We began this hike from the Davis Path parking lot on Route 302 in Hart’s Location, New Hampshire. We followed Davis Path to Giant Stairs spur trail and slept at the established tent site on the top of Stairs Mountain. In the morning we returned to Davis Path and followed it to Mount Davis where we took the spur path to the summit. We returned to Davis Path and continued to Mount Isolation, where we again took the spur path to the summit. We we again returned to Davis Path and this time followed the path to its terminus on the shoulder of Mount Washington where it met Crawford Path. We completed our ascent of Mount Washington by following Crawford Path to the summit. For our descent we followed Nelson Crag Trail until it ended. Finally we jumped on Old Jackson Road and followed it to our other vehicle waiting at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center on Route 16 in Jackson, New Hampshire.
This massive hike was over 21 miles long and included 7100 feet of vertical gain. Not including the time we were sleeping on Stairs Mountain, this hike took almost 13.5 hours to complete.
A friend of mine signed up to do the 2016 Seek the Peak, a fundraiser hike that the Mount Wshington Observatory puts on every year. I was noncommital about joining it officially, but when it came down to the hike I was quick to join him. We drove up to New Hampshire in separate vehicles and met at the Pinkham Notch Visitors Center after dark to leave his vehicle there, at our planned terminus. We then drove around the southern end of the Presidential Mountains to arrive at our starting point, the Davis Path, at 10:20 pm.
We gathered our packs and started into the night from the mostly empty parking lot. It was warm (mid 70s) and occasional gusts of wind pushed high clouds across the starry sky. We chatted as we climbed the steep trail up Mount Crawford in the pitch-black forest, the trail lit only by our headlamps. Once we were good and sweaty and got above the trees we had a view of the surrounding mountains dimly lit by a half moon.
Once that big climb was over we hiked over gentle terrain toward Stairs Mountain. We were both surprised by stepping in invisible puddles on the trail. Our headlamps shone through the water without causing reflections on their still surfaces. We made good time hustling up the Davis Path, trying to keep an eye out for more puddles.
We made it to the hardened campsite teetering on the edge of the top Giant Stair at 12:45 am. We were glad to find the site empty and set up our hammocks in the trees. We originally planned on camping at the first campsite on Davis Path with our sleeping bags and stoves for making breakfast. But the idea of camping on top of Stairs Mountain was too grand to pass up. With the original plan we would have hiked back to the truck and dropped off our heavy overnight gear, so when we switched things up we left our overnight gear in the truck. This meant no sleeping bag or stove for a warm meal in the morning.
After setting up my hammock I hung my sweat-drenched shirt on a tree and sat on the edge of the cliff, eating some gorp, topless under the moon. After a bit I began to feel cool and we headed to our hammocks at around 1:15 am. I dressed in all my dry layers and curled up in my hammock to try to stay warm. Probably a half an hour later I got up and struggled into my emergency bivy to try to block some of the wind.
After a restless night I awoke at 4:00 am to the crackling of a fire. The wind had mostly died down and my friend started a small campfire in the fire ring. The sun was starting to rise, so I got up and ate a cold breakfast, pairing it with some cold instant coffee and enjoyed the beautiful morning.
At 5:45 am, after breakfast and packing up we set off down Giant Stairs spur to continue north on the Davis Path. The trail between Stairs Mountain and Mount Isolation was what I expected a little-used trail to be like: lots of mud, and slippery rocks and roots. The trail was narrow and in a couple of places it was difficult to tell the trail from game paths exiting the trail.
Soon after Stairs Mountain we came upon a spruce grouse sitting on a branch just over our heads. We imagined that it was protecting a nearby nest because it didn’t budge as we passed just below it, but kept one eye on us at all times. The only other signs of life that morning were three hammocks hung beside the trail. We made sure to laugh and make lots of noise since they weren’t the legal 200 feet from the trail.
We got to Mount Davis at 7:35 am. The spur trail was a short, steep and rocky trail that burst out of the trees just before the peak. The view was a fine one, but we could see that the Presidentials had their heads in the clouds.
We continued along the Davis Path and made it to the Mount Isolation spur path about an hour later. The summit was quiet, and the view was top notch.
After exploring the summit we started to head out and bumped into some trail runners, the only people we would see until Boott Spur. The path from Mount Isolation Boott Spur was rolling through trees down by Hurricane Irene in 2011.
It also included a hefty 600′ hike up the peak north of Mount Isolation. An easily overlooked 4200′ summit that isn’t on the New England 4000 Footer list because of lack of prominence between it and Boott Spur. At the top of the peak we stopped to investigate an interesting bird call we were unfamiliar with. As I neared the bird and got it in frame it took flight. Alas, I was unable to capture a shot of it in order to look it up later. It was certainly a bird I had not seen before.
After a small dip in elevation we started the long climb up Boott Spur. The Davis Path climbed onward and upward beyond the tree line and toward the clouds.
The trail was marked by 3 foot cairns and a narrow dirt wound through the alpine vegetation. Before long we hit one of my favorite locations, the sign marking the northern edge of the Dry River Wilderness.
Beyond the Dry River Wilderness the trail continued to ascend to the junction with the Glen Boulder Trail and then the Boott Spur Trail.
We got to the junction with the Boott Spur Trail at 11:15 am and we rock-hopped off-trail to the high point of the peak and then to the edge of Tuckerman Ravine to peer within its depths. As the Davis Path made its way northwest to the flat area between Mounts Monroe and Washington we entered a dark gray abyss of the clouds.
We started seeing other hikers as we finally approached the end of the Davis Path. We hit Crawford Path just below the final ascent to the Mount Washington summit and high-fived for red-lining the longest approach to Mount Washington. We then pushed through our exhaustion and headed for the summit.
Passing crowds of hikers we reached the summit of Mount Washington at 12:15 pm and unceremoniously stood in line for our turn at the summit sign. Luckily there was a high percentage of hikers, due to the Seek the Peak fundraiser, so we got to share our experience with like-minded people. We talked with the two guys ahead of us, one of which was on only his third peak after getting bit hard by the hiking bug on his first peak.
Heading up to the summit sign we noticed that the Tip Top House was open, so we clamored over to it. The museum presented the way the hotel was in its hay day, with kitchen, tables and bunks set up as if the owners had gotten the urge to stop what they were doing and mill about like tourists.
After Top-Top House we headed into the main building to take lunch in the hiker’s cave. If you’ve never spent all morning hiking up Mount Washington and then stepped into the summit building you are in for a surprise the first time. It’s like walking through the food court in a mall at lunchtime on Black Friday.
After refilling out water bottles near the entrance we hooked a left and headed down the stairs. We shared a table with a northbound Appalachian Trail hiker and his friends who were joining him for a couple of days in the White Mountains. We wrapped up lunch and headed outside at 1:00 pm, just as my sweaty clothes were starting to make me shiver.
We headed northeast from the hiker’s cave exit along the Nelson Crag Trail, a new trail for me. We carefully waited for a break in the traffic on the auto road and then darted across as we could only see a dozen feet in either direction.
The Nelson Crag trail made a gentle descent toward Alpine Garden, climbing up and over a few rocky bumps along the way. Nelson Crag was not named for the Homeland cinematographer, but rather for the last of these rocky bumps, Nelson Crag. After that final crag the trail dropped down and skirted along the lip of Huntington Ravine. I rock-hopped to the edge to gaze at the ravine floor below.
Beyond the edge of Huntington Ravine, the Nelson Crag Trail started a brutal descent down Chandler Ridge. With our sore knees and backs our going was slow, but we eventually caught up to and passed a family making their way down. As they let us pass we overheard what we took for the grandmother of the group thanking the group for helping her down, as it was more difficult than she though it would be in her nearly blind state. As we dropped down to a hairpin turn in the auto road and then to steeper terrain below, we hoped that the elderly lady had a vehicle waiting for her at the road and were thankful that the family was kind enough to help out the stranger.
The trail did not become any easier as we re-entered the forest and made our final descent toward Pinkham Notch. The trail continued to be steep with large boulders to climb down and the trees added moisture to the mix. Eventually the trail leveled out a bit and we hit Old Jackson Road. The final stretch along this defunct-road-now-trail was gentle but monotonous after the views and excitement above.
We got to Pinkham Notch Visitor center at 4:45 pm, some 20 hours after we left it the night before. We hopped in my friend’s truck and headed to the Seek the Peak after-party where we visited the vendors and scored some recovery snacks and drinks. After that it was back to Davis Path to pick up my car and head home.
An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.
—Henry David Thoreau
2016 Seek the Peak video
Music from Free Music Archive: “Ode to a Baby Snowstorm” by Ghostly Dust Machine, “Pocket Zombie” by Sonic Flex Vector
- From 1870 to 1892 the United States Signal Service (a precursor to the National Weather service) maintained a weather station on top of Mount Washington, one of the first of its kind
- In 1932 a small group of civilians founded the Mount Washington Observatory to continue the US Signal Service’s work
- Tip-top House is the last remaining original structure on Mount Washington, it was built in 1853 by Samual F. Spaulding & Co for $7000
- Seek the Peak was established in 2001 and has raised over $1.6 million for the nonprofit Mount Washington Observatory to maintain its weather station on the summit
Date Hiked: 15-16 July 2016
Trail Conditions: wet, mud, dry
Weather: partly sunny
Highest Elevation: 6289′
Elevation Gain: 7100′
Distance: 21.2 miles
Book Time: 14:10
Actual Time: 13:20 (not including sleep)
Completed Red-Lining Trails:
Nelson Crag Trail
Mount Davis Side Trail
Hike: Crawford/Resolution/Stairs – July 2016
Hike: Southern Presidentials – March 2016
Winter Bushwhack: Mount Isolation – March 2016
Hike: Mount Washington – November 2015
Hike: Mount Isolation – September 2014