Step by Step in the White Mountains
‘Wait til you get to The Whites!’
The Appalachian Trail’s version of Whamageddon, it is probably the most heard and least desired phrase out here. Usually said with discouraging ’so you think you have it bad now’ vibes, it fails to educate what exactly a hiker is waiting for. Unfortunately, it has the ability to plant a seed of anxiety that grows into full blown panic over the course of 1800 or so miles.
I have been told by other hikers that I must have studied or memorized the trail, because I always seem to know what’s next. But even I succumbed to some of the anxiety, mostly because I couldn’t seem to find a perspective on that section of the trail from someone like me. I’m a slower hiker, I’m not super crazy about heights, and I don’t have thousands of miles of experience on harder terrain.
I know that there are more hikers out there like me, however, so I decided to stray from my usual creative writing blog to give a bit more detail on this particular stretch. A couple notes: I did do some stealth camping, but I am not including specific mile markers. Any stealth camping was done in established sites and sticking to LNT rules. I also chose to take a SOBO option for Mt Moosilauke. My reasoning for this was that it was in wetter conditions than I was comfortable with, and I was solo hiking NOBO, but found a buddy to tackle it south with me.
Mt Moosilauke, SOBO to Hikers Welcome Hostel. Carried a mostly full pack, so it was most definitely not a slack pack. Clear and cool day, but wet after rain the day before. I found the hike to be very manageable. The puzzle of climbing keeps your brain busy and before you know it you’re at the shelter. Took a leisurely pace and took 8.5 hours.
Wolf Mtn. 7.5 miles to Eliza Brook Shelter. Chose to tackle the Kinsmans with fresh legs, so I took my time. Technical trail with training wheels. Frustrating peeks of views, but no grand view til a half mile before the shelter. Took 8 hours, including a couple really long breaks. Camel up!
Eliza Brook Shelter to Flume Visitor Center. Training wheels off and the bicycle was set on fire! The climb up South Kinsman starts off simply. Expected uphill and rock that gives way about halfway up to full technical rock scrambles. Very thankful that I’m late in the season and there are clear signs where hikers before me have gone. Sadly socked in, but pretty above treeline nonetheless. The mile between peaks was a little easier than the way up. The way down took much longer than expected, encountered more wooden stairs in rock slabs. Not super difficult, just slow. The Lonesome Lake Hut was a welcome spot to rest for a bit before finishing the descent, which got considerably easier afterwards. Took 10hrs to get to the spur for Flume Visitor Center.
Zero day. Repair some gear.
Nero to ‘stage’ Franconia Ridge. Dropped off at Flume Visitor Center. Really interesting spot that gives a ton of information about the area. After the Kinsmans, I was pleasantly surprised by how simple, not necessarily easy, the climb was. Yes, pretty steep, but lots of rock stairs. Stealthed just past the campsite to get an evening view on Mt Liberty. Drop your pack at the trail head and take the .3 spur. Sooo worth it! 3ish miles took about 3 hours, with one healthy sized break.
Mt Liberty to stealth site past Mt Garfield. Extremely happy with my choice to stage the day before. Fresh legs made the climb up Haystack to Lincoln exciting and fun. If you have good weather, TAKE YOUR TIME. The views from Franconia Ridge deserve your attention. The terrain isn’t difficult, ups and downs, minimal technical conditions for a few miles. So enjoy. This was one of the spots I was most looking forward to so I spent a few hours relaxing and taking it all in. Garfield gets steep again but is over quick enough. The downhill to the Garfield campsites is steep and slow. My hiking partner wanted to finish out the downhill so we decided to stealth after the next water. Immediately after the campsite we were greeted with a downhill in a small waterfall. Time to get on your booty and scoot for a bit. Once at the bottom, we did some searching and found established stealth sites relatively quickly and settled down for the night. 8-ish miles took about 10 hours (including a couple hours of playtime on Franconia).
Stealth site to Ethan Pond Shelter. By far one of the best days of climbing. The climb to Galehead Hut was just steep enough to get you warmed up. The climb up South Twin had a few technical sections of rock slab or ‘where am I supposed to put my foot?’, but overall was mild (at this point I’m using the climb up South Kinsman as a base line for difficulty levels). Take a moment, grab a cup of coffee at the hut, and head up South Twin. It’s a tough climb. It’s short but steep, with just a few technical bits. As you approach the top, don’t forget to look back, you’ll miss the start of spectacular views that get you excited for the summit. 360 degrees of gorgeous on a clear day, it’s so satisfying to look back all the way to Moosilauke and then all the way forward to Washington. Heading down from South Twin isn’t too bad, and then you find yourself on a boulder path towards Mt Guyot. The rocks slow you down, but it’s not too steep. Guyot and Zeacliff happen pretty quickly, and the Far Out guide comment about Zeacliff being a great view is quite accurate. The down hill to Zealand falls isn’t bad, just takes a bit. Then something strange happens. It’s FLAT! Like totally flat. To the extent that you will be tempted to check your GPS because surely this can’t be the AT. It’s a palate cleanser from all the ups and downs. While it only lasts a few miles, I appreciated every single step. The last mile or so before Ethan Pond Shelter returns to some roots and rocks. 14ish miles, 13hrs, including a couple big breaks to wait out the rain.
Ethan Pond Shelter to 302. I never thought I would Nero in the Whites, but I also never thought I would see a double digit day, either. Yesterday’s flat section enabled both. Had I not waited out rain, I could have made it to the road just before dark. Maybe. Nothing too crazy about the downhill to the road. Hitching took a moment, there’s no Verizon service after Zeacliff, but we did have someone who was able to arrange things with a Garmin. 3 miles, 2ish hours.
Zero. Sometimes you have to let mama nature do her thing. Rain is one thing, high winds at elevations is not something to run headfirst into. Katahdin can wait one day.
302 to Mizpah Hut. Late start due to shuttle drivers being crazy busy getting everyone back to trail after the storm. So far, this was my hardest climbing day. It’s long, it’s steep, there’s just normal steep sections, some rock slab stuff, and then you arrive at Webster cliffs for the real deal. Holy rock climbing, Batman! I’m not one who is particularly fond of heights and this challenged every fear. The wind had small 20 mph gusts, the climbs were extremely challenging, and you were constantly reminded that you were indeed on a cliff. I was very jealous of every friend with long legs and extremely awed by all of my short friends who had already conquered this section. By the time I reached Mt Jackson my arms were jelly. Thankfully, after Jackson the trail calms down, just knee deep mud bogs to avoid. As a slower hiker, I made the decision to book a bunk at the Mizpah Hut and this was absolutely the right decision for me. By the time I arrived, the tent site was full. I also had two less meals to carry up that first climb. Something to consider. 6 miles, 5.5 hours.
Mizpah Hut to Madison Hut. On paper, this looks like a fast and easy hike, and for some, it may be. Such was not the case for our group. For starters, we stayed at the hut, which means we hung around for hut breakfast (totally worth it). But that meant getting on trail an hour or two later than normal. Mt Pierce gets you right back to reality, for me, it was the toughest section of the day, but it is over quick enough. By the time we arrived at Lake of the Clouds Hut, it was lunchtime. At that point you have two choices. Call it an early day and grab a bunk in ‘the dungeon’, or jump in for another 7 miles, including that summit staring down at you. There are no stealth spots in between, and while there are a couple bail out points to other camping options, we felt that the mileage was about even. In for a penny in for a pound, we chose to push. Now the climbs aren’t tremendously hard. It’s not a hard section. It’s a slow section. If you’re quick at rock hopping, you’ll have very little issue. I however, am not. And the next 7 miles are scree fields of rocks and boulders. No shade, and very few water sources, so prepare accordingly. Under most other circumstances, I would say that trying to get to the Madison Hut was the wrong decision, but we ended up, on a perfectly clear night full of stars, hiking about 2 hours with the boulders sparkling in our headlamps. Definitely not the safest or speediest decision, but one that produced profound views of unseen beauty. Worth the effort. 11ish miles in 13 or so hours.
Madison Hut to Osgood tent sites. The hut croos are great. Let me get that on record. If you don’t like how expensive the huts are, or don’t agree with the work for stay concept, join the AMC and initiate change, but don’t take it out on the croo. We were able to get some floor space for about what it would cost to camp at a site, and we showed up right at lights out, the croo was very nice to us. Sleeping on the floor of a hut doesn’t allow for the best night of sleep, especially when you have to put your sleeping pad in the path to the bathroom. At least I was comforted to know I’m not the only one who gets up a few times a night. Throughout the Whites, I would make several plans, depending on how the terrain taxed me. While I had a couple destinations in mind, I was pretty sure I was going to be done by the time I arrived at the Osgood tent site. I was 100% accurate. The scree field continues, though steeply up, from the Madison hut. Once you reach the top, it doesn’t look too bad, it’s just more of the same slow rock hopping. Now with more downhill, slightly steep at times. My gaggle of hikers took 3-5 hours to do that 3 mile section, tents were set up, and we were all tucked in by about 6pm. We were toast.
Osgood tent sites to Pinkham Notch. The 5 miles to the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center were fairly uneventful. Only a couple moments of rock slabs to remind you that you’re still in the Whites. Still tired from the Presidentials, 5 miles took about 4 hours.
The Whites are a fantastic stretch of challenging trails, that demand your attention with every step. Sure, they are difficult. They should not be feared, however. Be prepared to go slow, bring a buddy or two, wait for your weather windows to maximize moments of truly awesome views. Then celebrate every single mountain, you’ve only got a few more til Mt Katahdin!
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