Before we get into talking specifics about mountains, I want to digress a bit and talk about other aspects of New Hampshire. First of all, it is truly one of the most beautiful states in the country, at least in my opinion. True, the state is very mountainous, even away from the White Mountains. And New Hampshire even has some seacoast along the Atlantic Ocean. OK, so it’s only 13 miles, but there are beaches along that coast. But perhaps the state’s real claim to fame is its forests – and those forests put on a display of color in the autumn that is second to none. From early to mid-October, the highways of the state will not seem deserted. The range of hues from bright yellows to deepest reds attracts thousands of visitors from around the world.
Autumn Colors, Lake and Mount Chocorua, New Hampshire
Then there are the rolling hills and farmlands interspersed with the most charming New England towns you can imagine. New Hampshire is mostly a rural state. In fact, I remember when I lived there, my friends in Massachusetts used to call it “Cow Hampshire”. Finally, let us not forget that New Hampshire is a haven for skiing – both Nordic and alpine. The top alpine resorts include Waterville Valley, Cannon Mountain, Wildcat Mountain, Mount Sunapee Resort and Bretton Woods, the state’s largest ski area.
For a small state tucked away in New England in the far northeastern United States, New Hampshire sure has a lot of mountains – a total of 1,786 named mountains with the highest and most prominent one called Mount Washington. Now, to call some of these named elevated areas mountains might be pushing it a little bit, since some of these barely rise more than 200-300 feet above their surrounding terrain. On the other hand many of the mountains in the state present formidable challenges to the hiker. In fact, the highest mountain, Mount Washington, can be more difficult and more dangerous than the highest mountain in the Rockies, Mount Elbert, which is more than 8,000 feet higher. I’ve climbed them both, so I know.
Mount Washington and the Great Gulf
Part of what makes New Hampshire so interesting is the great variety of mountain-scapes you can find here. Many peaks have dense forest covering their entire surfaces, including the summits, such that when you reach the top, you cannot be sure exactly where the official summit is. Needless to say, mountains such as this, of which there are many, don’t afford any views, even in the winter, since most trees are evergreens. The only reason to climb these is to be able to say that you did it. And this is a good reason. You see, there are 48 mountains in the state that are at least 4,000 feet high and have a prominence of over 200 feet. That immediately presents a challenge – to climb them all. And a number of them have no views at all, except of the nearest trees. I’ve climbed them all over the years when I lived in New Hampshire.
To be sure, almost all of the mountains in the state are “walk-ups” requiring nothing more than conditioning, proper equipment and common sense. Believe me, I have encountered many people up there who have none of these attributes. And people like that have lost their lives in those mountains – many of them. New England has a quirky climate, which can at certain times be as severe as one would expect in arctic regions. That is most especially true of the higher ranges such as the Franconia Range and the Presidential Range. Autumn is one of the nicest times to hike in New Hampshire – fine weather, warm, dry days, and no more of those beastly “black flies” that can be the scourge of New England.
Lonesome Lake, Franconia Notch, Mount Lafayette
As small as New Hampshire is, it is home to five Wilderness Areas, a total area of 134,000 acres, all of them within the White Mountain National Forest:
Wild River Wilderness – This newest wilderness in the state includes parts of the Carter-Moriah Range and extends easterly almost to the New Hampshire/Maine state line. In fact, the primary access to this wilderness is from Maine via a road that has minimal maintenance and is closed in winter. It has 29 miles of hiking trails.
Great Gulf Wilderness - This smallest wilderness in the state includes the rugged terrain below the eastern slopes of the highest summits in the Presidential Range. It has 22 miles of hiking trails, with the Great Gulf Trail as the main trail across the wilderness. This giant glacial cirque is rugged indeed.
Great Gulf Wilderness, Mount Adams
Presidential Range-Dry River Wilderness – Much of the area southeast of the southern Presidential Range and east of Crawford Notch is included in this wilderness. It is the second largest wilderness in the state, and has 43 miles of maintained trails.
Pemigewasset Wilderness – This is the largest wilderness area in New Hampshire, and encompasses a wide area east of the Franconia Range, extending almost to Crawford Notch. It has about 60 miles of maintained trails that afford a magical wilderness experience.
Autumn in the Pemigewasset Wilderness
Sandwich Range Wilderness – The most southerly of New Hampshire’s wilderness areas, the Sandwich Range Wilderness is not as high as the others, but it does have steep terrain and 57 miles of maintained trails.
But there is far more to hiking in New Hampshire outside of wilderness areas and even outside of the White Mountain National Forest. Of course, given the spectacular terrain and so many miles of trails in the White Mountains, the great majority of visitors to the state will gravitate to these high areas.
There are several major mountain ranges in New Hampshire and most of them are located within the White Mountain National Forest, which itself extends partly into the state of Maine. Contained in these mountains are two of the three largest contiguous expanses of alpine tundra east of the Rocky Mountains (Franconia Ridge and Presidential Range). The famous 2,200-mile Appalachian National Scenic Trail (AT) meanders through New Hampshire, which has 161 miles of the trail. The state also has more miles of the AT above treeline than any other state through which the trail travels. And these miles can experience some of the worst weather in the world when storms hit. These mountains need to be taken seriously. Let’s visit a few of the main ranges in this state.
Presidential Range – This high range, almost all of which reaches above treeline, provides the ultimate hiking experience in New Hampshire in my opinion. In my younger years, I undertook a three-day hike (the Presidential Traverse) that encompassed the entire range and covered some 25 miles, including passing over every named summit in the range, with Mount Washington as the high point. We were blessed with outstanding weather – something that is more the exception than the rule up there. Needless to say, this trek requires a car shuttle, since the hike starts at the south end of Crawford Notch and finishes near the town of Randolph at the north end. For readers who want to learn more about the hazards of hiking this range, I would recommend “Not Without Peril” by Nicholas Howe. It is an eye-opener as to the consequences of hiking up there unprepared.
Franconia Range – This wonderful high range is only about five miles long and includes only five named mountains from Mount Lafayette in the north to Mount Flume in the south. Hiking this fine range is a sheer pleasure for those who are conditioned and properly equipped. The northern part is all in alpine tundra and follows a well-defined knife-edge. Once committed, there are few places where you can bail off the ridge except via the four trails that connect down to the highway that passes through Franconia Notch. Whether you do the whole ridge in one long day hike, or just parts of it, this is a strenuous hike. The delightful Old Bridle Path remains my favorite trail by which to reach Lafayette’s Summit. Never underestimate the weather on this range – it can get as bad as the weather can get anywhere.
Franconia Ridge Trail, Mount Lincoln
Carter-Moriah Range – By no means as high or severe as the previous two ranges, this range is east of the Presidential Range and encompasses six official 4,000-footers as well as a few lesser summits. With treeline in New Hampshire at around 4,500 feet, the views from much of this range will be obstructed by trees, but there are a few summits that have openings so that you can get a good view across the valley toward the Presidentials. I have hiked the entire range in whole as well as in several segments, each time staying the night in the hut at Carter Notch, beside a wonderful little pond where it is possible to have a refreshing swim after a long, hot hike.
Carter-Moriah Range, Pond at Carter Notch
Twin Range – Averaging between 4,000 and 5,000 feet in elevation, this centrally-located range has some very pleasant hiking options, some with awesome views into the Pemigewasset Wilderness, into which it extends deeply. This range takes up a large chunk of land between the Franconia and southern Presidential Ranges. I have some fond memories of several multi-day autumn hikes in this range where I encountered few other people. Of course this was more than 40 years ago, so I can’t guarantee similar experiences today. There are eight official 4,000-footers in this range. It is easily explored from the Galehead Hut of the Appalachian Mountain Club.
Gale River Trail, Twin Range
There are several lesser ranges in the state, and many other individual mountains not part of any one defined range. But they should not be overlooked if you are visiting this beautiful state and want to do some fine hikes away from the hordes of hikers and peak-baggers. Even the inland sections of the state south of the White Mountains offer some respectable and satisfying hikes. Having lived in the southern part of the state for a number of years, I frequently nipped out for simple day-hikes closer to home, even if these peaks just barely topped out at only around 3,000 feet. Several come to mind, all of which are among the 13 most prominent mountains in New Hampshire.
Mount Monadnock (“Mountain that Stands Alone”) – This mountain, merely 3,172 feet high, was one of my favorite spur-of-the moment hikes when I lived in southern New Hampshire. Only 35 miles from where I lived, I could be at the trailhead within an hour. Depending on which trailhead you choose (the major one is within the Mount Monadnock State Park near the town of Jaffrey), it is possible to do a respectable hike with a total elevation gain of over 1,500 feet. But my favorite route was the Pumpelly Trail, which starts in the village of Dublin on State Highway 101. Much longer than the trails from the state park and involving a lot more accumulated elevation gain, this was my route of choice. It follows the Dublin Ridge which undulates over several sub-summits. Very few people ever used this trail and the trailhead was ten miles closer to home than the state park. The mountain has a large exposed rocky summit which makes it a great peak from which to get fantastic views. It is said to be one of the most frequently climbed mountains in the world. On a clear day, you can see the skyline of Boston, 62 miles away. I climbed this one so often that I lost count.
Summit of Mount Monadnock with Dublin Ridge
Mount Cardigan – About 35 miles northwest of Concord, the state capital city, is Mount Cardigan, another “mere” 3,000-footer. At 3,155 feet high, not so overwhelming. This fine mountain also has a prominent bare-rock summit featuring extensive areas of bare ledges, some of which are not to be taken lightly. Cardigan also lies within a state park from where the main trail starts. As with Monadnock, I found a little-used trail called the Skyland Trail that started right near a cabin that belonged to a close friend. I never saw another person on it. This mountain is well worth visiting and climbing, especially since it has far-reaching views in all directions. You definitely get the feeling of being on a much higher mountain. The Appalachian Mountain Club has a lodge near the east base of the mountain where there is another trailhead.
Skyland Trail to Mount Cardigan
Mount Kearsarge – Another prominent mountain not too far from the popular White Mountains is Mount Kearsarge. I choose to describe this 2,937-foot peak since it also has a summit that has been bare since a 1796 forest fire. From the fire lookout tower on top, it is possible to see the skyscrapers of Boston on a very clear day – 80 miles away. Yet despite its low elevation, and due to its isolation, it has 2,100 feet of relative height above the low ground surrounding it, making Kearsarge one of only 12 mountains in New Hampshire with a prominence of over 2,000 feet. Therefore, this is a popular hiking destination, with relatively short trails beginning in two separate state parks flanking the mountain.
There are a number of major towns and cities which serve as gateways to the mountains of New Hampshire, several of which are within the state. Within the heart of the White Mountains are some ritzy resorts as well. Therefore, exploration of this beautiful state is quite easy. Distances are short and highways are excellent, making much of the state easily accessible from a single base location.
This major city and capital of Massachusetts is the town with the best proximity for visitors arriving from distant places. It has a major international airport with non-stop flights from almost anywhere. And it is a city to be experienced due to its beautiful harbor setting and historical significance. Depending on what part of New Hampshire one wishes to explore, Boston can serve as a base for short day trips, although excursions into the higher ranges of the White Mountains are better based in the closer towns of central and northern New Hampshire. Before I moved to New Hampshire, I lived and attended university in Boston, so most of my explorations into the mountains were confined to the southern hills, since overnight trips were beyond my budgetary means in those days. It was only later that I moved to New Hampshire. But I always enjoyed venturing into Boston for some alternative activities such as partaking of the great choice of cultural venues and events.
This well-situated capital of New Hampshire has a somewhat “small-town” feel with a population of around 43,000 inhabitants. Before I moved to Colorado in 1980, I lived in Concord. This is an excellent town from which to explore pretty much most mountain areas in the state, even just for day-hikes. One can easily drive from Concord to, for example, Franconia Notch and its wonderful trails in just about one hour. And for visitors who want to arrive in New Hampshire by air, the airport in nearby Manchester is only 24 miles from Concord. Even the major trailhead into the high Presidential Range at Pinkham Notch is a mere two-hour drive from Concord – at times.
This bustling little resort town is where you might want to stay if exploring the Presidential Range is your objective while in New Hampshire. It is handy to both the south end of the range if you want to do the Presidential Traverse, or if you just want to climb Mount Washington by one of the standard routes from the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. There is no shortage of hotels, restaurants, bars, shops or people-watching in this town. It is also handy for exploring the Carter-Moriah Range a bit further northeast.
Bretton Woods – Mount Washington Hotel
If you have high-end tastes – and a budget to match – Bretton Woods might just be right for you. Not only is Bretton Woods the largest and one of the most acclaimed ski resorts in the eastern United States, it offers some fine accommodations in one of the most scenic areas in New England. The historic Mount Washington Hotel, with its namesake mountain as a backdrop, is one of the last surviving grand hotels in the White Mountains and is a National Historic Landmark. One could do worse than staying here.
Mount Washington Hotel, Bretton Woods
The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) maintains a series of eight mountain huts. They are all located on the Appalachian Trail and are spaced about a day hike apart. They are a rustic and comfortable alternative to more expensive lodging, and you don’t have to carry all the equipment you would normally carry when backpacking. They are all equipped with bunk-rooms and washrooms and even provide blankets and pillows in the summer months. Not only that, during full-service season (early June to early- or mid fall, depending on the hut) they provide full breakfast and dinner service. No menu - this is exclusively family-style dining. These huts are a wonderful off-the-grid overnighting experience. The capacities of the huts vary from 36 guests to 96. All bunkhouses or bunkrooms are coed.
Madison Spring Hut, Presidential Range
Three of the lower-elevation huts are open year-round, but in the off-season are only available on a self-service basis. Which means that you must bring your own bedding (think warm sleeping bags – these huts are not heated and will get very cold in winter) and food. You can use their stoves and utensils but must take out all your own trash (no problem there – if you can bring it in, you can certainly take out the empty packaging). There is always a caretaker for certain hours at these times, who may even build a fire in the main common areas (but not the bunkrooms). The two high elevation huts in the Presidential Range are only open during full-service season (about 3½ months) due to the extreme weather conditions up there.
Lakes of the Clouds Hut, Presidential Range, from Mount Monroe
In addition to the huts, there are numerous backcountry open-sided shelters and camp sites with wooden platforms for tents. Most have outhouses, composting toilets and metal food boxes for bear protection. Most also charge a nominal caretaker fee. Go to New Hampshire - you may never leave!
The list of major ski resorts in the state. All these places are present in the PeakVisor app and provide real-time status information about open lifts and ski runs.