Insider’s Guide to the White Mountains

A northern extension of the Appalachian range, the White Mountains of New Hampshire attract visitors with the highest and windiest peak in the American Northeast—Mount Washington—and the oldest network of high-altitude huts in the nation.

> What to Know:

The warmer summer months, when days are longest and afternoon temperatures reach into the 80s F, remain the most popular time to visit the area. Leaf peepers flock here in late September, when trees begin their color transformation.

In all seasons, the famously changeable weather in these mountains can bring on sudden stormy conditions, high winds, and plunges in temperature—a source of exhilaration for some but consternation for the unprepared.

Hikers new to the Whites can consult the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) websiteAppalachian Mountain Club (AMC) website for information. Novice hikers also may want to hire a guide.

The AMC’s Highland Center at Crawford Notch offers an introduction to the area, with nature talks and guided day hikes. A bonus for guests who overnight at the center: hiking gear for loan.

> Trail Huts: 

The AMC hut system features eight huts, each accessible from lower trailheads. Most book up months in advance, so plan early.

Huts range from Zealand Falls, the lowest at 2,640 feet, to 5,032-foot-high Lakes of the Clouds, the closest to the summit of Mount Washington, itself reachable by riding “the Cog,” the world’s first mountain cog railway. Hut stays from June into October include dinner and breakfast.

The best way to reach the trailheads June to mid-September (and weekends only to mid-October) is with the AMC Hiker Shuttle, which operates from Highland Center, the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, and the Irving gas station in Gorham, New Hampshire; reservations suggested.

> Area Lodges: 

Base accommodations include the AMC-run Highland Lodge, Joe Dodge Lodge (named for the “father of the huts”), and Cardigan Lodge, each with bunk and private rooms.

For a taste of bygone days, stay or dine at the 113-year-old Mount Washington Hotel, an Omni resort.

Host to celebrities and presidents—Babe Ruth, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Joan Crawford—the national historic landmark retains a gentility with its high-ceilinged guest rooms, afternoon tea, drinks served out on the long porches, and horseback riding. “The hotel felt downright luxurious after all the shale climbing,” says author Joyce Maynard.

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> Travel Trivia: 

  • Hut crews use some 11,000 pounds of flour to bake bread in the summer season.
  • The 1944 Bretton Woods Conference, held at the Mount Washington Hotel, established both the gold standard and the precursor to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
  • A 1961 National Geographic story by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas popularized the White Mountains hut system.

This piece, reported by Jayne Wise and Monika Joshi, first appeared in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.

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