This is a trip report on my absolutely incredible first 3-Day Presidential Traverse. To get details about my plan and learn more about what the Presidential Traverse actually is, check out my 3-Day Presi Traverse Plan.
I spent most of the summer training for my first Presidential Traverse. To say I was feeling a bit hyper about it would be an understatement. I did several overnight hikes in the Whites and plenty of day hikes. I strength trained and cross-trained and did everything right. But in mid-July, I had to accept I had developed an overuse injury. My knees were a mess. After summiting Mount Washington during the Seek the Peak, I was forced by my body to take a month off.
Then in August, I started looking for a fair weather weekend. But I was hit by rainy weekend after rainy weekend. I started to despair. I didn’t want to push it out until the fall. I had hoped to complete the hike in the summer when the sun still stayed up past 7 p.m. Then finally, one weekend in late August, the Washington Observatory weather report spoke of clear skies all day on Saturday. That was all I needed. It was time for my first Presidential Traverse.
Day 1: Appalachia Trailhead to Valley Way Tentsite | 3.1 Miles
Friday was hectic. This late into the summer the sunset was at 7:30 p.m. and book time from the Appalachia trailhead to the Valley Way Tentsite was 3 hours. By my calculation, that meant I ought to start hiking by 4 p.m. in order to set up camp before dark. Cooking in the dark I could handle, but choosing a campsite and setting up a tent in the dark is not one of my favorite pastimes.
I left my office north of Boston at 1 p.m. on Friday. Normally, some of my more relaxed summer hiking excursions, I take the time to stop at Chipotle and get a burrito to carry up for dinner on the first night. Not this time. I was anxious about reaching the trailhead by 4, nervous that the persistent summer traffic would slow me down and I’d be limited to a two-day Presi traverse.
The trip went quickly however and I pulled into the Appalachia trailhead at 4:02 p.m. I was on the trail by 4:15 p.m. at the latest, my heart and mind racing at the thought that I wouldn’t make it to Valley Way before dark.
My feet hit the trail and I rushed through the woods. Though I tried to appreciate the experience of being in the forest; the wandering route the path took on its way up the side of Mount Adams; the way it wove prettily around rocks and streams; in truth, I climbed up that hill like the Devil himself was on my heels. Breathing hard and sweating, I arrived at the Valley Way Tentsite at 6 p.m.
Valley Way is a fairly large, unhosted tent site just below the Madison Springs Hut. There are only two platforms but many additional clearings spread out into the woods, probably unsanctioned but filled with hikers nonetheless. By the time I arrived, early in the evening on a Friday, the place was nearly full. After walking around a bit, I asked a couple setting up a bivy if I could share their clearing.
With my tent pitched sideways up the slope, I spent the night curled up in a ball leaning into the hill. Sleep took its time to find me that night, in part because I was hyped up for the next day, but mostly because I was actively trying not to roll back down the hill.
Day 2: Appalachia Way Tentsite to Nauman Tentsite | 15.5 Miles
Filled with an eager anticipation for the day of hiking ahead of me and uncertain about my inability to finish, Friday evening I had set a 4:30 a.m. alarm for Saturday morning. Of course, when that alarm actually went off in the pre-dawn dark, my half-asleep brain was fairly certain I could still finish before sunset if I slept in for another half an hour. I rolled over.
At 5 a.m., the sky still mostly dark, just the faintest tinge of dawn turning the sky a rich deep blue, I changed into my dirty clothes, munched on a dry, cold pop tart, and was on the trail by 5:30.
Almost immediately, trail runners starting to pass me, jogging up the mountainside with their simple packs and minimal water supply. With my 20 pound pack on my back fully loaded with two liters of water, I was more than a little jealous. They were the hare, I told myself, but I was the tortoise. I think I can, I think I can.
Coming over the rise and around some rocks, I arrived at the Madison Springs Hut, pink in the fresh dawn light. Tucking my pack into a nook near the base of the hut, I grabbed my poles and took off towards the summit of Madison, less than a half a mile from the hut and my first peak of the day, reaching it by 7 a.m.
Up here, in the cool morning air, I peered through the haze towards Mt. Washington. The day was clear, but smoke from the wildfires on the west coast had blown across the continent on a jet stream, coloring everything a burnt orange. The people around me were mostly other Presi Traverse hikers, congratulating each other on making it to the first peak by 7 a.m. For the first time, I had the comforting realization that I may be doing this on my own, but I wasn’t alone. There were so many other hikers up here to do the traverse with me. We were all sharing the sense of eager anticipation. Could we finish? The excitement was palpable.
Back down to the Madison Springs hut, a quick stop for some hot coffee, and I headed on up the trail, still nervous about my ability to finish before sundown.
Mount Adams and Jefferson
Without looking at my map, I walked out of Madison Hut and followed the signs that pointed the way towards Mt. Adams, following the Star Trail. You may think, outdoor enthusiast that I am, that I would’ve at least looked at the trail map and assessed the topo before heading off in the direction of my dreams. But of course, I did not.
The Star Trail, for the uninitiated, is by far the most challenging and rewarding way to reach the summit of Mt. Adams. Starting from the Madison Springs Hut, it curls around the base of the peak, teeters on the edge of the Great Gulf, and then lurches straight up the side of the mountain towards the summit.
The trail is pure, unadulterated New England scramble. A giant field of boulders leading inexorably uphill. It was awesome. I forgot all about my heavy pack as I picked my way up the side of the boulder field, constantly on the lookout for the little blue blaze and the short cairns that proved my only guide. This is less of a trail and more a test of your internal compass and agility. The final scrambled to the summit passes through a narrow chasm before emerging, victorious, at the peak. From here, Madison seemed like a distant dream, far off and long forgotten. Mount Washington appeared no closer, but Jefferson, previously invisible, sat just beyond my reach.
A day hiking couple came up just after I reached the summit, we were alone at the top of the mountain and I learned they were also doing a Presi Traverse but in a single day. We were mutually impressed, I with their single day bid, they with my ability to do a hike like this with my heavy pack. They pressed on and I said goodbye, assuming I wouldn’t catch up with them again.
I set off, slowly picking my way down the rocky boulder-strewn landscape towards Thunderstorm Junction and Mount Jefferson.
In the weeks and months that led up to my Presidential Traverse, I’d heard many people say how easy it is to get lost up there. How could that be possible, I thought, trails are so well marked in the Whites.
Please trust me when I say, as a fellow skeptic, that it is incredibly easy to get lost and turned around on the Presidential Traverse, especially in low visibility or cloudy weather. Luckily for me, it was clear as a diamond for my traverse, but even then, Thunderstorm Junction is a confusing place. It took me several tries to figure out how to get back onto the Appalachian Trail, the cairns are not obvious and the signs point in confusing directions.
The way to Jefferson was my initiation into one of the realities of a Presidential Traverse, the illusion of proximity. The first two peaks of the day, Madison and Adams, are really quite close together, so although my route to the top of Adams was challenging, the distance between the two peaks was overall quite short.
From Adams, Jefferson had also looked fairly nearby. But that was an illusion. The trail to get there was rough and winding, going up and down and around several humps before making the lurching ascent to the top. A trail runner came up beside me as we pushed up the final ascent and introduced herself with a “God, I hope this is really the summit.”
It was. I stopped to take a break and have a quick snack. Happy to have made it to my third summit, eager for more. Mount Washington was finally starting to appear within reach. As I stood up and shouldered my pack I heard a surprised, “oh look who it is!” The couple from Mount Adams was sitting just in front of me, snacking away and taking in the view. We were pleasantly shocked to see each other, though they had been strangers on Mount Adams, now they were my hiking partners. We were in this together, and as I set off, we promised to see each other again for pizza on top of Mount. Washington.
The only thing that stood between me and Mount Washington was the small shoulder of Mount Clay. Technically not on the list of New Hampshire’s 48 4000 footers, and not technically part of the official Presi Traverse, I still wanted to include it in my hike. I stepped off and headed down the tricky granite boulder field towards Clay.
Mount Clay And the Big Push to Washington
As I slowly picked my way down Jefferson, tentatively navigating the massive granite boulders, the pain and strain of this harsh landscape started to make itself known. My knees and feet started to ache with each step. My pack dragged on my back, straining the muscles along my spine.
To make matters worse, that tricky little thing we call perception started playing its game again. From the top of Mt. Jefferson, Clay had looked like an insignificant hump between me and Mount Washington. But by the time I made it down to the shoulder in between the two peaks, Clay was looming ominously above me.
For the first time that day, I had the thought “I’m not sure I can do this.”
Morale was at its lowest point. I pulled on the straw from my water bladder and took a big gulp, I swallowed once, twice, and then I felt and heard that terrible sound, the rasping drumroll that a bladder makes when it hits empty.
I had run out of water.
I stood at the bottom of the trail to Mount Clay and looked up. I wanted to reach that summit, but realistically, with no water left, the responsible choice was to take the path of least resistance. It was going to be a long, dry, thirsty walk as it was, I’d only make it worse by adding the several hundred feet of elevation change.
Reluctantly, I bypassed Mt. Clay and took the Gulfside Trail around its hump, heading up towards Mount Washington.
With single-minded purpose I strode along the rocks, resolutely ignoring my thirst and ignoring the various signs pointing the way to the Jewell trail and other options. I had but one goal: make it to the summit of Washington and refill my water.
Once I made it around the side of Clay, the air filled with the noises of Mount Washington. The roar of car motors and the chugging of the cog railway burst through my solitude, urging me ever onwards. As I ascended the final mile to the summit of Mount Washington, the sound rose to a cacophony.
During that final stretch of trail to Mount Washington’s summit, the trail runs parallel to the cog railway. Train after train rolled by, tourists peering out the windows at me as I struggled up the hill, tired and dehydrated.
This was simultaneously the most hectic and one of the most beautiful parts of the trail. The trail grazes the very edge of the Great Gulf, at one point so close to the edge of a cliff that a simple misstep could send you tumbling down hundreds of feet. The Gulf opened up beneath me and I could see all the way back down the ridge to Madison. Each peak loomed tall and crashed suddenly down into the Gulf, where the slope evened out into a pine covered valley. It called out to me, begging to be explored. But for now I was on a different journey, and turned my face upwards, towards the summit of the Northeast’s tallest peak: Mount Washington.
The final push to the summit went by in a flash. It was more of the same granite boulder jungle gym but somehow the rocks felt flatter and more forgiving up here. Perhaps to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of tourists that ascend to the top of this famous mountain each year.
I arrived gratefully at the peak of the mountain. Without even pausing to take in the view, I pushed through the throngs of tourists and made my way towards the water fountain. Taking several deep pulls of the ice cold water I finally relaxed. Time for pizza.
Perhaps it’s time for a note about the summit of Mount Washington.
The Summit of Mount Washington
If you’re picturing the summit of Mount Washington, the tallest peak in the Northeast, as a place of solitude and tranquility, where weary hikers sit on rocks and soak in the glow of their achievement, staring out at the vast landscape and marveling at the glory of nature, you’d be wrong.
Mount Washington is a wildly overdeveloped summit, home to a cafe, gift shop, log cabin, and viewing deck, as well as a scientific observatory and weather research center. If it sounds overwhelming, it is, but it is part of a long tradition in New England of development on mountain summits.
The oldest structure on the summit of Mount Washington is the Tip-Top house, a former hostel built in 1853. The New Englanders of old just loved building on top of mountains. There was once a luxury hotel on top of Mount Moosilauke. Most of these hotels ended up blowing away or burning down, but the Tip Top house remains, and tourists can pop inside to get a sense of historic New England.
Those who would prefer not to have to hike to the summit of Mount Washington have options as well, the historic Cog Railway, building in 1863 but now a for-profit business, chugs up and down the mountain at regular intervals. The Mount Washington Auto Road gives ambitious road trippers the opportunity to drive to the top of the highest peak, an activity especially popular with motorcyclists.
All this means that when I reached the summit of Mount Washington, I was not alone. Smelly and covered in a day’s worth of dirt, I stood in line with clean smelling tourists fresh from their drive to the top to get my slice of pizza and a cookie. Hiking to a gift shop is one of the weirder experiences I’ve ever had in my years of adventure travel. The first time I summited Washington I thought it was pretty amusing. This time, I was just ready to get out of there.
The Southern Peaks
From the summit of Washington down to the Lake of the Clouds hut just a few miles away, the trail was packed. I mean, slammed with people. It was early afternoon on a bright Saturday afternoon at the end of the summer on one of the most popular trails in the northeast. Of course it was packed, but still, I missed the solitude of the morning trails. I dreamed hopefully of a few miles down the trail when the crowds would disperse and I could walk along in silence, passing only other Presi Traverse hikers or the odd smelly AT thru-hiker heading up to Maine.
At the Lake of the Clouds hut, I stopped again to top off my water, aware that this was my last reliable water source before my final destination for the day at the Nauman Tentsite.
At the back of my mind was a low hum of panic. Convinced I had fallen behind schedule, I pulled out my phone and turned it on. 2 p.m. Then I turned to my map, convinced I still had 7 miles to go. That may seem insignificant, but up in the Whites, a pace of 1 mile per hour is not unusual.
Looking at my map, relief flooded my system. I only had 5 miles left. I was practically done! Even if I did hike at one mile per hour, I’d still make it to the campsite by nightfall. Hope and optimism surged through me. The despondent exhaustion I had felt a few hours ago on the top of Jefferson was long gone. Munching on a gooey brownie cooked by the genius crew of Lake of the Clouds hut, I shouldered my pack and set off towards the summit of Monroe.
The distance from Lake of the Clouds to Monroe is kind of laughable. It is a short and steep 300 feet of elevation gain, hardly enough to be called a separate mountain peak but then again, still quite a challenging scramble with a 20-pound pack on. From there, the rest of my hike rolled away into the distant haze. I was standing on the highest point, and although I knew it wasn’t all downhill, that I still had two more official peaks and one more unofficial, I felt like I had already finished the hike.
The rest of that afternoon was pure, glorious, unadulterated magic. The footing became smooth and sandy as the path wove its way along the top of the ridge, slowly ascending and descending the smaller humps of the Southern Presidentials. I crested the top of Eisenhower riding a high of adrenaline. This was the kind of hiking I always dreamed of. This was who I was meant to be. I was floating along, dreaming of a life where all I ever had to do was walk along mountain ridges just like this, experiencing and discovering new lands and never before seen views.
There they were. My friends from Adams and Jefferson, sitting on the ground at the broad sloping peak of Eisenhower, looking exhausted.
We took pictures and said goodbye, they were moving faster than I was and going further, I wouldn’t see them again.
My lighthearted journey continued to my final peak of the day, and last official peak of a short Presidential Traverse, Pierce. The trail dipped down below tree line for the first time since 6 a.m. that morning. The pines enveloped me, embracing me and welcoming me back into their arms. The expansive views of the White Mountains vanished and I entered their beating heart, the land of pines and moss and silence.
The summit of Pierce is unremarkable, shrouded in trees without a real view. But as I came over the final rise to the summit I heard the crack of a beer can and saw two people sitting down on nearby rocks.
“This is our 48th” They smiled clearly excited. They were finishing all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4000 footers. My heart swelled. I’d never actually been present to see anyone finish their 48. It felt like a fitting end to my day.
“Congratulations!” I raised my poles in their direction and continued on. The only thing between me and my dinner was a short descent to Mizpah Springs Hut and the nearby Nauman tent site.
Or so I thought.
The final descent was steep, a dramatic granite staircase tangled with tree roots and slippery with water. Each step sent pain ripping up into my knees and hips as the toll the day had taken on my body finally showed itself. Even more painful, the sound of people laughing and relaxing outside of the Mizpah hut drifting up through the trees for the final half mile of the trail, taunting me with thoughts of hot mac n cheese and sleep.
But nothing lasts forever, not even unforgiving downhills, and at long last, I popped out of the trail in front of the Mizpah Hut. The Nauman Tent site is literally right next to the hut, I’m pretty sure its the only place in the White Mountains where an AMC Hut has a tent site so nearby. It’s really super convenient.
By 5 p.m. I was pitching my tent on one of the platforms and getting to know my neighbors, a boy scout dad out for a solo hike and a group of three Appalachian Trail hikers who’d met on their second day and hiked together all the way from Georgia.
It was a pretty great night in the woods.
Day 3: From Nauman on Home
I woke up a little after dawn the next morning and rolled over in my sleeping bag, safe in the knowledge that I only had to hike about 5 miles that day. Drifting in and out of sleep, I laid on my inflatable mat and basked in the feeling of having nothing in particular to do.
I heard the soft sounds of my Appalachian trail campsite comrades packing up their things. The slither of a tent collapsing, the click of tent poles, the hushed sounds of the first hikers setting out for the day. I decided to see how the outside world looked this morning.
Sticking my legs out of the tent, I crammed my feet into my hiking boots and stood up. Immediately my legs screamed out, shredding my peaceful state of mind. Overnight my muscles had transformed from human flesh into ice cold stone. Every movement hurt. I stepped tenderly across the campsite, carrying my water bladder down to the stream to refill. I had to take the stairs one at a time, gripping nearby trees as my calves screamed in protest. It took another hour of hobbling around for my legs to fully wake up and the pain to recede.
Sitting on my bear vault, I cooked up a pot of oatmeal. Normally on backpacking trips, I scarf down a cold pop tart and head out of the campsite as the sun rises, usually one of the first on the trail. But I had hiked almost the entire Presidential ridge yesterday and I was going to have a long, relaxing morning in the woods. I had earned it.
I munched on my cinnamon oatmeal while the Appalachian trail hikers packed up their things and ate their cold ramen noodle breakfasts. My other tent site partner, the boy scout father out for a solo hike, was approaching this morning with the same attitude as I was. We sat next to each other and watched as everyone around us packed up and headed out. We were in no rush.
“I’ve decided I’m going to skip Jackson.” He confided in me. “My legs aren’t feeling it at all.”
From the Nauman tent site, Presi-Traverse hikers have two options, you can take the Mizpah Cut Off directly down to the Crawford Depot, a two-mile hike, or head up to the peak of Mt. Jackson, not an official peak on the Presi traverse but still hit by many, and from there, either follow the Appalachian Trail over Webster and down to Route 302, or take the Mt. Jackson trail down to Crawford Depot.
Even as I packed up my supplies that morning, I wasn’t sure which route I was going to do. I headed on the trail up to Jackson, waiting for my body to tell me whether or not Webster and Webster Cliff were in the cards for me.
Nauman Tentsite to Mount Jackson
The trail up to Jackson was quite beautiful. It wanders through a dense pine forest, sometimes quickly ascending before descending again, twisting through moss covered boulders with sunlight dancing through the trees.
The final pitch to the top of Jackson is sudden and steep, a classic New England scramble that requires full use of all four limbs and your problem-solving capabilities. I was winded and euphoric by the time I reached the summit.
From the peak, you have a stunning view of the entire ridge, all the way back up to Mount Washington far in the distance. Mount Tom, Field, and Willey are across Crawford Notch. On this morning the views were splendid and pine-covered mountains stretched in every direction.
Now it was decision time. Was I going to continue on the Appalachian trail to the lower Mount Webster, along the cliff, and down to Route 302, or head straight down from here to Crawford Notch. My legs had shown up for the climb to Jackson, but my knees were worn out from the day before, and I knew from the topographical map that the descent from Webster Cliff would be steep. I decided to take the shorter, gentler route directly down to Crawford Depot, saving Webster Cliff for another day.
Mount Jackson to Crawford Deport
Getting off of the summit of Mount Jackson is much the same as getting up to it, a sharp, steep scramble down exposed granite. But it ends soon enough and the trail is your typical New England descent, massive granite stairs just a little too big to be comfortable on the knees, descending through gorgeous pine forests and passing by streams and rivers.
Close to the top, a fellow backpacker flew past me with a quick and cheerful, “hello!” as he passed. I remember thinking, the only people who hike that fast are Appalachian Trail hikers… but this isn’t the Appalachian Trail. I considered yelling out to him but I didn’t want to be a mansplainer. He surely knew where he was going, he was walking with such confidence. And by the time I finished this internal debate, he was already long gone.
I continued my slow descent.
The descent felt long. My legs were undeniably tired from the day before and I was ready to sit down and eat a big meal, maybe even have a tasty IPA. But the trail just kept going, sometimes crossing along the side of the mountain, rolling up and down.
After another hour or so, I saw a familiar face heading back up the mountain. It was the backpacker. My surprise must have shown in my face because he greeted me with a sheepish “hello again.”
“Are you an AT hiker?” I ask. He nodded.
“Oh no!” My dismay was hard to conceal. “I thought so when you passed me earlier and I was going to shout out to you, but I didn’t because I’m too shy! Ugh, I’m so sorry!”
He was surprisingly positive about it. “It’s ok! I’m still hiking. Where was the turn-off?”
“At the summit.”
“Oh, that far? Yikes.”
He pushed on back uphill, his spirits still high. I continued down, trying not to feel responsible for the extra miles and several hundred feet of elevation gain that my timidity had added to his day.
The descent took most of the morning, but I popped out onto the road around noon. The trailhead ends up at the far end of the lake, with a tiny road walk to get to the Crawford Depot itself. At the depot, I plopped my bag down on one of the picnic tables and sat down, staring around, basking in wave after wave of satisfaction. A quiet euphoria humming in my mind, tingling in my toes and fingertips, fluttering in my heart.
I had just finished my first Presidential Traverse. Next time, I’m going to try for a single day.
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