by Amy Patenaude
The short flight from Baltimore, Maryland had arrived early and Sue was already waiting at the curb at the Manchester airport as I arrived to pick her up. She jumped into the car and we headed north for her “dream come true” hiking adventure.
Sue wanted to hike Mt Washington and as many 4k peaks as possible during her visit. Last spring I led Sue and her husband up Mt Moosilauke. Sue caught the 4k bug and “needs” to hike all 48 peaks on the 4,000 footer list.
I checked the Appalachian Mountain Club’s website, outdoors.org, every day for weeks only to find that the Lake of the Clouds Hut was booked full. But two days before she arrived, miraculously the site showed vacancy and I made a reservation. This good luck made it possible to try for a 2-day Presidential Traverse—that is hiking nearly 23 miles and climbing 9,000 vertical feet to visit the summits of 8 peaks.
Not only did we have a reservation for a hut stay but our good luck continued with a greatly improving weather forecast that ended up proving true.
Just before 7 am, we dropped a car at the top of Crawford Notch across from the Webster-Jackson Trailhead where we hoped to finish our hike the following day. We then drove to the Howker Ridge Trailhead on the Pinkham B Road in Randolph.
The Howker Ridge Trail is a lightly used rugged route to Mt Madison. The trail traverses the ridge up and over the Howks—bald bumps that have grand vistas. We didn’t meet a single soul until we reached Mt Madison. We enjoyed the nice weather and clear skies but only stayed on the summit long enough to touch the highpoint before we continued on our way. The panorama was grand and we could see all the peaks we had to cross to reach Mount Washington.
We ran into Hiker Ed (he’s hiked the Grid, every 4k peak in every month, 7 times) and he gave us some peanut M&Ms.
At Madison Hut we filled our water bottles and we didn’t linger. We had been on the trail for 4 hours and we had a long ways to go. Up Mt Adams, the 2nd highest peak and the highest without a restaurant, our route was Gulfside and then up and down Lowe’s Path—the way with best footing. We thought we were alone until we were just a few yards from the summit where we saw a dozen hikers hidden between rocks. Mount Washington still looked far away.
Back on the Gulfside Trail we began to meet Appalachian Trail thru hikers on their way to Maine. These first AT hikers were early risers and fast hikers. They had come from Lake of the Clouds, Mizpah Hut and all the way from Crawford Notch.
The sun was hot and Mt Jefferson loomed large in front of us. I had warned Sue that between Adams and Jefferson it would be tough mentally and physically. The trail over large blocky and often sharp rocks make for tough and awkward hiking. Descending into Edmands col makes the trial ahead appear to be a vertical wall and Mt Washington will seem impossibly far away. Well, I confess that is how I have felt each time I do a Presi-Traverse and weight of the trail was heavy here for her too. Sue from sea level Baltimore really bucked up, she was determined and pressed on taking one step after another.
The Caps Ridge Trail is popular since it looks so short and easy on the map since it starts at the height of the land from Jefferson Notch Road, but it is an extremely rugged trail. So it was no surprise to me that the summit of Jefferson was crowded with people sitting on the summit cone. Hikers wanting to tag the highpoint, including us, had to step around these people. Seriously you’d think they figure it out that not sitting on the highpoint might make it more enjoyable.
After Jefferson the footing greatly improves and the gentle traverse over the Monticello Lawn and down to Sphinx col put a spring back in our step. And since summiting Jefferson we could now see the mountains beyond Mt Washington and the open view to the west.
On Gulfside we skirted the summit of Mt Clay, a peak not on the List since it does not have enough prominence between it and Mt Washington. Sue’s face lit up when I told her that we were now climbing Mt Washington.
We constantly met people on the trail. By this time hikers were on their way off of Mt Washington and would descend via the Jewell Trail.
The last Cog Railway trains of the day were headed up as we neared the tracks. We decided to stay put and let one pass. What could be more stupid than getting hit by a train on Mount Washington? We found the answer after turning off the Gulfside Trail and hiking up the Trinity Heights Connector that leads to the very summit of Mt Washington. That answer would be waiting in line to take your photo by the Mt Washington summit sign.
There must have been a 20 minute wait for a turn to take your photo next to the summit sign. No hikers appeared to be waiting and we just passed by. A group of thru-hikers cut line and with safety in their numbers didn’t cause a riot when they quickly took their photo.
Sue wanted a photo with all the peaks she had climbed to be the background of her summit photo and that was easy to do.
Inside the Sherman Adams Summit Building we filled our water bottles and drank greedily. As we sat near the entrance a person asked Sue if she hiked all the way up the mountain. When Sue answered yes the person just gushed with admiration and near disbelief at her efforts for completing such a feat.
We spent some time on the summit enjoying the view and the happy circus atmosphere. The nice weather had attracted visitors from far and wide. Most people wore sneakers or dress shoes and smelled like flowers. The few hikers stood out with worn boots or trail runners and smelled not like flowers—but not as strong as some of the thru-hikers ha ha. We peeked in the stone Tip-Top House before heading down the Crawford Path.
We could see the Lake of the Clouds Hut below us and in about an hour we’d be sitting at the table about to be served supper. From now on the trails would be much smoother and the mountains smaller.
Everyone was just starting to sit down for supper when we checked-in. By the time we shouldered our packs at the trailhead to the time we threw our packs onto our bunk 11 hours had ticked by. A satisfying supper was followed by a heart-filling colorful sunset.
Sleep is not easy since 90+ people filled the hut to capacity; it was a noisy night. Breakfast was yummy and would be the best part of staying at the hut but walking out the door and being right below Mount Monroe beats it.
Actually the staff, The Croo at the Lake of the Clouds Hut are the best! The hard work that these young people do to keep the hut organized and to prepare meals for 90+ guests is remarkable. They even perform a skit after breakfast! You’ll just have to visit a hut and experience it yourself. I don’t want to spoil the surprise but there happened to be over 500 rubber ducks at the hut.
Clouds covered Mt Washington’s summit and we were headed into the better weather. The harder hiking was well behind us. We hiked steadily and comfortably as we hiked over Mt Monroe, Mt Franklin and to Mt Eisenhower. A professional trail crew working on the Eisenhower loop and was hard at work moving rocks.
We turned onto the Mizpah Cut-off and summited Mt Pierce and continued down to the hut. Sue topped off her water and we continued to Mt Jackson.
A surge of AT hikers came by as we left the hut. A trail worker was trying to drain and improve the trail. She had a shovel and worked at the endless task.
Our last summit didn’t fail to please. Jackson’s open ledges gave a nice view back at Mizpah Hut and beyond to the peaks we had hiked. The higher northern peaks were mostly still in the clouds but it was enough to soak in how far we had come in two days.
Our second day of hiking was 7 hours and we were back at the car at Crawford Notch by mid-afternoon. We went swimming at Lower Falls on our way to picking up the other car.
Yes we slept well in my quiet house and in the morning we went wild on the water slides for at Whale’s Tale! The waterpark is thrilling and chilling! We also stopped by the Mountain Wanderer Map and Book Store in Lincoln where Sue bought some maps and a 4k tee-shirt.
I know my friend had a good time. On our way back to the airport she was already planning to come back to hike.