The wind is howling outside and visibility is near zero. Somewhere amid the stunted growth of fir and birch that passes for forest up here in the Alpine heights, a hearty white-throated sparrow sings its signature wilderness song.
On the other side of the window, I’m nestled in my bunk, book in hand, cozy and warm underneath a pile of wool blankets with not much to do but relax, perhaps take a catnap and wait for dinner still several hours off.
Such is life at Madison Spring Hut, tucked in a col at 4,800 feet between the high peaks of Mount Madison and Mount Adams, on the first afternoon of a three-day hiking adventure in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Madison is one of the eight mountain huts operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club along a 56-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail, each a day’s hike apart. From Lonesome Lake in the shadow of the lofty Franconia Range, the hut system extends all the way to Carter Notch beneath the steep walls of Wildcat Mountain and Carter Dome.
This year marks the 125th anniversary of the AMC hut system, the oldest hut-to-hut network in the country, which has been sheltering tired and hungry mountain travelers since 1888, when Madison Spring Hut first opened its doors.
The huts offer European-style hospitality in a distinctly American way, with simple but comfortable accommodations, hearty meals, lots of camaraderie and a doting hut crew that takes mighty good care of its guests, all in spectacular mountain settings. Green energy, be it wind, solar, hydro or a combination thereof, powers the huts in a sustainable manner. And hut-to-hut travel means you can hike with only a light pack of clothing, snacks, water and other essentials, a real bonus.
I’ve been staying in the AMC huts on and off ever since my AT thru-hike in 1977, when I think a night’s stay was something like $6 or $8. It costs a little more than that today but the unique experience is so worth it.
For starters, there’s good food and plenty of it, served family-style in the spacious dining room. For dinner there is always hot soup, salad, fresh-baked bread, an entree and sides, hot drinks, and a surprise dessert. For breakfast there’s hot cereal, a main dish like pancakes with sausage or egg casserole with bacon, juice, coffee, tea and cocoa.
Guests sleep in shared bunkrooms, and each bunk space is supplied with a mattress, pillow and three wool blankets. You need only bring a sleep sack or sheet and pillowcase. Restrooms have sinks with cold running water and composting toilets. Bring a headlamp for getting around after lights-out, and warm, comfy clothes and slippers for lounging about.
The dining room serves as a common area between meals where you can sit, talk, read and write as you wish. It’s a great gathering place where you’ll meet fellow guests, who might be local New Englanders or from somewhere across the globe. There’s always a selection of good books on the shelves of the small library. And the guest registers, which date back many decades, always provide interesting commentary.
An entertaining part of the AMC hut experience is the hut crew, the team of friendly, enthusiastic and energetic college-age kids whose job it is to cook, clean and educate hut visitors. Evenings after dinner, the crew introduces themselves and each gives a brief bio, then one or more leads a naturalist or history program indoors or out. Mornings start with wake-up music or a song. Following breakfast the crew acts out a skit that hilariously gets the message across to properly fold your blankets, pack out your trash and, of course, tip the crew.
Celebrate with the AMC this summer with an overnight, weekend or weeklong visit to their storied White Mountains hut system. For more information and reservations, go to www.outdoors.org.
Carey Kish of Bowdoin is editor of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide. Send comments and hike suggestions to: