Note: Over the course of 2013, I’ll be running all 160.9 miles of the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire. Other entries in this series are available here.
A couple of weekends ago, I again found myself needing to climb Mount Washington before I could even begin my AT journey. I had already been up a few times this year from the east, so I decided it was time for a western ascent up the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail (which joins with the AT 1.1 miles before the summit). I got a ride to the trailhead from my husband, who was headed further north to run the Presidential Traverse. I considered joining him, but opted out since I would be tacking on many miles after Mount Pierce to follow the AT instead of taking the most direct path down from Pierce, which follows Crawford Path to the AMC hut at Crawford Notch. My plan was to take the AT all the way to Crawford Notch and then take a side trail back to Dry River Campground, where we were staying.
The Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail is the first trail I ever took up Mount Washington, and it remains one of my favorite routes. It starts higher than the trails on the east side of the mountain, meaning the climb is only about 3,800 feet, but given that this route is only 4.2 miles, it’s still pretty steep. The trail starts fairly gradually, joining and following the Ammonoosuc River through the ravine. It then becomes very steep and rocky. Not so much that you have to use hands to climb, but steep enough that you feel like you are climbing a staircase right up the side of a mountain (which is pretty much exactly what you are doing). After a steep climb, the trail crosses the cascading river a couple times. The cascades are beautiful and the views to the west are amazing. After the stream crossings, a little more climbing and you arrive at the Lake of the Clouds Hut.
One very nice bonus to this ascent up Washington is you can always stop at the hut if the weather is shaky before deciding whether to finish the climb to the summit. When we arrived at the hut, it was windy and overcast, but nothing ugly or out of the ordinary for Washington. I stopped to throw on long sleeves and then headed for the summit. When I reached the summit, it was still fairly cloudy and the winds were whipping in all directions so after pausing to take in the view, I didn’t linger but headed back to the hut. There we stopped for a minute for water (Far North dog) and coffee (me). I have to admit, while running in the Whites is making my legs strong, it may be making me a bit soft in other ways. I’m getting pretty comfortable with the idea of real bathrooms with toilet paper and coffee or lemonade (even the occasional baked good) every handful of miles. When the huts close in a few weeks I hope I can still battle on.
After fueling at the hut, we headed south over Monroe, Eisenhower, and Pierce. I was immediately struck by how different these southern presidentials are from their northern counterparts. The trail is much less rocky and much more runnable. As with the trail north, the AT doesn’t go over all of the summits (with the exception of Pierce), so I took side trails to each summit. The climbs to the summits were brief and steeper, but the sections between the summits were open and fast. Starting at the top of Monroe, it was fun to look ahead and see the trail for miles as it followed the ridge. I understand why runners of the Presidential Traverse generally travel north to south: this southern section is not quite as rugged as the trail to the north, and it’s really fun.
Monroe and Eisenhower have open summits. The summit of Pierce is semi-open. There is a nice picnic spot and good views to the north, but trees cover the southern and western sides of the summit. From Pierce, most runners completing the traverse would probably just head back down the Crawford Path to Route 302. But I continued on the AT toward the Mizpah Spring Hut. The descent was steep and rugged. At the hut I stopped to use the luxurious facilities, have a bite to eat, refill water, and play with some other hikers’ dogs. After a while, I remembered I was supposed to be moving and continued on to Mount Jackson. This section of the trail was something of a psychological challenge. Leaving the ridgeline, it felt like I should be in the final home stretch, but I still had miles to go and mountains to climb. Fortunately, the climb up Jackson was a lot of fun—there was one particularly great chunk of rock face that required some scrambling, which I love as long as it’s not wet.
Jackson has an open summit with nice views back toward Washington. There was a small crowd on top enjoying the sun that was now more visible in the sky and trying to identify mountains in the panoramic view. Many of the IDs were wrong, but fortunately a ranger from the Forest Service was there to set everyone straight. From Jackson, I continued south on the Webster Cliff Trail.
Before this day, I would have called the Beaver Brook Trail up Moosilauke or sections of the Kinsman ridge traverse the least runnable sections of the AT in New Hampshire, but the Webster Cliff Trail gives those trails a run for their money. The trail has great views down into Crawford Notch, but for anyone with a healthy fear of heights, it is a little scary. I was glad it wasn’t wet because the trail involves a lot of careful footing. Several times the Far North dog paused and stared at me, wondering if she was really supposed to go down the big rock. Fortunately, she managed to make it (I’m not sure how on some sections). After climbing down some of the bigger rocky sections, we reached more runnable trail. Again, my mind was playing tricks with me. I was ready to be done, but the trail kept going. It is a full six miles from the Mizpah Spring Hut to Route 302 on the AT, and it can be tough to keep going after leaving the ridgeline. But what choice did I have?
When I reached the Saco River Trail (my side trail back to the Dry River Campground), I thought, based on the map, that I had only about a mile left. The sign on the trail, however, said two miles to the campground. I almost cried. I know that sounds incredibly weak, but I was done. I looked at the sign again and knew there was only one thing to do. Run. Run fast. Just make it happen. So, that’s what I did. The Far North dog and I took off on this highly runnable trail and arrived soon at the campground, where I met my husband, who had a successful traverse.
Side note: on this same day, Ben Nephew set a new FKT for the Presidential Traverse. Two weeks earlier, when I was covering the northern presidentials, Jan Wellford had set an FKT for the Presidential Traverse. I don’t think I saw either of them out there (definitely missed Ben), but it’s entirely possible that my presence brings good luck to record seekers.
Without question, this was one of the most enjoyable and rewarding AT adventures I’ve had. But if I ever travel this route again, I will probably shortcut down from Pierce on the Crawford Path to Crawford Notch. I’m also considering using the Crawford Path as my go-to route up Washington in the future because it’s the perfect length and difficulty for a moderately tough day hike.
Distance: 18 miles (including an extra 4.2 to get up Washington and an added 2 at the end on a side trail)
Summits: Washington (6288 ft.), Monroe (5372 ft.), Eisenhower (4760 ft.), Pierce (4312 ft.) Jackson (4052 ft.), Webster (3910 ft.)
Trailhead: Base Road, Bretton Woods (if you are starting up the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail)
A few more photos: