Presidential Traverse Trip Report
Hikers: Dave H. and John C.
When: September 19, 2008
Elevation Gain: ~9000 vertical feet
Mileage: ~24 miles
Time: ~15 hours
After our 2007 mini adventure to Arizona (Day 1: Grand Canyon N Rim to S Rim; Day 2: 80+ mile cycle to the base of Mt Humphries; Day 3: summit Mt Humphries) my brother-in-law Dave and I were looking for a trip this summer. We are usually joined by other family/friends but it just didn’t work out this year. Neither of us had spent any real time in the Northeast and we were excited at the prospect of exploring a new range.
Our objective was to day-hike, on September 19, 2008, the “presidential traverse” in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We defined our presidential traverse as summiting all of the peaks/mountains named after presidents (Mt. Madison – Mt. Pierce). Based on how we felt when we arrived at the last presidential peak in the traverse (Mt. Pierce), we would consider attempting to summit the last two non-presidential peaks in the southern tip of the presidential range.
Given that we would have only one car, we had some logistical issues to work out with how to shuttle to the start or finish. Our plan was to camp the night before at the Appalachia trail head off of route 2, hike the traverse, and then have our car waiting for us at the end of the traverse at the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) Highland Center or stay at the AMC center overnight and take a shuttle back to Appalachia the next day. Both options were available to us either using the AMC shuttle or having an individual named Bruce drive us (Bruce was referred to us by the AMC center). We opted for the AMC shuttle since they offered to meet us the night before at the AMC center and drive us to our starting point with our camping gear. This would allow us to have our car available when we finished the traverse.
We both arrived at Boston a little after 4pm. I came from the DC area and Dave came from Ohio. We originally planned on renting a car, but a very generous friend of Dave’s in Boston decided to let us borrow their car for the drive up to Crawford Notch (she even met us at the Airport, leaving us the car stocked with snacks and drinks while she took the “T” back home with her two kids ages 5 and under). We arrived to meet the AMC shuttle around 9pm and then were shuttled up to the Appalachia trail head. We arrived at the trail head at roughly 10:00pm. Following our driver’s suggestion, we camped under the power lines just a few yards up the trail. This area was heavily vegetated with uneven terrain, but we were able to find a few open soft grassy spots that were good for camping.
The forecast for the evening called for temperatures in the mid 20’s, however we stayed warm throughout the night. We noticed the next morning our water was not frozen, the grass had some frost on it, but we felt like the temperature was well above the mid 20’s. So apparently, the forecast was off a bit. The weather for our hike was spectacular! In the morning there was a beautiful under cast. For the rest of the day, it was sunny, no clouds, upper 40’s, and zero wind.
Our plan was to wake up at 4:15am and start hiking by 4:45am. Originally, we had considered starting early enough to make it up to the top of Madison in time to take some pictures of the sunrise. But given that sunrise was scheduled for 6:22am and that we estimated that we would need at least 2 hours to get to the top, we ditched our plan to make the sunrise. We woke up at 4:15am, broke camp, and stashed our gear to pick up after we finished the traverse. In the area we camped, we found plenty of power line poles that are great for locking your gear up to and remembering where you placed it. We ended up starting our hike at 5:15am, slightly later than what we planned.
As for our route up to Madison, the first peak in the traverse, we planned to take the Valley Way trail up to the Madison Hut and then follow the Osgood trail to the summit. This is what was suggested in other trip reports that we read to minimize climbing through steep terrain. Unfortunately, we did not stick to our plan. We missed a left fork onto the Beachwood Way trail and ended up continuing on the Airline trail up to the Madison Hut. We did have some great views of the under cast of clouds once we broke the tree line on the Airline trail.
If we did this trip again, we would go up the Watson Path trail on the Northern side of Mt Madison to avoid having to retrace our path to the Madison Hut after we made the summit. I don’t believe we saw anyone on the way up at Madison. The Madison Hut was not open and there was no water there.
We made it up to the summit of Madison in about 2 hours and 20 minutes, which is about what we estimated based on a climb we made earlier in August up Mt. Nebo in Utah. Both of us agreed that we paced ourselves a little too fast up through the first 4000 feet of elevation gain. Most of our hiking experience has been out West and our one-day elevation gains are usually in the 4000 – 6000 ft range. So this hike was new territory for us both. We had covered similar mileage, in a rim-to-rim hike across the Grand Canyon, but the elevation gain was below 6000ft and the terrain was much smoother.
Based on my experience, having hiked parts of the AT in the mid-Atlantic and in the South, I have to admit that I thought the trails were going to be fairly smooth below the tree line and between the summits. I even considered wearing running shoes to jog through the smooth areas. I vastly underestimated the ruggedness of the trails in the Whites. For a good portion of the hike, you continually have to think about foot placement. As we were hiking, I kept thinking about my conversation with an REI employee back in Virginia, who told me that his brother broke his leg in the Whites recently. I quickly realized how easily this could happen with one wrong step. Some of the areas we encountered required scrambling. For the most part, the boulders are very stable with plenty of grip. However, towards the end of our traverse the rocks became smooth and slippery near Jackson and Webster, which became more of an issue in the dark. Because of the ruggedness of the trails, our progress was much slower than I had expected.
After summiting Madison, we retraced our path down to the Madison hut. We picked up our packs that we had stashed before heading to the top. We said our goodbyes to the AT hikers who were camped out at the hut and made our way for Quincy Adams. Unfortunately, we made a left fork after the hut, which took us around to the Parapet trail, which passes Star lake and follows behind Quincy Adams. I realized that we needed to back track and follow the trail on the North side of the mountain. This detour cost us nearly half an hour. Once we were back on the right path, we followed the Airline trail until we were parallel with the North face just below the summit. We then made a quick scramble to the top. Since Quincy is not part of the trail, we wondered how often people attempting a presidential traverse inadvertently skip Quincy Adams.
After summiting Quincy, we dropped down into a saddle and then scrambled up to the top of Adams. From there we picked up the Gulfside trail to Jefferson. For the most of the traverse, the trail is marked by cairns, so it’s pretty difficult to find yourself off of a trail. At times we felt like the cairns were a bit over done especially when we started seeing cairns 10 feet apart from one another.
Since the Madison Hut was closed and the well pump was turned off, we were not able to refill with water at this point. So by the time we got to Jefferson, we were pretty much out of fluids and we were going to have to wait until we got to the top of Washington to get more water. But once we got to Jefferson, we could see that Mt. Washington was not much further (at least it looked that way). We held up atop Jefferson for a good while I gave attention to my feet.
As we were ascending Mt. Washington, we started to pass more hikers and tourists doing loop hikes from Washington. Up until then, aside from backpackers at the Madison Hut, our route was devoid of people. To some degree, these friendly faces gave us motivation to make a quick push up Washington with the anticipation of getting some lunch. We have to agree with some of the other hikers on summitpost.org where the development of the top of Mt. Washington does detract from the natural beauty and remoteness of these mountains.
At the summit of Washington, we decided to stand in line for a quick picture before eating lunch. We were able to get a friendly tourist to take our picture, who said that he saw us off in the distance descending Mt Jefferson before we made our way up Washington.
At the cafeteria we ate lunch and refilled our camelbacks before continuing our traverse. We were stopped a little more than an hour. The food in the cafeteria wasn’t bad. I ended up downing a couple of slices of pizza with a cold coke while Dave downed a chilidog. As we started to leave Washington, Dave remembered that he left his hiking poles back in the cafeteria. As he was in the cafeteria retrieving his poles, he heard his name being called over the PA system to come to the front desk to pick up his credit card – fortunate for him that he forgot his poles and that someone was honest enough to turn in his credit card.
We made our way down Mt. Washington down to the Lake of the Clouds hut. Like the Madison hut, this hut was also closed up for the winter season. At the hut, we decided to stop and check our feet. This is a lengthy process as I employ an aggressive foot routine. Unfortunately, Dave had developed a blister about the size of a quarter under his big toe. We still had quite a ways to go, so I was a bit worried, but he claimed that it was not hurting. He treated the blister with some moleskin. While we were there we met a couple of other hikers doing a loop hike. They were impressed that we were doing the traverse in one day and as we were leaving they told us to kick some @$*. I was surprised by how much of a boost I felt from just those few words of encouragement.
The remaining mountains above the tree line after Mt. Washington, Mt. Franklin and Mt. Eisenhower were pretty much short steep climbs. We fired off a few more scenic pictures before we started to drop below the tree line.
On top of Mt. Pierce, there is some rock surface surrounded by trees. So, the view is blocked by foliage. Given that we felt pretty good at this point, we decided against bailing out via the Crawford path back down to Crawford Notch as most folks do. We opted to continue on to the two remaining mountains in the Presidential range – Jackson and Webster.
On our way down from Pierce we stopped at the Mizpah hut. This was the first hut that we came across that was fully operational. We talked with some of the folks at the hut and refilled our water. The one lady I was talking to was a senior and smoking a cigarette. I was surprised that she was able to hike up to the hut, but in talking with her she said that she was able to drive up part way and just hike a short distance. After stopping at the hut, we became a little disoriented, but we were able to find a sign almost directly next to where we had exited the woods pointing in the direction of Jackson and Webster.
For the remainder of the hike to Jackson and Webster the terrain was very different than the terrain above the tree line. Some parts of the trail consisted of boggy flat ground with timbers laid by the AMC club to walk on. Periodically we would need to scramble up or down rock faces. The rock in this area of the Presidential range was very smooth and slick compared to the rock we encountered earlier in the traverse. This made descents a bit tricky especially in areas where the rock was wet.
At the top of Webster, the trees were cleared out enough so that we could see down into Crawford Notch. The sun had just set, but the view was spectacular! This made it worth the extra miles and time to include Jackson and Webster in our traverse. We were both surprised how steep of a descent we would need to make in the dark to get back down to Crawford Notch (~2000ft). We fired off a few more pictures, put on our headlamps and began our descent back down into the notch. From Webster, we backed tracked a little ways to get back on to the Webster cliff trail. Immediately, the terrain got very steep with slick rock faces.
Following the trail at night was pretty straight forward, until we hit the Silver Cascade stream. In the dark, we could see a waterfall up above us. We ventured off the trail for a ways then realized we needed to back track up to where we were and just take our chances crossing the stream (where’s a cairn when you really need one!). After crossing the stream, we were able to pick up the trail again up a steep embankment.
This nighttime decent down from Webster was the toughest part of the hike—steep, slick and a little wet. There was an eerie dark silence—no wind, no animal noises, pure silence save our breathing, steps and poles.
Towards the end of our descent, the steepness of the trail eased up and we found ourselves back on the road just below the AMC Highland Center. We made our way back up to the center, checked back in, picked up our car, and headed back around to Appalachia to pick up our camping gear.
Our total time, starting at the Appalachia trailhead and ending at the AMC highland center was approximately 15 hours. I would definitely recommend the traverse to anyone who wants to hit Mt. Washington as one of the state highpoints, but also would like to experience the natural beauty and remoteness of the White Mountains.
In my opinion, the biggest challenge to doing the traverse is keeping your feet healthy for the amount of time that you are pounding your feet. For me, I took a prophylactic approach. I applied moleskin prior to beginning the hike to those areas of my feet that I know to be problematic. I also used lots of lubricant before and during the hike. During the hike I made sure to check my feet periodically as well as switch out my socks.
The other imperative is proper hydration and nutrition. If there had not been water at Mt Washington and Mizpah Hut there would have been a real risk of dehydration. We both pushed carbs and some protein nearly all 15 hours. We were lucky for such ideal weather conditions. Taking these precautions, we had good success.
After picking up the car we drove the nearly two hours to Manchester, NH where our wives had made a hotel reservation. We arrived around midnight, and after some trouble with the desk clerk, got to our room and cleaned up. At 1:00 AM I found myself watching my favorite TV show, “Man vs. Wild” but Dave was ready for lights out. I guess I was a still a little wound up after covering 24 miles, 9,000 vertical feet and being awake more than 21 hours.
We slept pretty hard, ate way more than our fair share of the breakfast buffet the next morning, and then drove back to Boston. I flew out in the early afternoon while Dave was scheduled to stay in Boston several days for meetings. What a quick trip.
In summary, the presidential traverse is a gem of long-distance day hike. Where else in the East can you pass through more than 10 miles of old growth forest below tree-line, spend more than 10 miles above tree-line with far reaching views in all directions, do a little scrambling, a ton of bolder hopping, and climb and descent the equivalent of the Empire State Building seven times?