Sunday, July 14, 2013

Presidential Traverse

The Presidential Traverse is a hike in New Hampshire's White Mountains that traverses the Presidential Range.  Most people know the range's most popular summit, Mt Washington, but the entire range contains many more significant peaks.  The five highest mountains in New England are in the Presidential Range as well as three other 4000 foot mountains and several other lesser peaks.

The hike is one of the more challenging hikes in the east with large areas above treeline, major climbs and descents, and potentially dangerous weather.  It is also one of the most scenic hikes in the east with much of the traverse above treeline offering endless views.  I hiked all of the major peaks along the traverse at one point, but never linked them all together in one continuous hike.  While many choose to do the hike over two to three days, many others like to test there endurance and complete the hike in one day.  I was up for the challenge and wanted to do the one day traverse.

There are several options for the traverse.  While nearly everyone hikes the northern summit, some only hike as far south as Mt Pierce, the last peak named after a president.  Others will hike to Mt Jackson since it a 4000 footer.  Some will hike to Mt. Webster, the last peak heading south in the range.  Along the way there are a few lesser peaks including Mt Clay and Mt Franklin that some people choose to skip since they do not have enough elevation change to be considered a major summit.  Since this was my first traverse, I chose to hike all of it.

My hike would hike over eight major summits and three lesser summit.  From north to south I hiked over Mt Madison, Mt Adams, Mt Jefferson, Mt Clay, Mt Washington, Mt Monroe, Mt Franklin, Mt Eisenhower, Mt Pierce, Mt Jackson, and Mt Webster.  The hike would cover just under 23 miles and gain over 9500 feet in elevation.

I didn't have a set day planned to do the hike.  When the forecast made a turn for the better, I made a last minute decision to try the hike on Saturday, July 13th.  Since I live three hours from the northern trailhead, I headed there the night before and obtained fine trailhead lodging in Le Motel Subaru.   The parking lot was busy all through the night and I didn't sleep very well, maybe getting four hours sleep if I was lucky.

I was on the trail at 447 AM.  It was still mostly dark with just enough light to get by without a headlamp.  I started on the Valley Way before turning onto the Watson Path. Less than a mile onto the Watson Path, the trail emerges from the trees and remained above treeline most of the day.  The Watson Path would bring me to the summit of Mt Madison at 648 AM.  At 5367', Madison is the 5th highest peak in New England.  This is the toughest climb of the trip gaining over 4000 feet of elevation in less than 4 miles.  I have been on Mt Madison several times before and I am always impressed with its view.  The drop into the valley to the north from the summit seems dramatic since it is the last peak on the ridge.  Most of the valley was shrouded in fog while all the higher terrain was in the clear.  Soon after I reached the summit, several groups were hiking up from Madison Springs Hut, a short .5 miles away.  I descended to the hut and refilled my water.

Duck Falls

Typical warning signs in the Presidentials

Valley fog from Mt Madison

Mt Jefferson (closer) and Washington

After leaving the hut, I headed to Mt Adams.  I used the Star Lake Trail which is one of my favorites in the Presidentials.   It climbs steeply up the mountain and requires some rock scrambling and use of the hands to negotiate.  It also sees fewer people.  I reached the summit, which at 5774' is the second highest in New England.  I had the summit to myself and ate breakfast.  Mt Adams is probably my favorite peak of the Presidentials.  I think the views are among the most dramatic in the range.

JQ Adams, Star Lake, Madison

Steep section of Star Lake Trail

JQ Adams, Madison, valley fog

Cairns marking trail with Jefferson and Washington in background

A short descent brought me to the Gulfside Trail which I would follow across its open terrain until I reached the Mt Jefferson Loop.  Mt Jefferson, at 5712' is the third highest peak in New England.  Its summit is attractive but not quite as nice at Adams and Madison in my opinion.  I didn't linger too long before heading back down the Mt Jefferson Loop to the Gulfside Trail.

Looking back at Adams while climbing Jefferson

I broke off the Gulfside Trail to the Mt Clay Loop.  This was the only peak on the trip I never have visited.
At 5533', Mt Clay is one of the highest spots on the traverse but it doesn't have enough prominence to be ranked and is technically a shoulder Mt Washington.  Nonetheless, Mt Clay is stunning.  It offers perhaps the best views in the Presidential Range toward the peaks to the north in the range, looking over the Great Gulf, as well as a close up of Mt Washington.  The trail on the way to the summit passes through an attractive area of alpine grass and tundra plants.  I stopped on its peak for a snack and to enjoy the views.

Grassy climb up Mt Clay

Looking back at Jefferson, Adams, Madison from Clay

Another view looking back

Mt Washington was next .  I reached the summit just after 1030AM.  At 6288', it is the highest summit in the Northeast.  It is also home to some of the nastiest weather and highest winds.  On this day the weather was quite placid.  The summit temperature was a comfortable 60F and the winds were calm at an almost unheard of 3MPH.  I would have liked the wind since it was on the warm side to help cool down.  I personally hate the summit of Mt Washington.  The place on a nice day is a zoo.  A road and train take tourists to the summit.  Since it is the highest peak, it gets an insane amount of hiker traffic.  There is a parking lot and a cluster of buildings to clutter the summit.  Hiking to the summit is nice and scenic, but the summit itself is a let down when you see the mayhem.  Needless to say, I didn't linger.

Looking back at northern Presis

Looking over Great Gulf from high on Washington

Leaving Washington toward Lakes of the Clouds and Mt Monroe

Mt Monroe

Mt Monroe was my next summit.  Before reaching the summit, I stopped at Lakes of the Clouds Hut.  I had lunch and refilled my water.  The hut sits just below the Mt Monroe, only 1.5 miles from Mt Washington.  Mt Monroe is the 4th highest peak in New England at 5384'.  Mt Monroe is one of the more scenic spots in the Presidentials.  It offers dramatic views of Mt Washington and the southern peaks of the range.  It also sees a fraction of the people at any given time as Mt Washington even though they are less than two miles apart and share a trailhead.

Looking over Lakes of the Clouds toward Washington and northern peaks from Monroe

Looking south from Monroe

From Monroe I headed to Mt Eisenhower.  Along the way I made a brief detour to Mt Franklin.  Franklin's rise from surrounding terrain is so insignificant that I'm not sure why it's even named.  It offers nice views nonetheless into the Oakes Gulf and surrounding peaks.  I'm not sure why, but Eisenhower's summit was very crowded.  It has nice views in all direction but with the crowds, I didn't linger too long.

Looking back to Monroe

Looking south below Monroe

Washington framed between Monroe's peaks

Tundra grasses over flat plateau south of Monroe

Mt Eisenhower was the last dramatic mountain I would traverse.  It stands predominately south of Mt Monroe and north of Mt Pierce.  There are beautiful stretches of high alpine meadow along the way and the trail is quite level before eventual dropping in and out of the treeline.  The remaining mountains have partially open, scrubby summits, but aren't nearly as grand as the peaks between Madison and Eisenhower.  The trail south of Mt Eisenhower I hiked before but not since 1999 when I thru hiked the Appalachian Trail. Every other mountain except Clay, I hiked in the past few years.  Despite hiking it before, this area was basically new to me since it had been so long since my last time in the area.

Looking north near Eisenhower

Descending Eisenhower

By the time I left Mt Pierce I started to feel the mileage of the day.  When the scenery started to diminish, I became aware of the fatigue I developed.  Luckily, the elevation gains at this point were less dramatic than the higher peaks.  My last pit stop was at Mizpah Springs Hut.  I ate one last snack and filled up with water.

Looking north near Mt Pierce's summit

I went over Mt Jackson and Webster before descending to the road.  Jackson had some areas of open summit.  Webster's summit was in the trees but had several ledges that offered views into the valley.  From Mt Webster the trail dropped about 2000' to Crawford Notch and Route 302.  This is the longest elevation loss of the day and my knees were ready to be done when I reached the road at 357PM.

Alpine meadow

Spruce grouse

Haze settling on Mt Washington
Cliffs in Crawford Notch

Mountains to the south of the Presidential Range

Silver Cascade

The hiking was over.  The next challenge began, getting back to my car.  My preferred method in these situations is hitchhiking.  Around the mountains hitchhiking can be easy and effective.  My luck wasn't the best however despite plenty of weekend traffic.  It took me nearly a half hour for my first ride which only took me about ten miles north.  I got two quick rides to Route 115.  Then I was stuck.  Once car stopped but I declined since they were only traveling a mile and I had a descent location.  The road was dead and more than 45 minutes passed with no luck.  Finally a truck going the opposite direction turned around and asked where I was heading.  He too just finished the Presidential Traverse and saw me hitching earlier.  He took me back to the trailhead.  It turned out we have done a lot of the same hikes including the Appalachian Trail, Long Trail, and Colorado Trail.

I'm glad I finally got to do the Presidential Traverse.  The weather was good.  It was a little warmer than I would have liked but not overly hot.  The visibility was great, especially in the morning.  Later in the day it started to cloud over and get a little hazy but not too bad for July.  Now I just need a couple days for my knees to recover.

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