Trip Report: Presidential Traverse

My friend Dan and I just spent 3-days hiking the Presidential Range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and spend 2 nights in the AMC’s huts. During that time, we crossed the summits of seven 4000-footers: Mounts Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, and Pierce. This was my first trip to the White Mountains, so there was a steep (pun intended) learning curve for the terrain.

Friday 6/14/2013 (Flag Day)

We started by taking the 1:30PM hiker shuttle from AMC’s Highland Center at Crawford Notch to the Appalachia Trailhead (arriving just before 2:30PM). Along the way, we chatted with some other hikers about which route to take up to the ridge. The Valley Way trail was supposedly smoother, but Airline Trail was more exposed and provided better views. We opted for Airline. The trail started out gently enough, but soon became an unrelenting rocky climb. Just as my poor Pennsylvanian legs were becoming exhausted, we reached the Alpine Zone, and I had an “Ah Ha” moment. Above the treeline, I could see the summits of Madison and Adams. I could see for miles into this vast range of beautiful mountains, and suddenly my legs said, “This isn’t so bad. We can do this. After roughly 3.5 miles and 3550 feet of elevation, we reached Madison Spring Hut in just under 3 hours. I have no idea if this is a good time, but, since this was my single biggest climb to date, I’ll take it as a win.

Madison Spring Hut was beautifully restored in 2010. There were hikers of various ages and nationalities milling about outside when we arrived. Everyone greeted us, and we spotted our shuttle-mates who had only arrived a few minutes before us. The place was pretty full, so we checked in and tossed our gear onto the last remaining bunks. After enjoying the view from the porch for a while, we grabbed some seats for dinner. We were fed a hearty, multiple-course meal, during which we talked to our shuttle friends (from just outside of Boston) and planned to climb to the summit of Mt. Madison (5366′). After dinner, we pulled on our wind shells and started the rocky 566′ climb to the summit.

With full bellies and renewed energy, the climb to the peak of Madison went pretty well. As I set foot on top of my first 4000-footer, I was instantly hooked. We sat at the summit for a while, taking pictures. As the sun started to go down, it painted a brilliant red across the sky. Someone said, “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight,” and we headed back down to the hut for the night.

Saturday 6/15/2013

After a delicious breakfast in Madison Spring Hut, Dan and I hit the trail around 8:30AM. We followed the Gulfside Trail (AKA Appalachian Trail) for 0.3 miles before turning left onto the Airline Trail towards Mt. Adams. After 0.6 miles and 500′ on Airline, I was standing on the summit of my second 4000-footer: Mt. Adams (5799′). We followed a short (0.2 miles) side trail back down to the Gulfside Trail and continued on our way.

We hiked 1.4 miles on the Gulfside trail, until we reached the intersection of the Mt. Jefferson Loop Trail, which we followed 0.3 miles and just over 500′ to the summit of Mt. Jefferson (5716′). After another photo-op, we continued another 0.3 miles back down to the Gulfside Trail. We looked ahead to our biggest challenge of the day: Mount Washington.

After about a mile and a half, the Gulfside trail started climbing the slopes of Mt. Washington, and about a half-mile after that, we dragged ourselves across the Cog Railway tracks and started climbing the last boulder field up the to summit. As the little train went by, the passengers waved to us. I imagined them chatting amongst themselves, “Don’t those guys know? They can just ride this train to the top!”

The wind stiffened and turned bitter cold as we approached the top. My legs were Jell-O once more, as I finally climbed over the last rocks and peered towards the summit. Before me was a sea of humanity. There was an observation deck, a snack bar, a weather observatory, and more. My initial excitement faded quickly as I watched car and cog railway passengers lining up for a picture at the summit sign (Mt. Washington – 6288′). I felt a bit of disdain for them, as I waited my turn. Didn’t they know that I had hiked across 2 other mountains just to get up here? I was as bitter as the wind that ripped at my face. Dan had beaten me to the top, so I went looking for him after my summit picture.

Upon realizing that I had cell phone signal at the summit, I headed into the snack bar to warm up and call my wife. I spotted Dan sitting on a heater, so we grabbed a table. Dan ate a slice of pizza, I refilled my water bottle, and we followed the Crawford Path for our last 1.1 miles of the day.

We arrived at Lakes of the Clouds Hut at 2:30PM, bringing our day’s total to roughly 7 miles and 6 hours of hiking. Lakes was nearly double the size of Madison hut. Unlike Madison Springs, which had a friendly, intimate feel, Lakes felt like a cattle call. I completely understand why it has earned the nickname “Lakes of the Crowds”. As people drifted in, we began to recognize many familiar faces from Madison Springs Hut, including our shuttle-mates from the day before. Around 6PM we were served a yummy turkey dinner and apple crisp for dessert. After dinner, we hung out with our new friends and played a rousing game of Hearts until lights out at 9:30PM.

Sunday 6/16/2013

After a breakfast of bacon and pancakes, we left Lakes of the Clouds around 8AM. We followed the Crawford Path very briefly before taking a side trail 0.3 miles and 360′ up to the summit of Mt. Monroe. From the peak, we continued along the side trail until rejoining the Crawford Path 0.4 miles later. After a quick detour over Mt. Franklin (A 5001′ sub-peak of Monroe), we continued towards our next mountain.

After some VERY minor confusion, we followed a loop trail 0.4 miles to the top of Mt. Eisenhower (4760′) and 0.4 miles down the other side. After we rejoined the Crawford Path, our journey continued 1.2 miles to our final 4000-footer of the trip: Mt. Pierce.

We hiked an easy out-and-back to the summit of Pierce (4312′), and then started our 3.1 mile, 2400 foot descent to our car at the Mt. Clinton Road Parking lot. We made good time and finished our hike at 12PM.

Overall Thoughts

My gear selections worked out very well for me. My Gossamer Gear Murmur and Air Beam pack frame were the perfect choices for me. The Air Beam seems to have a very slow mystery leak, but this didn’t start until after I sat on it. I’m guessing I had it over inflated and my body weight created a leak somewhere.

I generally liked staying in the huts. The “Croo” members were friendly and helpful, the meals were quite good, and they allowed me to save some weight from my pack. As I said before, I did like Madison Spring better than Lakes of the Clouds. Madison hut was nicer, had LED reading lights in the bunks, had a better layout, and housed fewer people. The crowds at Lakes were just a little much for me.

My first trip in the White Mountains was an absolute success. Although the size of the mountains seemed daunting on paper, they were all very doable in real life. With a little training, I think I could have managed this in 2 days, but the more relaxed 3-day trip was perfect for my first trip. I was proud of myself for conquering seven 4000-footers, but I was very disappointed in the summit of Mount Washington. Seeing all those car-trippers at the top made my personal accomplishment seem less significant somehow. We had fantastic weather and couldn’t have asked for better days. I can’t wait to plan my next trip in the Whites. I had a blast!


4 thoughts on “Trip Report: Presidential Traverse

  1. Sarah G says:

    I’m doing the Presidential Traverse on this same schedule (first night @ Madison Springs, second @ Lakes) in August and getting so excited…loved reading your recap and glad to see the details around timing so I can help some of my peeps be better prepared! I need to get a better handle on gear…I don’t own much at all and “made do” last year – my pack was ~18 lbs…yikes! I need to buy a backpack of my own and get that sorted before August. 🙂

    Last summer I hiked Mt Washington with a few friends and felt exactly as you did – it’s surreal to trudge through a grueling hike for three hours, then pop across a paved road and encounter swarms of people in flip flops drinking their Starbucks iced coffees! So bizarre.

    • dcbortz says:

      There are a few good lightweight small volume packs on the market. Im using a small day pack, but there isn’t much room for any “luxuries” in there. My favorite little backpacking pack is the Gossamer Gear Murmur (I’ve reviewed it once or twice on this blog). It weighs only 10oz and will easily hold enough stuff for your planned hike. You really don’t need very much for the huts. Check out my hike prep articles for 2013 and 2014 Presidential Traverses. You’ll be able to see full lists of what I carried last year and what I plan on carrying this year. I think I’m carrying about 9lbs this year, if I remember correctly. I’ll have a Trip Report for this year’s Presi Traverse posted by the end of June, so keep an eye out. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

      • Sarah G says:

        I already scoped out the backpack reviews and have my eye on the Murmur! 🙂 I have a $200 LL Bean gift card, though, so may end up with an Osprey instead…can’t resist using the gift card and saving the cash for another adventure if I can!

      • dcbortz says:

        I can totally appreciate the need to save a little cash. If you go with an Osprey for this trip, I’d try something on the smaller end (35-45 Liters) of the Talon or Exos series. They are both roughly 2.5lbs and more than 3 times heavier than the Murmur (and are overbuilt in my opinion), but they have a few features that more “normal” people seem to like. It’s doubtful that I’d use one personally, but Osprey’s quality is good and I’m pretty sure they have a lifetime warranty. Just make sure to measure your torso and get the correct size pack!

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