Once upon a time, when I was younger, thinner, and substantially more ambitious, I would spend night after night poring over maps as I planned my next overnight backpacking trip. In those days of yore, when lugging around a 35- to 40-pound pack didn’t seeming anywhere near as daunting as it does today, I’d routinely take off on multi-day excursions to destinations in the White, Green and Adirondack Mountains of the Northeast. Many of these adventures found me tramping along Vermont’s 260-mile Long Trail or some northern New England section of the Maine-to-Georgia Appalachian Trail. Other times I’d incorporate some peakbagging into my itinerary, especially when I was in hot pursuit of the New England 4000-Footer list.
While my backpacking days are now but a distant memory, I still love talking to hikers about trips they’ve either just completed or are about to undertake. I’m amazed, in fact, at how many queries I receive on the subject, especially when visiting my longtime hiking cohort Steve Smith at his Mountain Wanderer Map and Book Store in Lincoln, or when I meet up with my nephew, a U. S. Forest Service backcountry ranger who spends most of his time patrolling the inner recesses of the Pemigewasset Wilderness in the White Mountain National Forest.
Certainly there is no shortage of options when it comes to White Mountain backpacking. With the AT weaving its way across the region, and hundreds of miles of other trails within a 90-minute drive of anywhere in the Whites, the choices seem limitless to the uninitiated.
Just to give you an idea of some of the more popular long distance hikes in the wilds of northern New Hampshire, what follows is a brief listing and description of a few of the more inviting treks available to White Mountain backpackers:
Pemi Horseshoe: Considered perhaps the most rewarding multi-day trek in New England, this classic route circumnavigates the heart of the Pemigewasset Wilderness by way of the Twin-Bond, Garfield, and Franconia Ranges. This 31.5-mile loop begins and ends at the Lincoln Woods Trail off the Kancamagus Highway and features visits to eight 4000-foot summits. Several others are also easily accessible via short side trails. Highlights include the summit vistas from Bondcliff, Mt. Bond, South Twin, Mt. Garfield, and Mt. Lafayette.
This hike is best done over four days and three nights, with layovers at Guyot, Garfield, and Liberty Spring campsites. You can do this trek in either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction. If you go clockwise, which is the way I recommend, you’ll start off on the Lincoln Woods Trail and then steer left onto the Osseo Trail for the stiff climb up to Mount Flume. You then head north on the Franconia Ridge Trail until reaching the open summit of Lafayette. The Garfield Ridge Trail then leads you over Mt. Garfield and continues on toward the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Galehead Hut. From Galehead, follow the Twinway to its intersection with the Bondcliff Trail near Mount Guyot, then take the Bondcliff Trail all the way down into the East Branch valley, where you’ll turn right onto the Wilderness Trail and in five or so miles be back at the Kanc.
Kinsman Ridge Traverse: Appalachian Trail hikers know all too well the not-so-niceties of the Kinsman Ridge Trail, which runs nearly 17 miles from Kinsman Notch (Route 112) north to Cannon Mountain and Franconia Notch. On the map, this trail doesn’t appear anywhere near as difficult as it really is, especially along its southern reaches. But a full-length traverse of Kinsman Ridge features an endless series of tiring ups and downs, with the ascent of 4,358-foot South Kinsman from the south probably the most treacherous and steepest. The final attack on Cannon’s summit cone from Coppermine Col is nothing to laugh at either, especially if you’ve been on the trail for several days and have lost some of your earlier vim and vigor. Shelters at Eliza Brook and Kinsman Pond provide overnight accommodations for backpackers. There are also several tent platforms at Kinsman Pond.
Wildcats-Carters Traverse: Situated as they are directly east of Mount Washington and the Presidential Range on the opposite side of Pinkham Notch, the peaks along Wildcat Ridge and the Carter Range offer up some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in New Hampshire. The rewards are hard earned, however, as anyone who has backpacked the length of the connecting ridges can attest. Trampers going south-to-north are immediately faced with the difficult scramble from Route 16 up to Wildcat Ridge. This is one mean ascent, even for someone lugging a simple daypack. The ridge walk over the various summits of Wildcat is pleasant enough, but the sharp descent down to Carter Notch, and the equally sharp climb from the Notch up to Carter Dome, is enough to test the hardiest of hikers.
In the course of this 18.7-mile journey, hikers pass over six 4000-foot summits, with Carter Dome and its spur peak, Mt. Hight, probably the best of the bunch. The view west towards Mt. Washington and its many glacial cirques is among the finest in the Whites.
AMC’s Carter Notch Hut and Imp Shelter are situated approximately 7.5 miles apart and allow for a comfortable three-day, two-night traverse of the ridge.
Kilkenny Ridge Traverse: If you’re looking for a true wilderness experience on your White Mountain backpacking tour, then this is the trip for you. An end-to-end traverse of this outpost ridge in the northern reaches of the White Mountains covers more than 24 miles and includes ascents of Mts. Cabot and Waumbek (both 4000-footers), plus numerous other peaks such as Mt. Starr King, the multi-summits of Mt. Weeks, and Terrace Mountain.
The Kilkenny Ridge traverse begins on Route 2 in Jefferson on the Starr King Trail and terminates 24.2 miles north at the South Pond Recreation Area off Route 110 in Stark. From the summit of Waumbek north, the Kilkenny Ridge Trail runs the final 20.6 miles. Highlights of the trek include the substantial views from Mt. Cabot, Rogers Ledge and The Horn, and the likelihood that you’ll see few hikers other those converging on the two 4000-foot peaks along the way.
The only overnight facility available to hikers is the old Firewarden’s Cabin near the summit of Mt. Cabot. The cabin is situated approximately 10 miles from South Pond and 14 miles from Route 2. (Previous published)
Mike Dickerman is a longtime hiking enthusiast, award-winning columnist, and author or coauthor of nine books related to the White Mountains region of New Hampshire. He lives in Littleton, N.H.