*Note: Get a cup of coffee or a glass of your favorite beverage and settle in. This was a three day adventure!*
My husband and I had discussed the possibility of a Presidential Traverse last winter and once he knew his vacation and summer schedule, we booked the trip with stays in Madison Spring and Lakes of the Clouds Huts. We’re glad we booked the huts back in January as they filled up pretty quickly for the holiday weekend. The plan was to do the traverse in three days, giving us plenty of time to enjoy the hike, take pictures, hang out on summits, etc. A few days before the trip, my husband asked if we could somehow include Isolation, since we both needed it for the list. I said it was possible and would have to look at the map, but we’d have to give up Eisenhower, Pierce and Jackson. Giving up those three summits wasn’t a problem since we’d been to them multiple times, and a quick check of the map showed it was possible, although a long third day.
With a plan in place, we packed up on Friday and early Saturday morning headed out to the Highland Center to leave the car and catch the shuttle up to Appalachia and the Valley Way trail head. Leaving the car at the end of the hike was a good idea, as we wouldn’t have to race the clock to get back to a shuttle stop and risk missing the shuttle. With the long third day we had planned, this seemed like the best plan and it ended up being the right one.
We went up Valley Way, headed to our stop for the night, the newly rebuilt Madison Hut. The trip up was nice, the grade was moderate getting a little steeper higher up, but steady, rising up 4,000 feet from the trail head to the hut. We arrived at the hut in less than three hours, with nothing really exciting other than the hike itself until we popped out of the scrub very near the hut. It was then that a hut croo member shouted at us to stay where we were, as a helicopter was coming up the valley. We watched as the helicopter came up the valley, circled a few times and then landed at a very small open space behind some trees at the hut. It was from Dartmouth’s medical center and although we don’t know the full story, we guessed someone needed medical attention more quickly than a litter carry down the valley would provide.
We checked in at the hut, claimed some bunks and then were off to hike the remainder of the way up to Mt. Madison. It was much easier to hike and negotiate the rocks without the packs! The summit is only half a mile from the hut, and soon enough we were at the summit of Madison. After enjoying the summit, and not enjoying the few lingering black flies, we went back down and out to visit Star Lake and explore that area.
After dinner, we headed back out to hike partway up Mt. Adams to see what we could of the sunset. There were clouds coming in, so we didn’t get a really spectacular sunset, but a nice one nonetheless. We also saw a moose, part way up the side of John Quincy Adams. It looked like a young moose and seemed a bit out of place in that terrain, but the hut naturalist had seen it around the day before, too.
The newly rebuilt Madison Hut is really nice, with the bunk rooms being nicest of the huts I’ve stayed at. The four high stacks of bunks are gone, and the ladders actually have treads instead of rungs to get to the third bunk. There are many, many, hooks to hang clothing and gear – we must have had about 10 hooks each, plus there are cargo nets under the bunks for the bunk below for storage. Each bunk also has a tiny reading light which was unexpected and really nice!
After breakfast and hearing the weather report, we geared up and headed out. Today’s hike was from Madison Hut to Lakes of the Clouds Hut, going over Adams, Jefferson, Clay and Washington along the way. Unfortunately, the weather was not promising, as it was supposed to rain with a possibility of thunderstorms. With that in mind, we set off towards Adams via the Great Gulf trail. We reached the summit, ate chocolate, took a few pictures and moved on.
We tried to move along quickly, as we wanted to be closer to Lakes, rather than further before the rain started. As luck would have it, we were about a half mile from the summit of Jefferson when the rain started. We quickly put on full rain gear – jackets, pants and accessories. Off we went for a very quick summit of Jefferson and a snack – my husband needed this summit, I had already been there last September via the Caps Ridge Trail with my son.
On the way to Clay, we decided not to go over the summit, but around it, as this summit was not on the 4,000 footer list. Between the wind and rain, all we wanted to do was get to the summit of Washington and out of the weather for a bit. We, of course, were on the most exposed side of the mountains as the weather was coming from the west, so we continued up wet and sometimes slick rocks making steady progress toward the summit. Getting closer to the summit, the Cog tracks came into view and we saw the Cog coming down, with a partial load of summit visitors. They waved to us and we waved back and had to wonder who was the attraction: the crazy hikers in the rain or the contained car load of Cog passengers? We arrived at the summit and left all our stuff in the downstairs pack room and went up to find something hot to eat, besides the snack food we had with us. We ended up eating pizza and a turkey sandwich, but we were relatively dry and out of the weather for a while. The rain gear did well and we were only damp a little because of sweating inside of it. After a nice rest, we realized the hut was not getting closer and we wanted to summit Monroe that day too so we packed up and headed down the Crawford Path. Monroe was another peak that my husband needed but I didn’t, having been there two times, both with my son.
Soon we arrived at the hut, got some bunks, dropped our packs and headed right back out. No point in getting settled and then going back out later. We hiked up in rain and wind, and by the time we got to the summit, the fog had rolled in. Not the best summit weather, but it does count as a summit! It stopped raining by the time we got back down the hut, but we were done for the day and able to finally change into warm and cozy clothes. By this point the rain gear was just starting to fail in places, and that was fine. Our gear got us through a lot of hours of wind and rain while we stayed comfortable. We were happy to have invested the money into it, and after seeing other hikers less prepared for the weather, we were even more glad we bought full gear, plus accessories. While the hut was warm and dry, the weather did not improve and there were no views to speak of for dinner or the sunset, just fog. That was fine, we were inside and enjoying a good dinner, and would be ready to finish our trip the next day.
The next morning, the weather was much better – sunshine, clear skies and only a chance of rain in the afternoon. This was great news, since our planned hike to Mt. Isolation was over 13 miles from the hut to our car a the Highland Center on Rt. 302. We set off and took the Camel Trail to the Davis Path, which we would follow all the way to the spur trail to the summit of Isolation. I had never been this way before and it was a beautiful morning with great views of Washington and the Southern Presidentials.
We headed back to the tree line and eventually we were back in the forest, just following the trail. It was such a contrast to the rocky trail and cairns of the Northern Presidentials! Soon enough, we came to both junctions of the Isolation Trail along the Davis path, noting the junctions for the return trip. Passing mud pits and rotting bog bridges, we came to the spur trail. It wasn’t marked as a spur trail to Isolation’s summit, but had other signage for the Davis Path. Between the map and altimeter, we guessed this was the place and headed up the last little bit to summit. We found the highest cairn and the USGS marker – we were relieved to be in the right place!
After a good break and enjoying the views, it was time for the over 8 mile hike out to the car for which we set a goal of arriving at 6:00p, about 6 hours from leaving the summit. This part was not exactly what we were looking forward to, especially since my husband had read in the guidebook the previous night that the west branch of the Isolation trail was lightly used.
The guidebook did not lie. This portion of the trail is just that, lightly used and lightly maintained. I do understand the difficulty in maintaining this trail – since it sees so little use and is literally in the middle of no where, it isn’t easy to get to and not high on the USFS’s list of things to fix. It would probably take camping out and quite a few days of work to improve the trail and it still wouldn’t attract a great amount of hikers. It is used; we saw prints in the mud all the way across the trail, but not many people had been that way. We eventually were able to pick up the Dry River Trail and the Dry River Cut Off and with enough patience made it to Mizpah Hut for water, a good break and a snack. It was about time, too. We were very happy to leave the many, many, blowdowns, mudpits and general overgrowth behind us. We made fairly decent time, although a little slower than we’d planned in some sections due to the trail conditions.
We left Mizpah around 4:30p feeling better and ready to get to the car, still having a goal of 6:00p. Down the Mizpah Cut-Off and the Crawford Path we went, urged on by the biting insects and the feeling that this long day would be over soon. We passed Gibbs Falls and quickly came to the Crawford Connector, and then to Rt. 302. Just across the street was the car, conveniently parked as close to the staircase as possible. Boy were we happy to see the car! A quick check of the watch: 5:58p. We made it!
What a great ending to a great trip! We covered a lot terrain, bagged new peaks, experienced all sorts of weather, met new people and had a wonderful time out in mountains. Even the parts that weren’t so great – the rainy day on the Northern Presidentials and the rough trails on the way out from Isolation – were all part of the experience and made the trip what it was. My husband is now up to the 29 peaks, adding Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Monroe and Isolation to his list. I added Madison, Adams and Isolation to my list, leaving me with just two go.