It’s no secret that the White Mountains of New Hampshire hold some of the very best hiking in the state. And one of the most iconic and memorable experiences you can have in these mountains is backpacking the eight Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) huts along 56+ miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT). It’s the perfect way to immerse yourself in the landscape and to experience the variety of the Presidential Range. Ranging from 2,700 feet to above 5,000 feet above sea level, the huts offer an opportunity to sleep above treeline and to watch the sun rise from the highest points in New Hampshire. It truly is one of the most memorable adventures you can have in New England, if not the entire United States. Here’s how to do it.
Founded in Boston in 1876, the AMC has a longstanding history with the Whites. The goal has always remained the same: to preserve and encourage people to use and enjoy the region. The hut system was born out of that mission, and the first hut, Madison Spring Hut, was built in 1888. While the first huts evolved from the sites of primitive shelters and hunting lodges, Joe Dodge is credited for deciding that all huts should be within a day’s walk of each other. He became the AMC Huts Manager in 1928 and by 1931 he built three new huts to link the system together. Dodge also set about modernizing and improving huts so backpackers not only receive shelter from weather, but enjoy a comfortable stay.
Backpacking the huts today is in many ways a timeless experience. After a day of hiking, it is a small luxury to warm yourself by the fire and hang up your damp clothes. There are trail logs in each hut that include countless names, dates, and mementos of past hikes. The huts offer a window to another era and it’s a lovely tradition to join. The AMC employs caretakers that are most often college students and recent grads. They are fondly known as the “croo” and take care to make sure hut guests are warm, fed, and entertained. They’re keen outdoor enthusiasts and always a pleasure to talk to, whether it’s about the weather or life’s bigger questions. There’s an unmistakable feeling of family up there and it’s one reason that hikers return season after season. The croo even perform skits after dinner and wake up guests in unique ways. My most recent stay at Lonesome Lake Hut, I was woken up by a recitation of a Mary Shelley poem.
Why You Should Backpack Hut-to-Hut in the Whites
Imagine your backpack loaded and your boots laced up. There are 56+ miles of diverse trails to explore and nowhere else in the world to be. Hiking south to north, you start off in Franconia Notch surrounded by rugged granite. Just on the first full day, you take in lakes, waterfalls, and the spectacular Franconia Ridge—arguably the most scenic traverse on the East Coast. Over the course of the next week, you’ll see wildlife, alpine flowers, and 360 degree views. Hiking above treeline in the White Mountains is like entering another world, both for its stunning beauty and variable weather.
Hiking hut-to-hut offers logistical benefits as well. You don’t need to carry a tent, sleeping pad, or bulky food for dinner and breakfast. Potable water is available, too. These accommodations are all provided at the huts, making for easier hiking and the creature comforts of home above treeline.
Last but not least: if you choose to backpack alone, huts offer camaraderie and conversation, on and off the trail. Hikers always find common ground.
What You Should Know Before You Go
Huts book up quickly in the busy summer months, so it’s essential that you make reservations in advance. The huts are all full service from June 2nd through September. You can search availability, see rates, and make reservations on the AMC website. Rates are discounted for AMC members, but you can expect to pay over $100 per night for full service, which includes dinner, bed, and breakfast.
The AMC has shuttles available to take you between trailheads and the two main lodges. Take note of the schedule, remember to make a reservation, and keep in mind that a one-way ride costs $19.
Take everything you would on a normal 9 day backpacking trip, but don’t bring the tent, pad, camp pillow, or food for dinner and breakfast. You should only need capacity for 3 quarts of water as you will be able to fill up at the huts. Also, keep in mind when packing apparel, as the “croo” say, “Cotton Kills.” Bring wool or synthetic clothing along. Make sure you have cold and warm weather apparel because the weather changes quickly above 4,000 feet. Along the same vein, make sure you bring a cover for your 50L (minimum) backpacking bag in case it rains.
Hiking Itinerary for All 8 Huts
Day 1: Lonesome Lake Hut (5.4 miles)
Park at Highland Center, take shuttle to Lafayette Campground.
Lonesome Lake Trail to Lonesome Lake Hut.
Distance: 1.6 miles; Elevation Gain 950 feet.
Optional: Hike to Kinsman Pond via Fishin’ Jimmy Trail.
Distance: 3.8 miles round trip; Elevation Gain 1,400 feet.
Day 2: Greenleaf Hut (9.1 miles)
Descend by Lonesome Lake Trail to Lafayette Place.
Distance: 1.6 miles.
Falling Waters Trail to Little Haystack. Franconia Ridge over Mount Lincoln to summit of Mount Lafayette. Descend to Greenleaf Hut.
Distance: 7.5 miles; Elevation Gain 3,850 feet.
Day 3: Galehead Hut (7.7 miles)
Greenleaf Trail to Mount Lafayette summit. Take Garfield Ridge Trail to Galehead Hut.
Distance: 7.7 miles; Elevation Gain 2,950 feet.
Day 4: Zealand Hut (7.0 miles)
Take the Twinway from Galehead Hut to summit South Twin and Guyot Mountains to Zealand hut.
Distance: 7.0 miles; Elevation Gain 1,750 feet.
Day 5: Mizpah Hut (long day, 13.8 miles)
Follow the AT along the Ethan Pond Trail to Route 302 then follow Webster Cliff trail to Mizpah Hut.
Distance: 13.8 miles; Elevation Gain 3,450 feet.
Day 6: Lake of the Clouds Hut (4.8 miles)
Take Webster Cliff Trail to its end, follow Crawford Path to Lake of the Clouds Hut.
Distance: 4.8 miles; Elevation Gain 1,650 feet.
Day 7: Madison Spring Hut (7.9 miles)
Follow Crawford Path up Mount Washington, Clay, Jefferson, and Adams to Madison Spring Hut.
Distance: 7.9 miles; Elevation Gain 3,200 feet.
Day 8: Carter Notch Hut (long day, 13.6 miles)
Take the AT to Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, then take the Lost Pond Trail to the Wildcat Ridge Trail to Carter Notch.
Distance: 13.6 miles; Elevation Gain 4,350 feet.
Day 9: Head home (6 miles)
Hike to Pinkham Notch via the Appalachian Trail. Arrive by 3PM shuttle to Highland Center.
Originally written by RootsRated for Kelty.
Featured image provided by Gale Straub