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Great Hikes: A Presidential Traverse

Mount Madison (foreground), Adams and Jefferson
Mount Madison (foreground), Adams and Jefferson

One of the great hikes in the White Mountains of New Hampshire is called a Presidential Traverse. It’s so-called because hikers climb all of the mountains in the  Presidential Range of the White Mountains in one continuous hike that’s nearly 23 miles long with close to 9,000 feet of elevation gain.

Presidential Traverse

Presidential Traverses are usually hiked from north to south, climbing the following sequence of peaks, in order to get the greatest elevation gains over with early on, with hikers starting before dawn and often hiking into the night.

  1. Mt Madison – 5367 feet
  2. Mt Adams – 5774 feet
  3. Mt Jefferson – 5712 feet
  4. Mt Clay – 5533 feet
  5. Mt Washington – 6288 feet
  6. Mt Monroe – 5384 feet
  7. Mt Franklin – 5001 feet
  8. Mt Eisenhower – 4780 feet
  9. Mt Pierce – 4310 feet
  10. Mt Jackson – 4052 feet

While most presidential traverses are done in 3 season conditions during the course of a very long day,  it’s also possible to do a traverse over the course of 2 or 3 days. This can be desirable, particularly in winter, when it’s harder to resupply water because you have to melt snow, and none of the huts along the route are open for shelter.

Regardless of the season, a Presidential Traverse is not a hike to take on lightly. Beside being physically strenuous, bad weather, including snow, lightning, hail, and whiteout conditions are a constant threat and one of the main reasons for bailing out part way through. This hike is also almost entirely above treeline (resembling a moonscape), so good compass and map skills are a must.

Mt Washington and the Southern Presidentials (right)
Mt Washington and the Southern Presidentials (right)

Hikers normally climb the first peak of the traverse, Mt Madison, via the Valley Way Trail, which is the ‘easiest’ ascent up to the Northern Presidential Ridge, often stopping at the Madison AMC hut to get fresh water and to check the morning weather forecast. This stretch is the toughest continuous climb of the day, gaining over 4,000 feet in 3.8 miles.

After climbing Madison, hikers head south along the Gulfside Trail to Adams and Jefferson. These peaks border a deep valley called The Great Gulf which is bounded by Mounts Clay and Washington to the west and south. After summitting Jefferson, hikers cross a grassy area on Jefferson’s southern shoulder called Monticello Lawn, where there is an enormous temptation to lie on one’s back in the grass and watch the clouds fly by.

Mt Washington, Tarns, and Lake of the Clouds Hut
Mt Washington, Tarns, and Lake of the Clouds Hut

Passing Clay (and the popular Jewell Trail bail out route), climbers scale the Mt Washington, the highest peak in the White Mountains which has a world-wide reputation for appallingly bad weather. This is caused in large part by the jet stream, which drops out of the atmosphere onto the top of the mountain, resulting in high winds and cloud, year-round.

Mt Washington has a snack bar at the summit which is open in spring, summer and fall, making it possible to grab a bite to eat and refill one’s water containers. There’s also an auto road and train that runs to the top, making it a busy tourist attraction (and place to avoid), most of the year. Still this can be a good place to bail or resupply if you have friends willing to make the very expensive journey to the top.

Mount Monroe
Mount Monroe

After Washington, there is very little ascent left to the trip, but the views along the southern Presidential range are too good to pass up. Leaving Washington, hikers descend by the Crawford Path, the oldest continuously maintained footpath in the United States, passing through a large boulder field to the Lake of the Clouds Hut, where water is also available.

Mount Monroe is just past the hut, with great views into deep Oakes Gulf and the Dry River Wilderness along its eastern flank. Once past Monroe, the miles fly by past Mount Franklin, Eisenhower, Pierce and Jackson. Having good weather or pouncing on it when it arrives is obviously the key to a successful traverse and spectacular views.

Southern Presidentials
Southern Presidentials

A Presidential Traverse is one of the great hikes in the White Mountains, but there are many more as well, which I’ll cover in future posts.

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  1. Anyone with intel on whether Gray Knob or Crag Camp fill up on mid-weeks in late July?

  2. I did similar hike after staying overnight at Hermit Lakes Shelter and then summitting Mt. Washington next morning. We hiked to Lakes of the Clouds, took short break and stayed at Mizpah for the night. There are some nice legal stealth spots before you get to Mizpah if your feeling adventurous. All in all it was a great trip and wasn’t terribly hard. Depending on your child and wife, they should have no problems with it.

  3. Cool TR! I already have Pierce and Eisenhower crossed off my NH4K list. So I was wondering, how long (mileage and elevation gain) would this hike be if I started at Madison, and finished on Monroe, going down the Ammo.

  4. Great site! Trying to plan at trip this summer and take four days with my family to hike the PT. Once I get looking into it, I know I will my questions if someone can provide a few words of wisdom. We are coming from Colorado and look forward to the eastern mountains!!!

  5. Philip, thanks for your email reply. The the brevity perfectly framed our goal: “leave earlier”. We have decided to forego Franconia and make this hike a two-day memory. I greatly appreciate all the past comments as it’s helped my research of trail expectations. Where the water is. Where the huts are. Where to pitch tent.

    We will be going north to south. If anyone has any further recommendations on where to camp below the tree line I welcome them. We will depart for Madison no later than 7 am.

  6. Just got back from the Presies and thought a few comments might be appropriate for hikers going to the Whites from other parts of the country as the hiking in the Whites is different than the vast majority of trails in most of the country. I think AMC hikers tend to not be aware of that as guidebooks and writeups rarely mention it (or mention in the preface and never again).

    First, weather forecast. Mt. Washington station wiffed on 2 out of 3 days on our hike, actually for the better. However, based on severe thunderstorm warnings around 2:00 pm and high winds, a number of hikers bailed at Lakes rather than get hit on the long, open ridge traverses miles from any escape route. Thunderstorms don’t blow in as much as build on top of you. We had no storms but straight winds 25-50 mph. Makes it a bit difficult when you’re stepping from rock to rock and will slow your pace. Lots of rain in summer so lots of water on trails and pools that can’t be avoided. Waterproof footwear is helpful.

    For hikers used to fairly smooth trails where one can set a regular pace, the Whites can be quite a surprise. 99% of the Presie Range route is stepping from rock to rock. Sometimes on the ridge the rocks may be flat for a couple hundred yards in order to keep you from stepping on the fragile tundra vegetation. There is actual flat dirt for about 200 yards near LOCH – the only place on the trail that as I recall.

    The rocks are in all shapes and sizes – some are steady, some are not. The AMC “croos” over the ages have built rock stairs in places. Moving big, heavy rocks with steel rods is not an easy task, so the height of the steps vary. At times I thought I was hiking on the Inca Trail where the steps were built for llamas – like stepping up two steps at a time on the stairs. If you can find boulder fields on which to practice it will sharpen your skills for the Presie Range.

    Watch not only where you step, but where you plant your hiking poles. A few people would come into the hut every day with a broken pole. One guy in our group broke a pole, but not in a crack between rocks! His pole was stuck in mud between rocks, he twisted the pole to pull it out and broke the bottom shaft.

    As mentioned prior, there are places so steep that poles get in the way. Using a pack that allows you to stow poles on the fly is helpful (Osprey makes a few).

    The huts sell the essentials, so if you forget or break something (or just don’t want to carry a ton of hiker food) you can re-supply. In fact, short of a pack and boots, you could outfit for a hike at a hut. Highlands Lodge and Joe Dodge Lodge can supply everything as they are LL Bean mini-shops. All huts and lodges have ear plugs for free (new in plastic, not used!).

    Forget using the AMC Shuttles. They run at weird times due to all the stops and make a full loop of the Pressies, so you can sit on the bus for an hour or more before getting to your car. For not much more money, book one of the private vans at a time convenient for you.

    Cell phone coverage can be had on Mt. Washington, weather permitting. Madison hut can usually get a signal. However, there is no cell phone charging available at the huts. Better to turn your phone off and save the battery. The two AMC lodges have wifi so calls are possible there.

    If you have hut reservations and the weather changes your plans, the AMC can switch your reservations from the hut to either of the lodges (if beds are available).

    One thing to be aware of at the huts, the staff will cram hikers into empty beds regardless of gender (there are cancellations most days so they try to fill all the bunks). In bad weather, they will allow AT hikers to sleep in the dining room. You may have to negotiate a bit with staff for a satisfactory situation. At Lakes, the women in our group had a room with empty bed. The staff put a man of questionable mental capacity (he looked like Willie Nelson, but without the personality) in their room. We had enough guys to fill a room, so we swapped a bunk and had the strange man in our room. He spent a lot of time checking out our gear and asking how much it costs. Needless to say one of our group stayed with our gear after that.

    Also be aware that in summer there will be a number of summer camp groups on the trail with up to 30 people. Being mostly teenagers, they can be a bit loud in the hut. For the most part the kids have good manners and are funny. How well they behave depends on how good the counselors are. One night AMC staff had to warn a counselor to get their kids under control an hour after lights-out. I was a counselor at a camp in Maine – no easy task with a bunch of teens! Be sure to use ear plugs….

    For your early risers, the staff have will have hot water for tea, but no coffee until near table setting time. If I’d known that in advance I would have brought some Starbucks Via packets (with a lot more caffeine!). Hot soup, coffee and tea are available the rest of the day. Nice to have when you come in from a cold wind!

    My apologies if this was too off-topic and should be placed elsewhere.

    Hike On!

  7. Hi Phil, did the Presi a couple years ago from north to south on July 4th weekend. You’re right about starting before daybreak, but we did finish in one day before it got dark. Fog and clouded in until we were on the downside of Jefferson. Then a beautiful day the rest of the way. Once you complete Monroe and Madison you are on the ridge it gets easier. Noce article.

    • Ive been across over multiple days. We hit bad weather and had to tent- could not see from cairn to cairn.
      I’m curious as to your hiking speed one a 1 day? N-S, that first bit near Madison is tough.

      • Hi Brenda,

        I think you are talking about Watson’s Path. My girlfriend and I did climbed it
        last year and we are doing it again this year, but yes it sure was a challenge. I don’t think that most people who hike the Traverse take that path. It has the steepest elevation gain of the whole trip – 2200 feet in (1.7) miles.

  8. Hello, me and 19 of my fellow friends are planning on hiking the presidential traverse and ending at the bottom of my Washington at pinkams botch parking lot in July from a Friday morning and looking to be our destination midday on Sunday ( 2 and 1/2 days of hiking). None of us have ever done this hike before and we are looking for info on where we should start along the traverse and what parking area would be good to park half of our vehicles at?
    Also is camping anywhere allowed and do we have to get a fire permit to make a fire each night for the weekend?

    Thank you in advance for any guidance!

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