Lucky me, I got July 3rd, 2015 off of work as my “observed holiday”. What better way to spend a free day off than in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. I didn’t decide on this until 48 hours before my intended start time. Initially worried that the “July 4th crowds” would ruin the experience… I decided to just go for it. The plan? a single day solo Presidential Traverse!
What is a Presidential Traverse?
Presidential Traverse – A strenuous trek over New Hampshire’s tallest mountain range named after former presidents of the United States. Depending on the route chosen it could include up to 10 peaks over 4000 feet tall with the apex being Mt. Washington, the tallest peak in the north east standing 6,288′ tall. The distance can vary depending on the route between 18 and 24 miles with 8000 to 9000+ feet in elevation gain. Backpackers and Hikers have the choice of staying at several AMC huts that allow them to break the trip up into 2-4 days. The other option is to trek straight through the whole thing in one day. The Presidential Range also known by locals as the “Presi’s” are notorious for having the “worst weather in America” making the timing and day choice critical. The “classic traverse” includes: Mt. Madison (5,367′), Mt. Adams (5,774′), Mt. Jefferson (5,712′), Mt. Washington (6,288′), Mt. Monroe (5,384′), Mt. Eisenhower (4,780′), Mt. Pierce (4,310′). Other optional peaks include: Mt. Clay (5,533′), Mt. Franklin (5,003′), Mt. Jackson (4,052′), and Mt. Webster (3,911′).
The route I chose was the aggressive option including all of the 11 possible summits from Mt. Madison to Mt. Webster, North to South. I opted for the single day approach so I could move fast and pack light. This would result in a 24 mile day with over 9000 feet of elevation gain… a big day for me! Just imagine running a marathon… except over 11 mountains! The weather looked decent compared to most in the Northern Presi’s… Highs in the low 40F’s and 20-30MPH sustained winds from the North.
I wanted to travel as light as possible so I could run sections without having a huge pack flopping around. Here’s what I carried:
Pack – EMS Hydration 15L Pack
Clothing – One ultra light EMS windbreaker hoody(3.2 ounces), EMS Techwick light long sleeved 1/4 zip crew shirt, Spare wool socks, pair if liner gloves
Water – 3 Liter Camelbak Bladder, Sawyer Mini filter, Platypus 2L dirty water bag
Food – 2x cliff bars, pack of pepperoni, flaxseed wraps, gu gummy chews
Emergency – Knee brace, Leukotape, 10′ paracord, pocket knife
Electronics – Ravpower mini power bank (to recharge phone), USB Cable, Samsung Galaxy S6 phone (acts as camera, GPS, emergency contact)
Other – Lip balm, Tiny bug spray tube, $20 in cash, Sunglasses
What I wore:
Upper: Patagonia R1 base layer tee
Lower: REI Technical running pants, Olympia extended boxer briefs
Footwear: La Sportiva Wildcat trail running shoes, REI quarter length thin wool socks
I packed light on food and water because i knew it would be readily available at the huts along the route. I only filled my hydration bladder to 2L along the way and never ran dry. My only real “luxury” item was the Ravpower power bank to recharge my phone, but I like having this to keep my GPS track running and having a camera!
Since this is a traverse you do not end where you began. This makes things complicated for logistics as a solo hiker. You typically have four options:
AMC Shuttle – This shuttle is great and inexpensive… however they do not allow dogs on the bus, and the bus schedule starts a little late if you’re doing a long hike. AMC Shuttle Website ( http://www.outdoors.org/lodging/lodging-shuttle.cfm )
Hitchhiking – Commonly hikers in the whites stick out their thumb and try to hitch a ride back to their car. I’m assuming this is easier for the “cute girl hikers” of the bunch… myself I haven’t tried this route. I have heard much success using this method. However I like a “sure thing”… relying on hitchhiking is too much of a risk for me.
Taxi – There are two taxi services in the Whites that are specifically designed for hikers. One being Trail Angel Taxi, and the other being Notch Taxi. Notch taxi mainly operates in the northern Presi area but will travel outside of that zone for an additional fee. Both services allow dogs but Notch taxi requires a “cleaning fee” for them to vacuum out the car after the dog leaves. Notch Taxi Website ( http://www.notchtaxiservice.com/ ) and Trail Angle Website ( http://www.trailangelshikerservices.com/ )
Car Spotting – With two or more hikers its possible to leave one car at the end of the traverse, and one at the beginning. For solo hikers this is obviously not an option!
Myself… I went with Notch Taxi as they were available earlier, and inexpensive. I opted to start the traverse from the north and work my way south as I knew the harder sections would be in the northern presidentials. I woke up at 3AM and started the 2 1/2 hour drive north into Crawford Notch to AMC’s Highland Center. I had previously arranged for Notch Taxi to pick me up at AMC’s Highland Center Depot at 6AM. The taxi was waiting when I pulled into the parking lot at 5:59AM. The taxi brought me 26 miles north to Appalacia and the Valley Way trail head that would start the beginning of my day towards Mt. Madison. This would allow me to take my time and not worry about what time I finished… since my car would be at the end of the trail.
So it begins!
The Valley Way Trail started off pleasant with low grades and nice spongy terrain. Only a few spots had been muddied up from recent rain. The trail steepens as it climbs but is still a fairly easy route. I ran this trail as much as I could to get a head start. I arrived at the AMC Madison hut within 1 hour.
Ascent of Mt. Madison
Once I hit the AMC Madison Hut turned left to start the ascent of Mt. Madison. The approach to Madison was very rocky, rough, and sharp. This section was moderately steep with plenty of loose footing. As I gained elevation the winds picked up substantially causing me to stumble a couple of times. Some of the scrambling sections got the heart pumping. The approach was relatively short and I was on the summit pretty quick. Eager to move on I asked a fellow hiker at the summit to take my picture and I was off again… back down the steep rocky path I had came from.
Here comes the wind!
Here’s a short video that shows what the conditions were like up on Mt. Madison. I’m assuming this was in the 30MPH sustained wind range. maybe a touch more. This wind would hang around for most of the day while near the summits of Mt. Madison and Mt. Adams.
Ascent of Mt. Adams
Now back at the AMC Madison Hut I resupplied my 3 Liter Camelbak reservoir with water from their sink, had a snack, and moved on towards Mt. Adams. I took the Star Lake trail which winds past Star Lake, a beautiful high altitude lake nestled between the mountains. Star lake trail abruptly turns vertical when it nears Mt. Adams. This section of the trail was VERY rocky and steep. I had a hard time identifying where the trail actually went. The only indication of direction were cairns strategically placed and sometimes a blue blaze painted on a rock. Near the summit of Mt. Adams it becomes almost a vertical rock climb requiring you to scramble up several short steep chimneys. I was glad that I had packed light… with a big pack these spots could be dangerous. The views while perched on the side of Mt. Adams were incredible. The final climb to Mt. Adams summit is again… steep, but you’re rewarded with an incredible 360 degree view of the Great Gulf wilderness, Mt. Washington and all of the surrounding mountains. Wind at the summit was howling, I hid behind some rocks for shelter while I had a drink and ate a cliff bar.
Coming down the opposite side of Adams I continued onto the Gulfside Trail heading towards Mt. Jefferson. This trail levels off in Edmands Col but still requires a lot of thought on foot placement due to its jagged loose rock paths. Easy to roll an ankle here! It was hard for me not to continuously stop to take pictures here. Everywhere I looked was an incredibly beautiful sight! The Northern Presidentials are truly a different experience than the rest of the New Hampshire peaks. They feel like BIG mountains despite their relatively short stature.
On To Jefferson!
Now approaching Jefferson the trail steepens yet again becoming a wall of talus field rock that required scrambling and hand holds. I lost the trail a few times here again but gradually made my way to Jefferson’s Summit. Now later in the day crowds had started to form on the trails and there were quite a few people on the Mt. Jefferson who had hiked up Cap’s Ridge trail… a very popular route. There were also people who had driven up Mt. Washington’s auto road and hiked down. I didn’t stay on Jefferson long… moved on the Gulfside Trail… next stop Mt. Washington.
On my way over to Mt. Washington I walked over Mt. Clay. The trail increasingly steepens and my legs had started to feel the abuse I had put them through earlier in the morning. I started to hear the Cog Railway’s air horn from a far.
Approaching Mt. Washington
Now over Clay and onto Mt. Washington. The trail steepens and the rocks start to feel “flatter” I assume from all the traffic trampling them into the ground. After passing the Jewell Trail junction a lot of Mt. Washington day hikers had started to appear on the trail. Everyone was heading up the rock pile! After a short climb the Cog Railway tracks come into view. I chose to walk along side the tracks to the summit. This is a wide path but steep enough to get you breathing heavily none the less. The Cog Railway would chug past me a couple of times, loaded to the gills with tourists taking pictures and drinking their Coffee.
Mt. Washington… The Tourist Mecca!
As I approached the summit the cars heading up the auto-road came into view along with the summit buildings. The observation deck was mobbed with people taking pictures. Now at the summit it was a whole different world! Families pushing strollers with infants, people in jeans and t-shirts drinking soda and eating pizza. I quickly shuffled over to the summit sign to get a picture so I could move on… however there was a line about 50 feet long of people who drove up or took the cog trying to get a summit photo for themselves. I didn’t want to wait in line so I took a selfie in front of the line and got out of there. I did however, stop into the summit building for a slice of pizza… pretty nice treat after 10 hard miles! I refilled my Camelbak yet again and started the descent down the other side of the mountain.
On To Monroe
The decent from Mt. Washington on Crawfords path towards Mt. Monroe is the typical rock field I’ve become used to by this point. A lot of hikers who had spent the night at the Lakes Of The Clouds hut had begun their ascent up to Mt. Washington. I stopped into the Lakes of the clouds hut to resupply my water. I moved on towards Mt. Monroe. The area between Mt. Washington and Mt. Monroe is beautiful. The view of Mt. Monroe’s Rocky summit jutting up into the sky is breathtaking from this vantage point.
The Approach to Mt. Monroe is steep and rocky but short. I arrived at summit and for the first time that day had it all to myself for a short while. By this point the winds had died down considerably and visibility was incredible. I had a fellow hiker snap my picture and I moved on to Mt. Franklin.
Mt. Franklin is somewhat uneventful but still offers the same incredible above treeline views as the rest of the Presi’s. I was Happy to see Mt. Eisenhower getting closer as this signified the last major milestone of the hike.
Eisenhower… Almost There
Moving along the Crawford Path towards Mt. Eisenhower the trail drops elevation and gets a little lusher. From there you start the steep climb up the side of Mt. Eisenhower. Steep switchbacks on rocky loose gravel and boulders lead you up to the summit. The summit is identified by its massive Cairn. I was fortunate to get Eisenhower’s summit all to myself! Views to the north are incredible from Eisenhower. It was really mind blowing to see all of the ground I had already covered from this perspective.
The Final Presi
I descended the other side of Eisenhower and moved towards Pierce this would be the final “official presi” of the day. From here the trail drops into the forest… something I wasn’t used to after being above treeline all day. It was a welcome change by this point offering some protection from the blazing sun and occasional wind gust. The trail was a little wet but not terrible. I stopped briefly at the summit of Mt. Pierce and continued on.
After pierce I had decided to stick it out and truck on towards Jackson and Webster. This would be the point to bail out if I just wanted to do the official “presi traverse list” as I could drop down Crawford Path directly from Pierce to Rt. 302. But I was already up here… why not tack on a few extra miles? First, I’d drop down to Mizpah hut to resupply my water and eat a late lunch of turkey pepperoni and wraps I had packed. The descent to Mizpah hut started to wear on my already sore knees. The trail was wet, slippery, and muddy. Eventually I arrived at the hut and was greeted by their friendly staff. Some occupants were drinking wine on the rocks around the hut… looked relaxing! I had my lunch, refilled my water and continued onto the Webster Cliff Trail.
The Last 4000 Footer Of The Day – Mt. Jackson
The Webster Trail winds through the forest over numerous bogs and water features. Bog bridges make this a pleasant and relatively flat walk.
The ascent towards Mt. Jackson begins to get steeper but not terribly so. Before I knew it I was standing on the summit looking back at all that I had accomplished today. It was a great feeling! After summiting Mt. Jackson and taking some pictures I was happy to move on towards Mt. Webster to begin my final descent down into Crawford Notch where my car had been left.
The descent down the Webster-Jackson trail was grueling… my knees were sore and the entire trail was a wet sopping mess. The fact that I was behind my “planned completion time” had me frustrated. I was also concerned that my wife would be worried since I told her this whole trip would take a lot less time than it did! I slipped and fell a few times in the deep mud and found myself cursing at the trail runners I was wearing for not having traction! I guess the day had finally started to wear on me. Fortunately, I only had one choice… keep walking! The final stop on the trail was to pass the Silver Cascades… I really pretty waterfall that I was happy I got to see.
Seemingly out of nowhere I emerged from the bush onto Route 302 in Crawford Notch. I could see my car in the distance under the sunset… it had never looked so beautiful! I walked a short distance from the trailhead to the AMC Highland Center Depot, took off my shoes, and breathed a sigh of relief.
After it was all said and done, actual mileage according to my GPS was 23.8 miles, with 9065 feet of elevation gain. From start to finish it took me 12 hours 10 minutes including breaks, Lunch, pictures, summit stops, etc… More time than I had hoped but it was still a great experience and I’m glad I did it!