Stay at a cabin in the clouds — without paying sky-high prices

IF YOU STAND at the edge of King Ravine at dusk, you can see, some 3,000 feet below in the valley, the twinkling lights of Gorham and, farther away, of Berlin. As you gaze across the massive U-shaped ravine, with its steep sides of sheer rock faces and rock slides and short trees, you can hear the steady wind as it blows gently through the stunted and twisted alpine conifers.

This White Mountain vista is one of the priceless views you are treated to when you stay at one of the many cabins that dot wilderness areas across the state. The Appalachian Mountain Club offers a famous series of huts for hikers which allow such views and provide a few creature comforts as well, but the costs for a night’s stay (around $80) is not that different from a nice hotel with cable and a mini-bar.

For the more budget-minded, four organizations in the state offer hikers and backpackers six low-cost backcountry cabins for overnight accommodations. The cabins are useful because they offer convenience (you don’t have to carry in or set up a tent), shelter (from the elements and insects) and warmth. The cabins also allow day hikers to experience backpacking with some physical ease and comfort, and no undue strain on the pocketbook.

Hiking trails to each cabin are of varying degrees of difficulty. John Rand Cabin is the easiest to reach. Sitting at the base of Mount Moosilauke, the cabin is an easy half-mile hike from the trailhead. In addition to the cabins, several organizations provide additional hiking trails in the vicinity, ranging from easy to difficult. The cabin is owned by Dartmouth College, so the public must make reservations three weeks in advance. Unlike the other cabins, which have individual bunks, John Rand Cabin has wide wooden, mattress-covered platform bunks.

The Appalachian Mountain Club does offer one low-cost backcountry cabin, Carter Notch Hut. The trail to Carter Notch Hut is moderately difficult; trails to nearby peaks are steep and rugged. Although it provides a wilderness experience, Carter Notch Hut offers some amenities. Aside from cooking and eating utensils, the cabin has a small library with games, magazines and books.

For example, while your children are playing “Oh Wilderness: the Game of Backcountry Lore,” you can immerse yourself in George Coffin’s “Twenty Common Mushrooms And How to Cook Them.”

Trails to each of the U.S. Forest Service cabins, Black Mountain Cabin and Doublehead Cabin, are of moderate difficulty. Each of the cabins sits near the top of a low mountain and has few nearby hiking trails. Unlike all the other cabins, the bunks at the two Forest Service cabins do not have mattresses. The climb to the Randolph Mountain Club (RMC) cabins, Crag Camp and Gray Knob, is very strenuous; trails nearby are similarly rugged. Reservations are not taken for the two cabins, and use is on a firstcome, first-serve basis.

These RMC cabins may well be the best-kept secret in the White Mountains, because they provide access to the peaks of the northern Presidential Range for a fraction of what most Appalachian Mountain Club huts charge. Although the cabins are inexpensive, the organization does impose some restrictions; a twonight limit is one. Be aware, the RMC cabins are quite heavily used on holiday weekends.

The best, and safest, way to access each cabin is to purchase a topographic trail map. While it is not necessary to purchase a hiking guidebook to reach the cabins, if you want to do additional hiking in the area, you might consider buying one. Corresponding maps and guidebooks are listed on the next page.

When hiking in the White Mountain National Forest, you must purchase a trail pass unless you park on private or state lands. The trailhead to the Carter Notch Hut lies on National Forest land. Passes cost $5 for seven-day passes or $20 for one-year passes. Passes may be purchased at trailheads or via mail. Call (603) 466-2713 for more information.