An Appalachian Trail Thru Hike: Part 30 - Hiking the Presidential Range
"It had been 12 days since I had seen him and I had a lot of questions, but it had been four months since the rest of the guys had seen him."
The Drive Back to the Trail
On July 22 I got back on the Appalachian Trail to finish my thru hike after being home sick for 11 days. I traveled with 5 friends to Pinkham Notch New Hampshire to meet up with my partner, Dave. The five friends were going to hike with us for 3 days but I was going to remain with Dave and finish hiking to the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail at Mt. Katahdin in Baxter State Park, Maine.
Other than having to deal with my disappointment about missing a section of the trail, I had a lot of fun on the drive up to Mt. Washington. We traveled in two vehicles and we made a couple meal stops along the way – probably at McDonald's. There was a lot of talk about what we were going to do – how fast we would hike, and where we would stay. We talked about the AMC Huts, we talked about hiking above timberline, and how we hoped the weather would be nice. There was constant background music from country cassette tapes and we all spent a fair amount of time singing along at the top of our lungs.
It took us 4 to 5 hours to drive to Pinkham Notch Lodge where the meeting with Dave had been arranged. There was a lot of commotion when we finally met up with Dave. It had been 12 days since I had seen him and I had a lot of questions, but it had been four months since the rest of the guys had seen him. There was a lot of kidding around and joking for a while. We hung around the parking lot of the Lodge while we got caught up. The sky was overcast but it wasn't raining. We finally started talking about our plans. The idea was that our friends were going to hike the northern half of the Presidential Range with us.The Presidential Range is a range of mountains all around 6,000 feet tall that are named after several of the Presidents of the United States. The trail that travels over the tops of those mountains is all above timberline. It is well-known as a beautiful place to hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Dave had hiked the AT up to Mt. Washington, then he had come straight down to Pinkham Notch. We wanted to hike a loop from Pinkham Notch back up to the top of Mt. Washington via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, the original trail that was built to climb Mt. Washington. Then we would pick up the Appalachian Trail at the top of Mt. Washington and hike northward over Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Madison. From Mt. Madison we would descend from the range via the Appalachian Trail back down to where the AT reaches Pinkham Notch.
The Climb Up Mt. Washington
We were giving ourselves a couple days to hike the range. We decided to spend the time we had left in the day to hike up to a lean-to near the top of Mount Washington so we would be staged to get a good start on the range the next morning. From Pinkham Notch we hiked up to Hermit Lake lean-to where we had to pay a $2.50 per person fee to a ranger so we could stay there.
The next morning we woke up and found that the mountain was shrouded in mist. We were situated perfectly to climb to the top via the famous Tuckerman Ravine trail. The Tuckerman Ravine trail is not the route followed by the Appalachian Trail. It is a trail that winds its way up Mount Washington through a steep ravine. In the early springtime, people hike up Tuckerman Ravine with downhill skis and boots strapped to their back. When they get to the top of the ravine, they switch into their ski boots and put on the skis. They ski down to the bottom of the ravine and then strap the downhill equipment to their backs again and make the long climb back to the top of the ravine. This tradition has been occurring since early in the 20th century.
We reached the top of Mount Washington, hoping that the clouds would lift, but the mist stayed thick. The summit of Mount Washington is crowded with a weather station, a visitor center called a summit house, a parking lot, and a little railway platform. There is a road that goes to the top of the mountain and there is a cog railway as well. Of course there is an intersection of several trails at the top, including the Appalachian Trail. In the summit house is a snack bar and we all hung around there for a few hours waiting to see if the sky would clear.
"Ordinarily that kind of behavior would get someone kicked out of the theater ..."
A Rowdy Matinee
Finally we decided to hike back down to Pinkham Notch and see if the weather would be better the next day for hiking the range. The hike down to the Lodge was all downhill so it went fast. Once at the bottom, we drove into the nearby town of Gorham, New Hampshire where we all ate at McDonald's. Then we got back into the cars and drove to the larger town of Berlin. In Berlin there was a theater that was showing Rocky III. With the sky still overcast, it didn't take us long to decide to get some tickets and see the show. It was a matinee so there were a lot of kids there and the theater was packed. Rocky III was an action-packed boxing movie starring Sylvester Stallone as Rocky, and Mr. T as Clubber Lang, the vicious and scary boxer that beat Rocky for the heavyweight title. Rocky had to reach down deep and go back to his roots as a fighter from the gritty streets to prepare himself for a comeback. He was able to win the title back in a rematch. The movie featured the famous song “The Eye of the Tiger” by the band Survivor.
It was a raucous crowd. There was a lot of yelling, shouting, and screaming during the fight scenes. Our group contributed to the overall commotion. When the movie was over we went outside to be greeted by sunshine poking through the clouds that were starting to break up. We looked at each other and found that one of our friends had been so into the movie that his shirt was soaked with sweat. I had been sitting a little bit away from him so I hadn't seen his antics during the show, but one of the other guys told me that he had really gotten into the movie during the fight scenes. He had actually been standing up and punching the air while he yelled. Ordinarily that kind of behavior would get someone kicked out of the theater, but luckily, with the crowd we were in during the matinee, our friend had fit right in.
The shafts of sunlight that greeted us outside the theater gave us hope for the next day, so we decided we would get up early and try the Presidential Range again. In the time being we had to find a place to sleep for the night. There was a picnic area near Pinkham Notch. There we cooked our camp dinners at some picnic tables and sat around talking until darkness closed in. We didn't have any plan for where to sleep, so once darkness descended we all unrolled our sleeping bags next to where we parked the cars and we went to sleep under the stars.
The next thing I knew there were voices and a bright light shining in my eyes.
"We're not allowed to camp here," one of our group was saying. There was a lot of movement all around me. In a dazed state, I crawled out of my sleeping bag and started putting on a pair of boots that were nearby.
"Hey, those are my boots,” someone said in my ear.
I think I said something like "Okay," but I kept putting them on.
"Dave, you're putting on my boots," the voice repeated.
The light was still shining from the small parking lot. Finally the last clouds of sleep melted away from my brain.
"Huh, Oh... Sorry," I said, then I looked around and found my own boots.
We were being told by a Park Ranger that we couldn't sleep at the picnic area, but there was a place down the road a mile or so where we could camp. We all gathered our stuff up and stuffed it in our cars then somehow we drove down the road and found the spot he had described to us. Once there, we just dragged our sleeping bags back out onto the ground, we got back in them, and went back to sleep.
Bright sunshine in a clear blue sky woke us up the next morning. We crawled out of our bags and fixed our breakfast. There was a lot of comparing notes about getting kicked out of the picnic area.
"When did you wake up?"
"I heard him when he drove into the parking lot!"
"I didn't know what was going on..."
"All I saw was this bright light."
"I woke up when I heard him say, ‘Hey, you guys can’t camp here!’"
"DK tried to put my boots on! Then I told him they were mine and he just kept putting them on!"
DK was a nickname my friends used for me when we were all together so there wasn't confusion about who they were talking to between Dave and myself.
"I think I was still partly asleep," I said.
"Yeah, but you are talking right to me, and you were trying to tie them up even after I told you they were mine…."
Everyone got a chuckle from the image of me putting a pair of someone else's boots on in my sleep while talking to them about it.
"All around us, the lonely calls of white throated sparrows pierced the air as we climbed."
The Hike on the Range
The day was perfect for hiking the range. Since we had climbed Mount Washington the day before, we decided to hike from the other direction – north to south. That meant that we would hike up the Appalachian Trail from Pinkham Notch to the top of Mount Madison. The range was all above timberline, but there were several miles through the woods before we left the trees behind us. As we approached timberline, the forest transitioned from the northern hardwood species of sugar maple, American beach, and white pine to sweet scented balsam fir and red spruce. All around us, the lonely calls of white throated sparrows pierced the air as we climbed.
Once at the crest of the range, the trail traced a dusty ribbon through the lichen coated boulders that covered the tops of the mountains. The views were magnificent. There was no haze in the air so the visibility was probably 100 miles or more. I hadn't been at elevation that high since the Great Smoky Mountains, but it seemed even higher since we were above where the trees grew. A little ways after we reached Mount Madison, we came to the first hut situated along the Presidential Range – Madison Springs Hut, which was the first of the AMC huts to be built. It was a sturdy rock walled structure with some parts sided with cedar shakes. The hut was about 7.5 miles from where we started that morning. We gladly went inside where our eyes had to adjust from the bright light outside to the dim interior. We were able to purchase some candy bars and drink some lemonade while we sat for a little while at the varnished wooden plank tables and benches. There were still miles to go to get to Mount Washington followed by the hike back down to the Notch where our vehicles were, so we couldn't tarry long since there weren't any places to camp on top of the range.
We left the hut and started our long hike along the range. It was hard to tell when we hiked over the various peaks that made up the range – Mount Madison, Mount Jefferson, and Mount Adams. Mount Washington, the last peak along the range in the direction we were hiking was easy to tell, of course, because it was the highest point and because of all the development on top.
Even though the range was long – about 8 miles from Madison Springs Hut to the top of Mount Washington - the time flowed past quickly. With incredible views occupying our minds everywhere we looked, we were unconscious of the miles flying by beneath our feet.
"I couldn't believe the time. It seemed like we had hiked only half the time that we actually had."
Potential for Dangerous Weather
One interesting thing we saw along the way was about halfway between Madison Springs hut and Mt. Washington. It was a squat little structure built into the side of one of the mountains. It was made of corrugated sheet metal curved into a semi-circle. At the back, boulders from the mountain were piled around it so the structure seemed to disappear into the rock pile that formed the mountain behind it. On the front was a tiny door set into the sheet-metal facing. It looked like you would have to crawl to get inside. Outside the building was a sign that said – the shelter was for emergencies only. It was constructed for hikers on the range caught in dangerous weather that can suddenly arise. By then Dave had already told us all about his experience of a few days earlier where a young lady had gotten killed by a lightning strike on the exposed Franconia Ridge while he had been taking shelter from the storm in Greenleaf Hut. A little emergency shelter in the middle of the range could save your life if you knew it was there and a thunderstorm or a snowstorm or high winds suddenly arose all around you. For that moment though, the thought of bad weather was like a hazy memory out of a bad dream. All around us was clear blue sky and sunshine as we hiked on toward Mount Washington.
When we finally reached the summit house on top of Mount Washington, I couldn't believe the time. It seemed like we had hiked only half the time that we actually had. The food at the summit house was expensive, but we welcomed it. It wasn't until I got there that I realized how hungry and thirsty I was. At the top, with the better light and clear air, we could see much more than we could the day before. One thing that I saw was another reminder of just how dangerous the weather could be in that place. There was a plaque set into the side of the weather station that read that the highest sustained wind speed ever recorded had been recorded at that weather station. The speed had been over 200 mi./h.
From Mount Washington it was another descent down the Tuckerman Ravine trail to Pinkham Notch. The descent down the Tuckerman Ravine trail went fast. We made it to the parking lot at Pinkham Notch in a couple hours. Then we went back to McDonald's for supper and ended up camping in the same spot the Ranger told us about the night before. It had been a great day, and I for one was very tired. We passed an uninterrupted night asleep in our sleeping bags under the stars.
"With a few steps and a few swings of our hiking sticks, we were on our way"
In the morning it was breakfast at McDonald's before the guys drove us back to Pinkham Notch Lodge. They dropped us off with our packs and spent a long time wishing us well and saying goodbye. There was a lot of tongue-in-cheek advice like "Here’s some good advice for you guys - don't get lost!", or "Don't try to hitch any rides with a moose or a bear, or anything like that!", or "Watch out for fast women who distract AT hikers and steal their packs..."
We replied with tongue-in-cheek answers, such as, “We won’t get lost. All we have to do to get to Maine is walk due south, right?”, or “Ride a moose or a bear? Yeah, I guess that would be cheating,” or, "Fast women? We've been trying to find some of them, but no luck so far! I think our B.O. keeps them away."
They were still yelling wisecracks out the window as their cars drove away. A few of them had their heads and arms stuck out of the windows waving as they receded into the distance. We stood and watched them until their cars disappeared down the road. Then Dave and I looked at each other. It was just us again. With the guys gone it suddenly seemed very quiet. I knew that now was the time when I would have to get used to being a thru-hiker once more. I was going to have to let all the excitement of the previous few days dissipate and I would have to find my hiking rhythm for the remaining month of the trip. I looked north up the trail ahead of us. I was back, I was ready, Maine was just a few days away, and I could almost feel a magnetic pull from Mt. Katahdin 200 miles or so to the north. With a few steps and a few swings of our hiking sticks, we started on our way.