Taking A Hike: Fall in the White Mountains

In recent years, I have made a point of trying to escape to our Great North Woods in late September or the first half of October. The bugs are gone, the leaves are dazzling, and the snow is yet to come. Mostly, I have headed to New Hampshire’s White Mountains (last year, an attempt to revisit northern Maine’s Baxter State Park was thwarted by a bad knee). The Whites are hundreds of thousands of acres of national forest, state parks, and federal wilderness.

For the hiker, the Whites have pretty much everything, from well-trodden paths you couldn’t lose if you tried, to wilderness trails that you rely on at your peril. Over the years, I have scratched the surface of this variety. Here are a few highlights: dwarf pines atop Mount Jackson all caked in rime frost; possibly the best views in New England from Franconia Ridge, taken in on a mild, sunny afternoon with plenty of fellow hikers for company; watching the sun sink, then rise again a nighttime later, all by myself at the edge of the Wild River Wilderness. Memories like these sustain you through the winter.           

Until this year, my escapes had been solitary. Now my eldest daughter would keep me company, and give me a fresh pair of eyes through which to see the Whites. Katie had a Whites wish list – hike Franconia Ridge, backpack to an Appalachian Mountain Club hut, scale Mount Washington (at 6,288 feet, New England’s highest peak). But Whites weather can defeat plans at a stroke, so we made none until the last minute. We had Monday to Thursday, the week of Columbus Day. If the weather was fine, we’d hit the peaks. If it was lousy, we’d tramp in the valleys. Toward the end of the week preceding our trip, the Columbus Day forecast looked quite promising, so we drove the 290 miles to Franconia Notch on the Sunday night to be ready to face the ridge in the morning.

All night, wind flapped our tents in the bottom of the Notch. In the morning, clouds skimmed over the ridge 3,000 feet above us. We paid little heed to either wind or cloud. Wasn’t the online forecast for sun, after all? We loaded our daypacks with food, water, and extra layers of clothing, and started up the Falling Waters Trail. Cascades line its lower reaches, and even in the long drought they were pretty. After climbing maybe 2,000 feet, mixed forest gave way to conifers, and mist obscured the sky. Here we saw that the tops of the pines were crusted white, and I began to hope for another rime-caked summit. Rime forms when water droplets in mist freeze to trees, rocks, trail signs, and other objects. I have seen it only on New Hampshire summits in the autumn.

As Katie and I pushed for the ridge, we met hikers coming down. It was brutal up there, they said, the wind would knock you over. We hadn’t felt much of a breeze on the way up, nor did we just below the ridge, among the last of the stunted pines. But when we stepped onto Little Haystack Mountain, we were hit by a shoving, skin-stinging gale from the northwest. There was rime too, but it was hard to appreciate it hunkered in the lee of boulders among swirling fog. We abandoned our plan to hike north along Franconia Ridge. It would be dangerous without a face mask and goggles.

By late afternoon, down in the sunny town of Lincoln, the icy ridge could not have felt farther away. The summit winds, we learned, had been caused by Hurricane Matthew out to sea pulling air from high pressure over the land. Calm, sunny, dry days were now forecast. By the time Katie and I had completed our descent from the ridge, the Falling Waters Trail had become as thronged as a city park. It was time to look for solitude, and hit – or at least try to hit – another item on Katie’s wish list.

In the morning, we drove east to Pinkham Notch (or rather south, then east, then north – Whites routes are not direct). We parked at Glen Ellis Falls and – wearing heavier packs now – set off up the Wildcat Ridge Trail. We chose this trail because it leads into a less visited part of the Whites, and it would allow us to spend a night at Carter Notch Hut too. It is 5.1 miles from Pinkham Notch to the hut. I could give you a scramble-by-scramble, summit-and-dip, puff-and-groan account of these miles, but let’s say only that they were slow and tough, and rewarded with incredible views. The best scenes were across Pinkham Notch to Mount Washington. In the clear air, every crease and cut in the peak’s gray stone showed in sharp focus. (Photos from our hikes can be found at McWilliams Takes a Hike on Facebook.)

A hut is meant to be a rough shelter, barely the indoors at all. Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) huts in the Whites are not like that. They are not luxurious (don’t expect a shower or a thermostat), but they are comfortable. You can expect a bunk to lay your sleeping bag on, simple restrooms, and a certain amount of electric light. By fall, Carter Notch Hut is in self-service season. This means you cook your own meals on their stove (in full-service season, AMC “croo” are your cooks and servers). For Katie and I, after seven hours on Wildcat Ridge, the hut’s simple comforts felt like luxuries. And they set us up for the return trek – a glorious day, when  the Whites threatened sunburn more than hypothermia.    

Rob McWilliams is a local resident. Taking a Hike appears monthly. Contact Rob at “McWilliams Takes a Hike” blog and Facebook. He’d love to hear from you.