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A Winter Visit to Zealand Falls Hut

Appalachian Mountain Club's Zealand Falls Hut
Appalachian Mountain Club’s Zealand Falls Hut

I spent my first winter overnight at a self-service Appalachian Mountain Club Hut earlier this season and had a really good time. The AMC keeps several of their White Mountains huts open in winter at reduced rates and on a self-service basis, making it possible to do multi-day hiking or cross-country skiing trips without having to camp out at night.

On our trip, we hiked into the Zealand Falls Hut on a Sunday night in order to cut some miles off the full Bonds Traverse from Rt 302 to Lincoln Woods. This is a 23 mile end-to-end hike in winter because the first 3.5 miles of Zealand Road are closed during winter, making it a 6.2 mile hike from the Rt 302 to the hut. That still left close to 17 miles for the leg from the hut to Lincoln Woods on the following day, up and over Zeacliff, Mount Zealand, Mt Guyot, West Bond Mountain, Mount Bond, and Bondcliff, including 3+ miles of above treeline exposure.

We stayed over Sunday night when the rate drops to $27.50 per night, which is still pretty dear, but way less expensive during the regular season that the 90+ price per night per person when the hut is fully crewed and they provide you with dinner, entertainment, and breakfast the following morning.

Zealand Falls Hut common room where we started breakfast at 4:30 am, before dawn to get an early start
Zealand Falls Hut common room where we started breakfast at 4:30 am before dawn, to get an early start

In winter, the hut is open on a self-service basis, meaning you carry in your own food and cook for yourself with full access to their kitchen.While there is a caretaker in residence, her job is to maintain a sense of order, prevent people from burning down the hut, and perform other minor maintenance chores to keep everything ship-shape.

The hut isn’t heated, except for a small wood fire for a few hours in the morning and at night in the common room only, so you need to bring warm clothing if you want to hang out and a warm sleeping bag to sleep in. There’s also no running water, which has to be carried into the hut in plastic gas cans and heated for cooking, drinking, and dishwashing.

Sleeping Quarters

The sleeping accommodations at the Zealand Falls hut are bunk beds stacked three high with a maximum of 36 overnight guests, in two separate unheated bunk rooms. Each bunk bed is a cubicle built into the cabin and has several built-in shelves and lots of hooks so you can store or hang things you want to keep track of during the night. There’s even a separate reading lamp the runs off the hut’s solar batteries built into each bunk bed alcove so you can read without disturbing other people in the bunkroom.

Hint: The best bunkroom to sleep in at Zealand Falls is the one farthest away from the bathroom building, so you don’t hear the bathroom door slamming shut all night. 

Hint: Bring ear plus to block out the sound of people who snore at night. 

Each bunkbed comes with a mattress that’s sealed up in vinyl so you don’t have to worry about catching bed bugs. There’s also a pillow, but no pillowcase. The hut provides guests with wool blankets during the full service season, but they are moved offsite in winter for cleaning.

Bathroom Facilities

The Zealand Falls bathrooms are located in an adjacent building and connected to the hut by a covered porch. The toilets are Clivus-Multrum composting toilets – no septic system or water required, but you do need to put on some shoes and walk briefly outdoors from your warm sleeping bag to the bathrooms at night.

Hint: If you’re a guy, make sure you aim well in winter because liquids freeze on contact with cold surfaces and don’t melt for weeks.

Zealand Falls Hut Kitchen
Zealand Falls Hut Kitchen

Kitchen Privileges

Winter guests have free access to the kitchen facilities at the hut, including an immense gas stove and oven. The thing must have 12 burners on it! In addition, there is a refrigerator for guests to store food and rodent proof containers. Many guest bring elaborate ingredients to the hut and cook up a storm. When I was there, one guest made chocolate cookies and passed them around for everyone to enjoy.

In order to prevent chaos in the kitchen, guests sign up for 30 minute time slots to use the stove and preparation areas to cook their meals. There’s a sign-up board next to the wood stove in the common room with time slots beginning at 5 pm in winter.

Zealand Falls Sink Cleanup Area
Zealand Falls Sink Cleanup Area

If you need to get up early in the morning before sun up to get an early start, there is a huge pot of water on the hut stove that is refilled before people go to sleep the night before. If you wake up early, turn on the gas burner below this pot so you can fill your water bottles with boiling water before you leave. It takes about 45 minutes to bring the water in the pot to a boil, so factor that into your wakeup and start time.

Guests have access to pots and pans, plates, bowls, glasses, and silverware in the hut, but are responsible for doing their own dishes and packing out all of their trash. Since there is no running water in winter, cleanup is done using by dipping your dirty dishes in tubs filled with hot water and bleach. A minimal amount of soap is used this way and grey water is kept to a minimum for leave-no-trace disposal.

Fire Safety

Fire is a big concern in the huts in winter, since there’s a long history of Appalachian Mountain Club huts burning down over the years. In addition to a strict no smoking policy, all open flames, including Jetboil style canister stoves, are prohibited from being used inside the hut or on the hut porch.

Heading Out for a Bonds Traverse
Heading Out for a Bonds Traverse

Convivial Atmosphere

Despite their obvious convenience, staying at a self-service Appalachian Mountain Club hut in winter is a great experience because there’s always an interesting group of other guests on hand. Couples and groups are very welcome and opening, it’s easy to meet strangers and talk to them. and even strike up new friendships with kindred spirits. If you’ve never stayed at an Appalachian Mountain Club hut before, winter might be a good time to try one out when they’re full of people with adventuresome spirits and a twinkle in their eye.

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  1. Speaking of elaborate ingredients – one News Year’s Eve my friends and I hiked LIVE lobsters into Carter Notch hut. It was decadent and super-awesome!

  2. As a thru-hiker this summer, I arrived at Zealand Falls Hut, after having crossed Zealand River in flash-flood stage—twice. My hiking partner and I were the last thru-hikers to arrive that day, making the count 15 thru-hikers compared to the 20 paying customers at the hut.

    We were all drenched and it was still pouring rain outside. The crew ignored us and the paying guests did like-wise. The crew fed the paying customers. A couple of the thru-hikers asked if they could buy dinner. They were told “no”. They then asked if they could stay in the hut, again “no”. Only the 3 work-for-stay thru-hikers could stay and be fed. Several thru-hikers
    asked, all were told “no”. They were asked to move on–in the pouring rain, with a flash flood. The head crew person told the thru-hikers that they would have to go to the “stealth” site at the bottom of the mountain in the drainage ditch. Yes, it was a drainage ditch. “We would do it, if we had to”, they told us.

    The thing about thru-hiking is that you hike everyday, in all kinds of weather. You don’t have the luxury of hiking to your car the next day and driving home to dry clothes, warmth and food.

    After three hours of sitting in the dining room being ignored by the crew and the guests, I finally decided to pay for myself and my hiking partner to become guests. What a difference money makes. We were suddenly treated like royalty. The crew brought us more food than we could possibly eat, catered to our every whim, talked with us about hiking and generally became nice. All because we paid. While our fellow thru-hikers (all 20somethings without access to lots of funds via a credit card) eventually left one-by-one out into the pouring rain.

    This was not an isolated case. At every hut that we visited, thru-hikers were treated as second-class citizens. What a wasted opportunity for the AMC to add to their membership. They have a captive audience in mostly young thru-hikers, who if they have a good exerience will become life-long members. Thru-hikers have much to offer the crew and guests of the AMC huts, through there knowledge, stories of adventure and work-ethic. One fellow hiker (a young white man), said that he finally understood what it must have been like in the 1950s during segregation when African-Americans were told to go around back and eat the scraps.

    My hiking partner and I had terrible exeriences while hiking through the White Mountains, specifically with the AMC huts. Because of this we will never become members and we have told all of our friends about our experience, asking them to cancel their memberships.

    • I have heard that about thru-hikers in the Whites and it makes me mad and sad at the same time. Some croo members are very accommodating to thru-hikers and others aren’t. I wish the AMC huts were nicer to thru-hikers, especially since the Whites are such a glorious place to hike otherwise.

    • So some bad experiences at huts mean you give up on the main conservation body of the region?

    • Sorry for the double reply but your last comment is really bothering me. You do realize you are actively trying to damage an organization which has a net positive effect right?

    • Oh what a sense of entitlement thru hikers attain by the time they hit the Whites.

    • As a former hut croo member and a thru hiker, I see both sides. But thru hikers must remember that croo members jobs are kind of crazy. Having 15 additional hikers in a hut that holds 36 guests to begin with is just not going to work. It’s a small space, and yes we do need to cater to our paying guests, because they are the ones that have paid $100 to stay. Thru hikers should also remember that there are folks that came through before them and there are folks coming in after them. Being kind and treating people with respect goes a long way. I can tell you many stories of thru hikers who felt entitled to have a work for stay spot. But my favorite thru hikers have always been those who are kind and respectful of the job I was doing. It’s a job, often more like a circus but a job none the less. Just my two cents;)

      • Beamer, it is nice to get a croo member perspective on this. You guys are so hard working and I am always very grateful to you when I am in a hut. You are so right about respect: it goes a long way.

  3. I’m doing an AMC trip in June to the Zealand hut and other one in March to the Carter Notch hut. Should be a blast.

  4. Prairiedog, I’m sorry that you got such a poor welcome. Everytime I’ve stayed in a hut and thruhikers have come through, we guests fall all over ourselves trying to pull stories out of y’all.

    The AMC does an excellent job in assisting new hikers to learn the skills that they need to get out into the woods. I wish you wouldn’t let your bad experience overwhelm all the great education and information that they provide.

  5. Prairiedog, While I am sorry to hear of your experience, these huts are what they are. They support a large organization and gives a lot of people a valuable outdoor experience. An organization that gets a lot of new members by the good programs they run. I sectioned through the Whites and only stayed in one hut (because that is all I could afford). I don’t hold that against the organization, it is not a charity it is not a hostel. They don’t exist for through hikers and have a system to help out as many as they think they can. The few through hikers that stayed (work for stay) in the hut where I stayed had a good understanding of what the system was and were treated very nicely. The organization does a lot of good, some of their policies and prices I don’t like, most I do.

  6. Prairiedog, to thow out the race card with the “One fellow hiker (a young white man), said that he finally understood what it must have been like in the 1950s during segregation when African-Americans were told to go around back and eat the scraps” makes you a complete tool and dbag. Pathetic that you would have to make this up to support what a “victim” you were that day. Grow the bleep up.

    • Now, now, Pete, Prairiedog is entitled to his opinion, as is the young white man who finally understood what it is like to be a second-class citizen. If this is what it takes to get the young white men to understand what it’s like to be an underdog, then I guess we have to go with it. It’s about time they understood a little about having a mark against you just by your appearance.

      • This has nothing to do with appearance nor race. They didn’t say ‘oh you look dirty get out’ or ‘sorry no blacks.’ Stop looking for a social injustice where there is none. The very idea that you can compare this instance to something of the magnitude of racial injustice means you are either race-baiting or misunderstanding the issue completely.

        –Please read this http://www.outdoors.org/pdf/upload/2013-Thru-hiker-brochure-FINAL.pdf
        –Please note how it mentions that work may not be available.

        The lesson to learn here is that there are rules to how things work. You are not above them. I’m sorry but that is how the world works.

      • Are you talking to me, anonymous person? I am not a thru-hiker and I don’t believe I’m above the rules. I just think it’s unfortunate that the thru-hikers on a limited budget who have hiked over 1000 miles in the previous few months suddenly find themselves in a situation where it is very difficult to find lodging/campsites and were treated poorly in an AMC facility. I would like AMC to be accommodating to all, but especially thru-hikers who are on a journey that most of us can only dream of accomplishing.

        It makes me sad that the guests in the hut also treated Prairiedog and his companions so poorly. I’m guessing they were mostly just preoccupied with their own groups and weren’t ignoring the thru-hikers outright, just not paying them much attention.

        I do understand why there’s limited space in the huts for work for stay, and I understand why they are priced the way they are, but there has to be a better solution than this. I just don’t know what it could be.

      • But Liz, it’s not difficult for thru-hikers to find campsites next to the Zealand Falls Hut. This thru-hiker was directed to the big campsite just outside the Forest protection area for this hut about 200 yards down the Ethan Pond Trail. The croo there did exactly the right thing and what the US Forest requires them to do according to the their USFS permit. I’ve camped there before and it’s a perfectly appropriate place to camp with fresh water. It’s not a ditch and there is space for 20+ tents. This thru-hiker is bellyaching because he couldn’t get into the Zealand Falls Hotel for free. I have no sympathy. He could have easily waited out in the rain at the Garfield Pond Shelter or the Libery Spring platforms but decided to continue hiking in the rain instead.

        There also seems to be a gross misconception that the AMC is responsible for managing the White Mountain National Forest. It isn’t. That is the responsibility of the US Forest Service and if you have complaints they’re best directed there, rather than spamming an organization made up almost entirely of volunteers.

  7. The huts cost lots of money to run. How could they cover their bills if they had to plan on accommodating an unknown number of thru hikers on any given night at costs far below their actual costs? Raise fees on all the others guests? Give the hut croo members a pay cut? Thru hikers are sharing a limited resource, and they need to plan accordingly.

  8. Philip, did you happen to record the actual temperature outside and inside? I’ll be sleeping at Zealand the first weekend in March (doing a Pemi XC ski traverse) and am trying to decide between bringing a true winter sleeping vs. bringing a 30-degree bag and wearing a down jacket in it and/or putting a hot water nalgene bottle in my sleeping bag at night. So it would be helpful to have a sense of the temperature difference between outside and in. Thank you, and thank you for all your blog posts, many of which I’ve read and have found very helpful and educational.

    • Eliot – There’s no difference between outside temperature and the temp of the bunkrooms. I was back at Zealand Falls Hut last week and it was 20 degrees in the bunkroom and 20 degrees outside. The common room is only heated a few hours each night with a wood fire, but the heat doesn’t migrate to the bunkrooms at all.

  9. I don’t want to go on a rant here but this is hilarious. Prairiedog is an ignorant, whiny baby. That young man traveling with Prairiedog has no idea what it was like being a black man in the 1950’s or ’60’s during segregation. It was a common sight on the evening news to see a young black man hanging from a lamp post…dead…simply for not moving off the sidewalk for a white woman. The times were brutal.

    Condoleezza Rice, the former Secretary of State for the Bush administration, said that if not for the right to bear arms the red-neck (my words), white supremist, segregationists would have fire-bombed and burned their community to the ground. She was thankful that her dad and other men in the community could patrol their streets every night with shotguns to protect their lives and homes.

    Prariedog and his/her companion are exactly what is wrong with this country. They can’t stand, independently, on their own two feet. Too many people are dependent on others for their living. If they didn’t have the funds to take care of themselves on the trail, then they shouldn’t have started the hike in the first place.

    This is reminiscent of those beggars at the gas station seeking some spare change so they can buy gas. I always ask them why they decided to go out for a drive if they didn’t have enough money to buy gas. I tell them, “If you didn’t have enough money for the trip you should have stayed home.”

    If Prariedog “expected” to be taken care of when s/he started the trip then they need to be reeducated. This is “welfare” thinking and is far too prevalent in society today.

    It seems that Prariedog thinks the guests with money should be required to give a certain percentage of it to support those hikers that have none. It’s the rich (or, pretty soon, middleclass) people’s responsibility to enable those less fortunate to experience the great outdoors. The government really needs to figure out how to redistribute the incomes of rich hikers in the U.S. to help the poor ones.

    I wanted to go on long hiking trips in my 20’s but couldn’t afford it. Rather than seeking my immediate gratification i deferred it until my 50’s to get back on the trail, once I could afford it.

    Grow up! Stand on your own two feet. Walk your own walk. Make sure you can pay your own way! If you don’t have any money…stay home and clean up your room in the basement, your parents will be grateful. Try to be a strong, independent young man or woman! it’s what this country was all about before everyone was brainwashed in to believing everyone’s special…a winner…and entitled to the best life has to offer them without giving anything in return.

    Then, when you can stand on your own, if someone does offer you some “unexpected” trail magic be grateful. And, make sure you can pass some trail magic on to those who follow you.

  10. I have stayed at the huts many times. I also have a friend who runs a bed and breakfast in Vermont and have spent many days there watching the delicate interaction an innkeeper must have to keep their guests happy. I can tell you for sure, if my friend were to spend an afternoon chewing the fat with me on the back porch, one or more of his guests would interpret that as them being neglected. Bottom line – paying customers trump non payers. That’s just business. You can be sure if a paying customer at a hut thought a croo member was giving more attention to a non paying thru hiker, there would be nasty tweets out on the web in no time. It is just not fair to put these hard working young croo kids in that position. Thru hikers need to be understanding. You never know what happened in the hut before you got there. Also, in inclement weather, some of the smaller huts can get real crowded. On any given day, you may have a paying guest who gets annoyed at overcrowding due to thru hikers. You just have to understand, the croo can’t control how the paying guests react. They must cater to the paying guests. It is not fair to expect them not to.

    All that said, every time I ever stayed at a hut, every thru hiker who came to the hut was allowed to work for stay and was able to eat an sleep on the floor in the common room or on the porch. That is over 20 nights I have been at a hut during thru hiker season – never once saw anyone turned away.

    When I visit my friend at the BnB, I am always very cognizant not to intrude on his guests or keep him from attending to them. That is his business and his livelihood. Those are his customers who have paid for a service and he needs to give them the best service so they return and recommend. Thru hikers should look at visiting a hut the same way.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I am an AMC member.

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