July 28 – July 30, three days hiking in the White Mountains! We’ve been wanting to stay in one of the huts for a while, we got the idea last year when we stopped in at the Mizpah Spring Hut on a day hike. So we decided to plan a hut-to-hut hiking trip for my birthday this year. Our itinerary was to start at Pinkham Notch Visitors Center and hike up Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail to Tuckerman’s Crossover to Lakes of the Clouds Hut and spend the first night there. On the second day, climb up to Mt. Washington Summit and then Gulfside Trail all the way to Mt. Madison, passing (or summiting) Mt. Clay, Jefferson and Adams along the way. Spend the second night at Madison Springs Hut, and on the third day descend via
Osgood and Great Gulf trails, (last-minute change of plans- Valley Way trail to Appalachia and then a shuttle connection) to our car at the Pinkham Notch center.
We started super early on Sunday morning, up by 5:30, leaving our cabin a little after 6 and underway on the trail by 7. I’d been really excited for the trip but also a little nervous about the weather, since a lot of our hiking trail would be above the treeline, exposed to summer sun and sudden thunderstorms, so we wanted to hike early and get under cover before afternoon. We headed up Tuckerman’s Ravine, which we’d heard was gonna be a long, steep slog. The first third was a wide trail with a steady, moderate grade, hot and muggy, sheltered by trees. We stopped at the hermit lake shelter for a granola-bar-break on their porch, admiring the view of Tuckerman’s bowl ahead and enjoying a cool alpine breeze.
After the shelter the path started to climb above the treeline, got narrower and steeper and more scrambly until we were clambering up the headwall, hand over foot. Each time we stopped to catch our breath, the view back over the ravine was longer and more spectacular.
The path wasn’t really a path, just blazes on rocks, and at some point the blazes led us straight up a little waterfall. It was kind of hard and hot and our packs felt heavy, but it was fun because we were so excited for the start of our trip and the grand mountain views that were unfolding with every boulder we scrambled up and over.
At the top of the Tuckerman’s Ravine trail we could’ve branched right towards Mt. Washington summit but instead we continued ahead onto Tuckerman Crossover, across a flat saddle towards the hut. From there on it was just rocks. So many rocks! No path, just cairns on a field of lichen-covered rocks stretching off in every direction. And then on the horizon ahead appeared a sudden, tiny line of blue, as the mountains beyond came into view, on the far side of the Presidential ridge, and each step revealed another hazy row of peaks in the distance ahead. Then the lakes, little and shiny, then the hut in the distance ahead.
It felt like we’d been hiking a long day already, but it was only lunchtime when we got in to the hut and we were very happily surprised to find homemade hot soup and chocolate cake waiting for us! We spent the afternoon reading, admiring the grand view outside the picture windows and trying not to fall asleep. At lunchtime we had a view of a hundred mountains and the tiny red roof of Bretton Woods Hotel in the valley below, and then mid-afternoon the wind brought a mist over the lakes that turned into a cloud and more clouds, rushing past the hut and filling up the whole sky until everything was covered and every window turned blank and white.
They served a huge and hearty homemade dinner, fresh baked focaccia bread, Tuscan turkey and bean soup, cheesy stuffed shells and bright steamed peas, with blueberry cake for dessert. The hut was at full capacity that night, so we were 95 hikers squeezed in for dinner together. Before dessert everyone sang happy birthday to me! I wish we’d brought along a birthday drink, our neighbors had carried wine up in their packs; we’d considered it but decided against it, which was a mistake I hope we won’t repeat next time. We met hikers from nearby in New England, Virginia, Barcelona.
In the morning we were still socked in fog. Set out early for Mt. Washington summit, hiking through the inside of clouds, so humid that we had beads of dew on every hair. We were moving through a strange land of only rocks and mist and we could only see as far as the next cairn ahead.
The summit was weird, covered with buildings and wrapped in thick fog. I poked into the Tip-Top house, a restoration of the original 1852 mountaintop hotel. We stopped in the cafeteria for a coffee (it was still before 9 am!) and said hello to the Cog Railway drivers on our way out.
And then we’re off for a long hike across the Presidential ridge line towards Madison Spring hut. We followed the Gulfside trail with the Great Gulf dropping off to our right and all the White Mountains stretching off to either side. The clouds started to part as we came down from Mt. Washington summit and we hiked in bright sunshine, occasionally immersed in mist and fog for a few minutes as a cloud blew past us and off into the valley below.
The trail was mostly just loose rocks, which made for slow going. Each footstep had to find a rock to fall on, and sometimes the rocks moved underfoot. It felt really different from our usual White Mountain hikes, not only because of the spectacular views but because the ground was so different and challenging. Gulfside trail connects four big 4,000-foot peaks; the main trail skirts around a few hundred feet below the summits, with optional side trails for the peak-baggers to hit the tippity tops of the summits. We took the summit trail for Mt. Clay, which gave us a crisp breeze and a top-of-the-world view of everything in every direction, looking down on the clouds and valleys below and the mountains stretching in every direction. The descent was rough, a great jumble of giant boulders that we had to scramble over and through, and we were glad to get back to the main trail, although it wasn’t too much easier going. Gulfside Trail is part of the Appalachian Trail and we met a few through hikers here, northbound. They said that the southern part of the AT is much softer, easier terrain compared to the White Mountains, which was easy to believe as we scrambled up and over and through some giant rocks and tight squeezes. We were starting to feel a little tired and had lots of miles left to go, so we skipped the summit of Jefferson. (I’ll come back for it! Maybe next year.)
We stopped for a quick snack in a wildflowery grassy spot on Edmands Col and headed on. As we were heading up for the last ascent to get by Mt. Adams, we heard a rumble of thunder and the clouds started looking darker. We were both afraid of being out on the ridge in a thunder and lightning storm, and looking back we saw a raggedy, black, mean looking cloud racing over the ridge behind us and we hurried up and up and over the ridge. For a half mile or so, the trail becomes a smooth, easy pathway paved with carefully placed flat rocks, which seems like a small miracle after so many miles of rough terrain. I believe the paving was done by J. Rayner Edmands in the late 19th century, and I can’t imagine what labor went into it. Would have loved a picture of it, but we were sprinting and had no time for cameras. The rain started as we passed the aptly named Thunderstorm Junction.
Just as we caught sight of Madison Spring Hut ahead and below us, it started pouring. It was a long descent over rough slippery rocks and I think we caught a bit of hail in the final sprint to the hut. Toweled off and drank some hot chocolate by the window, feeling grateful we hadn’t made the extra detours to summit Jefferson and Adams. After the storm the sun came back with a show of spectacular sparkling late-afternoon glory. Over another huge and delicious dinner, we got to catch up and compare notes with other hikers who we hadn’t seen since breakfast. A few groups got caught out on the ridge in the storm and had to shelter from the hail and lightning under rocks and scrub! We happily shared a little box of wine with some new friends, and just managed to stay awake for a lovely purply sunset.
Morning found us a little stiff and sore from all the climbing. We had a nice breakfast with all our fellow hikers. Everyone we met at the huts was so nice! General opinion held that our planned route, Osgood Trail to Madison Gulf Trail, would be a long, rough day, and with our stiff legs we were easily persuaded to choose an easier route, the Valley Way trail, down the other side of the mountain, where an AMC shuttle would pick us up and drop us back to our car at Pinkham Notch. (This is a very convenient thing that I never knew about before!)
We enjoyed one last view of the mountains before we headed back below the treeline, into lush green forest that felt sort of comforting and familiar after two days on the open ridge. The last mile of our trail ran alongside a brook with at least a dozen pretty waterfalls and a wild abundance of bright-colored mushrooms sprouting all over from the lush moss.