Spring Hiking Conditions in the White Mountains

Spring Hiking Conditions in the White Mountains

Spring hiking conditions in New Hampshire’s White Mountains can be quite unpredictable depending on your location and elevation. Despite the change in season and longer days, snow usually lingers on the high peaks well into late May, and daytime temperatures remain quite chilly, only turning warmer in June.

In addition to all of the normal winter hazards of hiking in the Whites, hikers need to be prepared for icy trails, postholing in soft snow, boot-sucking mud, freezing rain, and high-water crossings. This requires wearing gaiters and winter footwear and carrying traction aids such as microspikes and snowshoes on hikes.

While you can check weather forecasts for the day of your hike, they’re usually not specific enough because localized conditions vary so widely in different regions of the mountains. They can also change dramatically based on your elevation. While it may be sunny and warm in the valleys, winter weather can linger at higher elevations. It’s not unusual to strip down to a t-shirt and shorts at the trailhead only to encounter a snowsquall or deep snowdrifts when you break above treeline. You can’t let your guard down.

Monorail on a bridge.
Monorail on a bridge.

Monorail

In addition to wet snow and mud, hikers need to walk on monorail which is an icy layer of snow about 6-8″ wide that persists in the middle of popular winter trails, including those that climb the White Mountain 4000 footers. Monorail is densely packed snow and ice that’s created when hundreds of hikers walk in the middle of a trail in winter. As the temperatures warm in spring, the snow along the sides of the monorail softens and begins to melt while the denser monorail remains. One false step to either side of the monorail, and you are likely to posthole in soft snow, which can be quite exhausting and drenching.

April 22 - Camping in Carrigan Notch
April 22 – Camping in Carrigan Notch

Spring Hiking Footwear

By mid-May, many trails are bare of snow at lower elevations and many of the snow bridges that form over streams will have collapsed. Despite the warming temperatures, you’ll probably want to wear waterproof footwear that can take a pair of crampons or microspikes for walking on ice, handle mud, snowmelt, and even water crossings without freezing.

Fording streams further complicates footwear selection because the temperature of snowmelt in the White Mountain stream is ice-cold. It’s best to avoid any trails or hikes where you need to cross a stream or river before the temperatures warm up. In addition to high water levels from snowmelt, you want to avoid having your shoes or boots freeze, especially on overnight trips.

May 21 - Snow lingers on Mt Tecumseh, a 4000 footer in Waterville Valley
May 21 – Snow lingers on Mt Tecumseh, a 4000 footer in Waterville Valley

Planning Spring Hikes

The best thing to do before any spring hike is to carefully study the AMC White Mountains Maps, The White Mountain Guide, and to read any recent trail condition reports about your planned destination on NETrailConditions.com. These trip reports provide the most up-to-date information about trail conditions, whether you need microspikes, crampons, or snowshoes, and the danger level for stream crossings on the trails.

One other thing you’ll discover is that the elevation of the snowline gradually increases during the months of April and May as the lower elevations melt off. This is a very good time to hike on lower elevation trails and climb smaller mountains, like those on the 52 with a View Peakbagging List, which fall between 2000 and 3500 feet of elevation. They can be just as strenuous as climbing a 4000 footer, but they’re likely to be snow-free much earlier.

June 5, Mt Moriah - By June the snow will be replaced by mud and bugs!
June 5, Mt Moriah – By June the snow will be replaced by mud and bugs!

There are few areas in the Whites where spring comes sooner than others, that I recommend you check out. The trails east of NH 113 in Evans Notch are usually snow-free by mid-April and are quite fun to hike. The same is also true of the trails in the Western Whites between Hanover, NH and Mt Moosilauke, and the trails in the Sandwich Range north of Mt Winnepasauke.

Whatever you do, remain cautious about spring hiking conditions in the White Mountain National Forest. While frustrating, postponing your hike or backpacking trip until mid-June when conditions improve might be the best option.

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About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 7500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 2500 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip is the 36th person to hike all 650 of the hiking trails in the White Mountain Guide, a distance of approximately 2500 miles, completing a second round in 2021. Philip is the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He lives in New Hampshire.

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18 comments

  1. Personally I’ve never really experienced much problems with bugs and black flies even in June, but is there a small window of time where trail conditions have improved and the bugs/black flies aren’t really out yet? Or at the least, aren’t an issue at camp because the temps are still cool enough to keep the bugs away?

    • It’s so localized that it’s hard to say. I wear a head net a LOT in June.

    • I hiked the Northville – Lake Placid trail in NY in early June, 1987. The black flies would drive you crazy when you stopped moving in daytime. While moving at hiking speed, they weren’t that bad and they seemed to take the night off. The upside? In 12 days on the trail and the high peaks, I literally saw one person, and three bears. That was in 1987.

  2. The whole month of June is owned by those incredibly pesky, annoying black bugs/noseums in the White Mountains. Can barely see, you’re so busy swatting at them, even when covered in the best bug ointment. Made my fastest time up Mt. Madison once, trying to outrun them.

  3. Kimball / TrailsNH

    Excellent timing on this. Lots of new hikers are wondering what it’s like up there, and your right on.

    • For instance, sunny in Bartlett, no snow on the ground. By the time I got to Crawford Notch, just up the road, it is 20 degrees colder, several inches of new snow, blowing around in nasty wind. Even worse above tree line. Bailed on my bushwhacks. Drove home and got my chain saw instead to go harvest wood. An instance of highly localized and unpredictable winterish weather.

  4. Oh this article is so accurate. I get teased about carrying my snowshoes on my pack until at least May, especially in Maine.

    I agree that April is generally a great month of “low peak” exploration. Finally the unplowed trailheads are accessible for the less popular areas!

    Dirt roads accessing trailheads that open up in April can still be very soft, sucking tires into deep soil or causing cars to lose traction. Gated roads in the Whites typically don’t open until the frost is out of the roads (late April to early May).

    I also concur that River/creek/water crossings are far more tenuous this time of year. I’ve found that if the Guide says water crossings are “difficult at moderate levels and dangerous at high levels” then I avoid these until mid May. Levels that increase several inches usually submerge most crossing rocks forcing the hiker to wade through pure ice cold water.

  5. I encourage everyone to post to NETrailConditions.com so we can all help each other and the trails themselves.

    Note there’s also a snow transition period when even snowshoes will posthole. Note a recent ranger report in the Adirondacks

  6. Maggie ( Limey ) and Chris ( Grizz )

    Older couple about to complete our AT hike first week of June. Moosilauke is our starting point.
    We are apprehensive. Any advice would be welcomed.

  7. Another great article, thank you.

    Here in Vermont the Green Mountain Club, and almost all avid hikers, encourage people to stay off the trails until Memorial day. In fact the state _closes_ trails on our highest peaks, like Camel’s hump. It’s mud season here, and as the name suggests, all of our trails are muddy – especially higher elevation trails. Muddy trails mean hikers are more likely to walk next to the path, damaging plants and expediting erosion. Damaged plants and expedited erosion mean widening trails and sometimes the eventual loss of all topsoil. We tend to stick to the lower elevations until the end of May.

    Why isn’t the same true in NH?

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