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The 5 Toughest Hiking Trails in the White Mountains

Many of the toughest trails in the White Mountains climb Mt Washington
Many of the toughest trails in the White Mountains climb Mt Washington – the Great Gulf Trail climbs the headwall below the towers, shown above.

There are a lot of challenging hiking trails in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, especially if you’ve never hiked there. Here are five especially tough trails that even experienced White Mountain hikers find challenging. What are your favorites?

1. Huntington Ravine Trail – 2.4 miles w/ 2700′ of elevation gain

The Huntington Ravine Trail is considered the most difficult hiking trail in the White Mountains. Located on the east face of Mt Washington, Huntington Ravine is a steep bowl-shaped valley, called a glacial cirque. The trail climbs the headwall of the ravine and requires climbing open and exposed ledges, the use of hand holds, and good footwork to ascend. The first 1.3 miles are relatively easy until you get to the first aid cache at the ravine floor. From there, the trail gains 1650′ in the next 1.1 miles, which is seriously steep.

The Huntington Ravine Trail requires climbing open ledges and is not recommended for people afraid of heights
The Huntington Ravine Trail requires climbing open ledges and is not recommended for people afraid of heights.

This trail is not recommended for inexperienced hikers. People with heavy backpacks should consider a different route. Descending this trail is also not recommended under any conditions. Extreme caution should be used if the upper parts of the trail are wet or covered with snow. Huntington Ravine is known for its avalanche activity in winter and daily avalanche forecasts are published on nearby signs and online during the winter months.

2. Tuckerman Ravine Trail – 4.2 miles w/ 4250′ of elevation gain

The Tuckerman Ravine Trail is the most popular way to climb Mt Washington, but that doesn’t make it an easy trail to hike up the mountain and return in the same day. While technically less demanding than climbing the Huntington Ravine Trail, most of the people who attempt the Tuckerman Ravine Trail are not regular hikers and may be surprised by the level of effort and time required to ascend the trail.

The final section of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail leads through a boulder field to the summit of Mt Washington
The final section of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail leads through a boulder field to the summit of Mt Washington.

Tuckerman Ravine, like it’s neighbor Huntington Ravine, is a giant bowl-shaped valley carved by glacier activity. It also accumulates more snow during winter than any other spot in the White Mountains and advanced skiers come to ski the steep ravine headwall well into spring. Like Huntington Ravine, Tuckerman also has frequent avalanche activity and daily avalanche forecasts. The headwall section of the trail is frequently closed in spring if crevices still exist, because hikers have fallen into them and drowned before they can be rescued.

3. The Great Gulf Trail – 7.9 miles w/ 5000′ of elevation gain

The Great Gulf Trail also climbs one of Mt Washington’s steep ravine headwalls, but on its north side. The trail travels up the huge bowl-like valley called the Great Gulf, bordered by Mt Washington and the peaks of the Northern Presidential mountain range: Mt Clay, Mt Jefferson, Mt Adams, and Mt Madison. The Great Gulf Trail ends with a 1700′ ascent up a one mile avalanche slide that can be disorienting to climb in low visibility. Winter snow also lingers on the gulf’s headwall well into July, limiting the season when this final section of trail can be attempted.

Running water flowing down the middle of the Great Gulf Trail at the headwall section of the trail
Running water flowing down the middle of the Great Gulf Trail at the headwall section of the trail.

4. Ice Gulch Path – 0.9 miles in length with 700′ of elevation gain

The Ice Gulch Path is a boulder-choked ravine in the town of Randolph, New Hampshire just north of Rt 2 near Gorham. The trail runs through the ravine which requires constant scrambling over wet and slippery rocks. The ravine is called Ice Gulch because it has an east-west orientation that gets little sunlight, creating a localized microclimate that is notably colder than the surrounding landscape. It’s so cold in the gulch, that lingering ice can be found year-round below the huge boulders.

The Ice Gulch Path climbs through a boulder-choked ravine full of wet and slippery rocks
The Ice Gulch Path climbs through a boulder-choked ravine full of wet and slippery rocks.

The Ice Gulch Path forms a U-shaped loop and is best hiked uphill in a clockwise direction leaving from its trailhead on Randolph Hill Road. It’s a two-mile hike though forest to get to the base of the gulch where the scramble begins. Once started, the trail is very committing and difficult to backtrack on if you decide you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. The Ice Gulch Path is considered more difficult than the famous Mahoosuc Notch Trail section to the north, which also requires a rocky scramble through a boulder-filled ravine.

5. Mahoosuc Trail – 27.3 miles w/ 10,750 feet of elevation gain

The Mahoosuc Trail is a remote and wild trail that spans the entire Mahoosuc mountain range from Gorham, NH to the old firetower on Old Speck Mountain in Grafton Notch.  Most of the trail coincides with the Appalachian Trail, except a short section to the south that follows the path of the “Old AT” up to Mt Hayes and the intersection of the Centennial Trail. While the total elevation of the trail is relatively low, don’t underestimate the difficulty of hiking it. The trail climbs up and down many smaller mountains, through alpine areas and across bogs, as it threads its way north. Expect rain, mud, and bugs. Lots of each.

North Goose Eye Mountain, Mahoosuc Trail
North Goose Eye Mountain, Mahoosuc Trail

While the Mahoosuc Trail is accessible using side paths if you want to hike a section at a time, backpacking it is the most efficient way to complete a full traverse. Be conservative in how many miles you plan to hike per day because it’s tough going with a fully loaded backpack. Timing your trip is also important. Deep snow can linger into June along the northern end of the trail. By late October, nighttime temperatures also begin to plummet. heralding the start of winter in the north country, and limiting the weather window where you can comfortably hike this trail to just a few short month each year.

More Tough Trails…

If you want to discover more tough trails in the White Mountains and plan great hikes, here the guidebooks and maps that I recommend you use. Good preparation is important in the Whites so you don’t get in over your skill and comfort level when tackling harder routes.

Written 2017.

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13 comments

  1. I’m an experienced hiker and have backpacked the Grand Canyon. The trail that kicked my backside worse than any I’ve ever been on was the relatively tame, by White Mountain standards, Franconia Ridge Loop. The above 5 trails would probably finish me off. In defense of my performance on Franconia Ridge, I’d never been that old before embarking on a hike, however, I’ll never be as young on any future hikes as I was back then!

  2. I agree with Huntington, but after that, Kings Ravine is just brutal,and the six husbands comes in third.

    Tuckermans is a cakewalk compared to those three.

  3. The Tuckerman Ravine Trail is used by way too many people to be included on this list. Yes it’s unrelenting, but it’s not that dangerous to descend even in bad weather. The Baldface Circle Trail (south leg) gets my vote, too dangerous to descend in foul weather.

    • I’d argue that Tuckerman is more dangerous when the crevice below the headwall is still there each spring. You can turn around on south baldface if it’s wet, but you can’t get out of the crevice if you go down it. You just drown.

  4. I am older now and I found that moderately strenuous hikes are plenty good and help me enjoy being one with nature without killing myself. If you enjoy tough trails, more power to you but try the easier trails when you want to really take in the entire environment without huffing and puffing.

  5. It’s short, but the Boott Spur Link (connecting the Hermit Lake camping area to the Boott Spur ridge) will kick your butt a little.

  6. Finished the presidential traverse on June 27th. When I got to the car I said never again. The pain is gone and now never is a maybe. At 60 and from the rolling hills of the midwest, it really kick my ass each day.

  7. Tuckermans is steep but not dangerous once the snow melts.
    Huntington’s Ravine is challenging. The slab section is potentially dangerous, especially if wet. And don’t even think about taking it down.
    Six Husbands in the Great Gulf Wilderness is pretty challenging too. I did it as a loop coming down the Sphinx trail. Challenging but awesome.

  8. Robert “Doctor” Smith

    Having done Huntington 3 times I can attest to the difficulty and agree that it is technically the hardest in the whites but for sheer difficulty my vote goes to the great gulf trail. The 1 time I ascended this trail I was seriously in fear of my life. About half way up the head wall a beautiful cloudless day suddenly changed as a cloud engulfed me. Visibility went to 30 feet in all directions. I immediately lost the trail markers. No choice but to continue climbing. Somehow I made it to the top but even with a compass and map I was not sure how to continue. Cut to the auto road or the cog. Then I heard the train whistle and followed it to the track and then the summit. My third choice would be six husbands. My fourth has not been mentioned by anyone. Try the north slide trail on tripyramid, you won’t be disappointed.
    I’ve done Katadin many times and have some good stories for future posts.

    • I’ve done Huntington’s (twice), Tuckerman’s, Lion’s Head, Great Gulf, King’s Ravine, Six Husband’s, and a whole bunch others. The only one that’s seared in my memory in terms of difficulty is Huntington’s, and I’ll agree with the commenter above about the slides on Tripyramid – that’s brutal, not enjoyable at all. Of you want something in that area that’s a lot more enjoyable, I’d highly recommend Oceola. For something short and steep, either Cannon or Wildcat get you right into it.

      Frankly, I’ve done lots of hiking around the Eastern US and Canada, and nothing compares to New Hampshire. Even the Rockies. Honestly.

  9. I agree with Huntington, but not Tuck’s. Glenn boulder trail and boot spur are much stronger climbs, though not as much rock hopping.

  10. I just did boott spur with intentions of bagging isolation and then down Glenn boulder. That did not happen, After 7 miles at 1 mile an hour. Both trails still had snow in trees near top that was full of post holing and crawling in branches that would normally be 2 feet above your head. It was beautiful but slow going. This was memorial day weekend. Pure misery, cant wait to go back.

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