Like most of the trails in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, the Gale River Trail begins with forgiving dirt and mud but quickly changes to unforgiving rock. For most of the 4.6-mile climb up the trail, my wife, Lisa, and I were serenaded by the sound of rapids rushing down the nearby river and the ominous rumble of thunderstorms in the distance.
We crossed over the waterway countless times on rock and log bridges, smelling the fragrant pine, before we reached the last leg — a steep ascent on awkward slabs of rock. Exhausted, we made it to our oasis for the night: the Galehead Hut, where a sign outside the door read, “Built 1932, Elevation 3800 feet.”
We plopped down on the long bench outside the lodge, too tired to move, and admired the panorama of peaks before us. Ridge after ridge, a carpet of green tumbled down the flanks to the valley below. It was like peering at a Japanese silkscreen in Technicolor.
This was the vista that seduced us as we traversed 26 miles over five days in June, gaining and losing a staggering total of 15,000 feet of elevation.
Seems quite simple, really: one foot in front of the other. But when you’re faced with adversity such as flooded trails, heavy humidity, biting black flies, the threat of thunderstorms, and ascents and descents on rock-laden trails that at times feel like a Marine Corps obstacle course, nothing is easy. Then you arrive at the next hut, each a day’s hike apart, looking at this exquisite view, and all is good. You’ve accepted the challenge and this is your just desert, one of the many reasons the huts continue to thrive 125 years after they were first introduced.
In 1876, 39 avid “trampers” met in Boston and created the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to hiking in the White Mountains. Covering more than 750,000 acres in northern New Hampshire, this national forest is home to more than 1,000 miles of both talus-covered and soft stream-laced paths, including a good 117 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Many of the people in the room for that fateful meeting had climbed in the Swiss Alps and thus had firsthand knowledge of high-Alpine huts, mountain retreats for backpackers. They were eager to design this exact type of lodging in the United States for the increasingly popular sport.
Twelve years later, the stone Madison Spring cabin opened in a col between Mount Adams and Mount Madison. Under the tutelage of Joe Dodge, the determined founder of the AMC hut system, seven more high huts would be built in the Whites over the next 50 years.
You might expect these huts, which have such a long legacy, to be rustic old cabins in the woods. They may have started that way, but the AMC has been renovating the lodgings for years. So now, Lakes of the Clouds, the hut we’d stay at on our final night, has a wonderful new dining room with floor-to-ceiling glass windows that overlook the panoply of peaks. The Zealand Falls Hut sits beside a rushing waterfall, perfectly situated for soaking your feet after a long day of hiking. The AMC knew exactly what it was doing when it chose these locales for its lodgings. And it continues to keep them up to date with solar heating, compost toilets and other green technology.
Inside Galehead, Kimball, a member of the five-person hut crew (nicknamed the “croo”), planted a glass of lemonade in my hand and told us that we could choose any of the rooms to bunk in that night. Rooms hold six to 15 bunk beds, stacked as doubles or triples, and we locate two that haven’t been taken. Lisa and I had chosen to bring sheets to cover the mattress, which was perfectly fine, but many other hikers opt to sleep in sleeping bags.
Before dinner, the skies opened up, and we were soon peering at a double rainbow that rose atop one of the neighboring peaks. After our calorie-burning trek, the meal that night was particularly soothing: turkey vegetable soup served with fresh-baked honey-oat bread, salad and stuffed shells with marinara sauce. We dined communal-style at long wooden tables.
Little did we know that we would hike the same route with many of the people we sat with that night, quickly becoming friends as we met up again and again, hut after hut. After dinner, we went outside with an avid birder, listening to the calls of the blackpoll warbler, the white-throated sparrow and Swainson’s thrush while staring at a summit, Mount Stinson, that I would learn was 26 miles away.
As with camping, lights were out at 9:30 p.m., and we were in bed, reading our novels by headlamp.
The next morning, we rose to a hearty breakfast and bagged our first 4,000-foot peak, Galehead Mountain, an easy scramble from the hut along a waterlogged trail. Then we grabbed our packs, said goodbye to the croo and began a seven-mile hike that was by far the most grueling of the trip.
We spent the day on the Appalachian Trail, following the steep white blazes to the summit of 4,902-foot South Twin Mountain. We were rewarded for our efforts by the sight of a spruce grouse, posing patiently on the trail to ensure that we snap its photo.
After a far too quick lunch of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, interrupted by black flies gnawing at our necks, we spent the better part of the afternoon on a long, tiring descent. With our legs like spaghetti, each step became more tentative, and we slipped several times on the wet rock.
“The only rock I want to see is the diamond on my finger after accompanying you on this trip,” my wife blurted out at one point.
Not long after, thankfully, we heard the sound of rushing water, a sign that we were close to the Zealand Falls Hut. We checked in, found two lower-level bunks and took naps, opting to wash off in the falls after dinner.
The next morning, we rose at 6:30 to the plucking of a banjo, played by Levi, the hutmaster. The previous day, we’d stirred to Kimball reading a verse from the Mary Oliver poem “Wild Geese.” This is how one greets the day at the huts. The jarring sound of an alarm is replaced by pleasant melody and lyrical prose.
The first duty of the day now complete, Levi, Kimball and the other croo members at the huts brought out a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, pancakes and oatmeal. As we ate, they delivered the all-important weather report. Then the croo came out in costume — dressed, for instance, as Hans and Franz from “Saturday Night Live” — to perform a silly skit that helped get their points across: Hikers must leave with all their belongings, including garbage; should fold their blankets properly; and should remember to tip.
That’s merely the beginning of the croo’s often-arduous day. Twice a week, members must bring down a full pack of garbage, often in excess of 60 pounds, and come back with a full pack of food. If you happen to be a croo member at the Galehead Hut, the hut most remote from any trailhead, that’s a 9.2-mile round-trip hike. Dinner is served promptly at 6 p.m. to a hungry group of hikers, excited to dive into the freshly baked bread, soothing soup, salad and main courses of lasagna or pork loin. Evening programs often include a naturalist-led hike to see alpine wildflowers and other native flora.
During our breakfast at Zealand Falls, Levi presented a young lad, AJ, with a badge for completing his AMC Junior Naturalist workbook. Much to AJ’s chagrin, he first had to perform a few more tasks to earn that badge: don a Daniel Boone-style coonskin cap, deliver a long passage on how he’d be a trusty guardian of the land and then toss that cap into the air to truly celebrate like a graduate.
Serving on the croos is a proud tradition that draws stiff competition every year: This summer, more than 120 college students applied for the 12 available spots at the huts, and at the end of it, their experiences, like those of their predecessors, will be recorded in pictures and books that visitors can thumb through in each hut’s library. Lisa and I hiked out of Zealand Falls with an older man, Willie, who told us that he’d worked at that same hut in 1964. Evidently, once you’ve been part of the AMC croo, it never leaves you.
On the third day of the trek, the humidity was high, and we learned to truly appreciate the water that was always by our side. We stopped often to dip our bandannas in a cool stream and rub our hot necks and foreheads. That afternoon, we hiked on the historic Crawford Path. Created in 1819, it’s the oldest continuously maintained hiking trail in the United States, starting in the picturesque mountain pass called Crawford Notch.
After eight miles of hiking, we made it to Mizpah Spring Hut and had dinner with the same group of people we’d been traveling with for the past three days. Partaking in the same challenges and dining at a long table where it’s easy to converse, folks tend to open up and share stories that they might not normally divulge down below.
Kim Gordon of Oxford, Mass., told us that she’s a breast cancer survivor who took three years to get her health back. She started hiking with a friend last summer and has already summited 11 4,000-foot peaks in the Whites.
“It becomes addictive, being in nature,” she said. “It’s spiritual for me.”
We went over maps and swapped hiking stories with the two Genevieves from Quebec City, though our French is limited and their English was only a wee bit better. Rachael Katz and her husband, Micah Zimmerman, had come all the way from Beijing to hike, after dropping their two kids off at a summer camp in Maine.
“We needed to breathe some fresh air,” said Rachael.
We would hike and share stories and sardines with Rachael and Micah the better part of the next day, easily our favorite part of the trip. From Mizpah Spring, we climbed to the summit of Mount Pierce on a challenging yet fun hike where you reach out for root or rock to help you clamber upward. Then you’re above the treeline on the Crawford Path, on a relatively level ridge walk.
At first, we were socked in by a cloud, but soon the layers of mist started to disperse, and we were treated to views of the bald knob atop Mount Eisenhower. It was like walking on a lunar landscape, bordered by velvety green sedge and moss, often staring in awe at alpine wildflowers — bog laurel, white bunchberry, purple fireweed — in bloom.
Then we spotted the Lakes of the Clouds Hut and its lofty perch atop a 5,200-foot ridge with stunning vistas of the Mount Washington Hotel below and the Cog Railroad ambling slowly up to the Mount Washington summit, where we would soon follow.
From Lakes of the Clouds, it’s all hardscrabble rock the last 1.4 miles to the top of Mount Washington. The night before our ascent, the wind was pushing hard against the windows of our room at the hut, and when we woke the next morning — to the sweet strains of a violin played by croo member Emily — a thick cloud cover held us in its embrace.
The summit of Mount Washington, the highest point in New England, is legendary for its volatile weather. Until recently, it held the record for the highest recorded surface wind speed, 231 miles per hour. Lisa and I had no idea what to expect on our last stretch of trail, especially with rain in the forecast. We slowly put on our hiking boots, and off we went into the dense sheet of white. Then something quite magical happened. The winds ceased, the sun popped through the clouds, and we joyously arrived at the 6,288-foot apogee. We’d earned our prize, the spectacular vista of Mounts Jefferson, Adams and Madison.
Nestled between Adams and Madison is a stone hut built 125 summers ago, announcing the debut of the Appalachian Mountain Club. For us, Madison Spring Hut would have to wait for another trip.
One that’s sure to cost me a diamond or two.
Jermanok blogs at www.ActiveTravels.com.