WHITE MOUNTAINS — For more than a century, the Appalachian Mountain Club has been welcoming hikers to its eight backcountry huts in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Offering comfortable bunks, knowledgeable staff, and delicious and plentiful food, the huts are the perfect destination for backpackers of all levels. Located near scenic ponds and waterfalls, as well as near the summits of New England’s highest peaks, these rustic oases are not only wonderful destinations but also ideal starting points to explore more remote areas.
Looking for a backpacking adventure, my 11-year-old son and I embarked on a three-day trek in the heart of the Whites. With reservations at two huts, Zealand Falls and Galehead, we mapped out a 19-mile itinerary that would have us ascending five 4,000-foot mountains.
Our trip began on the Hale Brook Trail. My son eagerly ascended the rising path, marveling at the lightness of his pack. “I can see why people like backpacking to AMC huts,” he said. “We can go faster when we are not carrying our tent, stove, or all the food we usually bring on our overnight trips.”
Despite the modest weight on our backs, the ruggedness of the trail and the midday heat eventually took a toll. Happily, when we arrived at Zealand Falls Hut we were welcomed by an energetic crew member, “Enjoy a cold drink and make yourself at home.”
Our first task was to set up our bunks, which were equipped with a comfortable cushion, pillow, and wool blankets. We needed to supply only sheets or a sleeping bag. With a couple of hours to spare before dinner, it was time to unwind and enjoy the beauty from atop the cascading stream.
As 6 p.m. approached, three dozen guests slowly assembled in the cozy dining area. Sitting family style around three tables, we were introduced to the night’s menu, a four-course fare of salad, fresh-baked bread, chicken, and dessert. Then music to the ears of any hungry hiker, the hutmaster said, “Take as much as you want, but please eat everything you take.” Our plates quickly were full and soon after our bellies, too.
In addition to satisfying hearty appetites, hut meals are great opportunities to make new friends. At our table a father and his 5-year-old daughter were enjoying their first family backpack. After dinner the four of us took a leisurely stroll to Zealand Pond and then capped off the evening with some competitive games of Uno. “Just one more game?” my son pleaded, but we retired for some much-needed sleep.
Bright sunlight and pancakes awaited us early on the second day, as did my brother and nephew, who had hit the trailhead early to join us for the final two legs of our excursion. Today’s leg: an ambitious seven-mile jaunt to Galehead Hut.
Heading south along the Appalachian Trail, the initial climb was aggressive. We were soon rewarded at the precipitous ledges of Zeacliff with the day’s first breathtaking panorama. Here, the path moderated, as it weaved along the ridgeline. Past Zealand Mountain’s wooded highpoint, we soon reached the picturesque summit of Mount Guyot. Nearly seven miles from the nearest road, we had incredible vistas in all directions. It was time to lighten our loads and enjoy lunch.
South Twin Mountain remained the last peak of the day. Ascending the gradual trail that led to the treeless pinnacle, we admired the sights one last time. Then the only thing standing in the way of us and the comfortable confines of Galehead Hut was a nearly one-mile steep descent. “I can’t wait to get there,” my son said. “I wonder what tonight’s dessert will be.” Carefully making our way down, we eventually reached the hut, which was still more than 3,800 feet above sea level.
Rebuilt in 2000, Galehead Hut showcases state of the art, environmentally-friendly technology, including composting toilets, solar panels, and wind energy devices. Each hut incorporates these or similar technologies since AMC works to ensure minimum impact to the fragile ecosystems the huts call home.
Reliving the day’s travels over another hearty meal, topped off by fresh-baked pumpkin pie, it was fun hearing how others had made their way on another perfect summer day in the Whites.
As the sun set, low clouds rolled over the summits. Sitting on a small ledge outside, I could think of no better place to be. The only sound was the chorus of Bicknell’s thrushes, white-throated sparrows, winter wrens, and blackpoll warblers.
Next morning we packed up for the hike back to civilization. Of course, we could not hit the trail without sustenance. The Galehead crew, as the Zealand Falls team had the day before, not only prepared a scrumptious breakfast, but they also performed an entertaining skit with “Bill Nye, the Science Guy,” to encourage us to tidy our bunks and carry out our trash.
Heading off, we retraced our steps back to the summit of South Twin. The views from the day before had been replaced with cool fog and strong winds but by the time we reached the scenic viewpoints atop North Twin Mountain the sun had burned through.
We were surrounded once again by seemingly limitless scenes of mountains and valleys — a perfect way to cap off our three-day adventure.
Completing the final 4½-mile stretch, we followed the meandering Little River back to the parking area. As we reached the end of the trail, my son proudly exclaimed, “I love backpacking. When can we go again?” I am sure many an AMC Hut adventure ends the same way.