Sometimes choosing a good hike can be tough. Each mountain range, National Forest or region in the US has more than enough to last a lifetime, and it can be tempting to start checking them off in a futile effort to conquer them all. But far and away, there are some trips that are just classics of American backpacking – like the White Mountains’ Presidential Traverse.
Don’t be fooled: while the White Mountains of New Hampshire – like most East Coast mountains – don’t have the height and views of those out West, these are nonetheless seriously rugged, difficult hikes; trails in the Whites tend to go straight up the mountainside, climbing over rocks, roots and trees the whole way. At times, it’s less hiking and more like pulling yourself directly up. These difficult hikes are often complemented by what some consider the “Worst Weather in America,” thanks to two converging storm tracks directly over the mountains that often cause unpredictable, stormy weather and cold in even the warmest of summers. In fact, the Presidential Range is often used to train for much higher pursuits, like Everest, due to it’s stormy weather.
The Presidential Traverse is a 23-mile long trek that summits all 10 peaks of the Presidential Range, including the highest peak in the Whites – Mt. Washington. It gains a total of 9,000 feet of elevation throughout the hike. Most people do the Presidential Traverse as a 2, or leisurely 3, day hike, but it can be done in a single, long day if you’re game. There are designated campsites along the way – such as Valley Way – but you can also set up shop anywhere below treeline, as long as you are 200 feet from the trail. This doesn’t mean much, of course, as these are the White Mountains: you’ll be hard pressed to find any flat places to pitch a tent on the side of the mountains.
It’s usually done North to South, and the toughest part of the climb is actually the beginning – ascending Mt. Madison, for more than 4000′ of elevation in less than 4 miles. From there, you can stop for water at the AMC Madison hut before continuing on to Adams and Jefferson. From there, the hike is almost entirely above treeline – so you will need to be completely aware of the weather at all times. Once you reach Mt Washington, there is little left in the way of climbing, but the rest of the hike is filled with beautiful views and scenery – provided the weather is good.
In fact, the weather will be your largest obstacle on this trip. It’s not at all uncommon to have to bail out, even in the middle of the summer, when storms and lightning hit. But if you’re blessed with good weather, or have the guts, experience and equipment to tackle less-than-ideal conditions, this is a truly challenging but rewarding hike, and a classic of American mountaineering.