Hike the Whites: Author Picks His Elite Eight

I recently had the unique task of writing all 64 hike descriptions for the Boston Globe's Hike the Whites feature. The winner for best hike in this bracket-style, reader-voted competition? The ascent of Mount Lafayette in Franconia Notch.

Above Carter Notch. The Ramparts--one of my Elite Eight hikes—is the large boulder field in the lower right. Photo: Wesley Carr/Flickr

There's no question that Lafayette is a spectacular alpine summit that should be on every White Mountain hiker's list. But of the 64 hikes in the competition, it wouldn't make my personal cut for the top eight. Why? The crowd factor. On a busy weekend, hikers arrive in astonishing numbers. Even on weekdays, there's no shortage of people on the trails.

And that fact highlights one of the key aspects of any crowd-voted selection process for best hike. Which is this: People vote for hikes they've done and are familiar with, not for less-traveled hikes they've never seen. So, by extension, the most hiked trails are far more likely to garner votes. There's no question that Mount Lafayette and Mount Washington (the two finalists) both offer exceptional hiking opportunities, but it's no coincidence that they are also likely the two most climbed mountains in the Whites.

For me, one of the key factors for selecting hikes is the opportunity for solitude, balanced against the chance to experience dramatic scenery, exceptional trails, and remarkable natural features. And in my personal opinion these eight hikes (several of which failed to make it past the first round of voting) offer an ideal mix of these factors. 

In no particular order, here are the hikes I would have selected for the Elite Eight of this bracket competition, complete with the accompanying Hike the Whites description:

The Ramparts
A rubble field of massive stones lies shattered in the deep cleft of Carter Notch, a rugged and alluring destination for your inner mountain-goat scrambler. The Ramparts are located a stone’s throw from Carter Notch Hut, which is readily accessed via a steady, but generally easy-cruising, 1,700-foot ascent over well-used trail. 7.6 miles round-trip via the Nineteen Mile Brook Trail.

Moosilauke via Beaver Brook Trail
Located a short distance off I-93 in the southern Whites, the trailhead for 4,802-foot Mount Moosilauke is one of the most accessible from points south, making this hulking mountain an excellent option for a day-trip from the Boston area. This strenuous and challenging route to the summit climbs beside a multitude of mesmerizing cascades and up long stretches of wooden steps drilled into bare rocks to reach the superlative summit view. 7.6 miles round-trip.

Mount Whiteface via Blueberry Ledge Trail
Outside of the Presidential Range, few big-mountain ascents are as consistently scenic and strenuous as the climb (and occasional scramble) up view-rich Blueberry Ledge Trail to the summit ledges of 4,020-foot Whiteface, which dishes out expansive views south over New Hampshire's Lakes Region. Located on the southern front of the Whites, it's one of the closest 4,000-footers to points south, yet foot traffic is relatively light compared to other popular peaks. 8.4 miles round-trip.

Mount Isolation
Breaking the 4,000-foot barrier by a scant four feet, the bald hillock summit of Mt. Isolation rises at the northern end of Montalban Ridge and offers outstanding views of Mount Washington, the southern Presidentials, and nearby Boott Spur. Along the way you'll marvel at gigantic Glen Boulder, dropped into a precarious mountainside position by the ice sheet that once smothered this region. 12.0 miles round-trip. 

Author's note: For a longer hike largely devoid of people and replete with outstanding views from Mount Crawford, Stairs Mountain, and Mount Davis, consider hiking the Davis Path point-to-point from Route 302 to Route 16. It's perhaps my favorite two-day hike in the Presidential Range  (17.7 miles one way).

Mount Jefferson 
Despite its lofty height, 5,716-foot Mount Jefferson can be summited via a remarkably direct route; the Caps Ridge Trail begins from a higher elevation (3,008 feet) than any other trail in the White Mountains. What the route lacks in mileage, however, it makes up with steep and challenging ledge scrambles, exposed ridgeline conditions, and long sections of eye-popping scenery, including a summit view that peers into the chasm of the Great Gulf more than 3,000 feet below. 5.0 miles round-trip.

Author's note: For a remote and exhilarating alternative ascent, consider climbing Jefferson from the Great Gulf via the Sphinx Trail. The route is so steep in places that ladders are required. 

Mount Adams
This über-strenuous hike provides the most direct route to the rocky pyramid of 5,799-foot Mount Adams, the second-highest peak in New England. Along the way, revel in ridgeline views that peer into the deep gorge of King Ravine before making a final push over a treacherous pile of rocks to reach a head-spinning, 360-degree summit view. 8.6 miles round-trip from Appalachia trailhead via the Air Line.

Big Rock Cave
A rumpus of giant stones, tilted and piled upon each other, create the large, deep crevice known as Big Rock Cave in the southeast corner of the Sandwich Range Wilderness. Despite its deep backcountry setting, the site is easily accessed via a gentle up and down over 2,020-foot Mount Mexico. 4.0 miles round-trip via the Cabin and Big Rock Cave trails.

Author's note: Few people travel the middle section of Sandwich Range Wilderness, including the remote summit of Mount Paugus. If you want solitude, plus the opportunity to sleep overnight in this large cave, add it to your list.

Mount Chocorua
If you've ever driven north on Highway 16 to the Whites, you've likely been tempted by the striking pyramid of Mount Chocorua's 3,500-foot summit. With superlative 360-degree views and the feel of a much higher summit, it's a perfect big mountain hike for young climbers. The Liberty Trail offers the most straightforward ascent, though it's not easy—you'll need to ascend more than 2,500 feet to reach the top. 7.8 miles round-trip via the Liberty and Brook trails. 

Hike on!

Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

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