Sean’s Favorite Day Hikes in the White Mountains: The Presidentials

Since I was about two years old, visiting the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine has been part of most of my summers. Over those decades, I’ve explored the mountains and valleys extensively. While I’m always eager to check out a new trail or summit, I want to share a few favorite day hikes to which I keep returning. This post covers hikes in the Presidential Range.

Overview

Most hikes in these posts are 5-12 miles. As always, check the weather, carry the right gear, and know your own limits. Many hikers — especially those used to more rugged mountains and greater elevations — underestimate the White Mountains and their notoriously fickle and dangerous weather.

The AMC White Mountain Guide offers in-depth descriptions of every trail described below, and of every trail in the White Mountains. The corresponding maps are excellent; I long for maps of this quality when I hike elsewhere.

The depth of the White Mountain guide may overwhelm someone new to the White Mountains. For an alternative, consider the Cold River Camp Hiking Guide, lovingly published by Don Devine and the Chatham Trails Association. It features more focused, opinionated recommendations and suggestions of how to combine trails for the best hike.

This post covers my favorite hikes in the Presidentials. An earlier post covers my favorite day hikes in the Evans Notch area and the Carter-Baldface Ranges.

King Ravine, Madison Hut, and Mount Madison

A hike up King Ravine, below Mount Madison and Mount Adams, offers a number of options for a tour of the best the Presidentials have to offer — all possibly without visiting a summit at all.

The Northern Presidentials, and especially Mounts Adams and Madison, are thick with trails, so there are dozens of possible options. I’ll describe my favorite two routes and optional side trips, while noting a few alternatives.  This hike features exposure above treeline and considerable scrambling on steep, granite boulders, so it is best done on a dry day.

All routes I describe start and end at the Appalachia trailhead on US-302. From Appalachia, the most direct route to King Ravine is to follow the Air Line trail 0.8 miles to its junction with the Short Line trail. Take Short Line until it meets the Randolph Path, and then again when it diverges. The Short Line trail then leads you to a junction with the King Ravine trail. Along the way, you’ll follow a stream for a bit, and, shortly after the junction, reach Lower Mossy Fall. This small waterfall makes a good place for a snack break and a short rest.

In King Ravine, you’ll be presented with two side detours. To me, these are some of the highlights of the trip, but those who don’t enjoy scrambling will probably want to skip them. The first detour leaves to the right to pass through, over, and under the boulders of lower King Ravine on the “Subway.” It’s basically a granite obstacle course.

The second, shorter detour leaves to the right, shortly after the Subway rejoins the main trail. This “ice caves” loop features a bit more scrambling, this time over and under moss- and lichen- covered boulders. Bits of snow and ice linger in their shadows and recesses through the summer.

Once past these detours, it’s time to climb in earnest. The trail ascends over slabs and boulders. As you climb higher on the headwall, the rock gets smaller, with sections of the trail giving way to scree. As you climb, see if you can spot the RMC’s Crag Camp cabin above you on the western wall of the ravine.

At the top of King Ravine — a spot the White Mountain Guide calls “the gateway” — pause to enjoy one of my favorite views in the White Mountains. Look below to see other hikers following you up the ravine, down the Air Line trail on the ridge to the ravine’s eastern edge, to the west to see Mount Adams’s many summits, and to the east to Mount Madison. Here, you also have to make a decision about where you go next.

I’ll describe two routes: one to Madison Hut and down Air Line, offering a chance to summit Mount Madison, and one that heads west, offering a chance to summit Mount Adams and then descend by Crag Camp. You also could do a loop of Adams’s summit, Madison Hut (via the Parapet trail), Mount Madison, and then down via Air Line. If storms threaten, heading to Madison Hut and down the forested Valley Way is your fastest escape route.

Distance to the top of King Ravine via route described: 5.0 miles, ~3875′.

Madison Hut and down Air Line

For Madison Hut, the most direct route is actually to proceed south, from the top of King Ravine, for a short distance — less than a tenth of a mile — to a junction with the Gulfside Trail. Here, turn almost due east to follow the trail to the Madison Spring Hut.

You can stop at the hut or continue on to Madison’s summit. Past the hut, a well-cairned trail leads to the summit of Mount Madison (5366′) in just 0.5 miles. The summit provides 360º degree views, including out over the Great Gulf, of Mount Adams and Mount Washington, to the Carter and Wildcat ridges, and to the north. Return to the hut via the the same route, possibly stopping for some soup or baked goods, or just to sit and refill your water.

From here, Valley Way provides your fastest, most sheltered route down to Appalachia. For a more scenic route, take the Air Line Cutoff and follow the Air Line trail down.  Enjoy the views on this open ridge walk, particularly looking over the edge back down to King Ravine.

As you near Appalachia, consider one last detour. Taking the Randolph Path to the east leads you 0.1 miles to a junction with the Fallsway and Valley Way trails. The Fallsway Trail passes several lovely waterfalls along Sawyer Brook, including Tama, Salroc, and Gordon Falls, on its return to Appalachia.

Total Distance (King Ravine, Madison Hut, Mount Madison, and returning via Air Line and Fallsway trails): 9.6 miles, 4475′.

Mount Adams and down the Spur Trail

Alternatively, you can head (optionally) to the summit of Mount Adams and then down the western side of King Ravine via the Spur trail.

Follow the Air Line trail southwest from its junction with the King Ravine trail. You will soon reach a junction with Gulfside trail. For the summit, stay on Air Line; for the route down, follow the Gulfside trail to Thunderstorm Junction in a col between the summits of Mount Adams and Mount Sam Adams.

If you stay on Air Line, you will reach the summit of Mount Adams (5799′) in 0.6 miles. Take in the views of the northern Presidentials, and especially the Great Gulf. When you are ready to head down, follow Lowe’s Path 0.3 miles northwest to Thunderstorm junction.

Whichever route you took, from Thunderstorm Junction, follow Lowe’s Path another 100 yards to its junction with the Spur Trail, and then take the Spur Trail. About 0.9 miles down the Spur trail, you will see a small side trail that leads to Knight’s Castle.  There’s a sign, but it is angled for uphill hikers, to keep an eye out. This short detour is worth it for good views back down to King Ravine.

Another two tenths of a mile along, you will reach the Randolph Mountain Club’s Crag Camp (4247′). Stop here for some additional views of King Ravine, Air Line, and much of northern New Hampshire. This is a quieter facility than the AMC’s huts, and don’t plan on finding baked goods or soup waiting.

From Crag Camp, continue following the Spur Trail. You will pass a junction with the Hincks Trail and then Chandler Fall (a 100 yard detour). Shortly after, you will reach a junction with the Randolph Path. You shortest route back to Appalachia is to follow the Randolph Path to Short Line, and then Short Line to Air Line. If you want to repeat less trails, you could instead take the Randolph Path to the Amphibrach, and then return to the parking lot via the Amphibrach and The Link. I personally prefer the more gentle grade and steady footing of the Amphibrach, as well as its route that follows Cold Brook.

Total Distance (King Ravine, Mount Adams, Crag Camp, and returning via the Amphibrach and Link trails): 9.5 miles, ~4700′.

Boott Spur and Glen Boulder Trail

At 6,289′, Mount Washington is the highest peak in the White Mountains. Buildings and parking lots, plus termini to the Auto Road and Cog Railway, cover the summit, which make Mount Washington an unappealing destination for me.

There are, however, a number of options for exploring Mount Washington that offer stunning views and spectacular White Mountains hiking while skipping the madness of the summit. One of the best of these day hikes ascends Boott Spur, briefly joins the Davis Path, and then descends the Glen Boulder Trail, forming a loop from Pinkham Notch. Most of the route is above treeline, yet in contrast to other hikes in this post, it also requires very little scrambling.

From AMC’s Pinkham Notch Center, follow the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. After 0.4 miles and 250′ of elevation, you will reach the junction with Boott Spur. After briefly descending and then climbing for nearly a mile, the trail attains the ridge that makes up the south wall of Tuckerman Ravine. Here, a short side trail leads to a limited view toward Huntington Ravine. From this point, the trail continues climbing and the trees grow shorter before giving way about another mile later. As you climb, turn around and pause to enjoy views of Pinkham Notch, the Carters, and Wildcat. The trail continues above treeline for nearly another mile, offering excellent views of Tuckerman Ravine, before reaching the Davis Path near the summit of Boott Spur. This junction is 3.4 miles and 3400′ from Pinkham Notch.

Follow Davis Path south, ascending about 100′ and descending 250′, to a junction with the Glen Boulder Trail in about a half mile. This section of the Davis Path skirts the top of the Gulf of Slides, with good 360º views to the Gulf of Slides below, Pinkham Notch, Wildcat, and the Carters to the east, Mount Eisenhower and Monroe to the west, and Mount Washington’s summit  to the north. At the junction descend the Glen Boulder Trail. In the first 1.6 miles of the descent, the mostly open trail crosses Slide Peak (4806′, the White Mountain Guide describes it as “rather insignificant”), loses 1,450′, and reaches its namesake. Glen Boulder is a massive glacial erratic visible up and down Pinkham Notch. In return, This spot serves up a gorgeous view up and down the notch. Shortly past Glen Boulder, the trail re-enters the trees, so enjoy your view from the boulder. Another 1.2 miles of descent brings you to a junction with the Direttissima. After a mile of ups and downs, the Direttissima returns you to the Pinkham Notch parking lot.

Total distance: 7.7, ~3600′.

Mount Jefferson via Ridge of the Caps

My family considers a category of hikes to be “cheater hikes.” While these hikes might be short or long, difficult or easy, they all offer views and rewards well in excess of the effort they require.

Climbing Mount Jefferson via the Ridge of the Caps trail is one such hike. From the trailhead in Jefferson Notch — at 3,002′, the highest trailhead in the White Mountains — the trail reaches the summit in just 2.5 miles and 2,700′.

After a mile climb through forest, the trail reaches a large granite outcrop with views of the route, Mount Jefferson, and Mount Washington. From here, there’s just one short wooded section left before you break out onto the ridge. For the rest of the route, the trail is above treeline and and offers outstanding views.

For some, the exposure may be uncomfortable. I’ve felt comfortable taking even novice hikers here, though, for an above-treeline, Presidentials experience. The trail climbs more than 1000′ per mile, but constant views make it easy to forget the work and to enjoy your breaks.

Eventually, you’ll approach the summit (5716′). As you do, the ledges of the ridge give way to smaller, microwave-size boulders and a number of false summits. I usually pick a spot on the eastern side of the summit  for lunch, to complement the western views offered on the ascent and descent. Views to the west include Mount Adams, Mount Washington, the Carter and Wildcat ridges, and the Great Gulf.

Return via the same route as you ascended. The Castle Ridge trail to the north may appear tempting. The Castles offer nice scrambling and views, but the return to the parking lot via the Link Trail is an arduous hike through roots and rocks.

Total distance: 5.0 miles, 2,700′. (0r 6.7 miles and 2850′ if you don’t listen to me and decide to make a loop with the Castles and the Link)

Huntington Ravine

Like Glen Boulder and Boott Spur, Huntington Ravine offers highlights of Mount Washington and the Presidentials while avoiding the crowds and development of the summit. Unlike Glen Boulder and Boott Spur, it requires considerably more scrambling.

Before we go into routes, a note of caution: many hikers, and the White Mountain Guide, consider this the most difficult trail in the White Mountains. This is a steep, exposed hike with considerable scrambling. You should avoid it in wet conditions. Huntington Ravine is not a good descent route. Re-evaluate the conditions, the forecast, and your abilities before you start up the headwall.

If you have a good, dry day, start from AMC’s Pinkham Notch visitor center and lodge. Follow the Tuckerman Ravine trail to its junction with the Huntington Ravine trail (1.3 miles and 1000′). On a summer day, this first part can feel like a highway or a city sidewalk. The crowds thin once you diverge on the Huntington Ravine trail. You will cross the Randolph path and a fire road before reaching a first aid cache (1.3 miles, 1050′ from the junction).

From here, the climb gets steeper. The trail passes between boulders and crosses a steep slope of broken rock (“the fan”). Follow blazes carefully. After crossing a small, unreliable brook twice, the trail climbs the headwall steeply on ledges. The first of these is long and fairly smooth. Others are more broken and in scrub, though still present somewhat challenging scrambles. Two thirds of the way up the headwall, a promontory offers a place for a rest and a view of the ravine. Shortly after reaching the top of the headwall, the trail reaches a junction with the Alpine Garden Trail.

From here, you have several choices, all starting with crossing Alpine Garden. You can descend Lion Head or continue further to the Tuckerman Ravine trail and use that for descent. To extend your tour of Mount Washington’s southeastern slopes, you can also continue to the Davis Path and down Boott Spur or Glen Boulder. From the Tuckerman Ravine trail, you can also instead proceed west on the Crossover to the AMC Lakes of the Clouds Hut, and then down either via the Camel Trail, Davis Path, and Boott Spur, or returning on the Tuckerman Crossover to Tuckerman Ravine. Options abound.

My preference is either to descend via Tuckerman Ravine, or to avoid the crowds by descending Boott Spur. Time and energy permitting, the detour to Lakes of the Clouds offers more views, baked goods or soup, and small alpine lakes.

Distances:

  • Pinkham Notch to Huntington Ravine and Alpine Garden junction: 3.4 miles, 3450′
  • Loop via Tuckerman Ravine: 8 miles, 3500′
  • Loop via Tuckerman Ravine, with detour to Lakes of the Clouds via Tuckerman Crossover: 10.4 miles, 3900′
  • Loop via Davis Path and Boott Spur: 9.2 miles, ~3700′
  • Loop via Davis Path and Boott Spur, with detour to Lakes of the Clouds via Tuckerman Crossover and the Camel trail: ~10.6 miles, ~4,000′

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