Marathon in Hiking Boots: A Presidential Range Traverse
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint”
This often-quoted phrase probably reflects the mindset for many hikers attempting the famed Presidential Traverse, a multi-peak hiking over some of the most visually stunning vistas on the American east coast. It can be done in varying degrees, either as a single day blast or multi-day journey while setting up camp at various locations below tree line. Some people do sprint the traverse, galloping over its heights as fast as possible. You can skip the peaks altogether, lessening the elevation gain but maintaining the overall beauty and wonder this region exudes. This article describes a single-day traverse over all the peaks in the range.
Note—Mount Jackson is not included in this account because we skipped it entirely, a point which can raise interesting discussions within the hiking community as to what a “real” traverse even means. Two points about Jackson stand out with regard to its inclusion (or not) in a Presidential Traverse. For one, Jackson isn’t named after a president (it gets its name from Charles T. Jackson, the Bostonian who conducted New Hampshire’s first geological survey in the 19th century). Second, it sits at the very end of the range and is more commonly associated with its sub-four thousand-foot (barely) neighbor, Mount Webster. There are many mountain tops in the Presidential Range and if one wanted to maintain some sort of originalist practice in hiking a traverse insisting on the inclusion of Jackson, one would also have to hit Mts. Clay, Franklin and others to be consistent. And some do, which I think is a legitimate way of doing this (and quite cool in many ways). But it’s just one way. We stuck with the seven mountains named after American presidents. This is the way we did and it was a trek to behold--a traverse in every sense of the word.
This hike was done on an incredibly great weather Friday in late July, a huge plus when attempting this in a single day. While a moderately high fitness level certainly helps in completing this trek, hitting all the peaks and valleys in between also requires strength on a mental level, much like a long road race. Since hiking is a regular part of my year-long activity regimen (winter included) the cardiovascular demands of this hike were not particularly unique compared to anything else I’ve done. Mentally, however, it was a unique challenge and unlike anything I had undertaken previously. Additionally, weather would have affected this hike drastically—this region is prone to huge meteorological swings on very short notice. Looking back, I prepared well for this trek because I never needed something I didn’t have. Not bad. But I also brought a bit too much upon reflection. Striking a balance on hikes like this is always tough, but here’s what I packed:
H2O (2L “bladder” pack)
One 32-ounce bottle of G2
One bag of trail mix
4 Clif Bars
Pack of salted almonds
Map of White Mountains (waterproof)
Med kit/supply pack
Extra pair of shorts
Two extra pairs of socks (wool mix)
Two extra Dri Fit shirts
One fleece jacket
Light waterproof windbreaker
One shemagh (military bandana)
The key for longer hikes is to have ample, readily accessible calories and clothing that can be rolled up and packed tightly. It all fit well but I never ended up taking out my fleece jacket or windbreaker (although I almost did on the way up predawn). I wore and used some of the clothing here (poles, for example) so those things weren’t in my pack but some things were for emergency use only.
The plan was to start early up Valley Way Trail (below Madison) at 3:30 a.m. Since we wanted to use only one car, we needed a shuttle to get us to the trail head from our car (parked at the head of the Crawford Path, across from the AMC Center on Route 302). After a series of text messages and a phone call confirmation the day before our hike, a great guy named Bill (Mountain Courier Shuttle) met us in the parking lot and drove us to our starting point (about 15 miles away) for $100 (plus tip). Unless you have a dependable (and very flexible) person ready to come get you after your hike, the best move is to get a ride to your start point and have your vehicle waiting for you at the end. This way you can have a dependable start time without having to race the clock to meet some “hard” deadline on the other end. You cannot overestimate the wonderful feeling of coming out of the woods and seeing your car waiting for you a few feet ahead (I was never more grateful to see our vehicle as I was when this thing was over!). But using two cars eliminates this problem altogether (just park one at each end). Bill was on time, friendly and had loads of stories of his various experiences in the White Mountains, giving rides and otherwise—it was a very pleasant and helpful start to the day.
Madison (Hit summit at 6:38 a.m.)
We started up the Valley Way Trail at 3:30 on the dot and made a large portion the near four-mile ascent (3.8) to the Madison Hut in darkness. The light began to peek out with the gradual sunrise as we made our way up to the first peak of the traverse, Mount Madison. The views already were incredible, revealed by the intermittent clearings on the gently sloping ridge line and morning sunlight. Once at the hut, we took stock of our packs and replenished our water supply. A handful of sleepy but friendly hikers (all of whom stayed over the night before) milled around the large dining area while two Hut workers were busy preparing breakfast. Others were already dressed and quietly talking outside the doorway. Our next opportunity for a water refill would be Mount Washington (three peaks and many rocky miles away).
Although I own an excellent pair of trekking poles, I have never used them very regularly. But I made a conscious decision to take the load off my legs during this hike any way I could, so I opted for the use of the poles from the start. I am convinced this move went a long way toward giving me enough legs for the other end of this journey, when spirits can wane and bodies begin to tire easily. The use of poles on the actual ascents up Madison, Adams and Jefferson yielded mixed results because of the sheer rockiness of the steep terrain but anything from Washington on was extremely helpful. Another tip—we ditched our packs for the roughly half-mile scramble to the top of Madison from the hut. We grabbed them on our way by off the peak and on our way while saving a mile of distance with no pack. Anything you can save in the beginning pays you back in the end. The early morning view on top was spectacular but we kept ourselves to a five-minute time limit on each peak (Washington was the exception—more on that later) and headed back down after getting a picture.
Adams (Hit summit at 8:12 a.m.)
We took the Star Lake Trail, a fairly efficient (one mile) but at times challenging pathway from the Madison Hut to the peak of Mt. Adams. Other than Mts. Pierce and Monroe, I had summited every mountain in the Presidential Range previous to this hike but it didn’t take anything away from the majestic vistas experienced this time around at each peak. For me, Mt. Adams remains the most satisfying and visually stunning mountaintop of all. It’s small and beautifully isolating summit (and cool white sign) with views of both Madison to the north and Washington and Jefferson across the Great Gulf is intoxicating. It was tough to leave so soon after this ascent but after a quick snack we were on our way down Lowe’s Path onto the Gulfside Ridge Trail en route to Mt. Jefferson.
Jefferson (Hit summit at 10:25)
For reasons I cannot figure out, I really don’t care for Jefferson (maybe the lack of a nifty white sign? The seemingly disturbing increase of bugs on the top? It’s relative unspectacular summit next to the breathtaking peaks of Adams, Madison and Washington?) but regardless, we elected to get this one done, photographed and move onto Washington. To be fair, Jefferson possesses wonderful views of the surrounding region and projects its own unique environment with its many approaches and trails to and from the peak. But we moved down the Jefferson Loop Trail (.3 miles) to the Gulfside Ridge Trail and onward toward Washington. Three peaks down, four to go.
Washington (Hit summit at 1 p.m.)
The Gulfside Ridge Trail is a great option for this section of the Presidential Range for many reasons, one because it protects in difficult weather (not a problem today certainly) and second, it’s relative efficiency and access to other trails (including “bailout” points if necessary). It’s just short of three miles to Washington’s busy and often crowded summit and a stark switch in atmosphere from the starkly populated previous three peaks. Nonetheless, Washington represents the traverse’s “halftime” of sorts, a potential break (with perks) in the action before the last leg of the hike. In actuality, Washington is not only the state’s highest peak (6288 feet) but it’s most unique, equipped with a railroad and auto road to allow visitors to reach the summit without having to hike. The result is a cross section of tourists dressed in shorts and nice shirts or dresses and flip flops and sweat-lined, grubby hikers looking to get a real bathroom break and refill their water supplies. The views are incredible but crowded, making it a much less rewarding experience for those hiking their way through than the peaceful and less populated peaks before and after. We got a picture NEXT to the brown summit sign to save waiting in line and went along to the visitor center for bathrooms, water and some much-needed calories.
For whatever reason, I hit my wall the last mile and a half prior to the Washington summit, feeling every step of the way with legs screaming at me to stop. The time between Jefferson and Washington felt interminable at times and the last approach to the top of Washington felt much longer than it was in reality and by the time I got to the summit I just wanted to sit down, get something to drink and do nothing for a few minutes. I had a sandwich (vegetables with salami—tasted at the time like the best sandwich I’d ever had) and some almonds along with a few handfuls of trail mix (and two Tylenol for good measure). Eating is tricky on this type of hike and everyone has preferences. You don’t want to overeat but you have to eat something for sustained energy. I opt for protein-heavy, lean foods that are quick and easily accessible. It helps to drink water regularly along this hike (or any hike for that matter) but you also need a flavor break sometimes, so opt for some low sugar Gatorade or similar drink. I finished off my 32-ounce G2 drink and put the empty in the recycling bin, freeing up some room in the pack. All told we spent around 25 minutes on the summit, just the break we needed to soldier on the rest of the way. We headed down the Crawford Path toward Mt. Monroe, a one-mile descent.
Monroe (Hit summit at 3:25)
The Upper and Lower Lake of the Clouds offer rare bodies of water on this hike while the Crawford Path neatly snakes in between the two features, toward the Lake in the Clouds Hut.
Even though we had recently had an extended break at Washington we opted to take advantage of the hut’s resources. We had a glass of homemade lemonade (two for me!) and prepared for the short ascent up Monroe’s rocky steps to its summit. While Monroe looks a bit pedestrian from the front entrance of the hut, it stands as the fourth highest mountain in the state (5372’) behind and has a stark, impressive summit offering a fantastic view of Washington and the smaller Mt. Franklin and distant Mt. Eisenhower. At this point, the end of the traverse seems near but the last two peaks proved to be longer and more challenging than I had anticipated. We headed down to the Crawford Path once again, skipping past Franklin (we will come back for you someday, promise!) toward the wide, domed summit of Eisenhower in the distance.
Eisenhower (Hit summit at 5 p.m.)
The weather was overcast during my recent (and first) hike up Eisenhower. That hike was also a “singleton” up the Edmands Path with no approach on ridgeline from Monroe, so with good weather and a steadier hike leading up to the mountain we got a much different perspective this time around. The summit looked much more foreboding with no overcast weather to cover up its height or ascending steps but once we started up the path, it may have been the strongest I felt all day as we got from the trail to the top of Eisenhower in less than 20 minutes.
The summit of this mountain is wide and sloping, a seemingly open valley like you would expect in the Scottish Highlands rather than northern New Hampshire. While the first four peaks of the traverse are understandably known as some of the most spectacular sights in New England, the southern end of the Presidential Range is vastly underestimated in my view, especially as I gazed out to the valleys to either side of the Crawford Path and saw things from a point of view I never had during my previous trips to this region. It was simply astounding. My initial thought when traversing this section of the range was “I must come back here again just for this”. The views were fantastic and the terrain was more akin to Mt. Moosilauke than any of the first four Presidential peaks. A true gem of the White Mountains, indeed. Six down, one to go...
Pierce (Hit summit at 6:10)
Our long trek ended at the relatively unremarkable summit of Mt. Pierce, a short blast from the Crawford Path and last stop of our Presidential Traverse. The loping and rocky terrain leading up to the mountain was covered in trees for much of the way, making it for a much different experience than the wide open, vast scenery earlier in the hike. Nonetheless, we took our picture (judging by the result we could have taken it in the parking lot and it would have looked the same), checked around to make sure we were actually on the summit (no joke), confirmed that we were and then headed back down to the Crawford Path to our car in the Mt. Clinton Road parking lot, the same place we left at 3 a.m. earlier that morning. In many ways, that pickup from Bill to get us to the Valley Way Trail seemed like days before rather than just hours. Time is an interesting paradox during a long journey of high physical exertion, and by the end this traverse felt like three or four separate hikes rather than one long one. The places changed along with the daylight and faces we encountered on the way.
While I certainly expected the hike to be memorable, it ended up being one of the best hiking experiences I’ve ever had—maybe the best. Challenging yourself to complete something you aren’t sure you can and actually doing it is a great feeling and hitting Pierce’s peak was satisfying despite the long day and beat up feet and legs. I would be lying if I said the rest of the way after Pierce’s summit was akin to levitating, my spirits lifting me along the downward descent because of my wondrous experience.
In reality, the walk down was among the most painful and slow descents I’ve ever had—my worn-down feet felt every step I took and my mind kept obsessing about getting back to the car where we had fresh clothes to put on and fresh drinks to consume. But we made it. And on the way back home in the car, dressed in clean clothes and sandals, the feeling became much more satisfying. The planning was worth it and the hike was incredible. We did it. After a few hours, we asked: OK, now where to next?
Here’s what I ate and drank while hiking the Presidential Traverse:
Two Clif bars
Bag of salted almonds
Half a bag of trail mix
Salami & veggie sandwich (bought at Washington)
32-ounce bottle of G2 (refilled this bottle with water and drank the entire thing)
Five liters of water
Two 10-ounce glasses of lemonade
We covered 19.8 miles and climbed 8,163 feet of elevation. Our moving time was 15:16 (entire traverse, parking lot to parking lot).
While I attempted to get some decent sleep prior to the hike (going to bed at five in the afternoon) I ended up getting up at 9 p.m. and staying up until our departure for the rendezvous point with Bill at 12:30 a.m. We agreed to meet Bill at 3 a.m. and start at Valley Way Trail by 3:30 a.m. That all worked out fine but by the time we got home from the hike I was running on very little sleep and had actually been up for almost 26 hours. Needless to say, I slept very well that night! We planned on getting a nice post-hike meal somewhere but since it was so late we just headed home, showered and went to bed. We got a great brunch the next day.