Hiking through New Hampshire’s magical mountains

When Courtney and James Wrigley put on their hiking boots this summer and start up the trail leading to their favorite hut in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, their two-year-old and their zero-year-old will be tagging along. Courtney is pregnant. And James will have the satisfaction of guiding yet another generation of his family into the magic mountains that his father introduced him to in 1988, when James was three.

Wrigley isn’t just any mountain lover. He is huts manager and search-and-rescue coordinator for the eight backcountry huts operated by the venerable Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), which two renowned professors from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology founded in 1876.

“They’re still a little rustic,” says Wrigley of the huts, “but we do our best to make them comfortable.” There are no showers, nor is there heat or electricity. But there are clean outhouses. And hikers needn’t burden themselves with cumbersome packs. AMC staff and summer volunteers man the huts and pack in provisions daily. You’ll find clean beds and sleeping bags with warm wool blankets waiting, although you may wish to bring your own pillowcases. For dinner you might dine on traditional New England roast turkey, complete with fresh bread. In the morning you’ll rise to oatmeal, bacon, and eggs.

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The huts—three of which are above treeline—offer a range of experiences. They are connected by a network of well-maintained trails of varying steepness and difficulty. For first-timers, James Wrigley recommends an easy three-day hike of 2.8 miles up the Crawford Path to Mizpah Springs Hut, which is nestled between two peaks of 4,000 feet. That’s where you spend the first night. Then the next day you hike five miles to the Lake of the Clouds Hut, which is 5,012 feet above sea level. On the third day of your adventure, you hike the three miles down the tumbling, leafy headwaters of the Ammonoosuc River.

The trails are interspersed with spectacular views of Mount Washington, the tallest in the Northeast. Its granite dome soars 6,288 feet. Washington is famous for fierce, erratic weather. Snow covers the stunted firs and spruces—sometimes even in August. Last January wind-chill temperatures approached minus 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

The huts host visitors from all over the world from June through October. (For reservations, call 603-466-2727.) This year more than 45,000 guests will stay overnight at these classic New England hiking huts, the most ever. That’s encouraging to James.

“This is unique for the Northeast,” he says. “There won’t be any new places this beautiful and rugged found on the East Coast. We can all contribute to conservation by treading lightly.”    

A Bit of History

Congress established the White Mountain National Forest in 1914. It started with 7,000 acres of remnant greenery bought with federal funds for $13 an acre, surrounded by a logged-over, burned, and blackened landscape. During the last century these protected public recreational lands have expanded to 800,000 acres. The land has recovered. The trees have grown back. The mountains are green again. —T.R.P.