The Presidential Traverse is one of the most classic treks on the East Coast, and it draws in a large crowd yearly. The White Mountains of New Hampshire are known for having “the worst weather in America,” and the weather here is indeed unpredictable and severe. Snow can come year round, as can torrential rain and high-speed winds. Be prepared before you hike.
Hikers choose between a variety of trails to complete this hike. However, a classic Presidential Traverse includes a specific set of peaks named after U.S. Presidents: Mount Madison (5,367 feet), Mount Adams (5,774 feet), Mount Jefferson (5,712 feet), Mount Washington (6,288 feet), Mount Monroe (5,384 feet), Mount Eisenhower (4,780 feet) and Mount Pierce (4,310 feet). Other optional peaks include Mount Clay (5,533 feet), Mount Franklin (5,003 feet), Mount Jackson (4,052 feet) and Mount Webster (3,911 feet).
This guide will detail the north to south variant of the route. There are a few options for getting to the Northern Trailhead outside of Randolph. You can take the AMC Shuttle from any of its various stops (overnight parking is available with a parks pass by the AMC Highland Center) for $23 (nonmembers) or $18 (AMC members). You can also opt to use a two-car system with a friend, leaving one car at each end of the trail, or tempt fate and hitchhike back to your car.
Beginning at the Valley Way Trailhead, slog up 3.5 miles of a steep, rocky slope. The rocks are unstable, uneven, and can be treacherous when wet. This tough section winds through old-growth forest, leading you to the AMC Madison Spring Hut, nestled between Mount Madison and Mount Adams. This hut is a great place to rest, refill water, sleep and even pick up fresh-baked treats made daily by the staff. Reservations for all AMC huts must be made in advance.
From the hut you can scurry up the rocky slope of Mount Madison (get used to this, almost all of the Presidential peaks are covered in rocks with few dirt paths on the traverse) and bag your first peak. Descend, and head up to Mount Adams following the clearly-marked trail. You can do this via either the Star Lake Trail or Gulfside Trail. Both give an option for a loop to the summit of Mount Adams. Mount Adams provides possibly the best view in the White Mountains, giving a clear view of the majestic Mount Washington and surrounding peaks.
From Mount Adams, follow the Gulfside Trail to Mount Jefferson. Take the Jefferson Summit Loop and emerge with a clear view of Mount Washington and Mount Clay from an open alpine field. From here, watch the clouds roll over the edges of the col and pass through the air around you.
Continue on the Gulfside Trail to the summit of Mount Washington. It is an incredibly long grind, but don’t lose faith. The presence of a tourist road and railway can be demoralizing to hikers who have already put in thousands of steps to get to this point, but the reward of the summit must be less sweet for those who don’t fight their way up.
Refill your water and stomach at the Mount Washington visitor center, making sure to take use of their bathrooms for hikers, the cheap snack bar, and weather readings. The White Mountains are notorious for unpredictable and intense weather, and the weather station on the summit is the most accurate in the area. Take serious heed of any weather advisories that are present, as the tales of snow and thunderstorms appearing from seemingly nowhere are too true.
From the summit of Mount Washington, follow the steep Crawford Path down the side of the mountain, leading you to the AMC Lake of the Cloud Hut. This is another good spot to refill water. Continue past the hut up Mount Monroe and take in the remainder of the trail. From the summit of Mount Monroe, you can see all of the remaining peaks in your journey, as well as the path you’ll be taking to them.
Continue on the Crawford Path, the oldest maintained trail in America, for the remainder of your journey. You can choose which peaks to complete on the trip, as all are clearly marked on the trail.
If you need to refill water or stop for the night, your last option is the AMC Mitzpah Hut and Nauman Tentsite. Depart Crawford Path for the Mitzpah Trail, and hike down through the woods to the shelters. The tent site doesn’t accept reservations and can fill up on any given day. If you plan to sleep there, try to arrive early, as even at 6 p.m. on a Tuesday in late August this site could be totally full. The staff of the huts are occasionally kind to those with no place to sleep, sometimes offering a bunk or spot on the basement floor in return for washing dishes. However, do not count on this, as AT thru-hikers usually pester them with this request.
From the Mitzpah Hut, take the Mitzpah Cutoff Trail to the Crawford Path. Continue on this to Route 302, where you have parked your car.
If you plan on sleeping during the traverse, the AMC Huts exist for such a purpose. However, they can be expensive and crowded, so there are alternatives. Just 1.2 miles below Mount Jefferson, the RMC Perch Shelter includes a lean-to and tent sites for $8 a night. Past Mount Washington and down a steep ravine lays the Hermit Lake Shelter. You can sleep here for $15 a night. Further along is the Dry River Shelter 3, a remote lean-to with no water or toilets. All shelters are helpful in tackling this long hike, though it can also be done in a very long day.