most everyone else was heading back to their cars. By 7:30 p.m., we were coming down from Mt. Madison’s summit to its AMC hut, where weekend warriors in fleeces and sandals stood on the porch taking in the last bits of scarlets and eggplant purples as the sun disappeared. We overheard them wondering about us as we left.

As we neared the top of Mt. Adams via the Star Lake Trail, the thin veil of clouds lifted; the moon was upon us, painting the rock-pile summit in shades of pale yellow and deep black. We turned off our red-light headlamps as we continued toward Edmonds Col. Our normally free-flowing conversation slowed in the dimness. We bowed our heads in reverent silence as we hopped from rock to rock. When a gauzy cloud floated above us, the light grew dimmer; we slowed down even more and became even quieter. But we never reached for our headlamps to banish the darkness—that would have broken the spell. 

From the summit of Mt. Jefferson, we could see Mt. Madison’s rocky east face glowing against a sky of stars and backlit gathering clouds. By the time we reached the tramway on Mt. Washington, a few hundred vertical feet below the summit and 10 miles from the start, the fog swallowed everything. For the rest of the night we stayed in that belly of clouds, our headlamps throwing cones of light at our feet, the miles of viewless concentration stretching on and on. And then, after Mt. Eisenhower—the final peak—dawn bled dark maroon into the sky. We continued downhill as the forest reemerged in shades of blue, knowing we’d experienced more than most simply by seeing less.

Do It

For a southbound traverse, leave a shuttle car at the AMC’s Highland Lodge in Crawford Notch on NH 302 and drive to the Appalachia trailhead, off NH 16 west of Gorham. Summer is best, but pack rain gear and expect summit temperatures in the 30s. A $5 parking permit is required per car; get them at the AMC Highland Lodge.

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