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Hiking Above Treeline

Above Treeline. If those words don’t scare you or at least raise your guard, then you should read this post carefully.

Above Treeline on Mt Washington in Good Weather
Above Treeline on Mt Washington in Good Weather

Above Treeline occurs at about 4,500 feet of elevation in my neck of the woods, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  When you get up to this elevation, you are fully exposed to the elements including wind, rain, hail, fog, lightning, snow, and cold. While it can be beautiful in good weather, getting stuck here in fog, a whiteout, or after dark can have lethal consequences, any time of year.

There are no trees and few plants, except lichen and sedge grasses. There’s very little cover if something goes wrong and you may have to wait until daybreak before anyone can come get you in an emergency.

For all practical purposes, it looks like you are on the moon. The tops of the mountains are covered in boulder fields that are tricky to walk on. The rocks are sharp, and if you stumble, it’s easy to cut up your hands when you hit the ground.

Descending Mt Jefferson
Descending Mt Jefferson

Rock cairns replace trail blazes but can be difficult to see in low light, whiteouts, and darkness. Your best defense is good preparation and planning. Bring warm clothing and rain gear (tops and bottoms.) Prepare bail out routes in advance in case the weather changes suddenly, and remember, there is safety below treeline. When conditions degrade, the people who get below treeline have a much higher survival rate.

Despite the harshness of the environment above treeline, it is an very fragile environment that can be easily damaged Don’t pick any flowers or plants above treeline and stay on the path, or jump from rock to rock to avoid disturbing any.

Camping is forbidden above treeline in the White Mountains, except on 2 feet of snow or more. Wood fires are also illegal, so use a backpacking stove (especially since there is no wood above treeline.)

Mt Monroe, Presidential Range
Mt Monroe, Presidential Range

Don’t be afraid to turnaround on a hike above treeline if you run out of daylight or a member of your party becomes fatigued.  Most accidents occur at these elevations because someone didn’t turn around until it was too late. Remember, the summit is always optional. Among mountaineers and hikers there is as much glory in an good attempt as there is in a successful summit.

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  1. On Labor Day weekend 1979 I hiked with a few friends from Pinkham Notch to the Lake of the Clouds Hut. To the best of my recollection it was 72 deg F. when we started at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. When we awoke the next morning at the Hut, the outside temperature was 5 Deg. F.! We had winter gear with us but I don't think I would have survived overnight outside.

  2. Certainly not at Lake of the Clouds. The wind sweeps over Boot Spur and the Davis Lawn like a freight train. It sounds like you had a cold weather front blow in. The winds must have been howling.

  3. Do you wear boots when hiking in boulder fields or stick with the trail runners?

  4. Just trail runners. The biggest danger is not ankles but falling on your hands. I just go slow and try to be very deliberate about my foot placements. I also use poles. The hard part about this is hiking 4,000+ feet up from the trail head. Boots just weight you down.

    Winter of course is a different story entirely – mountaineering boots and crampons rule, but the way is often easier because it's covered with snow and ice.

  5. Great information for those mid-atlantic AT backpackers like me that don't regularly hike above treeline. Keep up the good work.

  6. Enjoy your site immensely. I am a novice mountain hiker and your information is really helpful. Been up to Franconia Notch three times so far and have hiked Mt. Lafayette. Some one said to me that it is a "healthy" hike to Lafayette and back and I am beginning to warm to that delightful yet brief description. I have been using my trail running shoes but coming down Bridle Path, I believe I could use more stability being an "older" but amazing woman! Maybe, Mount Washington, next trip up! What do you think? Hiking boots next time? The White Mountains are so beautiful and your descriptions are really helpful and interesting. Thanks so much!

  7. Rita – Washington is way over-rated. Here are a few much nicer peaks – Madison via the Osgood Trail, Monroe vie the Amonoosuc Trail, Eisenhower via Edmunds Path, Adams via the Airline, Bondcliff from Lincoln Woods. Garfield and the Twins are great too. Try those peaks first while we're having this great weather. Enjoy. (I've given up on boots, except in winter.)

    • I did Monroe via Edmunds Path and followed the beautiful Crawford Path ridge line to Monroe. A blue sky on any ridge line is so breathtaking.

      • Rita, Washington from Ammonoosuc Ravine is a lovely hike, but I understand it can be disappointing when you get to the summit and there are hoards of people. Last weekend we got lucky – bike race up the Auto Road meant fewer cars – so it was magnificent. That being said, ANY mountain in the Whites that gets you above treeline is terrific as long as the weather holds.

  8. In my neck of the woods anything below the treeline is often just something to get past enroute to the wide open spaces, also what is a nice summer day a sea level can quickly turn to winter above the treeline. Plan for it, because snow in August is much worse than January. In August it will be wet and windy and that kills, in January you can "allways" dig down and ride it out.

    I don't know what it's called in English, but a Jerven tarp (reflective liner with waterproof shell) has saved me once and is allways in my pack on day hikes when I don't bring a tent, because you just never know.


  9. Enjoyed so much this excellent post, Hiking Above Treeline! Thanks so much for posting this inspiring article. Thanks too to the respondants that have shared their thoughts.

    As a youngster I hiked The Presidentials, while growing up in New England. My family wasn't in to hiking but I was. Much to the chagrin of my parents, off I would go, on solo adventures of my own, creating memories that would last a lifetime.

    Now at age 67, my latest venture was the Sierra High Route, here in the High Sierra of California, described in detail by Steve Roper in his book by the same name. You might be inspired by reading that one as well.

    B.L. – Hayward, CA

  10. Isn't it amazing how clear those memories are? Video can't capture the emotion, sights, smells of one's personal experience. Thanks for the reference – a friend has invited me to do the High Sierra in 2013, so I'll have to read this book.

  11. Great post. I think back to hiking the 48 for the first time, those ones above tree line….some at night, some in perfectly clear skies, some under the full moon, in the morning as the sun rose, but also in freezing temps and no visibility in winter. It sure is a different world, and every day is different.

  12. I really enjoyed this blog post and some great information in the comments. I’m a relative novice backpacker with about 6 trips under my belt including Mt.Washington, Mt.Carrigain etc but I’m looking to take my wife and daughter on an overnight backpack. Something under 10 miles roundtrip and some near or above tree line hiking while still being manageable for them would be ideal. Would any of those summit hikes recommended to Rita be suitable as an overnighter?

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