Above it All: A Guide to the White Mountains AMC Huts
The AMC huts in the White Mountains offer a respite and companionship for intrepid hikers.
Roughing it is part of the outdoor experience in the Granite State and no one is more stoic than a White Mountain trekker. But these explorers also know a secret — that in some of the highest and most remote spots in the Northeast there’s comfort to be found, shelter from the storm and even some good home cooking.
Hear the wind howling yet feel safe. When the rain pelts, the thunder roars and the snow cascades like a frosty curtain, you are inside and dry. See the wilderness, true sweeping unblemished wilderness from a porch, observe mountains to climb and the people climbing them. Those around you may be blue collar or white collar but all eat like kings at dinner in a court of like-minded brethren, all weary and ecstatic from the journey and tomorrow’s promise.
Such is life in the eight Appalachian Mountain Club huts in our majestic White Mountains — each one a treasure chest of hospitality waiting to be discovered high in New Hampshire’s alpine heart.
In 2013 they celebrated their 125th anniversary — a century and a quarter during which the Boston-based AMC has thrown out the red carpet to backpackers, offering filling food, snug bunks, smiles and good advice to hikers of all abilities in some of the most pristine landscapes in the region.
New Hampshire is forever part of the storied mountain institution known as the AMC. Though founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Edward Charles Pickering in 1876, the club’s Granite State link is strong. Many of Pickering’s fellow academics summered at homes in Randolph with easy Presidential Range access. Charles Hitchcock, New Hampshire’s state geologist at the time as well as a Dartmouth College professor, attended that founding meeting.
And it was on the summit of Mount Washington in 1888 that forward-thinking AMCers formulated a plan to build the first hut, a stone cabin, in the col between Mounts Madison and Adams. They allocated $700 for the mission that was to become Madison Spring Hut, the firstborn of what’s grown to be the country’s oldest hut-to-hut hiking network stretched along the venerable Appalachian Trail.
Rugged people with adventurous spirit are the system’s foundation, and clearly personified in the legendary father of the huts, Joe Dodge. This tough, iconic never-PC-SOB transformed a hodgepodge of workers into well-oiled teams during his 37 years at the AMC, starting in 1922. A born leader, he used respect, trust and unbridled passion to grow the hut system.
Dodge expanded the Lakes of the Clouds hut while helping to engineer AMC’s management of Lonesome Lake in partnership with the state during days in the 1930s when pack mules were often used to carry goods and supplies to hut sites. Galehead, Greenleaf and Zealand huts all were constructed under his tenure.
Never idle, Dodge was also a ham radio operator and skilled in search and rescue. He's credited with rescuing Harvard Egyptologist Jessie Whitehead, who had fallen 800 feet down the side of Mt. Washington. When she hemorrhaged on the stretcher trip down, he staunched the bleeding by packing snow into her neck wound. He timed ski races and co-founded the Mount Washington Observatory. It's said that Dodge's preferred bathing method was to roll naked in the snow. As his biographer William Putnam Lowell wrote, “If you didn’t know Joe Dodge, you damn well should have.” The AMC Joe Dodge Lodge, located at the base of Mount Washington on the Appalachian Trail, is just one of many tributes he earned.
But perhaps his most enduring legacy is the hut crews, simply “the croo” in AMC parlance, that Dodge oversaw. The croo remains, though not as crusty as in Dodge’s days. Wrapped up as alpine educators, entertainers, cooks, trip planners and AMC ambassadors, they are largely energetic people-person college students doing everything from baking bread to volunteering for search-and-rescue missions in support of New Hampshire Fish and Game and the US Forest Service.
Their engaging enthusiasm often envelops weary late-arriving hikers as they serve them sumptuous all-you-can-eat, four-course family-style dinners. They’re arguably the most public of the AMC faces (along with working trails crews) that many hikers see and they live out the organization’s mission of stewardship, maintaining 1,500 miles to trails offering conservation education and weaving green technologies into the outdoor experience.
Often the education is offered creatively around meal time through homey skits encouraging hikers to prevent erosion by staying on the trails or keeping the forest clean by practicing “Leave No Trace.” And at breakfast, expect to get schooled on folding those three wool blankets found on every bunk mattress—lengthwise once, widthwise twice.
With just 10 days of intensive training, croo members learn how to cook for groups of up to 50 strangers, catering to tastes from vegan to kosher. They often introduce themselves at dinner with off-beat factoids. If they’ve got musical skills, wait for morning. No bell or blasting bugle for wake-up call here. Instead it’s a gentle purr from a croo singer, fiddler or guitarist before sitting down at the filling oft-oatmeal breakfast and getting the latest weather report radioed from the observatory to the huts at 7 a.m.
They rotate daily cooking chores during their 10-days-on, three-days-off stints and are grateful for the supplies helicoptered in during that one day in spring when all huts get their hefty goods, like 50-pound sacks of flour and cases of No. 10 tomato sauce. Staples like pasta or chicken are staggered so hut-to-hut hikers won’t have the same dinner daily.
Those smiling, guitar-strumming students also need to be in shape. Wide-eyed hikers stare in disbelief seeing them on the trails carrying towering, medieval-looking torture devices called packboards, which are designed to hitch about 50 pounds of supplies including outbound garbage. Some follow them, trying to keep up. The croo members always win.
It's not all work. The croo are steeped in a lighthearted tradition called raiding in which the goal is to capture a certain item from another hut and bring it back to yours. The item could be as daffy as a rubber duck or as improbable as an airplane propeller. Really.
Croo life is a bonding that often spans generations, creating lifelong friends. Every year the OH, or Old Hutmen association, meets to sustain friendships and remember those who have died. The experience also shapes lives, with many roosting around the White Mountains for their home and careers.
Though the huts are out of the way along the high road, they fill up fast in peak periods and aren’t cheap. Plus, if you believe the tales, there might even be a haunted one. Of course, it could just be the wind or an active imagination during some isolated downtime, but many bright croo members are certain Milton MacGregor drops in at Carter Notch to make sure everything’s OK. “Red Mac," as he's called, is remembered as the man who hired Joe Dodge and lore has it that even in death he never left his beloved huts.
Abandon privacy and embrace community. Share precious clothing hooks and shelf space, even more valuable on inclement days. Sleep in bunks two, sometimes three, days. And don’t forget those earplugs as even the most pleasant dinner companion can turn into a horrendous snorer.
Before lights out, read a book in the bunk or in the common area. Play a board game. Peruse and add to the logbooks filled with alpine whimsy from hikers past.
Thru-hikers on the AT are celebrated guests, receiving free meals (after the paying guests eat) and overnights (sleeping in the common area) in exchange for light chores. They are frequently ripe with tales from the trail, told with accents from both sides of the Mason-Dixon.
Huts lighten your load. Forget the tents and camp gear (though a sleeping sack’s a good idea). Carry trail snacks instead of full meals during peak summer and fall seasons. In winter three huts remain open (Lonesome, Zealand and Carter) with self-service options.
Huts also lighten the load on Mother Nature, keeping people in select spots instead of them camping hither and yon in the woods and mountainsides.
Huts are also welcome way stations for day hikers to park it for some rest, refill water bottles, get advice and buy snacks, additional or lighter layers and small forgotten necessities.
But in the end, the huts bond those who use them. No matter the hiking pedigree, when passing around the lasagna or cutting a piece of bread for a stranger, you are breaking bread with someone who got to the hut the same way you did, on foot. Whether just starting out or a hardcore hiker with a bevy of badges, whether blue or red state, carnivore or omnivore, the huts are a common denominator for camaraderie, sharing stories, providing insight, watching sunrises and sunsets, and for taking next steps.
For 126 years, the AMC huts have allowed a longer stay on Mother Nature’s grand stage not far from every Granite Stater’s back yard.
Guide to the Huts
Click here for a downloadable PDF of the hut-by-hut guide. Photos are courtesy of the AMC Library and Archives.
The shortest trail distance to a hut with a touch of steepness. Outstanding Franconia Ridge views. “The lake is great for swimming and for kids catching bugs and frogs,” says AMC spokesman Rob Burbank.
Elevation: 2,760 Hike level: Easy
The most remote with a spectacular look into the vast Pemigewasset Wilderness. Morning people can easily tag 4,000-footer Mount Galehead before breakfast. Originally built to withstand gale-force winds.
Elevation: 3,800 Hike level: Difficult
Name means “pillar in the wilderness.” Fairly quick access to above treeline on Mount Pierce (also called Clinton), the hut also is the only one with an organ. “The gray jays found around Mizpah are inquisitive birds,” Burbank says.
Elevation: 3,800 Hike level: Moderate
Where it all began, in the scenic saddle between Mounts Madison and Adams. Though rebuilt several times, the stone foundation has been preserved while modern touches like a waterless toilet system were added.
Elevation: 4,800 Hike level: Difficult
Cool neighborhood bordering stark alpine zone and vast boreal forest. Turn the classic Franconia Ridge Loop hike into an overnight. Gaze upon Lafayette’s grand summit about a mile away from the porch.
Elevation: 4,200 Hike level: Moderate
In spectacular Zealand Valley, reached by a forgiving old logging road with final pitch akin to climbing 20 flights of stairs. Nature has restored the valley following devastating 19th- and 20th-century fires. Outstanding waterfall next door.
Elevation: 2,700 Hike level: Easy
Largest (sleeps 90), highest (5,012 feet) and most popular, it’s perched on a spectacular lakeside shoulder of Mount Washington in a col between the rock pile and Mount Madison. Beautiful sunsets and mid-summer flowers.
Elevation: 5,050 Hike level: Difficult
The oldest existing hut dating back to the early 1900s, it is also the easternmost. The stone hut with detached bunkhouses is in an incredible spot below the cliffs of Wildcat Mountain and Carter Dome, with boulder fields and cairns.
Elevation: 3,288 Hike level: Moderate
Save the Cinquefoil
Dwarf cinquefoil is not exactly a houseplant. In fact, the only place it lives is a few alpine locations in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Upon completion of the historic Crawford Path in 1819, it was regularly trampled on or collected by hikers, and the numbers of the tiny, but lovely, plants declined rapidly.
It was named to the Endangered Species list in 1980 and AMC researchers working with the US Forest Service got busy in the harsh alpine zone, often on their hands and knees in strong winds, collecting biological and population data on the species. AMC trail crews relocated major hiking trails out of the plant’s prime habitat and initiated a program to educate hikers. It's all paid off. After more than 20 years of study and effort, the US Fish and Wildlife Service removed the plant from the federal Endangered Species list on Aug. 28, 2002.
“High” Schools – Explore!
It’s not all about the hike. The huts are also launch pads for learning about the rich flora and fauna outside the door. Full-time and volunteer naturalists share their knowledge of the environment, from identifying trees and plants to providing a geological timeline for the mountains’ creation.
Hut program manager and naturalist Nancy Ritger has been educating visitors for more than 25 years.
“We give them a sense and understanding that everything is connected,” she says. “Hopefully, they take that experience home and understand what is going on in their back yard.”
At the huts, laminated informational cards await those wanting to go on a short self-guided hike to learn about local plants and birds.
“We encourage people to get involved and make a difference,” she says.
A few birds you might see along the way:
Some flowers you might come across: