The last rays of twilight mixed with moon glow, casting a pink hue on the craggy peaks. We were on top of 4,312-foot Mount Pierce, as a full moon rose above a wall of mountains. It was a warm, clear night, and the wide-open views from the rocky summit were spectacular. We gazed at the expanse of forests, peaks, and valleys that stretched 360 degrees; Mount Washington, a shadowy behemoth, loomed in the distance. The scene produced an odd sense of vulnerability and infinite possibility. Standing on top of a mountain can do that to you.
We were on a four-day traverse of the Presidential Range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The excursion would take us up seven mountains, with overnight stays at three Appalachian Mountain Club huts. When we read that the AMC system was celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, we booked the trip.
The AMC’s White Mountain hut system is the oldest hut-to-hut hiking network in the country. The first hut in the network, Madison Spring, located in the col between Mount Adams and Mount Madison, was built in 1888. Today, eight “off-the-grid” huts are spaced a day’s hike apart, along a 56-mile-long stretch of the Appalachian Trail, and offer a unique way to experience the mountains.
“The good food, laughs, and sore muscles seem to unite hikers under one roof, with a special bond to the mountain landscape,” says Nancy Ritger, AMC Huts and Cardigan Lodge program manager.
We’re not the only ones moved by the mountains. Andrea Muller, AMC north country youth education director, recalls a school trip to the Zealand Falls Hut with a group of sixth-graders from Lowell. “We got to the hut and the kids were excited and rambunctious, so I ended up leading a group up to Zeacliff, a steep, one-mile hike above the hut,” she said. “ I will never forget when we got to the lookout over Zealand Valley, how the kids just sat, spellbound and quiet, absolutely astounded and moved by the view.”
We started this hike on the Crawford Path, the oldest continuously maintained US footpath. The 2.6-mile hike to the Mitzpah Springs Hut was a steady climb over roots and rocks. We passed beautiful Gibbs Falls and hiked to the sound of falling water for the first mile or so. We passed three croo (the traditional name for the AMC hut crew) members along the way, carrying food and waste back and forth to the hut. In about two hours we’d reached the hut. “Welcome to Pah, and good news!” Bruce, one of the volunteers at the hut, said after signing us in. “We’re having roast turkey tonight with all the trimmings.” Hot, prepared food — dinner and breakfast the next morning — is one of the big draws to staying in a hut. Another is a dry, warm, safe place to sleep.
“I remember once being caught in a freak snowstorm in the middle of May,” said John Churchill, a New England native and avid White Mountains hiker. “I can’t tell you how happy I was to finally see the Madison Spring Hut. To this day, I think it saved my life.”
Similar stories among the croo and hiking community abound, along with a slew of happy moments, and banter on which hut is the finest. Nick Pizzo, AMC Pinkham program manager, recalled one of his favorite memories: hiking to the Lonesome Lake Hut with his 4-year-old daughter. The hut remains one of his favorites. “I love Lonesome Lake Hut,” he said. “The view of Franconia Ridge is amazing in early morning, and the walk down to the lake before breakfast gets you away from the bustle of breakfast prep. I like to sit on the dock, look for moose, and listen to the morning bird chorus while drinking coffee and think about the day.”
This was our first time at the Mitzpah Springs Hut, and we liked it already. After dropping our gear in Room 4, with 10 bunk beds (and hoping our bunkmates were not heavy snorers or restless insomniacs), we took the short hike up to Mount Jackson. After dinner (that night the croo served 60 hikers), we climbed to the moonlit summit of Mount Pierce.
The next day was bright and clear, a good thing as we’d be spending most of it above treeline. We hiked along at a steady pace, in idle conversation and in silence, taking in expansive views, warmed by the sun and cooled by mountain breezes. As we climbed, the trees became stunted and squashed, and finally disappeared. In their place were tiny alpine plants: ancient and fragile Diapensia poking from crevices and red lichen hugging jagged rocks and cairns.
We looped around the summit of Mount Eisenhower, climbed the ridges to Mount Franklin and Mount Monroe, and hiked up to the Lakes of the Clouds Hut. It’s the most popular (we’ve heard the croo call it Lakes of the Crowds) and highest hut in the system, set at 5,050 feet on the shoulder of Mount Washington. The place was hopping! The hut can sleep up to 90 people in bunkrooms, and it was at capacity. We swapped stories with our dining table mates, and watched the AMC staff perform, as they do every night or morning, funny skits about hut rules and hiking etiquette. Later, an AMC naturalist gave a talk on the “greening” of AMC huts.
The high mountain huts are largely powered by solar panels and small wind generators. The six below-treeline huts use composting toilets, while the high huts use a waterless storage system. Food is composted and all waste is carried out — some by helicopter, some by croo members.
Our next day would be the toughest. We scrambled up Mount Washington (to find crowds!) and then across the ridgeline toward Mount Jefferson. It took all morning to get there, across rugged, rocky terrain with thigh-killing climbs and knee-crunching descents. Next was Mount Adams, a menacing hunk of granite. The last 0.3-mile trek from the crossroads between Sam Adams and Adams was grueling. We scrambled over large schist boulders and jumbles of rocks, before making the final, steep, slow-going descent to the Madison Spring Hut. Hungry, exhausted, we clambered into the welcoming hut, dropped our packs, shed our boots, and stretched out on the bunks for a nap. The sound of thunder woke us up. Sitting at 4,800 feet, above the sheer walls of Madison Gulf, we watched crackling white light bounce off the granite, and listened to thunder echoing off the mountain walls, leaving us spellbound and wide-eyed, and thankful once again, for safe harbor in the storm.
APPALACHIAN MOUNTAIN CLUB 800-372-1758, www.outdoors.org, full-season hut rates $88-$141, including dinner, breakfast, and naturalist programsDiane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.