The Presidential Traverse
Lincoln NH, the heart of the White Mountains. The Presidential Traverse is one of the most epic hikes in the White Mountains, and also among the most challenging. Traversing the entire length of the Presidential Range, hikers will summit at least seven 4,000-footers including New Hampshire’s five tallest peaks. The majority of the trail is above the tree line and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape.
While it is a popular challenge among those looking to push their limits, the Presidential Traverse should not be taken lightly. The Presidential Range is home to some of the world’s worst weather and the terrain can be difficult to navigate even under good conditions. Those who venture into the Presidentials unprepared can quickly find themselves in life-threatening conditions, so it’s crucial to take all the necessary precautions and plan your hike appropriately.
With that disclaimer out of the way, here is a guide covering the basics you will need to know if you are considering hiking the Presidential Traverse.
THE BASICS: WHAT IS THE PRESIDENTIAL TRAVERSE?
The Presidential Traverse is a point-to-point hike across the entire length of the Presidential Range. There are several different variations, but no matter what route you take, you will cover over 20 miles and approximately 9,000 feet of elevation gain.
The traverse can be hiked in either direction, but the most popular route is north to south, which allows hikers to get most of the elevation gain and the toughest terrain out of the way early. For our purposes, we’ll cover a north-to-south route that covers all of the peaks that are commonly included as part of a traverse.
Here are the summits you will encounter along your traverse:
- Madison: 5,366 feet
- Adams: 5,774 feet
- Jefferson: 5,712 feet
- Clay: 5,531 feet*
- Washington: 6,288 feet
- Monroe: 5,374 feet
- Franklin: 4,904 feet*
- Eisenhower: 4,760 feet
- Pierce: 4,312 feet
- Jackson: 4,052 feet*
- Webster: 3,911 feet*
* Denotes optional peak
While different people have different standards, everyone agrees that the Presidential Traverse, at a minimum, includes the seven 4,000-footers along the ridgeline: Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, and Pierce. Many people consider Mt. Jackson to be essential as well. All of these peaks offer outstanding views and are worth including if time and conditions permit.
Your journey will typically begin at the Appalachia Trailhead along U.S. Route 2 in Randolph, NH. Regardless of how long you intend to hike, plan on arriving early because the parking lot tends to fill up quickly. While several alternatives are possible from here, this guide covers the most popular route which begins up the Valley Way trail.
Valley Way to Madison Spring Hut: Start your hike by following the Valley Way trail up to the Madison Spring Hut. This route features 3,500 feet of elevation gain over 3.8 miles and is a steady and moderate ascent. The majority of this trail is below the tree line, though as you approach the ridgeline the trees will steadily thin out before you reach the hut and experience your first glimpse of the awesome views to come.
Osgood Trail to Madison Summit (and back): From the Madison Spring Hut, it’s another 0.5 miles and 550 feet of elevation gain to the summit of Mt. Madison via the Osgood Trail. The section from the hut to Mt. Madison will be the only part of the traverse that you will backtrack and retrace your steps. This section will be your introduction to the rocky, boulder-strewn terrain that characterizes the northern Presidential Range. You’ll enjoy an outstanding view of nearby Mt. Adams, Mt. Washington, and the Carter-Moriah Range across Pinkham Notch. Upon reaching the summit, you'll turn around and head back to the hut.
Gulfside Trail and Airline Trail to Adams Summit: Mt. Adams is notoriously treacherous and the push from the Madison Spring Hut to the summit is quite formidable. After leaving the hut, take the Gulfside Trail 0.3 miles to the Airline Trail junction. From here, you’ll climb 0.5 miles to the summit of Mt. Adams and have an incredible northward view from the top of the King Ravine. Overall this section is 0.8 miles and ascends 987 feet. This steep climb, when combined with the extremely tricky terrain, offers one of the toughest parts of the hike.
Lowe’s Path, Gulfside Trail and Jefferson Summit Loop to Jefferson Summit: Upon reaching the summit of Mt. Adams, you’ll be rewarded with a view across the Great Gulf Wilderness to Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Washington. Descend Lowe’s Path 0.2 miles to Thunderstorm Junction, then descend the Gulfside Trail 1.2 miles to Edmands Col, the low point in the ridge between Adams and Jefferson. Here the climbing begins again and you’ll ascend approximately 750 feet over the next 0.6 miles to the Jefferson Summit Loop trail and then to the summit of Jefferson itself.
Jefferson Summit Loop, Gulfside Trail, Mt. Clay Loop, Gulfside Trail and Trinity Heights Connector to Washington Summit: By the time you reach the summit of Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Washington will loom large and it will almost feel like you can reach out and touch it. Unfortunately, Washington is still another three miles away. The good news is that this section is among the most picturesque of the entire hike. Descend the Jefferson Summit Loop back to the Gulfside Trail and continue across the grassy Monticello Lawn area to the Mt. Clay Loop junction.
While it’s a little extra climbing, the view from Mt. Clay is stunning, and you’ll really get a feel for just how far you’ve already gone by looking back at Mt. Adams and Madison rising in the distance. Continue down the loop and link back up with the Gulfside Trail where you will cross over the Cog Railway and begin your final push to Mt. Washington’s summit. The most direct route to the summit is via the Trinity Heights Connector. Upon reaching the summit, you can take solace in knowing that the biggest climbs are finally behind you. Overall this section is 2.9 miles with 1,495 feet of elevation gain.
Crawford Path and Monroe Summit Loop to Monroe Summit: Once you’ve taken your Mt. Washington summit picture, restocked on water and snacks, and gotten your fill of the crowds, begin your descent down the Crawford Path to the Lakes of the Clouds hut. From this point on you should notice a significant change in the terrain, which becomes much smoother and gentler to allow for significantly faster progress. After 1.5 miles you’ll reach the Lakes of the Clouds hut. From there it’s a steep 0.3-mile, 300-foot climb up the Monroe Summit Loop to the summit of Mt. Monroe.
Monroe Summit Loop, Crawford Path and Mt. Eisenhower Loop to Eisenhower Summit: From Mt. Monroe’s summit, descend south down the Monroe Summit Loop and link back up with the Crawford Path. Continue 1.3 miles over the summit of Mt. Franklin to the Mt. Eisenhower Loop junction, taking in the picturesque Southern Presidential views along the way. Once at the junction, it’s 0.4 miles and about 350 feet of gain to the summit of Mt. Eisenhower.
Mt. Eisenhower Loop, Crawford Path and Webster Cliff Trail to Pierce Summit: After you descend to the southern end of the Mt. Eisenhower Loop back to the Crawford Path, the trail will begin to dip back into the brush, partially obscuring the views for the final stretch along the ridgeline. The good news is the trail is mostly flat on the approach to Mt. Pierce, and upon reaching the Webster Cliff Trail junction it’s an easy 0.1-mile climb up to the summit. Overall this section is 1.5 miles with just 270 feet of gain, and at this point you’ll have the option to complete your hike by descending the Crawford Path 3.0 miles to the Crawford Path Trailhead off of U.S. Route 302 near the AMC Highland Center. If you wish to proceed to Mt. Jackson and beyond, continue down the Webster Cliff Trail past the Mt. Pierce summit.
Webster Cliff Trail to Jackson Summit and Beyond: From the summit of Mt. Pierce, you’ll drop down steeply to the Mizpah Spring Hut, descending approximately 500 feet over 0.7 miles. From this point on you’ll be back below tree line, and after passing the hut you’ll cross over an alpine bog before making a 270-foot climb over the last 0.3 miles to the summit of Mt. Jackson. Overall it is 2.1 miles from the summit of Pierce to Jackson, and once again you’ll have the option to end your hike by descending the Webster-Jackson Trail (Jackson Branch) 2.6 miles to U.S. Route 302 and the AMC Highland Center. If you still have a little more gas in the tank, however, you can continue down the Webster Cliff Trail another 1.4 miles to Mt. Webster. From Mt. Webster’s summit you’ll want to make your way down to the Webster-Jackson Trail (Webster Branch), at which point it will be a 2.5-mile descent to the Highland Center and the end of your epic journey.
LOGISTICS, LODGING AND RESOURCES
Once you’ve committed to the Presidential Traverse and know what route you’ll be hiking, the next step is working out all of the logistics to make it happen. Do you want to complete the traverse in one day, or spread it out over two or three? If you plan on spending a night, do you want to camp or stay in one of the AMC huts? Where can you fill up water? These are all questions you’ll want answers for before you start your hike, so here’s an overview on the resources and red tape you’ll want to be aware of. For our purposes, we will focus on the logistics surrounding a summer Presidential Traverse. A winter traverse is obviously a whole different challenge and requires a far greater level of preparation and expertise.
Note, not all of the services listed are available year-round, and due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many hiking services are either closed or operating with more restrictive protocols in place for the 2021 season. Please contact any relevant organization for the latest updates and information.
Parking: The primary parking areas for the Presidential Traverse are the Appalachia Trailhead along U.S. Route 2 at the northern end, and the hiker parking areas near the Webster-Jackson Trailhead and the Crawford Path Trailhead off of U.S. Route 302 by the AMC Highland Center.
Unless you plan on walking all the way back to your car once you’ve finished the hike, you'll need to arrange for transportation. If you are hiking with another person, you can spot a car at both ends of the route. That way once you’re finished you can simply hop in the car, drive back to the start to retrieve the other car and you’ll be on your way. If you only have one car available, it’s usually best to leave your car at the end of the route. It’s easier to arrange a ride in advance that way and you’ll have the freedom to drive home as soon as you’re done rather than waiting for a lift. Under normal, non-pandemic circumstances, the AMC also offers a hiker shuttle that you can utilize to get from one end of the range to the other.
Camping and Lodging: Due to White Mountain National Forest regulations prohibiting camping within alpine zones, hikers who plan to stay overnight above tree line are fairly limited in their legal camping options. Those options are even more limited outside of the summer hiking season and for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic. Hikers planning to complete a single-day Presidential Traverse need not worry about overnight accommodations.
Under normal circumstances, however, the three best lodging options for hikers are the AMC’s three backcountry huts along the range, the Madison Spring Hut, the Lakes of the Clouds Hut and the Mizpah Spring Hut. Madison Spring is located between Mt. Madison and Mt. Adams near the northern end of the route, Lakes of the Clouds is south of Mt. Washington’s summit below the peak of Mt. Monroe towards the middle of the route, and Mizpah Spring is south of Mt. Pierce on the southern end. These huts are expensive and advance reservations are recommended, but they are also convenient, provide hot meals and allow the opportunity to socialize with other hikers on their own adventures.
If the AMC huts aren’t for you, the Randolph Mountain Club also maintains a series of shelters and tent sites in the Northern Presidential region that are much cheaper though a little bit out of the way. The AMC’s Nauman Tentsite is also adjacent to the Mizpah Spring Hut, providing a cheaper and more flexible camping option on the southern end of the traverse.
Water and Resupply: Carrying enough water to make it through an entire Presidential Traverse can be challenging, but luckily there are plenty of places along the route you’ll be able to fill up. The Madison Spring Hut, Lakes of the Clouds Hut and Mizpah Spring Hut all have potable water available to hikers for free, as does the Sherman Adams Visitors Center on the summit of Mt. Washington. All four facilities also have food and snacks for sale, so there will be ample opportunity along the route to stock up if you find yourself running low.
In addition, hikers are encouraged to carry a portable water filter, which will allow you to safely take advantage of the various mountain springs and streams that you’ll encounter along the way.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
Once you’ve put together your route and gotten all of the logistics squared away, you’re almost ready to start your hike. But before you go, there are a few more things you’ll want to keep in mind.
Check the Weather! Conditions above tree line in the Presidential Range can be unpredictable, and if severe weather strikes you can easily find yourself in potentially life-threatening conditions. So before any hike into the Presidentials, always make sure you check the Mt. Washington Observatory’s Higher Summits forecast. If high winds, heavy rain or freezing conditions are expected, you’d be better off waiting to hike another day. Check the forecast here.
Plan Bailout Points: Even if you check the weather and everything looks good, it’s still possible to get stuck in a serious situation, so it’s important to know where you can bail out if things go sideways. Some possible options include Lowe’s Path off of Mt. Adams; the Caps Ridge Trail off of Mt. Jefferson; the Jewell Trail, Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail or Tuckerman Ravine Trail off of Mt. Washington and Edmands Path off of Mt. Eisenhower.
Pack the Essentials: As with any hike, it’s important that you pack all of the essential gear you’ll need for the trip. In addition to food and water, be sure to pack extra layers to account for the colder and windier conditions you tend to find above the tree line. Make sure you bring a headlamp in case you find yourself out after dark, a map and compass to help with navigation, a portable water filter, and if you use your phone for photos, navigation or anything else, bring an external battery charger to keep the phone from dying on you.
Have fun! The Presidential Traverse is an epic, seriously challenging hike that you will remember for the rest of your life. While it’s not something to be taken lightly, if you take all the necessary precautions, plan appropriately and pick a day with good weather, you will be rewarded with one of the best hikes of your life. So once you get out there, make sure to enjoy yourself, soak in the experience and have a great time!
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