For a concise and highly useful hiking guide to the Presidential Traverse, please refer to Mohamed Ellozy’s excellent Presidential Traverse FAQ.
For my personal arguments supporting the Presidential Traverse as the ultimate one-day hike in New England, see my footnote below.
The Traverse is also commonly begun at 4:30 in the morning, since it usually takes about eighteen hours to complete on the first try, but I decided that I’d rather do the whole traverse at a sprinting pace than wake up that early. My plan was to stay at a nearby motel, hit the trailhead bright and early at 7:30 AM, and reach at least Mt Pierce before sunset (about 7:15). My fiancée kindly agreed to come to New Hampshire and provide the necessary car service (the phrase “discount outlets in Conway” was magically effective), so the trip was on! I picked the weekend after Labor day for an optimum combination of low crowding (and cheapest motel rates), good weather, and a reasonable amount of daylight.
The next step was to try to find a hiking partner. I posted a message on ViewsFromTheTop.com, a New England-based hiking forum. It turns out that a large group was doing the hike on Labor Day weekend, but they were starting at 4:30 AM, so I didn’t seriously consider joining them. I got an email from somebody in Washington DC who was thinking about driving all night to join me. To me this would defeat the purpose of my “late” starting time, but I bit my tongue and told him I’d be glad of the company. In the end, citing the price of gas, he decided not to come. So I’d be doing the hike solo.
The weather forecast was as good as you could hope for: mostly clear, around 60 Fahrenheit (15 C) for a high in the valleys, around 40 (5 C) and thirty-mile-an-hour winds on the summit of Mt Washington. With wind-chill, the effective temperature would be below freezing, so I decided to pack my fleece pants in addition to my usual fall gear. With preparations complete, there was nothing more to do but wait for Friday night and the trip to New Hampshire.
We reached the hotel in good time, rolling in at about 10:00. With luck I'd get almost nine hours of sleep.
No such luck. A combination of factors including my own excitement, a noisy and uncomfortable plastic undersheet, and a 4:30 AM freight train rolling by a few feet away (and blowing its horn for about two minutes in a single sustained note), kept me from sleeping more than a couple of hours. Seven A.M. saw me in the bathroom, suffering through a highly effective, even if partly psychosomatic, form of punishment for lack of sleep: what at least one mountaineer posting to this site has called "thin shits". Four milligrams of loperamide later, I felt good enough to make the drive to the trailhead, so I was on my way. <
(To truly hike the entire length of the range, you might prefer a trail called Pine Link which follows the ridgeline up to Madison from the Northeast. In fact you’d want to walk all the way from the Androscoggin River, and, upon further reflection, you’d also want to include at least fifteen miles of the southern ridges. Fortunately I’m not an ideologue. I wasn’t entirely certain I’d complete the shortest, easiest version of the traverse, so I was happy to stick with Valley Way, which has a convenient, easy-to-find trailhead and is a route I’d taken before.)
I pulled in to Appalachia trailhead, checked my shoelaces, shouldered my pack, and took a few swigs of Gatorade. I like to chug down about a quart of the stuff at the trailhead, so I don't have to stop for water as soon. Today, though, my guts were still unsettled, so I put the rest of the bottle in my pack. Picking up my "trekking pole" (it's a broomstick), I set off.
Valley Way is a broad trail, rather easy considering it rises about 4000 feet, and, as the name implies, it stays away from ridges and views. I concentrated on setting a steady pace, not wanting to tire myself by running uphill.
For most of the way up to Madison hut, I paused only to remove my fleece (the temperature in the early morning was near freezing, but a bit of climbing warms you up fast) and to sip a bit more Gatorade. About halfway up, I met a group of weary backpackers who'd paused on their way down. Some of them (and their packs) were sprawled right in the middle of the trail (clearly not expecting anyone else to come along), a couple of them were standing at a trail junction, and two or three had descended a short way down another trail that followed a stream. Once they noticed me (I like to hike quietly), it emerged that they were in some confusion about which trail to follow (the sign that read "valley way" seemed to point down the smaller trail). I explained that almost all of the dozens of RMC trails wound up at Appalachia trailhead, and tried to sell them on the scenic benefits of the Brookside trail, but their minds were made up as soon as I mentioned that Valley Way had the easiest and surest footing. I couldn't fathom why they'd be that tired before nine in the morning, but didn't stop to to ask a lot of questions. I pointed out Valley Way, and kept on climbing.
I passed a couple of other descending groups after that, most of them smaller and in better shape. A couple of guys warned me about cold wind above treeline. A lone female hiker, in a cheerful mood (clearly a morning person), stopped to chat. She said the views were fantastic above treeline, and pointed over my shoulder. I turned and, through the tops of the pines, had a view that seemed to reach Canada. Not a cloud in sight, and I could spot individual cars in the trailhead parking lot - almost unheard-of weather in the Presidentials, where Mt Washington is "shrouded in dense fog and clouds 315 days each year."
Eventually I reached treeline and, after pausing to enjoy more views, strode the last paces into the hut. The crew (or "croo" as they call themselves) was inside chopping vegetables, and seemed a bit nonplussed by my questions about the shortest route to the summit of Madison. Maybe I was glancing at my watch or something, or maybe they just thought I was an idiot, since the trail sign was actually visible out the window. In my defense, I'd walked right past it at least twice on my last visit. Many trails converge at or near the hut, and many maps don't show them very accurately. For the record, the shortest route is the Osgood trail, and there's a sign with that name on it a few feet from east side of the hut. From that sign, head directly uphill (not along the eastward trail); it hardly matters whether you spot the cairns or not, though they'd be useful on a bad-weather descent.
Starting out on this steep climb over talus, I spotted Mt Washington, the highest point in the Northeastern US, for the first time that day. It looked almost close enough to touch, in startling contrast from my previous trip up Mt Madison, during which "Big George" had barely been visible. I knew that it was in fact about ten miles away, but I was feeling confident since my hiking pace up to that point was, just as I'd planned, about 30% faster than "book time."
Just below the summit of Mt Madison I met a few more groups of hikers, most of whom had spent the night in Madison hut. One man had found a windless spot and was taking a nap in the sun, and didn't even notice when I stepped over him, much to the amusement of his friends. Another group was decked out in down parkas and mittens. Some had large overnight packs. One guy was wearing a red T-shirt and sneakers, and carrying nothing except a small water bag, and hopped from boulder to boulder much faster than I could. I tagged the summit, where I exchanged a few words with a man who congratulated me on "making it". We talked about the incredible views, of course, and he directed my attention to the southeastern horizon. No question about it: that gleam out there was the morning sun reflecting off the Atlantic Ocean, sixty miles away. I then turned toward my next objective: Mount Adams.
I descended back to the hut and started up Mt Adams without pausing. One hour after leaving the summit of Madison, I was at the top. I squinted southeast, but since the sun had risen, I could no longer be sure I could distinguish the sea from the sky. Mt Adams's summit was a much quieter place than Mt Madison had been. Just as I reached the summit I caught up to an older gent who had left Appalachia right behind me and come directly up the Air Line trail. As we stood talking I looked west toward Mt Jefferson, and spotted a figure wearing red at about the halfway distance. I thought this was the same person I'd seen wearing sneakers while racing down Mt Madison, and decided he'd built up a huge lead on me. My honor at stake, I hurried after him.
I soon realized my error: this was someone else entirely, coming in the other direction accompanied by his dog. Well, by then I was well below the summit of Adams, so I figured I'd try to reach Jefferson before stopping for lunch. I'd not hiked this particular section of trail before, and it took me longer than I anticipated. I stopped in a sheltered, scenic spot just above Edmands Col instead. By "stop for lunch" I mean dig a sandwich out of my bag, and, while I started chewing, see if my cell phone was working. (I wanted to tell my fiancee I'd probably finish on time.) In the few minutes I was sitting there, a group of three hikers was approaching from the south. They were talking loudly about their digital cameras, and for some reason they paused just below me. I was annoyed enough that I was planning to shoulder my pack and march past them before finishing my sandwhich. Before I had my cell phone stored away in a waterproof bag, though, they'd started moving toward me again, and I noticed that one of them looked strangely familiar. I'd seen that face somewhere... maybe in a photo on the Web? Then I saw the cast on his hand and I knew who he was. It wasn't exactly Stanley meets Livingstone, but it was an unexpected surprise to finally meet Whitelief in person. He recognized me too (though he had a bit of trouble pronouncing "Nartreb"), and introduced me to his hiking partners Andy and John (not SP members, but I'd seen them on Views From the Top before). He also helped me identify several of the Green Mountains in Vermont that were clearly visible from where we stood.
Soon enough after that I was trying to decide which of Jefferson's two peaks was higher, and --not for the last time-- wishing I'd brought a more detailed map. To my surprise, each of the peaks was occupied by at least ten picnickers. I had expected Jefferson to be much less crowded since it has fewer trails than its neighbors, and no huts or shelters. On the other hand, the views were fantastic, similar to those from Mt Washington but without the parking lot and railroad station, so it's easy to see why this is a popular peak.
The next peak I crossed was Mt Clay, a minor peak just north of Mt Washington. On this stretch the cog railway loomed large ahead of me. Clusters of hikers, obviously fresh from their cars or a railway wagon, wandered down toward me from the summit of Mt Washington. One family group had already split into two factions in a disagreement about where to find the Jewell trail. I'd studied all the trails while planning this hike, in case I needed to find a descent route in a hurry, but I couldn't recall whether the Jewell trail went all the way to the summit and the "summit loop" trail we were on, or stopped at the Gulfside Trail, which bypasses the summit. I told them I'd already passed the summit without seeing that trail, and left them to sort it out since they weren't exactly in danger after having hiked at most half an hour. After that I finally found some relative solitude to enjoy the views of the Great Gulf and of the summit of Mt Washington, which was now tantalizingly close.
I made a minor mistake in navigation despite fairly clear trail signs, staying on the northern side of the summit cone slightly longer than necessary, but the loss of a few minutes was more than compensated by fantastic views down the Great Gulf. Once on the summit I threaded my way past the train station and through the various buildings, bypassed a line of tourists inching their way up the last few feet, and stepped on the highest point during a pause when two groups were exchanging cameras. I looked around briefly for a pay phone, but didn't see one. I then retreated southward to the radio antennas to break out another sandwich and get a view of the next section of my route.
The next section was the top of the Crawford Path, which took me to the Lakes of the Clouds hut below the summit of Mt Monroe. I refilled my water bottles at the hut (after asking permission - some of the huts hand-pump their wellwater and/or boil it to make it potable, and would prefer to reserve the fruits of this labor for overnight guests), and set off for the short but steep climb up Mt Monroe. While still on the flat section by the Lakes I passed a hiker coming in the opposite direction, wearing an unusual ultralight backpack consisting of horizontal cylinders. That got me thinking about the prices of equipment, and my train of thought soon brought me up short. This hiker was probably rather surprised to see me running past him back toward the hut, muttering about a broomstick. I'd left my trusty old hiking pole leaning next to the water tap.
By the time I reached the top of Mt Monroe, I was no longer proceeding faster than book time. In fact, my pace had slowed to the point where I was eating away the time cushion I'd built up earlier in the day. I still had more than enough daylight to reach Mt Pierce, but it was time to make a decision about the rest of my route. If you look at a map, it's obvious that the ridgeline followed on a Presidential Traverse continues past Mt Pierce to Mt Jackson (4,052') and Mt Webster (3,910'). However, those two peaks are not universally considered a necessary part of a Presi Traverse, for a combination of reasons: neither one is actually named for a President (it's a different Jackson), Webster is below 4,000 feet, and the trail down from Pierce is easier and leads to good parking. As I was facing a lamplight descent, had not been able to get in touch with my fiancee who would probably end up waiting for me (at the Crawford Path trailhead) starting as early as 8:00, and had never hiked the Webster Cliff Trail before, the correct decision was really pretty obvious. I was tired, alone (I would meet one more hiker, heading up to Lakes of the Clouds hut, during my descent from Eisenhower, but otherwise saw no one since leaving that hut), facing nightfall soon, and nobody who might look for me knew exactly where I was. Still, I had no doubt I could finish the "larger" traverse if I set my mind to it; it was a question of how much worry I wanted to inflict on my fiancee and how badly my pace would continue to deteriorate. After repeating pace and distance calculations in my head a few times, I finally resigned myself to descending Crawford Path.
Meanwhile, I still had to climb Eisenhower and Pierce (passing over Franklin on the way there, but I can't call that a "climb") and I wanted to do so in the best time I still could. As the sun dipped westward, the light was got even better, and I took photograph after photograph, sometimes while walking backwards so as not to come to a complete stop.
The rest of the hike was uneventful. I reached the summit of Pierce about eight hours after leaving the summit of Madison, and made it to Crawford Notch thirteen hours after leaving Appalachia trailhead. I'd hoped to make better time, and to include Jackson and Webster, but it wasn't bad for a first attempt. At least I didn't have to wake up at four A.M..
I used the phrase “most spectacular and challenging.” It’s always possible to create a more-challenging hike by adding more miles or picking a more difficult route (maybe a bushwhack), so to keep comparisons fair I'm only considering hikes along a contiguous set of trails, along the tops of mounains, without gratuitous descents or unnecessarily long approaches.
The challenge is, of course, a large part of what makes the Presidential Traverse noteworthy: 20 to 24 miles, about 9000 feet of elevation gain, and some of the rockiest terrain in the East. But it's the above-treeline spectacle that really makes it worth doing. The Boston Marathon is a "hike" that is nearly as challenging, but I'd score it near zero for scenery, and have no plans to do it.
The same principle makes the Presi Traverse superior to the more challenging, but less spectacular, Pemigewasset Loop, recently lauded in Backpacker magazine. The Loop totals over thirty miles, but much of the extra mileage occurs on utterly flat and smooth approach trails, not on the mountains. The Loop's total elevation gain is about the same as for a Presi Traverse (the magazine article reports 18,000 feet of "elevation change" - meaning up plus down). As for spectacle, though, the Pemi Loop, while a very fine hike, is a clear second to the Presis. The Loop has two above-treeline sections of about two miles each (plus several summit viewpoints), compared to ten continuous miles in the Presis.