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Bread and Butter Hike to Mt Madison

Mt Madison (left), JQ Adams (middle), and Adams (right) seens from the Inlook Trail
Mt Madison (left), JQ Adams (middle), and Adams (right) seen from the Inlook Trail

There’s a phrase used by White Mountain hikers, “a Presi Day”, to describe the clear sunny days that are ideal for hiking a Presidential Traverse or climbing one of the Northern Presidential Peaks: Mounts Madison, Adams, or Jefferson. It’s hard to describe the uplifting wonder that fills your soul when you can see 90 miles in every direction.

We had one of those rare Presi Days on the last weekend of July, when I set out to climb Mt Madison, which is still my favorite peak in the Northern Presidentials. These are formidable, all day hikes requiring 3000+ foot climbs that will test anyone’s stamina. I’ve climbed them all many times, including winter, when the conditions above treeline can be deadly to the unwary.

View from treeline on the edge of the Alpine zone, looking north from the flank of Mt Madison
View from treeline on the edge of the Alpine zone, looking north from the flank of Mt Madison

Only my objective was not Madison’s summit, but to explore the off-the-beaten paths that lead to the summit and are lesser known. While I still enjoy the intense satisfaction that comes from summiting mountains, my appreciation of White Mountain hiking has taken a different and more nuanced direction this year.

I’m much more focused on exploring new ground, new trails, and appreciating their seldom seen beauty than hiking the same, well-trodden routes to places I’ve already seen. It’s the same “disease” as section-hiking the Appalachian Trail, an insatiable desire to explore new trails rather than repeating old hikes.

Being a Presi-day, I was still interested in getting above treeline and basking in the views, but I was willing to take a roundabout way to get there, one that involved going up and down long stretches of trail, and ultimately involved more elevation gain than climbing to the summit directly. It was much harder than expected, an indication that I need to spend more time above treeline the rest of the hiking season.

Mt Madison Hut just below the summit
Mt Madison Hut just below the summit

Bread and Butter

Why was this a bread and butter hike? You can buy freshly baked slices of bread at the Mt Madison Hut, which is just a few hundred feet below the summit. If you ask the crew nicely, they’ll also give you a big piece of butter to smear over your bread which is a huge calorie boost over the bread alone. The bread is a buck a slice (as wide as you want to cut it) but the butter is free! I first discovered this on an unsuccessful Direttissima hike (all 48 four thousand footers in one continuous hike) a few years ago when I may have exploited this fact rather gluttonously.

Many Routes up Mt Madison

There are many ways to climb Mt Madison. Hiking up the Valley Way Trail is the most popular, but it’s not a very pretty route. You can hike up the Howker Ridge Trail which exceptionally scenic, the Watson Trail, which branches off Valley Way and is remarkably steep, the Osgood Trail which is a tough climb but an excellent route down, and the Daniel Webster Scout Trail which is quite nice above and below treeline. There’s also the Madison Gulf Trail and the Pine Link Trail which I still have to hike one of these days.

You can also hike up Madison by stringing together a lot of smaller trails, rather than using the more direct routes I describe above. That was my objective on this hike; not so much summitting, but to explore new sights and experience the solitude of hiking the smaller trails on the mountain.

Starting from the Randolph East Trail Head parking lot, I put together a roundabout route:

  • Up the Kelton Trail
  • Down the Inlook Trail
  • Up the Brookside Trail
  • Down the Watson Path
  • Down the Scar Loop Trail to Valley Way
  • Back up the Scar Loop Trail to the Watson Path
  • Over the Scar Trail to Airline
  • Back on the Scar Trail to the Watson Path
  • Up Watson Path
  • Up Valley Way to the Madison Springs Hut
  • Over the Airline Cutoff Trail
  • Down the Airline Trail
  • Over Upper Bruin to Valley Way
  • Down Valley Way
  • Down Lower Bruin
  • Down The Brookside
  • Down the Inlook Trail
  • Down Kelton Trail

Crazy, but having experienced the beauty of these lesser used trails, I’ll never climb up or down Mount Madison on the Valley Way Trail again.

Here’s why.

Dome Rock on the Inlook Trail
Dome Rock on the Inlook Trail
Salmacis Fall on The Brookside Trail
Salmacis Fall on The Brookside Trail
Madison, JQ Adams and Adams from The Scar Trail
Madison, JQ Adams and Adams from The Scar Trail
Airline Trail - The most direct route from Rt 2 to Mt Adams
Airline Trail – The most direct route from Rt 2 to Mt Adams

As luck would have it I ran into two good friends on the Airline Trail, Julie the trail maintainer, and Alex, who was taking at nap on the cliffs overlooking King Ravine after helping Julie maintain the trail earlier in the day. I haven’t seen either since last winter, but it didn’t surprise me at all to run into them above treeline on a Presi-day (even though we all live 200 miles away.)

After chatting with my friends, the bread and butter finally kicked in and I powered back down Madison. It’d been a fine hike. An odd one, but satisfying in a very personal way. The summit was optional, but the bread and butter wasn’t!

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  1. Great fun. Gotta hike ’em all.

    • Hiked the Pine Link Trail to Madison the other day (and summited that time). Awesome route! I get a kick out of climbing the 4000 footers using as many different trails as possible. Nice weather helps too. :-)

  2. For those of us who have never been there, the hike sure looked great. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Oh man, now I’m longing to get back to NH. I bet it “smells like September” up the the mountains right now.

    Maybe I’m just longing to wear fleece again.

    • Not quite. We’ve had an incredibly hot and humid summer. Mostly it smells like old sweat.
      Another 4-6 weeks and the heat will break.
      I’m looking forward to being cold and wet again. :-)

  4. Fantastic mountain and know why you keep going back.

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