In addition to the 100 Mile Wilderness, there was one other section of the Appalachian Trail that I wanted to hike before leaving the east coast: the Presidential Traverse in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We headed to White Mountain National Forest from Bar Harbor.
We arrived late on Saturday October 12, the middle of a double-country holiday weekend – both the U.S. Columbus Day and Canadian Thanksgiving were on October 14. The weather over the weekend was phenomenal; several days of sunny weather in a region known for bad weather. In fact, Mt. Washington is topped by a weather observatory with the slogan “Home of World’s Worst Weather.” A book I am reading on the nature of the state explains that the weather is so bad because all major storm tracks in the US converge in New England – storms that originate in the Pacific Ocean, Rocky Mountains, Gulf of Mexico, South Atlantic Ocean and arctic regions all track through New England, and the mountain topography amplifies the effects of all these storms. But the hoards of visitors on this holiday weekend, the last of the fall foliage tour season, were treated to lovely weather.
Unfortunately, we missed most of this great weather. We also missed meeting up with my good friend and hiking buddy, Pat. Pat climbed Mt. Washington and several other presidential peaks on the weekend, and we had talked about meeting up, but John and I were enjoying Bar Harbor too much. By the time we got into the Whites, we needed a couple days to deal with logistics (e.g., dumping our black/grey water tanks) and to rest. I was recovering from a cold I had powered through during our Acadia explorations, and John wanted some time to work on his own projects. So we took it easy for a couple days before starting to hike, and the weather began the transition into winter.
On Sunday after arriving John dropped me off for a short waterfall hike while he worked on his Raspberry Pi project.
After resting on Monday, we decided to hike Mt. Washington on Tuesday. Clouds with a significant chance of rain were forecasted on Wednesday and Thursday, and weather forecasts are unreliable any further out, so we decided that Tuesday might me our only shot at climbing the highest peak in the northeast. We were near Crawford Notch, so I found a loop hike to the summit from the western side of the mountain, rather than driving around to the more popular eastern ascents.
Despite its inhospitable reputation, Mt. Washington is accessible not only by hiking trails, but also via auto road and cog railway, so anyone can reach the peak. We parked near the cog railway station to hike up the Ammonoosuc Ravine trail and return on the Jewell Trail. The hike up was steep at times, but not too difficult. We only saw two other hikers on the way up, a couple coming down from a backpacking trip. The trail was lovely, walking alongside a creek. We had great views once we climbed above tree line, but the clouds hung low over our heads. The peak of Washington acts like a cloud magnet, and as we approached it we could see the clouds collect around it, ruining our chance for a view from the summit.
The summit was indeed encased in clouds when we reached it. It was also full of people. I knew about the cog railway and the auto road, but I had not anticipated the scene we encountered. There was a line of people to take photos at the sign marking the summit. We marveled at the infrastructure of the weather observatory, than ate lunch. After eating lunch, I wandered around checking out the rest of the peak, and found the cafeteria of which I had heard rumor. Not only is there a cafeteria, but the building also houses a gift shop (not surprising), a museum (somewhat surprising), and a post office! A post office, on top of a mountain I just hiked up! We hiked on a cloudy Tuesday and met a crowd at the top; I cannot even imagine how crowded the summit was over the weekend when my friend Pat hiked it – a sunny day on an international holiday weekend.
Overall, I have to say that this hike was much less epic than I had expected. The peak is very hyped up, with the “World’s Worst Weather” rhetoric, but for us, it was a moderate hike to a crowded peak. Despite not being an epic hike, I am glad we did it for the experience and to dispel the mystery of the northeast’s highest mountain.
The weather on the day following our Washington hike looked to be cloudy and cool, but not bad overall. I decided to hike over the Webster and Jackson peaks at the south end of the presidential ridge. These are low peaks, that do not go above tree line, so I thought they would make for a good cloudy weather hike. John opted to not hike in order to continue his tinkering. This worked fine for me, as the hike was a one-way hike; he could drop me off at the beginning, where the AT crosses highway 302, and pick me up at the end, at the Crawford Path trailhead. As promised, the day was cloudy, so I felt like I was at the end of the world on cliff-top viewpoints. But it rained very little, and I had a nice hike.
In the middle of the hike, a bird landed very near me and looked at me for several minutes, before it’s friend joined on the other side of the trail. I stood marveling at the proximity for some time, and snapped a few pictures, before they started squawking and dive-bombing me. I realized that they wanted to scare me away, so I obliged and walked on, leaving them in peace.
Israel River Campground
Thursday and Friday were forecasted to be overcast and windy with a high chance of rain. Most of our time in the Whites we were staying in trailhead parking lots, but with the bad weather rolling in we decided to set up at a campsite for a night to take advantage of hot showers and laundry facilities. John called around to find an open campground – not an easy task since most places closed after Columbus Day weekend, but he persevered and we stayed at Israel River Campground. This campground is open year-round, and is primarily populated by campers that rent by the season – it was full of RVs, left to store over the winter until the owners come back for next summer.
A couple testing out their new Roadtrek campervan came by to take a look at our van. We had a great time talking with them and giving them a tour.
By the time we left the campground, Congress had finally got their act together and reopened the government. Up until then, we were parking for free in National Forest parking lots that normally charge a small fee. With the government finally open, we decided to purchase an America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreation Area Annual Pass, which covers the entrance and parking fees for all national parks, national forests, BLM lands and more. The nearest vendor of the passes was the Androscoggin Ranger Station. Perversely, we had benefitted by the government closure, accessing a carless Acadia National Park for free and parking in the Whites for free, but now that we purchased an annual pass, in a sense we retroactively paid for these visits (the pass would have the same expiration date if we purchased it when we visited Acadia).
On our way to purchase the annual pass, we picked up a hitchhiker who clearly was trying to get to a trail. We learned that he is a very late AT thru-hiker named Dixie Grits. He already climbed Katahdin, jumping to the end when he knew he would not make it on time, and now came back to finish the hike to Maine. We drove him all the way to the Pinkham Notch Visitors’ Center so he would not have to hitch another ride, and he declared us officially “Trail Angels“. We then drove back to the Ranger Station for the pass after checking out the visitors’ center.
Waterfalls, King Ravine, Madison
Earlier in the week the weather forecast for the weekend looked promising, but once it arrived the forecast was for high winds on Saturday, and “damaging winds” on Sunday. At this point I decided that I was not going to be able to do the presidential peaks on my list. We are not prepared for cold weather hiking, and the van is not prepared for freezing temperatures. On Saturday I suggested that we take a medium length hike, remaining below tree line (and out of the high winds). I chose a hike recommended in the Appalachian Mountain Club’s “White Mountain Guide”. The route offered a few waterfalls, which I love, and interesting rock scrambles for John. It also promised ice caves.
With a relatively easy itinerary, we didn’t get a super early start and took our time on the hike. As promised, we viewed two waterfalls – Cold Brook and Mossy Falls – before reaching the King Ravine trail with the fun rock scrambles. A section of the trail is called the “Subway”, because it goes under and through enclosed rock formations. There is an easier, alternate route, the “Elevated”, but we took the subway. We are New Yorkers, after all.
We hiked the side trail loop for the ice caves, but sadly did not find any caves full of ice. The plan was to turn around after the ice caves, take the Elevated through the King Ravine then return on an easier route But the weather, despite threat of wind, was beautiful, sunny and warm. Once we were past the ice caves, we were a mere mile and half from the summit of either Adams or Madison. I convinced John that we should continue. I chose Madison, since I have already climbed Adams a couple times.
We appreciated the spectacular view from Madison, and shared it with a very jolly man already relaxing on the summit. The hike down was steep, and we made it to the parking lot just as the sun was setting. We are so lucky, to be able to cook dinner right there in the parking lot as soon as we are off the trail!
Sunday brought a forecasted low of 27 degrees that night, and a layer of snow on the presidential peaks. We decided to hike a Sugarloaf Mountain, the first we’ve made it to since Florida. The hike is short, less than 3 miles round trip. The trail was surprisingly busy, I think because it is a short hike that weekend visitors can complete before driving back to their homes. It also offers great views for being a low peak, with a fraction of the wind pummeling the higher peaks. And this day lived up to it’s ‘damaging winds’ forecast; the max gust on Washington was 71 mph. Mild by the “World’s Worst Weather” standards, but stronger than I want to experience while climbing up a steep rock wall.
We had a wonderful time in the White Mountains, hiking and relaxing, even if we were not able to summit all the presidential peaks. With winter on our heels, we knew it was time to move on. After the Sugarloaf hike we drove south toward Boston.