New Hampshire’s 48 4,000-Footers, Ranked
If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me which of New Hampshire’s 48 4,000 footers was my favorite I’d have a couple hundred dollars. Which isn’t very much money. But when asked to rank them from least to most favorite by The Trek’s editors, I jumped at the chance to tackle something many people would shy away from. That being said, there is no way I can 100 percent rank them from worst to best. I love them all, even the ones I hated when I was hiking them. And what might have been one of my least-favorite hikes could rank in the top five for someone else.
But, for the fun of it, let’s tackle the impossible task of comparing one mountain to another, from #48 to #1.
Ranking New Hampshire’s 48 4,000-Footers
48 and 47: Hancock/South Hancock
Yes, there are slides, and a nice walk in the woods before them. But neither of the Hancocks left a lasting impression on me. What made South Hancock rank a little higher than Hancock? The summit is a slightly more wooded and had some nice views between the branches. Still, no lasting impression was made.
Wasn’t a fan. The hike was relentless, I wore new hiking boots and my feet were killing me, and the views were nothing to write home about.
45: Osceola, East Peak
It’s completely wooded and when hiked alone, without peakbagging with Osceola, the trail is the most exciting part of the hike. The only view from the summit is nothing more than a glance up at Osceola teasing you through the trees.
44: Middle Carter
I don’t even remember what the summit looked like. I believe it was viewless and overshadowed by the outstanding views on Mount Hight.
43: South Carter
This peak beats Middle Carter only because it had some awesome blowdowns when I hiked it. Maneuvering over those and hiking the 19 Mile Brook Trail are what made the Carters a memorable hike.
42: Carter Dome
The descent from the summit into Carter Notch is the most exciting part of this hike. There are no views from the summit and trying not to slip and fall on the icy rocks, while watching two teenagers try to navigate those same rocks without microspikes, are what I remember most about Carter Dome.
41: Wildcat D
There’s a chairlift at the top and the trail is basically never-ending PUDS until you come out the other side and have to climb down into Carter Notch. Enough said.
40: Wildcat A
After slogging along the Wildcat Ridge Trail, you get to a rocky outlook with views across to the Carters. On the day I hiked it, there were no views, and the descent down into Carter Notch was the best part of the day.
This is usually one of the first 4,000-footers someone will hike because it’s the easiest to get to, and one of the shortest hikes. The summit has some good views but hiking out from a ski resort’s parking lot, and following a trail that runs parallel to a ski trail, isn’t what I would call a wilderness experience.
Both times I hiked this mountain it was socked in. The trail to the summit is really nice and the trail between Whiteface and Passaconaway (if you’re bagging both peaks) has a great vibe, so I did enjoy this mountain.
One of the first 4,000-footers I ever did was Osceola. I remember it being really hard, and when I got to the top I figured I’d hit East Osceola as well. Bad idea. I reached East Osceola’s summit and fought back tears knowing I was going to have to retrace my steps back up to the summit of Osceola to get back to my car. The second time I hiked it, I realized that I was much stronger and seeing that growth made me feel really good about myself.
Climbing up Blueberry Ledge and then looking out over the Sandwich Range Wilderness on a sunny day is something everyone should do at least once in their life. The trail off the summit leading to Passaconaway adds to the beauty of this hike. The many flies that seem to live in perpetuity on the open ledges at the top of the mountain don’t add to the beauty of this hike, but they’re certainly memorable.
This was the first mountain I climbed where I almost turned around before reaching the summit. For a new hiker, the Signal Ridge Trail is relentless. The first portion of the hike isn’t bad, but then you hit the actual ascent and it doesn’t quit gaining elevation until you reach a short, flat ridge before the final push for the summit. Yes, there are amazing views from the summit, but I hated Carrigain for a long time until I hiked it again as a stronger hiker and realized it isn’t all that bad.
This was my first 4,000-footer. I hiked it with my husband back in 2010 and thought it was a really long hike at ten miles. Since then, I’ve hiked it two more times solo and it was an amazing hike both times. The Garfield Trail is one of the only trails in the Whites that has switchbacks and the first few miles of trail are gradual and weave through a beautiful deciduous forest. The views from the summit are outstanding in all directions and it has a little of everything a good hike should have.
It’s really hard to “rank” the Willey Range because you usually peakbag this set of three mountains (Willey, Field, Tom). For the sake of this post I’m ranking Field lower on the list than Tom and Willey simply because it doesn’t really have anything going for it. Yes, there are a few views from the mostly wooded summit, but it sits more as a bump on a ridge of mountains than a peak standing on its own with unique features.
Both times I’ve hiked Willey I came from the A-Z Trail, not the Ethan Pond Trail, which means I’ve never gotten to experience the extensive step ladders that lead up to the Willey Range Trail. The summit of Willey has some nice views of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, but alone, it’s not the most amazing peak I’ve stood on top of.
Tom is my favorite peak on the Willey Range. It’s really hard to rank these peaks individually because I’ve only ever hiked them as a group, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Tom is my favorite out of the three. Sitting alone on a spur trail, Tom doesn’t have the best views from its summit, but there’s something about this peak and the trail right before the Tom Spur that spoke to me. I remember the first time I climbed this mountain. I stood at the trail junction where the Willey Range Trail meets the A-Z Trail and the Tom Spur and I was in awe that there was this mysterious network of paths in the woods thousands of feet up. I felt like I had discovered a secret world that existed in the forest, and instead of being afraid about being all alone in the woods, I felt blessed to have stumbled upon something so beautiful.
The first time I hiked Mount Hale I took the Lend-A-Hand trail to the summit and peakbagged it with Zealand. I was really tired and didn’t realize how tough the trail to the summit was going to be. Rather than being awestruck about hiking through a beautiful marsh, I was annoyed and cranky because I was hungry and tired and running out of water. The second time I hiked it, I decided to quickly hit the summit on its own because I didn’t have a lot of time to do a long hike. It was extremely muggy that day and although the trail to the summit is beautiful, I was sweating to death and felt really weak. The summit has no views but I would definitely do it again by the Lend-A-Hand Trail as a loop with the Hale Brook Trail.
Pierce is, in my opinion, one of the easiest of the 4,000-footers to hike. It also has some amazing views of the Presidential Range from the summit, and runs through the alpine zone toward the summit. The Crawford Path is known as the oldest continuously used and maintained trail in the Northeast. It was first established in 1819 and is part of the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire. The portion of the trail leading to the summit of Mount Pierce is moderately graded and a typical New Hampshire hiking trail, with no switchbacks. Why isn’t it higher up on my list of favorite hikes? It’s not very long and too heavily trafficked for me.
28 and 27: South Twin/North Twin
Both South and North Twin mountain have beautiful views into the Pemigewasset Wilderness, but both times I’ve hiked them I’ve done so as part of a single-day Bonds traverse. This led to them being overshadowed by the epic Bonds. They are amazing peaks, and the trail leading to the summit is gorgeous, weaving through deciduous forests and strewn with stream crossings. As a stand-alone hike covering both peaks, one wouldn’t be disappointed.
Sitting right between Mount Pierce and Mount Monroe, Eisenhower is a beautiful mountain with an open, flat summit, and views in all directions. The summit is surrounded by the alpine zone and regardless of which season you hike it in, you won’t be let down. Unless you hike it in bad weather, which wouldn’t be very smart, and hopefully isn’t something you intend to do (read: completely exposed to the elements on a large, open summit).
The best part about hiking Mount Monroe is that if you take it on from the north heading south, you can dump your pack at the Lakes of the Clouds hut prior to hitting the summit. Well, that’s not the only good part of this mountain, I guess. The AMC hut has tasty treats, and you will be privy to iconic White Mountain views. But, if you’re looking for solitude, you won’t find it on any of the Presidentials unless you hike them in winter, and even then, you will probably run into people.
There’s nothing bad about Mount Lincoln, the middle peak on the Franconia Ridge, but when I hiked it, there wasn’t time to stop on the summit, or even realize I was on the summit, because it was January and poor weather. I know there are rocks and boulders to navigate, but that’s about all I know about Lincoln.
I know most people are going to wonder, why is Mount Washington at number 23 on your list?! Why isn’t it number 1? To be honest, as much as I loved both times I hiked it, the top is kind of a letdown for a hiker like me. To hike through Tuckerman’s Ravine or past the waterfalls on the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, up the rock fields, where the term “trail” is used loosely, and then end in the hustle and bustle of the summit is anything but a wilderness experience.
Mount Flume has some amazing views of the Franconia Notch. It also has what seems like never-ending step ladders leading up the Osseo Trail. These ladders serve as an example of the outstanding work of the trail maintainers in the Whites. I liked the ladders the best on this hike.
All three times I’ve summited “The Moose” it has been socked in. That didn’t take away from the beauty of this mountain or the trails leading to the summit. Taking the old carriage road to the summit and visiting the foundation from the hotel that used to stand on top of this mountain make you feel like you stepped back in time.
Cannon Mountain is a beautiful hike, until you get to the top and see the lookout tower planted among the trees. Some people may not be bothered by man-made fixtures on the top of mountains, (and sometimes those fixtures don’t take away from the beauty), but I have never been a fan of hiking a mountain and hearing the sound of the chairlift running a few feet from the top.
Liberty is a beautiful mountain. The part of it that stands out most in my mind is the rocky summit, which juts out to a point. Why does this feature stand out to me? Every time I stand on that rock, all I can think of is The Lion King, which makes the The Circle of Life play in my head, and I remember when I used to thrust my cat into the air while screaming: “IT’S THE CIRCLE OF LIFE” as a child. (No cats were harmed in the reenactment of that film).
I’ve hiked this mountain more than any other 4,000-footer not because it’s the most beautiful (although it is gorgeous) but because it was where I felt most comfortable in the early days of my hiking career. I’ve hiked it in every season and no matter what time of year, I’m always welcomed to blustery winds on the open summit. That hasn’t deterred me visiting it time and time again.
The first time I hiked Galehead I almost cried at the summit. Which, for those of you who have hiked it know, is a wooded, viewless circle of forest where all the black flies in New Hampshire live. Why did I almost cry? Because I was tired and I didn’t think I could do it. But I sat there in the trees, took a picture of myself smiling, and then went back to the Galehead Hut. Galehead summit is one of the ones people do simply because they have to reach the top to check it off “the list.” The smart people stop at the hut and enjoy actual views and a lack of black flies.
Another summit that lacks views, Zealand, is better than Galehead because although the summit is completely wooded, there are no black flies and there’s a well-photographed summit sign carved on a piece of wood. This peak holds a special place in my heart because Zeacliff was one of my late father’s favorite places to visit in the Whites.
15 and 14: North Kinsman/South Kinsman
These mountains fall on the Appalachian Trail and have some amazing views of the Franconia Ridge from their tops. The Lonesome Lake AMC Hut and Lonesome Lake sit 1,000 feet up from Lafayette Place parking lot and are heavily visited by tourists. As much as I love this whole area, I don’t like hiking in a conga line, so I tend to hold off on hiking these two peaks until winter.
13 and 12: North Tripyramid/Middle Tripyramid
Back when I first started hiking, the Tripyramids were some of my favorite peaks in the Whites. Taking Sabbaday Brook Trail and Pine Bend Brook Trail to the top of these two almost viewless peaks meant enjoying the woods was the best part of the hike. Hiking in the Sandwich Range Wilderness means there’s a lack of trail markers, and blowdowns are only cleared if absolutely necessary. Climbing over and under fallen trees, stopping to make sure you’re still on the trail, and crossing streams dozens of times is what makes these peaks some of my favorites.
11, 10, and 9: Mount Bond, West Bond, and Bondcliff
These three peaks are not about the summit views for me—they’re about the journey. Yes, standing on Bondcliff and feeling like you’re about to fall off the edge is amazing, but that’s not why I hike these peaks. To be honest, and probably something many would balk at, I enjoy the long walk in the woods on Bondcliff Trail and the Lincoln Woods Trail almost more than the rest of the hike.
8, 7, and 6: Madison, Adams, Jefferson
In order of least to most epic, after climbing up the Caps Ridge Trail to the summit of Jefferson, Madison and Adams couldn’t compare. Yes, there are amazing views from all three summits, but Jefferson won. Adams wins when it comes to most technical trails—especially when you take the Star Lake Trail down from the summit. This traverse is one of the most memorable hikes I’ve ever done and I think I smiled the entire day (until I ran out of water with about five miles left in the hike).
This was the summit on which I finished round one of hiking every one of the 48 4,000-footers. It was epic and amazing to stand on the summit of that peak in January, with no views, snow falling, winds whipping, and rime ice forming on all my gear. It was one of the most challenging hikes I’ve done and that summit will always hold a special place in my heart because it was the end of the beginning for me.
The first time I hiked this mountain I didn’t reach the summit. I thought I had, but then about halfway down I realized that I hadn’t hit the top. It sucked. I was really scared hiking it, because it was completely socked in the whole time and the trail felt really eerie. I was the only person on the trail almost the whole time, and it was back when I first started hiking. Since then, I’ve hiked it twice more, and the part I like most about this whole region of the Whites is what scared me the most at the beginning. The more I get out, the more I realize that hiking the less-traveled paths are my favorites.
The first time I hiked Isolation, I did a loop over Glen Boulder and Rocky Branch Trail. I didn’t like it at all. The majority of Rocky Branch Trail was more like Rocky Brook Trail and I stopped trying to keep my feet dry after about a half mile slogging through a veritable stream. I vowed to never hike that trail again. One year later I pulled into the trailhead and headed back up said trail. It was awesome. Seven miles of wilderness and some of the most gorgeous forest I’ve seen.
The Great North Woods have become some of my favorite places to visit in the Whites since I started hiking. They are also some of the areas I was most afraid of when I was a new hiker. Now, what I once feared is what I love most about this section of New Hampshire. Although you will most likely see at least one person when hiking Cabot, the most northern 4,000-footer on the list, I still feel like I’m in the middle of nowhere when climbing this mountain. The entire Kilkenny Ridge, stretching from Waumbek to Cabot, is some of the most beautiful forest I have encountered.
1. Owl’s Head
My favorite 4,000-footer is Owl’s Head. There is nothing I would change about this hike and both times I’ve completed it I knew it was my mountain. The first time I completed the 19-mile hike, I fell in love with the long walk. Spending eight miles walking through some of the least-traveled trails in the White Mountains, through forest that feels as old as time, is what I loved most about Owl’s Head. There is no view from the summit, you climb a one-mile slide after hiking eight miles, and then navigate a herd path the rest of the way to the wooded summit. It is perfect.
Ranking the 48 4,000-footers isn’t easy, and even after doing so, I find myself wondering why I picked one mountain to come before another. Asking a true lover of the White Mountains to rank “the 48” is like asking parents to pick their favorite child. Each is unique and you may favor some characteristics over others. Sometimes you may be thoroughly annoyed with one over the other, but you can’t possibly say which you like more. The same goes for the mountains. Each has its lessons to teach you and every time you hike them you learn something new about yourself. The best part about the 48 is that you can hike them a million times and see something new, feel a new emotion, or discover a different perspective each time you hit the trail. The best part about hiking is that the trail tears you down and then builds you up again, over and over.
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