Mount Adams & Madison
The term "false peak" is no joke and much to the chagrin of first time hikers, Mount Adams has plenty of them. The term refers to the point in any ascent when climbers are convinced they see the top. Often they're simply seeing the most visible relief available, the "peak before the peak". This can be frustrating to any fatigued hiker looking for visual pay dirt for the considerable work invested to get to any peak, especially in the five-thousand-plus foot variety. Mount Adams is the second highest peak in the Northeast and New Hampshire (5,799') and helps form the northern anchor of the Presidential Range along with its neighbor to the north, Mount Madison (5,366')
The most common route to the summit of Adams is the Air Line Trail, a relatively "straight shot" from the Appalachia parking lot on Route 2 in Randolph, NH. The frequently traveled trail takes hikers on a moderate to rigorous uphill climb through trees and over rocks for three miles before breaking tree line and giving way to the Durand Ridge ("Knife Edge"), offering hikers a spectacular view into King Ravine and the surrounding region. This vista is among the most impressive of any NH range and it comes at a welcome time during the climb and just over a mile before summit. If you don't care about bagging peaks this serves as a satisfying end to the route unto itself. The views are simply astonishing.
Following the trail eventually brings you to the Gulfside Trail, where a right turn takes you to the base of the rocky ascent up Adams' summit.
This was my second time up Adams--the first being a pre-sunrise ascent on Labor Day one year prior, a stunning and eerie climb that happened mostly in the dark before finally seeing a spectacular sunrise at the summit. This time out, the hike differed in many ways: we were going during daylight hours up and down (we started just before seven and returned to the car by five in the afternoon), foliage was in full effect and we included Madison in this loop. The fitness level required for this nearly nine-mile sojourn is considerable; anyone who balks at tough climbs or sustained periods of trudging on a trail with little to see other than rocks and hardwood will likely lose steam after a couple of hours or so. Additionally, the climb presents a mental challenge in staying focused on the hike while getting very little stimulation in the early trudging and again after the amazement of the vistas have subsided and you're heading down to your vehicle with visions of ibuprofen (or beer, perhaps) in your head. Once at treeline the views take over and the remainder of the ascent goes pretty quickly relatively, albeit the technical footwork on the rocks headed up the summit demands focus, especially on a damp day. Peak space is sparse but it's worth it to find a rock off to the side somewhere for a snack and fluids, especially if one plans to hit Madison afterwards.
Descending down the Star Lake Trail (just under a mile) around the "backside" of Adams will bring one to the Madison hut (closed this time of year) and within a half mile of Madison's rocky summit. The wind gusts were considerable on this day and made speaking with any hiking partners nearly impossible for stretches at a time. Eventually the descent takes you down a rocky trek to the tight trail leading past Star Lake (virtually a rock filled dry bed by fall) and to the Madison hut. From this point, it almost seems a waste to not "bag" Madison too, especially since it's so relatively close. The climb is short but a hard scramble, virtually devoid of any solid ground to gain relaxed footing. I used poles for the first time on this hike, breaking them out before ascending Madison, a move which proved useful once getting the feel for how to best use them.
The visibility at the top was very low as clouds encroached in the time between summits and the wind was so strong gaining one's balance was difficult along the top. After a short break, we descended down the Watson Path to the Brookside before connecting with the Valley Way to the parking lot. The trail is direct and virtually the same distance as Air Line but relentlessly steep and challenging both physically and mentally. I don't think I would ever descend this way again (or recommend it to others) as the path featured huge drops off rocks and over huge roots and crowded tree limbs, conditions made more precarious by the rain soaked rocks along the way. Poles helped here quite a bit (although mine bent from strain halfway down, rendering them semi-useful the rest of the way) but sometimes it was better just to keep the hands free to get past certain parts of the trail on all fours.
The Adams-Madison dual hike can be reversed in order, certainly, although I tend to favor doing higher elevations first before working to lower ones as energy levels wane and fatigue creeps in over the course of the climb. If this was a full Presidential Traverse, I would most definitely do Madison first followed by Adams and onward from there. Water is key (as always) as is calories (pack plenty of protein bars and maybe a sandwich) but the best precaution is layers. Do not skimp on this when attempting climbs in this region as the weather can change very quickly and often for the worse. A jacket shell or windbreaker and multiple thin but substantial coverings (fleece or any whicking material works great) is required for a comfortable day. Better to pack it and not use it than need it and not have it. If you can, take plenty of pictures, too. Life, as they say, is short--take the time to stop and enjoy the view.