Hiking the Presidential Traverse in the White Mountains was hands-down the most amazing experience I’ve ever had, and I am still in awe. I feel completely incapable of finding the words to express how beautiful and special those mountains are, so I’m hoping that my pictures will do the job for me.
For those who don’t know, the Presidential Traverse is a one-way trek across the summits of the Presidential Range. There are 9 mountains, all in excess of 4,000 ft.; in fact, all but the last 2 are above 5,000 ft. We chose to start with the Northern Presidentials in order to tackle the greatest elevations gains and most difficult terrain while we were fresh. In all the traverse is 19 miles and 18,000 feet of elevation gain. If you think the stats sound impressive, wait until you see the views!
Our day started at 4:30 a.m. with a 2.5 hr. drive to the Clinton Rd. trailhead where we left a car at what would be the end of our traverse. We then had to backtrack half an hour with our second car to get to our starting point at the Appalachia trailhead, where we took the Valley Way trail up Mt. Madison. By the time we got started it was around 8:00–a little later than we had been aiming for, but that still left us with about 10 hours of daylight, which we hoped would be sufficient!
Jaime says this is her “I-think-we-might-be-crazy-but-let’s-do-it-anyway look”.
We had about a mile of runable trails with beautiful foliage, and then we got down to business:
Thankfully we knew to expect trails like this after doing the Pemi Loop this summer.
Our first view!
And our first snow sighting!
As we came out above the treeline on Mt. Madison, we were greeted by this sign: “The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died there from exposure, even in the summer. Turn back NOW if the weather is bad.” Yes, we kept going.
While planning the trip, we spent many anxious hours stalking the weather reports from the higher summits and deliberating about whether or not it would be safe to attempt this traverse so late in the season, especially since there was ice on all the 5,000-footers and wind chill could easily put the temps in the single digits. After getting some advice from more experienced hikers, we decided it was worth a shot, and it turned out all our worries were for nothing because we had exceptionally nice weather all day!
The Madison Hut with the Mt. Madison summit in the background
It took us almost 2 hours to cover the 4 miles to the Madison Hut, gaining about 4,000 ft. in the process. It was a tough climb, and when we got to the hut, we realized that we had made a fatal mistake. We had missed the trail that took us up and over the summit and now would have to hike a mile out of our way to get there. I hated to miss the chance to stand on the top of that mountain, but we all agreed that we couldn’t afford to take the extra time if we were going to make it out of the mountains before dark, so we pressed on to Mt. Adams. I guess that means that we did not officially complete the Presidential Traverse. :/ Next time!
From the Madison Hut on, we were above the treeline the entire way, so we were completely spoiled with views like this ALL DAY LONG. I still can’t get over how beautiful the colors were!
On our way up Adams we discovered what hiking the Northern Presidentials is all about. There are no trails on these rocky summits, only cairns and blazes painted on the rocks to point the way.
We also discovered that you can’t just step on a rock and expect it not to move–even the big ones often shift under your weight. We had a couple of 50-minute miles here as we worked our way up and over this boulder field.
From the top of Adams looking towards Mt. Washington with it’s frosty white top.
Group selfie on the top of Adams
We thought going up Adams was tricky, but going down was downright treacherous! The rocks near the top were completely coated with rime ice, which isn’t a big deal when you’re climbing, but makes for very slippery footing when you’re descending. Thankfully the ice only extended down a few hundred feet, so we just picked our way down ever so carefully until we got to more stable footing.
Then it was on to Jefferson!
That big one on the right is Jefferson, then the “small” hump is Clay, and then Mt. Washington in the clouds.
Jefferson was another tough climb, similar to Adams, though it seemed longer because we descended a long way into the valley before heading back up.
Jefferson, looking very formidable and very far away!
On the summit of Jefferson! Not a breath of wind here–it was incredible!
There was rime ice on this summit as well, but there was also more of a trail here as opposed to just a jumble of rocks, so we didn’t struggle at all with slippery footing like we did on Adams.
From Jefferson, looking back at Adams (Madison is hidden behind Adams)
Looking ahead towards Clay and Washington (in the clouds)
From there we headed towards Clay, which was basically just a small blip on the radar screen of our big ascent up Mt. Washington.
Approaching the Clay summit. I loved the purple lichen along this section!
From Clay we had a rewarding look back at all three of our previous summits.
Jaime and Peter hiking alongside the Cog Railroad tracks.
Approaching the summit!
LOTS of ice up here!!!
The ice here was pretty bad because there were hikers streaming in from all over, and the trampled ice was a thousand times slipperier than the untouched stuff we encountered on Adams. We had to be VERY careful going both up and down!
At the summit we stopped to eat lunch in the cafeteria (pizza!) and refill our hydration packs. The whole place was a zoo with tourists that had taken the auto road and the Cog up the mountain, but it was nice to sit down for awhile and eat some real food! By the time we were ready to leave, the clouds had cleared out a little, and we were able to see the view that we had worked so hard for!
It was very cold and windy on top! We didn’t stick around for long!
View of the valley with the Cog tracks and the auto road in the foreground.
From there we made our way down towards the Lake of the Clouds Hut. The section from the top of Washington to the Lake of the Clouds was the only part of the whole trip where I was cold and had to put on an extra layer. Once we got down off of Washington, the wind wasn’t as strong, and the sun warmed us up again.
Looking back towards Washington from Lake of the Clouds
Our next peak was Monroe, the first of the Southern Presidentials. This marked a turning point in our journey–the peaks from here on out were progressively smaller, and the trails were progressively more runable.
On our way to Monroe.
From the Monroe summit looking DOWN (that’s a first!) at our next peak: Franklin.
The mountains here were spread much further apart. After Franklin we ran along a long ridge to Eisenhower (the first green hump in the picture above), then we had another long stretch to Pierce (the second green hump).
View from Eisenhower
8 down, 1 to go!
We finally started descending below the treeline again on our way to Pierce, and there were lots of pretty sections as things got green again.
That’s Pierce on the right!
The actual summit of Pierce is covered with trees, so this was our last glimpse out over the valley before we started our long descent. The trail down from Pierce was a little over three miles, but it seemed to take a lifetime. With no more mountain summits to look forward to, all I wanted to do was get out of there as fast as possible. Unfortunately, our progress was still painfully slow at this point because the trail was in large part very steep and rocky.
We stopped at the Mizpah hut on our way down to get some real food for supper because at that point I felt like I would rather starve to death than eat another Clif Bar. They were serving potato-cheese soup, and we wolfed it down! From there we had about 2.5 miles to go, and we ended up doing maybe the last mile or so in the dark. We had brought our headlamps just in case, so this didn’t slow us down much. We finally reached the car around 7:00, 11 hours after starting our journey. It was a long, hard, exhausting day, but it could not have been any more rewarding. I think I’ve been forever spoiled by these mountains–I’m afraid I’ll never want to run anywhere else again!