Friday morning, Columbus Day weekend. Our rendezvous: Polly's Pancake Parlor, outside Franconia, New Hampshire. The 1830's woodshed is hopping with leaf peepers in cardigans and locals in jeans and flannel, not to mention backpackers like us in Gore-Tex and ripstop nylon. My 13-year-old, Ian, and I have just flown in from Cleveland, and my brother-in-law Ted and his 12-year-old, Asa, drove up from New York. We're here for three days of hut hiking in the White Mountains—something I've wanted to do since I was a boy. Ted and I have each tackled a few peaks, and the boys have gone on afternoon outings, but this is their first overnight adventure. As the four of us stoke up on flapjacks, we gaze out the windows at the miles of fiery sugar maples we're about to invade.
The White Mountains are certainly not the country's tallest—the highest point, Mount Washington, is a mere 6,288 feet—but the area is known for sudden storms and steep boulder-strewn paths. The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), the oldest nonprofit conservation and recreation group in the United States, has built eight cabins, each a day's hike apart, along a 56-mile route. The accommodations offer succor—for those willing to walk.
We arrive at the Gale River trailhead by car and finish jamming jackets, socks, headlamps, water, and lunch provisions into our daypacks. The AMC huts have bunks with mattresses, blankets, and pillows, plus keepers who provide breakfast and dinner, so we're able to travel lightly. Ian and Asa both say their packs are nothing compared to the book bags they lug to school.
Hut system notwithstanding, the AMC does not mollycoddle its hikers. Trails are well marked, but before going two miles we come to our first stream crossing. Actually, we only suspect that's what it is—there are no signs, no rustic bridge, no carefully placed rocks from which to jump one to the next. The trail simply ends on our side of the rushing icy water and continues on the other. Ted, Asa, and Ian bushwhack upstream in hope of an easier passage. But after seeing Ted and Asa plunge in up to their waists—and Ian strip to his boxers—I take my chances. Eureka! We regroup on the other side, colder, damper, and thrilled to have met our first challenge.
Some hikers tend to be goal-oriented—nose down, don't dally. My style exactly. Twelve-year-olds care less about reaching the destination than about having fun along the way, which is actually not a bad way to live. As we climb through stands of mountain ash, the trees' berries provide irresistible ammunition for Ian and Asa, who pelt each other until their T-shirts are freckled with crimson.
When we reach the Galehead Hut—a large cedar-shake house with a broad front porch and coed rooms with quadruple-decker bunks—we're greeted by the staff. College-age and outdoorsy, they hike out twice weekly to bring food up to the hut. In between, the crew cooks carb-rich meals (shepherd's pie, salad, cornbread, and "magic bars" concocted from melted chocolate, oats, and marshmallow), maintains the building—and entertains guests. The next morning two spandex-clad women lead us in a humorous mock exercise class designed to convey the duties of guests prior to departure: One, fold blankets; two, pack out trash; and three, tip the staff.
It's 30 degrees and clear as we begin our eight-mile march to the Greenleaf Hut, on the Garfield Ridge Trail, which is part of the Appalachian Trail. Soon we find ourselves in a fairy-tale forest: spongy moss carpets the ground, and streams cascade by in miniature waterfalls. We climb dripping granite boulders to the top of Mount Garfield. Our reward: string cheese, apples, and the ultimate views of the fall plumage.
In the afternoon we emerge above the tree line. Lichen and dwarf trees dot the rock pitch, battling to survive in this exposed environment. Ian and Asa scamper off-trail to peek over the edge and are reprimanded for treading on delicate flora by a hiker sporting a gray Abe Lincoln beard and tartan tam-o'-shanter. The boys dub him Count Olaf but are careful from then on.
After two days of near solitude on the trail we're surprised to come upon droves of leaf peepers at the top of Mount Lafayette. Four miles from busy Route 93, Lafayette is one of the most accessible peaks in the Whites, and this weekend is a three-day holiday not only in the United States but in nearby Canada (it's their Thanksgiving). We're relieved when the interlopers scurry off the mountain before sunset, leaving 48 of us to our hut and full moon.
On the final trail down, Ted and I stop at a ledge overlooking the granite face of Franconia Notch while Asa and Ian take the last two miles at a breakneck pace. It seems fitting that we pick a spot with a view of the remains of the Old Man of the Mountain—a rocky outcropping that crumbled in 2003—to rest our aging knees. It took me five decades to get here, but we'll be back. ✚
Jon Adams is an entrepreneur and a competitive Nordic skier.