The Presidential Traverse in New Hampshire’s White Mountains is widely regarded as one of the most challenging hikes on the East Coast, and even in the entire US. The Traverse spans more than 21 miles with over 9,500’ of elevation gain on mostly rocky terrain, ascending and descending 10 separate mountain peaks including Mt. Washington. It can be completed in a single (very long) day but is more commonly split into 2-3 days.
My journey to complete the Presidential Traverse began in 2014 when a small group of friends and I wanted to plan a backpacking trip. Our goal was a two-day Traverse, but a Nor’easter forced us to pivot our plans south to the Three Ridges Wilderness in Virginia.
That first trip turned into an annual hiking outing (sometimes twice a year) working through the 46 Adirondack High Peaks. However, this year we decided to give the Presidential Range another shot. We set a date in early July and got rained out again, this time by Tropical Storm Fay. Luckily, the third time was the charm.
Camping and hitting the trail
With a promising weather forecast, we made a last-minute decision to book a campsite and head to New Hampshire for a single-day attempt of the Traverse on July 25th. We drove up on Friday and camped near the Valley Way trailhead where we would begin our hike, at the northern end of the Traverse. We dropped off one car at Crawford Notch Station, the southern terminus of the Traverse, and set our alarms for 3:30 am the next morning.
We hit the trail at 4:30 am and started the initial ascent with our headlamps lighting the way. The hike begins with the toughest stretch of the entire Traverse. From the trailhead, the Valley Way Trail ascends an average of 1,000 feet per mile for the first four miles, the longest continuous climb of the day. That initial climb brought us to the top of Mt. Madison, the first of the day’s 10 summits. The final push to the summit is extremely rocky and requires some scrambling over various sized boulders.
From the top of Mt. Madison, we descended back down the rocky terrain to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Mt. Madison Hut. Just past the hut, we began climbing again to reach Mt. Adams, followed by Mt. Jefferson. The terrain on both of these peaks is very rocky and steep, demanding your full attention. The last peak before Mt. Washington is Mt. Clay, which is less intense than the first three, but still a challenge.
From Mt. Clay, we ascended another 1,000 feet to Mt. Washington. Although Mt. Washington is the largest of the Presidential peaks, it is a more gradual ascent than Madison, Adams and Jefferson, and therefore seemed less strenuous than the others.
Mt. Washington’s weather is notorious for being extreme and unpredictable, with the world’s highest wind speed recorded here at 231 miles per hour! As you approach the mountain, a sign warns hikers that “the area ahead has the worst weather in America.” However, we got lucky and the weather was perfect all day.
Mt. Washington is also a popular tourist attraction for non-hikers since a road goes right to the summit (along with a trolley), so we quickly moved on to avoid the crowds.
The halfway point of The Traverse
After Mt. Washington, it’s (almost) all downhill. Although Mt. Washington is only the halfway point in terms of overall mileage, the first half of the Traverse accounts for nearly all of the day’s vertical gain.
After descending from the summit, we stopped for a quick break at the AMC Lakes of the Clouds Hut, which sits in the valley between Mt. Washington and Mt. Monroe. The lodge has a small “snack shop” so we grabbed quesadillas and refilled our water bottles, which gave us a much-needed boost for the second half of the day.
A steady climb from Lake of the Clouds brought us to Mt. Monroe, with a great view of Mt. Washington and the hut below, as well as a preview of the remaining peaks. At this point, we followed the relatively flat ridgeline to reach Mt. Franklin, Mt. Eisenhower, and Mt. Pierce (which was the only peak of the day without any real views since it’s back below the treeline). From Mt. Pierce, we descended further into the woods, making a quick stop to refill our water bottles at the AMC Mitzpah Spring Hut. Shortly after the hut, we started to climb again to our last summit. Mt. Jackson peeks out of the trees, which provided a satisfying view of the entire day’s journey behind us. We sat for a few minutes at the summit to savor the accomplishment before embarking on the final 2-mile descent down to the car.
The Presidential Traverse, a hike to remember
I have been on plenty of strenuous hikes and climbs, including Mt. Whitney, Mt. Rainier, and even Vinson Massif, Antarctica’s tallest peak – but the Presidential Traverse ranks right up there in terms of the physical and mental stamina required to successfully finish it. It was an incredibly rewarding experience and will be a tough one to top!
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