One of the classic rites of springtime in New England is a trek into Tuckerman Ravine in the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. Whether you’re packing skis for a few runs down the famously steep gullies of the headwall or simply packing a lunch for a sit-down on the rocks to watch the action, the ravine is a great place to spend a beautiful spring day in the mountains.
The enormous glacial cirque on the east side of Mt. Washington that is Tuckerman Ravine collects a huge quantity of snow, swept into the bowl by the ceaseless winds that scour the massive expanse of the Bigelow Lawn high above. Snow depths can range anywhere from 10 to 50 feet in the ravine and snow can linger well into June, so it’s no wonder the place is popular with skiers looking for those last turns of the season.
Named for Edward Tuckerman, the botanist who studied Alpine plants and lichen here in the early 1800s, the ravine is reached by a 3-mile hike over Tuckerman Ravine Trail, which departs from the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center on Route 16 halfway between the villages of Gorham and Glen.
The trail, a snowcat track in spring, gains 1,850 feet in 2.5 miles between the trailhead and Hermit Lake Shelters, then climbs another half-mile and 500 feet to the floor of the ravine at an elevation of 4,300 feet.
“It’s an amazing scene up there, some really impressive terrain, steep and in your face,” said Chris Joosen, lead climbing ranger with the White Mountain National Forest. “There’s no place else quite like it in the Northeast.”
Joosen recommends that Tuckerman hikers prepare for unpredictable weather, which if nice means plenty of sunscreen, and if not, calls for layers of warm clothing. Good hiking boots with traction devices, but not snowshoes, are needed for the incoming hike.
Hikers need to be aware of four of the “Big Five” hazards when traveling into Tuckerman Ravine, advised Joosen: avalanches, falling ice, undermined snow and weather. A fifth hazard, crevasses, is applicable to skiers and climbers ascending to higher elevations.
Once on the ravine floor, hikers can find a spot to the left or right of the trail and settle in. The area above and nearer to the headwall known as the Lunch Rocks is no longer recommended as a place to hang out.
“Lunch Rocks is a hazardous place to sit,” said Joosen. “It’s very exposed to icefall and 90 percent of the injuries and deaths have occurred in that area.”
If the weather is good, don’t be surprised if you find yourself in the company of many hundreds of hikers and skiers who have all come for an adventure of one sort or another. Enjoy the scene; it’s magnificent at any time with any amount of crowds.
Seven major gullies are etched into the headwall. From left to right, there’s Left Gully, The Chute, Center Gully, The Icefall, The Lip, Right Gully and The Sluice. And while the Tuckerman gullies are unquestionably the domain of the expert skier, intermediate skiers can have some fun, too.
“The lower angle and lower down slopes offer some short runs where you don’t necessarily have to be a great skier,” said Joosen. “But up high you’d better know what you’re doing.”
To return, hike back down the same trail, or, if you’ve brought skis along, ski out on the Sherburne Ski Trail, an ungroomed, intermediate backcountry run that parallels the Tuckerman Ravine Trail and deposits you at the Pinkham base.
If desired, Tuck hikers can spend the night at the AMC Joe Dodge Lodge with a bunk and breakfast special, or buy a permit for a night of camping in the Hermit Lake Shelters.
For more info and links to avalanche advisories, weather reports, trip planning and lodging, go to www.outdoors.org/recreation/tuckerman.
Carey Kish of Bowdoin is editor of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @CareyKish.