Thousands of hikers head to the White Mountains of New Hampshire each year to stay in the high mountain huts of the Appalachian Mountain Club. Accessible only by foot and connected by the Appalachian Trail, the eight huts offer rustic but comfortable hospitality. For families with younger children, or hikers who may not have the time, skills or gear to undertake a more serious backpacking expedition, hiking the huts lower the barriers to entry to the backcountry.
James Wrigley, 34, has held almost every huts-related job for the last 15 years, from hut croo member (“croo” is a derivative of the word “crew”) to hut director, his current role. He first visited Lonesome Lake Hut when he was 3 years old and hiked there with family or friends nearly every year thereafter.
“When I was a kid, the huts allowed me to get out in the outdoors in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise,” Mr. Wrigley said. He now hopes his own 3-year-old child will be up for making the trek this summer.
The communities that are forged in the huts is one thing that makes them so special, Mr. Wrigley said.
“It’s pretty rare that you get a bunch of strangers around a table to talk about life,” he said, “When you’re having dinner and playing games together, it’s a really wonderful experience.”
About the huts
The eight huts are connected by more than 50 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Madison Spring Hut was the first, built in 1888. Other huts were added and modernized as their popularity increased over the years. These days around 30,000 hikers stay in the huts every year.
Nightly stays, which include dinner and breakfast, cost between $110 and $175 per person, with cheaper prices on weeknights. Discounts are also available for A.M.C. members and visitors staying three or four nights. An A.M.C. annual membership costs $50 for an individual and $75 for a family. A $25 membership is available for seniors and under 30-years-olds.
During the full-service season (May through October for the lower elevation huts and mid-September for the more exposed, higher elevation huts), hikers are greeted by the croos who pack in supplies and provide hot meals and educational activities for guests. During the off-season, some of the huts remain open but they are staffed by a caretaker only and visitors must bring their own provisions.
Planning your trip
The A.M.C.’s White Mountain Guide, now in its 30th edition, is an invaluable resource for planning your trip. Some of the huts are easier to reach than others, so you’ll want to think about your fitness level and the kind of trip you’d like to have. You can also call the A.M.C. reservation line (603-466-2727) for information.
Reservations for the following summer are usually available as early as August or September. Weekends at the Lakes of the Clouds and other popular huts fill up quickly, but weekend stays are available at other huts if you book in the early spring.
The A.M.C.’s Pinkham Notch Visitors center, near Gorham, N.H., is a convenient jumping-off point for hikers, offering hiking maps and knowledgeable guides and selling any small-item gear you may have forgotten in the gift shop. It’s a three-hour drive from Boston and a 6.5-hour drive from New York City. You can park and leave your car in the parking lot there. The Concord Coach Line also offers service from Logan International Airport or Boston’s South Station to Pinkham Notch. Many hikers spend a night at the Joe Dodge Lodge before embarking on a hut-to-hut trip.
During the peak summer months, the A.M.C. offers shuttle service to a number of trailheads. You can also hike directly to Lakes of the Clouds Hut and Madison Spring Hut from Pinkham Notch.
On the Trail
The Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains is one of the toughest stretches of trail in North America. Appalachian Trail “thru hikers” (who are hiking the entirety of the Appalachian Trail) slow to a crawl in the White Mountains. After hiking 15 to 20 miles a day on average on other sections, they often manage just 7 to 8 miles in the Whites.
The slow pace in this region is the result of an incredibly uneven trail bed and trails that drive straight up the mountains (unlike in other mountain ranges, where trail builders use switchbacks to make the climb less steep). Yet for those willing to face the arduous terrain, the rewards are many: sweeping views of the breathtaking Pemigewasset Wilderness, the Presidential peaks, and for the intrepid, the chance to summit Mount Washington, one of the tallest peaks on the Eastern Seaboard.
It is usually safe for an intermediate hiker to plan on hiking at a pace of one mile per hour. The distance to or between huts is generally no greater than eight miles, and often much less. Zealand Falls Hut, Lonesome Lake Hut and Mizpah Spring Hut can all be reached via family-friendly hikes of just a few miles. In fact, one child per adult can stay free at Lonesome Lake Hut during the summer.
On summer weekends the trails are a regular thoroughfare, crowded with day hikers, backpackers, thru-hikers and hut-to-hut hikers, though solitude can still be found on some of the more difficult and remote sections of the trail.
At the huts
After a long day on the trail, the warm light of a high mountain hut are a welcome sight. When you arrive at a hut, you’ll check in with one of the hut croo members and they’ll help you get oriented. Each has a common area and one or more separate bunk rooms. You’ll want to pick out a bunk and stash your gear in the bunk room — there are no private accommodations at the huts so you’ll need to be comfortable with co-ed, communal living. Wool blankets and pillows are provided (but no pillowcases), so if you’re a warm sleeper you’ll do fine in midsummer. Many hikers like to bring a light sheet, sleep sack or sleeping bag as well. In the shoulder months, a warm sleeping bag is essential.
Bathrooms are gender segregated, and feature composting toilets (that actually don’t smell much at all) and sinks for brushing teeth and washing up. Neither showers nor towels are available.
Fresh baked bread, other snacks, tea and coffee are self-serve at the hut. There are also plenty of board games and books if you find yourself with some time on your hands. A hearty dinner is served at 6 p.m., family style, so be prepared to get to know your fellow hikers. After dinner the croo offers educational talks on subjects ranging from alpine vegetation and boreal forests to the hydroelectric system used at one of the huts.
Bedtime comes early with quiet hours and lights out from 9:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. If the morning light doesn’t wake you up, the hut croo will by singing a song or reading a poem.
The day’s weather is radioed in from the Mount Washington observatory and announced during breakfast, which is served at 7 a.m. A goofy skit instructing guests in basic Leave No Trace principles, proper hut etiquette and cleanup follows.
What to pack
The A.M.C. is fairly prescriptive online about what you need when hiking in the White Mountains. The 10 essentials, are just that, but the club also lists a more comprehensive list of gear you will want to be comfortable during your trip.
A few items that bear re-emphasizing:
MOLESKIN No this is not a notebook, it’s a kind of blister prevention adhesive. If you are already a seasoned hiker, chances are you never leave home without it.
TREKKING POLES The steep and dramatically uneven terrain of the trails on the White Mountains is tough on even the strongest knees, and it can be challenging to keep your balance and avoid falls without the aid of two poles.
EARPLUGS There are almost always one or two loud snorers in the shared bunk room.
CASH Snacks, hot soup and small gear items can all be purchased for cash in any of the huts. The hut croos also accept cash tips.
HEADLAMP A headlamp is essential for functioning in the hut at night, not to mention staying out of trouble should you find yourself hiking after dark.
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