At their beginnings down in the valleys, most of the trails leading to the spectacular high peaks of the White Mountains in New Hampshire wind through quiet hardwood forests of beech, mountain ash, hickory and the sugar maples that blaze red, orange and yellow in the early fall. White birches are there, too, with their peeling bark littering the footway like forgotten notes. Here and there, as the trails start to climb, are remnants of the towering spruces that dominated the mountain flanks before the loggers came a century ago.

*As the route goes higher, the hardwoods begin to disappear and the evergreens take over. Before long, the dense green growth seems to shrink and take on a stunted look, a signal that treeline lies not far ahead.

*If the day is mild and clear, that's a welcome sign, for soon there will be clear views all around and breezes to dry away the damp evidence of the exertion of the climb. If chill clouds have closed in and the wind has begun to whip along at 40 miles an hour, it is time to remember why it is that the trees have little growth on their windward side -- and time to stop and reach into your pack for more clothing.

*Still short of the 5,000-foot level -- less than half the altitude at treeline in the West -- the trees give way to tufts of grass and tumbled lichen-covered slabs of rock. Lovely tiny alpine flowers grow among the rocks, in such profusion in a few places as to resemble a carefully planted garden. Tucked away in sheltered spots may also be ripening cranberries or blueberries (the latter probably are really bog bilberries, but they look and taste like blueberries).

*On crystal clear days, the Atlantic Ocean may be barely visible across the lower mountains and hills of Maine to the east, while Vermont is easily seen to the west. There is simply a feeling of being on top of the world, and a satisfaction that you got there on your own.

*These unique mountains are near at hand for millions of Americans in the Northeast. 1416127865setting for some unique places to stay -- the high huts operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC).

The first of the huts was built nearly 100 years ago in the col (the low point) between Mount Adams and Mount Madison at the northern end of the Presidential Range portion of the White Mountains. Originally the purpose of the Madison Springs hut was to provide shelter for AMC hikers caught up high when bad weather closed in or for those wanting to explore the adjacent peaks without having to make the trek back and forth to the valley each day.

*But vandals were a problem even in the last century, and soon a second hut was constructed as living quarters for a caretaker. Then the caretaker began to provide meals and the hut system was in business.

*Today there are eight of the high AMC huts offering hospitality and refuge for hikers, a much larger base camp with many more amenities at Pinkham Notch and a hostelry at Crawford Notch that does not serve meals. The huts, which are open to the public, accommodate between 35 and 90 guests and they are used by individuals, families and large camp groups alike.

*Reaching any of the huts requires a hike from a roadside parking area of between 1 1/2 and 3 1/2 miles over trails that range from easy to quite strenuous. Many people stay overnight at just one hut; others choose to go from hut to hut along the 50 miles or so of trail that links them, spending a night at each. Some stay at two or three, but a significant number hit all eight plus the Pinkham base camp.

Only one hut, Lakes-of-the-Clouds on Mount Washington at the head of Ammonoosuc Ravine, is truly above treeline, but Madison Springs and Greenleaf, high on the side of Mount Lafayette, might as well be.

*Nevertheless, the setting of each of the others has its own attraction. Lonesome Lake, the westernmost in the chain, appropriately sits beside a beautiful and quite swimmable pond. Galehead gives a visitor a sense of remoteness with no evidence of manmade scars to be seen even on the distant landscape. With the precipitous heights of Wildcat and Carter Dome mountains looming above it, Carter Notch also provides a sense of remoteness and a great boulder fall on which kids love to clamber about.

Getting to Zealand Falls hut requires the least climbing and offers a wide view across Zealand Notch. My wife and I once spent an entire day sunning ourselves on the rocks of Whitewall Brook next to the hut while reading old copies of the AMC Journal. (We needed the rest after a five-day trek.)

*The remaining hut, Mizpah Spring, is the newest and has the most comfortable accommodations. It filled a gap for the many hikers going from hut to hut who found the distance between Zealand and Lakes-of-the-Clouds too great to do comfortably in a day. But somehow it has always seemed a bit too finished for me. My favorite remains Madison Springs.

Like several other huts, Madison has a sizable common room taken up largely with dining tables and benches and two other rooms with triple-tiered bunks, accommodating 50. The bunks come with a pillow and three heavy wool blankets, but no sheets or pillow case. (The AMC recommends that you bring a sheet. Some hikers bring sleeping bags.) The bathrooms have flush toilets and basins with cold water only.

*To stay overnight, a guest must also buy either dinner or breakfast -- almost everyone buys both. The hut crews do the cooking and the food is usually plain fare. But it is almost always well prepared and often includes freshly made salads and homemade bread and desserts. Dinner usually includes homemade soup, salad, an entree -- chicken, fish, pasta, roast beef, for example -- vegetables and dessert. Tea, coffee and cocoa are available but fresh milk is not. Breakfast normally includes cereal, such as oatmeal, and bacon and eggs or pancakes or french toast.

*Before the season opens in early June, the AMC uses helicopters to airlift in the necessary staples. All of the fresh food is packed up the trail to the hut by the crew members, who are both men and women mostly of college age. They usually make about three trips each week toting anywhere from 60 to 100 pounds of food strapped to large pack frames. In the case of Lakes-of-the-Clouds hut, which lies about 1,300 feet below the summit of Mount Washington and its auto road and Cog Railway, the packs are often larger since the hike is down rather than up.

*The hut food is served family-style and there is always more than almost anyone could eat. The only exception that I have encountered came in the person of an extraordinarily thin young man my family and I saw once at Madison. He was a "thorough hiker" -- one who had started in Georgia at the southern terminus of the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail and was headed for the northern end at Mount Katahdin in Maine -- and he was hungry. Dinner was some sort of pasta, as I recall, and after finishing up everything at his place, he gathered up what was left in all the other serving bowls and polished off that, too. In their typical joking way, at breakfast the hut crew presented him with a huge pancake about two feet in diameter. He had the last laugh, though, because he ate every bite.

The huts are really more than just a place to stay. The locations, the fact that everyone had to hike to get there and the friendliness of the crew members combine to create a genuine sense of camaraderie.

*On one occasion, the crew at Madison played a great joke on the entire group of guests. At dinner, one of the women crew members told the group that two French Canadian hikers were overdue and asked if anyone had seen them that day. She described what they were supposed to be wearing and said they had last been seen climbing in King Ravine, an enormous ravine on the northern side of Mount Adams not far from the hut.

The guests took this seriously, as they should. Each year the AMC and other official and volunteer groups are called upon to try to locate lost hikers or rescue some who are injured. When rain and fog close in above treeline, it can be hard to follow even those trails marked by huge rock cairns. And hikers, beguiled by the warm temperatures and gentle breezes down in the valley, may find themselves in real trouble if they go high without adequate extra clothing and rain gear.

*One diner that night said she had been above King Ravine and may have seen the overdue pair. The crew member said they were supposed to be well equipped and no search would be mounted that night, but might be the next day. She asked everyone to be on the lookout for them when they left after breakfast.

*The "missing" climbers showed up at breakfast. In a hilarious skit, two other crew members came in from the fog outside and proceeded to climb one of the inside walls of the hut, but only with frequent help from their first-aid kit, which consisted of a large wine skin. It was all accompanied by a detailed discussion, in appropriate dialect, on how not to climb a ravine headwall.

*The guests left Madison that morning in a happy mood having been served with much more than just a good, filling breakfast.

*The crew's efforts change from year to year. Sometime ago, one hut manager at Madison would take his director's chair and cap outside each clear evening and proceed, complete with silent gestures, to direct the sunset. And each August, Madison stages a music fest. Sometimes it has featured chamber music, complete with a cello lugged up the 3,500 feet of rough trail from the valley. Other times it has been bluegrass or other types of music.

In the huts, one never quite knows what is going to happen, but the guests always seem to be enjoying themselves and each other. In the close quarters, barriers fall and you find yourself quickly talking to the stranger next to you. Did you see the partridge taking a dust bath in the middle of the trail? How about the flocks of kestrels swooping over Mount Jefferson? Where are you heading tomorrow? Not serious conversation perhaps, but a happy discussion among people who have been moving across a beautiful landscape and want to share their joy and their interest with others.

The huts range in size from Lakes-of-the-Clouds, which accommodates 90 and has a crew of eight, to Greenleaf and Galehead, each of which sleeps 36. Lonesome Lake, Mizpah, Carter Notch and Lakes-of-the-Clouds have some smaller rooms with as few as four or six people. They are usually assigned to family groups but they cannot be reserved.

*Reservations are necessary, and some popular holiday and weekend periods fill up as early as April, according to AMC huts manager Barbara Wagner. "We have a lot of mid-week space throughout the summer," she says.

*Reservations are needed, too, for the hiker bus shuttle service that the AMC operates. The shuttle follows roads in the valleys that roughly parallel the line of huts up in the mountains. With it, you don't have to worry about how to get back where you started, regardless whether you are going from one end of the system to the other or just staying at two or three huts.

*The AMC base camp at Pinkham Notch at the foot of Mount Washington can accommodate 107 people, almost all in smaller rooms. There the price includes sheets and pillow cases and hot showers.

*For hikers who do not want to stay overnight, the huts sell hot soup, tea, coffee, cocoa, lemonade and candy bars during the day. Maps, mosquito repellent and a few other items are also sold. Crew -- or "croo," as the members spell it -- will help with minor first-aid problems, too. And it should be noted: There are no wastebaskets in any of the huts. You are supposed to carry out everything you brought in, including your trash.

*This year the hut season began on a full-service basis on June 7. It will end between Sept. 6 and Oct. 12, depending on the hut. Several huts were opened in early May, and will be open again after their full-service closing, on a "caretaker" basis. In that case, you can stay at the hut overnight, but you must bring your own food and sleeping bag; the gas stove and utensils are available for cooking.

*Carter Notch and Zealand Falls huts are open on a "caretaker" basis throughout the fall, winter and spring. The bunk rooms are not heated at all and the caretaker keeps the common room only a bit above freezing when it is really cold outside. Both huts are reached by well-protected trails that do not climb steeply.

*Last winter my wife and I went into Zealand on cross-country skis on a bright but bitterly cold day, lunched at the hut and headed out again. It would be hard to say whether the summer or the winter trip is more lovely. Both should be enjoyed -- and the huts help make it possible.