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Great Hikes: Mt Madison via The Howker Ridge Trail

Mt Madison, just beyond Star Lake
Mt Madison, just beyond Star Lake

There are many trails leading to Mount Madison (5366′), the fifth highest 4000 footer in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and a pyramid-shaped peak of astonishing beauty and grandeur. The easternmost peak in the fearsome Northern Presidentials, it has clear views of neighboring Mt Adams, Mt Jefferson, and Mt Washington, as well as the cavernous Great Gulf Valley at the foot of these great peaks.

Climbing Mt Madison via the Howker Ridge Trail
Quartz-topped cairns mark the top of Howker Ridge Trail up to Mt Madison

One trail up Mt Madison, called the Howker Ridge Trail, is particularly fine, but seldom climbed. Fully exposed to the elements, it must be hiked in good weather, for safety’s sake, and to savor the fine views from its lofty heights. Named after the Howker Family who lived at the base of the trail, the route travels by a series of lovely cascades before ascending steeply.

Gordan Falls
Gordon Fall

The best maps for this hike as well as others in the Northern Presidentials is provided with the Randolph Paths Guidebook, published by the Randolph Mountain Club which maintains this part of the White Mountain Trail System or the Appalachian Mountain Clubs’s map of the Presidential Range.

The route begins at the Randolph East Trailhead along Rt 2 or from the Appalachia parking lot along Rt 2, following the Maple Walk and Sylvan Way, passing Gordon Fall before joining the Howker Ridge Trail at Coosauk Fall.

The Howks of Howker Ridge
The Howks of Howker Ridge

The trail is a bit unusual in that it climbs four hump-like knobs,  called “Howks,” joining the Osgood Trail slightly below Madison’s summit. Be prepared for steep scrambling up these mini-peaklets.

Howk on the Howker Ridge Trail
Howk on the Howker Ridge Trail

Largely above treeline, the route is marked with white quartz-topped cairns, huge mounds of rock, that are built and painstakingly maintained by local trail crews. Passing through areas of dwarf trees, called krummholz, hikers should stay on the durable rock surfaces and not trample the surrounding vegetation because it has such a short growing season, only a few months annually, before the snow and ice of winter returns.

Mt Madison looms above the Howks of Howker Ridge Trail
Mt Madison looms above the Howks of Howker Ridge Trail

The Howker Ridge Trail intersects the Pine Link Trail, shortly before the last Howk, and water is available down this side trail a short ways. The views from the final Howk, up next, are some of the best in the White Mountains, including The Carter Range and Carter Notch to the southeast, and Crescent Range and Maine mountains to the north.

At 5100 feet, the Howker Ridge Trail joins the Osgood Trail for the final scramble to the Madison summit.
At 5100 feet, the Howker Ridge Trail joins the Osgood Trail for the final scramble to the Madison summit.

At 5100 feet, the Howker Ridge Trail intersects the Osgood Trail (Appalachian Trail) for the short scramble to the top of Mt Madison. The Osgood is another magnificent trail up Madison, but best left for another day.

Cairns on the Summit of Madison. Mt Adams and Mt Jefferson beyond.
Cairns on the Summit of Madison. Mt Adams and Mt Jefferson beyond.

The views on top of Mount Madison are equally grand, though the peak can be quite windy at the summit. Mt Adams looms due west, separated by a short col containing a mountain tarn called Star Lake. Beyond Adams is Mt Jefferson, the second highest peak in the White Mountains. The great rock pile, Mt Washington (6288′), the highest peak in the Whites, is due south across the void of the Great Gulf valley.

Hikers descend Mt Jefferson enroute to Mt Washington across the Great Gulf
Hikers descend Mt Jefferson en route to Mt Washington across the Great Gulf

Once atop Madison, there are many options to create a loop hike back to your car. The easiest and most expeditious is via the Valley Way Trail which passes by the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Madison Spring Hut, where you can refill water bottles and get a bowl of soup or buttered bread. Entry to the hut is free: you only need to pay if you spend the night (reservations required).

A restorative bowl of soup at the AMC's Madison Spring Hut
A restorative bowl of soup at the AMC’s Madison Spring Hut

For more information about this route or the other trails that climb Mt Madison and the higher summits, I recommend purchasing The 4000-Footers of the White Mountains by Steve Smith and Mike Dickerman. It is chock full of trail detail and historical information not covered in the AMC’s White Mountain Guide, although no White Mountain hiker’s library would be complete without both.

The Howker Ridge Trail climbs up the north-eastern flank of Mt Madison
The Howker Ridge Trail climbs up the north-eastern flank of Mt Madison

Destination: Mt Madison
Location: Northern Presidentials, White Mountains
Route: Appalachia Trail Head, Maple Walk, Sylvan Way, Howker Ridge Trail, Osgood Path, Madison Hut, Valley Way Trail back to Appalachia Trail Head Parking Lot
Mountains: Mt Madison(5367 ft)
Elevation Gain: 4,050 ft
Distance: 4.8 miles to Mount Madison Summit,  9.4 miles total round trip to Appalachia Trail Head
Available Water: Hitchcock Falls, Howker/Pine Link Trail Intersection, Madison Hut

Recommended Guidebooks and Maps:

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4 comments

  1. This one is definitely on my list. I’ve read about it before. Personally I like to try the routes less traveled. My idea of fun isn’t being part of a conga line going up the trail. The pictures are spectacular. I need to improve my photography.

  2. Gonna try it some day!

  3. This is probably my favorite trail so far in the Whites. It passes through some spectacular wooded areas as it gains the ridge and then you have the “Howks” which provide nice views as you head above treeline. The footbed on the trail below treeline is phenomenal: a nice, mossy and soft dirt track which is a welcome changeup from the typical root-and-rock trails in the Whites.

  4. One of my Favorite “Less Traveled” trails in the Presies.

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