One of the most challenging day hikes in New England is the Presidential Traverse, a gargantuan ramble over all the major peaks of the Presidential Range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Tackling the hike means anywhere from 12 to 20 hours on your feet for some 19 to 23 miles while you gain about 9,000 feet of elevation.
Beginning around the summer solstice in June, when there is maximum daylight, serious hikers begin to set off in numbers to attempt this extended daylong adventure in the exceedingly beautiful but all too often harsh Alpine environment of the high mountain summits.
“It’s a thrilling hike, a gorgeous one with lots of above-treeline walking and outstanding views,” said Philip Werner of Malden, Massachusetts, an experienced four-season hike leader for the Boston chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club and editor of SectionHiker.com. “You get a real sense of accomplishment when you’re finished.”
A proper traverse climbs all seven summits in the range that are named for U.S. presidents: Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Monroe, Washington, Eisenhower and Pierce. The first four reach heights exceeding 5,000 feet, while the latter three are over 4,000 feet. Mount Washington tops out at 6,288 feet, the highest mountain in the northeastern U.S.
“Most people do the traverse from north to south in order to get most of the climbing out of the way early,” said Werner. “After Washington it’s almost all downhill.”
The traditional start is from Dolly Copp Campground on Route 16 in Gorham, but many hikers choose to leave from the Appalachia trailhead on Route 2 in Randolph. Either way it’s a healthy 4,000-foot climb to the top of Mount Madison, the first big peak.
Once up on the range proper, the primary route across the high peaks combines the Gulfside Trail and the Crawford Path. Hikers must use a number of short spur and loop paths to gain the various summits.
Hikers on the traverse are above treeline and fully exposed to the mountain elements for 15 miles of the 20-mile hike. When the weather is good the hiking is splendid and the views grand.
“More often than not, however, the weather up high is horrific,” cautioned Werner, noting that wind, rain, lightning and even snow are possible at any time. And then there is the dearth of level ground and the unending slippery rocks that bruise shins and slice open hands.
Physical preparation is a must for prospective hikers, who should get out and do some long days on the trail that include lots of miles and significant elevation gain.
Packing for the big hike means loading up the “10 essentials” and perhaps a little extra when it comes to warm layers, food and water. A headlamp with spare batteries will be needed for the pre-dawn start and quite possibly the evening descent, and a bivouac bag is a good backup plan. The AMC White Mountain Guide is essential.
Before the hike, plan to spot a car at the hike’s end at the AMC Highland Center in Crawford Notch and maybe a second vehicle at another trailhead along the way, such as Marshfield Station at the base of the Mount Washington Cog Railway.
Hikers can duck in out of the weather at the AMC huts at Madison Spring and Lakes of the Clouds as well as the summit building atop Mount Washington, good rest stops where water and food are available. But don’t plan on tarrying long; you’ll need all the daylight possible to complete the trek. A steady but reasonable pace that you can more or less keep up throughout the day is best.
Werner’s final advice: “Be prepared to bail if the weather is bad. And remember, there is no shame in not doing the traverse in one day. It also makes a fantastic backpacking trip.”
Carey Kish of Bowdoin is editor of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide. Follow Carey’s adventures in his Maineiac Outdoors blog at: