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Backpacking Mt Adams and the Airline Trail

Mt Adams is the second-highest peak on the White Mountain 4000 footers list, with an elevation of 5774 feet. The most direct route to the summit follows the Airline Trail, which climbs 4,500 feet in 4.3 miles. It’s a tough climb up a steep and rocky trail, but I was motivated to finish hiking as many trails on the north side of the Presidential Range as possible before winter arrives. I also looked forward to spending the night sleeping outdoors at the Randolph Mountain Club’s “The Perch”, a high elevation campsite with tent platforms located just below treeline on Mt Adams. I’ve camped there many times in the past and always enjoyed the solitude of the location.

This trip was in the service of the Redlining game, where the goal is to hike all 635 trails in the 30th edition of the White Mountain Guide, a trail distance of 1440 miles. The actual distance you need to hike all of them is actually closer to 2500 miles because the trails are not contiguous and repeat miles are necessary to hike all of them end to end. I completed Redlining the 29th edition of the White Mountain Guide in 2017, and I’m now about two-thirds of the way through the 30th edition. It’s a fun excuse to do a lot of hiking and backpacking, as long as you don’t take it too seriously and remember that it’s just a game, like thru-hiking, section hiking, peakbagging, or gridding.

Redlining Airline, Adams, etc.

The thing that makes hiking all of the trails in the Presidentials so challenging, besides the elevation gain, is the number of trails that crisscross the north side of the range. Some are tiny and only 0.1 or 0.2 miles in length, while others are quite long, steep, and exposed to the weather, above-treeline. Hiking them all end-to-end without re-hiking portions is virtually impossible, but you can reduce the of trips required by staying overnight at elevation and linking adjacent trails together to create loops in order to minimize the amount of “rework” required.

Here was my route. The trails I finished in their entirety are shown in bold. The rest, I have to go back and complete.

  • Airline Tr – 4.3 miles 
  • Upper Bruin – 0.2 miles, 0.4 round trip
  • Airline Cutoff – 0.2 miles, 0.4 round trip
  • Lowes Path – 1.5 miles (finishing from an earlier trip)
  • Gray Knob Trail – 0.3 miles
  • Perch Path – 0.5 miles
  • Israel Ridge Path – 0.9 miles
  • Gulfside Trail – 0.7 miles
  • Randolph Path – 0.7 miles
  • Gray Knob Trail – 1.8 miles
  • Hincks Trail – 0.7 miles
  • Spur Trail – 0.3 miles
  • Randolph Path – 0.5 miles
  • Cliffway – 1.4 miles
  • Ladderback Trail – 0.2 miles
  • Monoway Trail – 0.5 miles 
  • Amphibrach Trail – 1.1 miles
  • The Link – 0.7 miles

If that looks like a lot of trails, it’s actually a small subset compared to the total number of trails on the north side of the presidential range. I’ll probably have to return another 6-8 to times to finish all of them.

The day started with me shuttling three AT thru-hikers from Pinkham Notch all the way to the Walmart near Berlin on Rt 16. I was headed to Appalachian on Rt 16 so it was on my way. Their trail names with Broccoli Rab, Lucky Penny, and Snake Eyes. Then, I drove to the Appalachia Trailhead where the lot was surprisingly full for a Friday morning. I suspect that most of them were guests at the AMC’s Madison Hut.

On The Trail

Airline Trail

I packed up and got on the Airline Trail headed up. It starts pretty easy and quickly gets steep and rocky, climbing to treeline at about 4300 ft. I was hiking up it at a pace of 1.5 miles and 1,000 feet of elevation per hour, which is a decent speed when loaded up with an overnight backpack. I’ve always hiked down the Airline Trail in the past, and after climbing this beast, I can remember why.

The trail starts out nice and flat but gets rocky and steep pretty soon.

I made a conscious effort to stop once an hour for a snack and water on this trail, something I’ve been experimenting with this year on big climbs. The day was cool, but I was down to my shirt and perspiring freely during this climb. The weather has been cold enough of late that I’ve switched from the fishing shirt that I normally wear for hiking in summer to a warmer long-sleeved base layer shirt, an annual changing of the guard, one might say, with the approach of cooler temperatures.

The Airline Trail runs along the top of Durand Ridge from the valley to Adam’s summit

People climb the Airline Trail because it has awesome views of King Ravine since it runs on top of the ravine’s east wall. The trails pops out above treeline at about 4300 feet, which is where the views start. The ravine is simply a steep-sided valley carved by a glacier long ago. There are several notable ones within hiking distance including Tuckerman Ravine, Castle Ravine, Ammonoosuc Ravine, and others, surrounding Mt Washington and the Northern Presidentials.

I stopped for a cheese sandwich at the first viewpoint to rest and check out the scenery. From there, I took a short side trail called Upper Bruin, which links Airline to Valley Way, another main trunk trail which climbs up to the AMC’s Madison Hut at the base of Mt Madison. At the bottom, I turned around and hiked back. One trail done. Welcome to redlining.

Mt Madison towers above the AMC’s Madison Spring Hut below

I continued climbing past the King Ravine Trail junction and did the same at a second side trail called Airline Cutoff, stopping in at the Madison hut to refill my water bottles before hiking back to the Airline Trail. I was low on water and wanted to have enough to make it to The Perch Campsite without having to filter more.

The final leg of the Airline Trail to the Adams summit

The final 900 feet of elevation gain to the Adams summit requires hiking up and across a boulder field that looks like the surface of the moon. You have to be patient when climbing boulder fields like this to avoid falling and scraping up your hands or legs or falling between the rocks and breaking a leg. The trail is marked by a sequence of rock piles, called cairns, without an obvious footpath. Rock cairns, three to five feet in height are used instead of blazes because you can see them better when the mountain is covered in mist and there’s only 50 feet of visibility or less. The trail runs from cairn to cairn, but you have to think about where to place your feet as you hop from one boulder to the next.

Thunderstorm Junction is a huge cairn and major train junction in the Northern Presidentials

Lowe’s Path

I met two other hikers at the summit, just as the mist started to blow in and visibility dropped. We traded taking photos and then I boogied off the peak, following the Lowe’s Path to Thunderstorm Junction, a huge rock cairn, which is a major multi-way trail junction on the ridge. I continued past it, staying on the Lowe’s Path which runs 1.5 miles, over a small peak called Adams 5, and down to treeline near Gray Knob, a small self-service cabin where hikers can stay for a small nightly fee.

The RMC’s Perch Campsite is one of the few flat places to set up a tent in the Presidentials. Camping above treeline is illegal.

The Perch Campsite

The Perch Campsite is 0.7 miles farther away and I followed the Gray Knob Trail and the Perch Path to it. It was surprisingly busy, but I got the last tent platform, set up camp, ate dinner, and went to sleep. I’m a Randolph Mountain Club member, so it cost me $8 to spend the night. The non-member cost is $15. It’s a cost I’m happy to pay to help underwrite an organization that has provides fantastic stewardship of the Northern Presidential trail system on a shoestring budget.

The Israel Ridge Trail provides easy access to The Perch Campsite and treeline. Believe me, that is a trail.

Israel Ridge Trail

It was misty and cold the following morning when I woke up. I’d hoped to ascend nearby Mt Jefferson that day and hike the Cornice Trail which surrounds the summit, but I decided to postpone those plans for a day when there would be better views. With winter on the horizon, and possibly just weeks away, I decided to hike the above-treeline segments of the Israel Ridge Trail and the Randolph Trail, so I could return in winter and finish the below treeline segments at a later date when the upper portions are much more hazardous to hike.

I headed up the Israel Ridge Trail from the Perch Path, breaking treeline in 0.4 miles and following it up to the Gulfside Trail which is the main ridgeline trunk trail running across the Northern Presidentials from Mt Washington to Madison Hut.

The mist was down on the Gulfside Trail

Gulfside Trail

The mist was down on the ridge when I got to the Gulfside Trail junction, but the cairns were easy to follow and I had my compass out and ready in case I got disoriented. There were a few other parties out on the trail that morning and I could hear their voices through the mist but not see them. It’s funny how that happens on foggy days.

The cloud cover wasn’t just sitting on the ridge, but blowing across it from the southeast, providing fleeting views into the Great Gulf and up to Jefferson. I followed the trail to the Edmands Col at the base of Jefferson and had a snack, trying to decide again whether it was worth climbing. I decided I’d rather climb down the Randolph Path, which skirts the top of Castle Ravine instead, and walked the 0.7 miles back to treeline. I have at least two trips to Jefferson planned in the coming weeks and figured I’d just bag it then. I’ve climbed all of the 4000 footers several times or more, so the novelty of summitting them has kind of worn off. I’m a trail bagger now, not a peak bagger.

Edmands Col has a plaque commemorating JR Edmands, a famous trail builder. For a good history on local trail building, see A Brief History of Path Making on the Northern Presidentials and Crescent Range.

Randolph Trail

The Randolph Trail is one of my favorites and its above treeline section is a treat. It’s quite a long trail that runs diagonally across the north face of the Northern Presidential Range and is named after the town of Randolph at its base (or close to it.) The top 0.7 mile skirts diagonally across Castle Ravine and is the quickest way to get from The Perch to Edmands Col at the bottom of the Jefferson Loop Trail. It’s another rocky path exposed to the elements, but a little bit more sheltered than the Israel Ridge Trail because it runs below the ridgeline, which affords it some wind protection.

The Randolph Mountain Club’s Gray Knob Cabin provides inexpensive lodging in the Northern Presidentials

Gray Knob Trail

I turned onto the Gray Knob Trail to hike the section I hadn’t hiked the night before on my way to The Perch. This is the trail you’d want to follow to get to Gray Knob Cabin or Crag Camp from Edmands Col. It starts rocky, but gets easier in the middle, although it needs a good brushing to reduce the amount of foliage that hems in the sides of the trail. I followed that trail to Gray Knob Cabin before turning down the Hinck’s Trail.

Top of the Hinck’s Path (carrying a map or two is very helpful for following the maze of RMC trails)

The Hincks Path

The Hinck’s Path is named after the Hinck’s family which built the original private “camp” on which the Gray Knob cabin now stands. It’s a very steep trail which plunges 950 feet in 0.7 miles to the Spur Trail Junction. I’ve hiked up it to Gray Knob in the past and wasn’t interested in ever doing that again. As I’ve written elsewhere, there are “up” trails and “down” trail in the White Mountains, and the Hinck’s Trail is best hiked down, although carefully because it’s wet.

Chandler Fall, a spur trail off the Spur Trail (hah!)

The Spur Trail and the Randolph Path

The Hinck’s Trail merges with the Spur Trail (which steeply climbs up to Crag Camp) before intersecting with the Randolph Path and passing the Pentadoi, a trail junction with five intersecting trails that’s another notable landmark. I continued on the Randolph Trail to the Cliffway, another lateral trail that cuts across the ridge, rather than going up or down. It connects the Randolph Trail to the Link, another long trail that runs from the Appalachia Trailhead all the way to Mt Jefferson.

Not for the faint of heart. This tiny spur trail skirts a steep cliff overlooking the valley below.

The Cliffway, Monoway, and Ladderback Trails

The Cliffway is a soft trail, covered with spruce needles and not the jagged pointy rocks that I’d been hiking over the past day. It’s also not heavily trafficked, so I called out “Mr Moosey” as I hiked down it, hoping to alert any moose and bears that might be hiding in the adjacent woods of my presence in their midst. I didn’t see or hear any, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there. I’ve seen a lot of bears in this area in the past.

The Cliffway leads to a cluster of small trails, also forested, called the Monoway and the Ladderback. These make a nice destination if you want a more moderate but scenic hike without climbing up the ridge. They form several nice loops, with good views of the Crescent Range across Rt 2, but they’re nearly impossible to redline without some repetition. I finished most of them, but I was pretty cooked at this point and wanted to hike out.

Memorial bridge at the bottom of the Amphibrach Trail

The Ampibrach Trail and The Link

I followed the Monoway back to the Amphibrach Trail and flew down it, hiking over Memorial Bridge, onto the Link Trail, which leads back to the beginning of the Airline Trail. When I got there, it felt I’d been away for days, even though it had just been 3o hours. I hopped into my car and went off in search of a big burrito.

Total distance: 16.6 miles with 6500′ of elevation gain.

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About the author

Philip Werner is the 36th person to finish hiking all of 630 trails in the White Mountain Guide, a distance of over 1440 miles. He is also the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook that anyone can access. Philip has also finished hiking many of the region's peakbagging lists including the White Mountain 4000 footers, the 4000 footers in Winter, the Terrifying 25, the RMC 100, and the Trailwrights 72 (but still needs 24 hours of trail work for the patch). Philip is a 4 season backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a member of the executive committee for the Random Hikers, a Long Trail Mentor for Vermont's Green Mountain Club, and a Leave No Trace Master Educator.

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8 comments

  1. Inspiring. I wish someone were publishing such detailed comments for hikes in the mid-Appalachian region, where I live. https://hikingupward.com is an excellent resource, but doesn’t provide as much texture as Section Hiker does further north.

    • I write these to keep a record of my hikes, kind of like a journal. They help to cement all the little details in my mind so I remember them for a long long time. They’re also really useful to refer back to figure out what the climate will be in any given month. For example, when winter starts or when the snow is out since this varies widely across the mountain region. They’ve also proven very helpful in creating the trip plans I publish for public consumption. Hikers used to write trip reports all the time (remember trail journals), and there are a bunch of us in the White Mountains that still document all of our trips. I also think it’s an important way to convey the how-to’s of hiking in a way that my gear reviews and skill articles can’t.

  2. Hiking in the mist and fog on a familiar trail has a splendor all its own. I’ve hiked South Rim in Big Bend National Park about four dozen times, some in conditions you described. Although I missed the usual awesome views, the beautiful quiet, eerieness and mystery made up for it and those hikes are in my treasured pantheon of great experiences.

    I especially like your picture of Edmands Col. It’s teasing of something that it will reveal only in fleeting glimpses.

  3. How is The Perch for hammocks? Do they have any decent spots?

  4. I need to do a northern Prezzie trailbagging trip like this, thanks for the inspiration. Maybe one of the next couple of weekend. We’ll see. OTOH, I also like being home on weekends so getting up to the mtns seems to be hard these days.

    Also, them damn rocks up there have been irritating me lately. I was in Oregon for a week and the trails there were smooth as pavement despite being dirt. I felt so spoiled. But I guess that’s part of the fun challenge of the Whites – trying not to break a bone as you clamor over all the natural “pavement” up there.

  5. I’ve used Valley Way from Appalachia trailhead a few times to either hut stay up at Madison, or do the north to south Pres Traverse. I keep saying I’d like to do Airline one of these days. Your trip report is telling me to Get on with it. hey.. want to give you a HUGE thumbs up for the write up in this months Backpacker mag , “Cliffside Traverse” great job. That is one of my favorite hikes in the Whites, too.

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