Sunday, June 16, 2013

Advice for hiking in the White Mountains

Hiking in the White Mountains

The year I moved to New Hampshire to work as a hiking guide for the AMC, I had hiked the Grand Canyon in a day, Mt. Saint Helens in a day, and multiple challenging hikes in the Sierras.  At the time I was living at 6,000 feet and my daily runs would take me into 7,000 feet of elevation.  I figured that the White Mountains and it's pitiful little Mt. Washington (6,000 footer) had nothing to offer me in the way of challenge or unique beauty.  I discovered that I was completely wrong and now have converted to a White Mountain worshiper.  I am a devoted New England adventurer and enthusiast.  As a fairly recent convert, I think it's important that White Mountain hikers know the challenges they will face when climbing in the White Mountains.

Here are the 5 things every adventurer should know before tackling the White Mountains...

White Mountain Trails are Rocky
1.  It's Rocky.  Growing up in Oregon, we would hike along trails of trampled pine needles and muddy slop.  The Whites are different.  The first 'hike' I did in the Whites was attempt to jog the 1 mile Lost Pond Loop across from the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.  It was nearly impossible.  This "flat" trail was like stumbling through a quarry.  I soon discovered that this was the norm for New England.  Recently, my mom came to visit from Oregon and I took her up to Tuckermans Ravine.  She asked, "Are we walking on a dried river bed?"  "No Mom," I replied, "This is hiking in the Whites.

Advice for Rocky Terrain: Wear sturdy, durable footwear.  For long trips or trips with a weighted pack, consider wearing high-top hiking boots and using trekking poles for stability.

White Mountain Trails are Steep
2.  It's Steep.  In true New Hampshire style, the White Mountain Hikes don't beat around the bush.  When you hike, you climb straight up a mountain.  This is contrary to my West Coast days of taking gentle switch backs up a steep mountain.  For example, on the popular hike from the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center to the Hermit Lake hut (part way up Mt. Washington) you ascend over 1,800 feet in 2.4 miles.  If you were to take the Lion's Head Trail from here, your hike all together would be an elevation gain of 4,250 feet in 4.1 miles!  And don't forget - it's rocky too.

Advice for Steep Trail:  Take your time! Take frequent breaks for water, snack and rest.  Plan ahead by giving yourself plenty of time to tackle the mountains.  Again, I recommend trekking poles and sturdy footwear for mountain climbing - especially on the steep descents.  Don't forget- it might be steep going up, and it's going to be just as steep going down!

White Mountain Trails are Confusing
3.  It's Confusing:  For a newcomer to White Mountain hiking, the multiple criss-crossed trails, colored blazes on trees, and frequent trail signs can be confusing.  Without knowledge of the trail system, maps, and area, it is possible to get confused or lost.  Even experienced hikers (like myself) have become turned around at a trail junctions.

Advice for Confusing Trail Markings:  Appalachian Mountain Club maintains the trails and staff the huts/visitor centers in the White Mountains. They also publish excellent hiking guides and maps with mileage, elevation, etc. Familiarize yourself with The AMC White Mountain Guide and the AMC White Mountain Map Sets.  The cost of the AMC White Mountain Guide is $25 and comes with a set of paper maps.  I also purchase the tyvec maps since they are waterproof.  Know how to read contour maps, and if you are confused, ask a knowledge staff member at one of the visitor centers (Highland Center or Pinkham Notch).  In addition, keep a careful lookout for trail signs, junctions, and river crossings, and finally, know the blaze color you are following.  If you are on the Appalachian Trail for your hike, the trail will always be blazed white.  Surround trails are often in blues and yellows.

4.  It's Crowded:

White Mountain Trails are Crowded
If you are like the typical White Mountain visitor, you will be traveling in July or August.  Summer and fall tourists clog the roads and pack the trails of the White Mountain National Forest.  Because of it's proximity to major cities like Boston, Montreal, New York, and Manchester, AND the over 1,200 miles of hiking trails*, it is one of the most frequented National Forests in the U.S.  This can be less-than-peaceful in the summer along popular hikes such as Mt. Washington, Mt. Lafayette, Diana's Bath, and Mt. Chocura.  Families, camp groups, and beginners take their time and clog the trail, while hard-core-enthusiasts frustratingly try to pass.   It is not always a serene mountain setting.

Advice for Avoiding the Crowds:  If you don't want to be dodging the summer traffic, try hiking in the off seasons.  While the area is definitely a year-round destination, there are times when those congested July hikes are sparse with visitors.  If you aren't comfortable with winter hiking, why not try Mt. Lafayette in early June or early September?  There are fewer people on the trails and the weather is often better.  If you are going hiking in the high-season, take a hike off the beaten path.  Many of my favorite hikes are the ones that don't get much foot traffic, such as Mt. Pierce, Mt. Garfield, Mt. Osceola, and the Moat Mountains.  These all provide stunning views and rewarding hiking-without the crowded trails.

It's worth it!
5.  It's All Worth It!: The challenges of steep, rocky, confusing, and sometimes crowded trails might seem daunting but it is worth the amazing experience of hiking in the White Mountains.  Those who visit are awe-struck by the numerous options for exploring nature and traveling over a land loved by thousands.  There is nothing that compares to the experience of tackling a mountain to gaze down below at it's summit.  My first mountain hike in the White Mountains was up Mt. Bond and it has been my favorite experience ever since.  Yes - I had blisters the size of quarters and a shirt drenched in sweat, but it didn't matter once I saw the beautiful wilderness below me.  I have been a devoted follower and companion to the mountains ever since.

*Wikipedia's White Mountain National Forest page.

Please feel free to leave comments, advice, and questions below!