Fall to the Rising Sun Trip • Hiking in the Fall in the White Mountains • October 10, 2016
Before I begin, I must let you know that out of the 23 days of our fall vacation, THIS ONE was our favorite! It’s a good thing it was one of the last days, because if our vacation had started out like this, I’m not sure anything else we saw could have compared to the beauty and the events that transpired. I also had to force myself to not write this post right away when we returned. Why don’t you sit back and get comfortable, I have a feeling this will be a long one. 😉
After finishing our hike in Maine on Sunday afternoon, we had been planning on finding a free campsite somewhere in the woods for the night and driving to New Hampshire the next morning. However, I checked Google maps and saw that the free campsites where we had camped in NH last September were only just over an hour away, so we decided to head over there in favor of having the entire next day to go hiking in the Whites. Also, the whole set up/tear down camp gets really tiring when you do it over and over.
We crossed the border into NH on highway 2, and knew right away that the bikers we had met during our second stay at the Shire were definitely wrong — we did NOT miss peak colors here in New Hampshire. The mountains were absolutely stunning, with even brighter oranges and reds than we had seen in New Brunswick. We now understand why people rave about New England in the Fall, and felt so fortunate to be here right in this moment, enjoying some of the most beautiful views we had ever seen.
However, there was one thing we hadn’t accounted for that was starting to worry us: there was a TON of traffic and people all over the place — leaf peepers, of course. The trail heads and campsites we passed by were PACKED. We had assumed that since it was a Sunday night, places wouldn’t be so busy because hey, not everyone could be on a super long vacation like we were! We had completely underestimated the popularity of this area in the fall, and realized there could be a big chance that we wouldn’t be able to have one of those perfect free campsites we had enjoyed before. We drove through in a panic, praying over and over that we could get a spot. The sun was setting, making the colors on the trees appear even prettier — we wanted to stop so bad just to enjoy it, but we felt like we were in a race trying to beat both the other campers and the sun to a campsite. We went straight to the dirt road, flying down it, checking every spot as we went. Taken, taken, taken, taken… Oh praise the Lord, spot #5 was available! We breathed a sigh of relief as we pulled in and started setting up camp. If it hadn’t been available, Curtis did have a few other ideas, but they would have been way more remote and we would have been arriving in the dark, so we were very thankful for this spot!
That night, the temperatures dropped to below 30, so we put on multiple layers of clothes and Curtis shared his sleeping bag with Charlotte. Honestly, the hardest part wasn’t making it through the night, it was emerging from our warm sleeping bags the next morning! We started off the day with hot cocoa and tea, and set off at around 8 to begin a day of hiking and exploring the White Mountains.
We started off by returning to Lower Ammonoosuc Falls, a very short and easy walk that we had done in September, just to compare how different it looked in the fall. After that, we drove to Crawford Notch State Park. We arrived just before 9 and had no trouble finding a parking spot, though we did note that the area seemed busier than we had anticipated for a Monday morning. Curtis had several hiking options for the day which he presented to me. I chose the shortest hike, telling him that I didn’t want to spend the whole day outside hiking. My ideal plans for the day included one peak hike, then driving around scenic roads, seeing as many views of the mountains as possible, and visiting a few different waterfalls. Curtis was so understanding and agreed that that sounded nice, as long as he could find some letterboxes. It seemed like a smart idea, seeing as we were unable to see the peaks of many higher mountains because they were hidden in the clouds. We had really enjoyed hiking Mount Washington in a cloud, but we really wanted to be able to see the trees today! And so it was settled — we set off on the trail to Mount Willard.
This hike was everything I wanted it to be: an easy 1.5 mile walk through the colorful woods to a gorgeous vista. We saw a few other hikers on their way down as we ascended the mountain, but we had the end all to ourselves for the whole 20-30 minutes we spent up there. Curtis was able to find his letterbox, I got lots of pretty pictures of the leaves in Crawford Notch, and we were very content with this hike. We had a great view of the valley, but not so much of other higher mountains, as they were still all in clouds. I would definitely recommend it for beginner hikers wanting a great hike in the White Mountains. It wasn’t a 4000 footer like Curtis would have liked to do, but it was still very enjoyable, and we aren’t out to finish all 48 4000+ foot mountains in New Hampshire…yet. After we had enough at the top, we began our walk back.
Another group of people arrived at the top just as we were leaving. Then we passed more people. And more, and more, and more…there were many that were in big groups. After the first quarter mile on the way down, we had seen so many people that Curtis started counting…and by the end he had counted over 70 people. Counting the groups we had seen at the top, we easily saw over 100 other hikers going up as we were headed down. And they weren’t just adult hikers like ourselves, they were families with young kids and big groups. What was going on??? It’s Monday!
And then we realized…it was Columbus Day. It was a holiday — not sure why this is a holiday — but it appeared that everyone had the day off of school and work and had come here to enjoy the colors in the Whites. We got back to the parking lot and all we could see were cars — filling the entire lot, and lined up down the road as far as we could see. I knew right away that my “ideal plans” for the day were not going to be ideal for us. Any short, scenic hike or waterfall was going to be at least this busy, and parking would likely be impossible at this time — around 11 in the morning. We were fortunate to find a spot at 9 — which is usually considered late in the game for weekends and holidays up here!
We decided it would probably be best to stay where we were, and maybe do another hike nearby. Curtis went into the visitor’s center to talk to someone and get ideas. Charlotte and I hung out by the car, making sandwiches and shooing away other cars who thought they could sit and wait for us to leave. Not happening! Curtis returned with the inside scoop: the word on the trail was that the clouds that had been hovering over those higher mountains were finally starting to move away, so there was potential for some really great views. However, anything over 3600′ would supposedly have snow. Curtis was very hesitant to break the news to me about the snow, because he knows how much I dislike being cold and thought it would for sure be a deal breaker. (As evident from our hikes since this trip, snow and cold are hardly factors anymore.)
But I wasn’t turned off by the sound of snow. Immediately I started picturing what it would be like to be walking through snow, and thought of the views we could get of snow + colorful leaves down below. I jumped on the idea right away, which was a pleasant surprise for Curtis. We ate our lunch, then added some layers in preparation for another peak. It was around 11:30 — a little late to be doing another long peak hike, but with our great enthusiasm for another spontaneous hike, we were sure we could make it back before dark.
And so we began our second hike of the day — this time, we were hiking a 6.3 mile loop trail that would hit both Mount Webster and Mount Jackson. Mount Jackson is just 4052 feet above sea level, and Mount Webster is about 3910 feet. They are both in the Presidential Range of the Whites, though neither is actually named after a president. (Mount Jackson is named after state naturalist Charles Thomas Jackson, not Old Hickory.) We crossed the road and began hiking the trail to Mount Jackson. Interestingly enough, while we were constantly seeing hikers headed up on our way down from Mount Willard, here on this trail we were only seeing people heading down. As it turns out, if you’re hiking a shorter peak, people typically start later in the day, but if you’re hiking a longer, higher peak, you can expect that people are starting earlier. We somehow lucked out today without even trying!
Just like we discovered on our last trip to the Whites, the trails are generally easier and more enjoyable than ones we’ve done in the Adirondacks for some reason. Don’t get me wrong, we love love LOVE having a great big mountain range so close to us, but there is nothing like the White Mountains. The quality of the trails and the vastness of the range and views are just so hard to beat. It’s funny how just over a month before this, we had never even been to New Hampshire, and now it’s seriously one of our favorite places that we’ve visited. I would not be disappointed if we ended up living in Northern NH someday!
The trail was generally pretty gradual in ascending to the peak of Mount Jackson. We loved the change in scenery as we rose in elevation — from the deciduous trees, to pines, and as we neared the peak, we started seeing frost and then snow on the branches! Some hikers on their way down warned us to prepare for the cold that we would soon be walking into. But nothing could scare us from reaching the peak — we were starting to get little glimpses of the mountains below, and we were hungry for more! The most challenging parts of the trail were a few steep rock climbs that took a little extra thought and effort.
It was all truly worth it in the end — all we could say was WOW. Over and over again. Wow. This was undoubtedly the most beautiful view we had ever gotten from a peak hike. We had the most amazing view capturing both hints of a snowy winter and the brilliance of fall. But as much as we were astounded by the view, the harsh wind was biting at our exposed skin and we were shaking with cold. Curtis rushed to find a letterbox and I hurried around the peak, trying to get pictures of every view. My fingers were shaking and I couldn’t feel my face, but I just had to capture the moment so we would never forget this day. But don’t take my word (or pictures) for it…this is something you need to see for yourself to fully enjoy!
Curtis found the box, and we sought shelter underneath some bushes. Charlotte was smart enough to hide with us, and she enjoyed nibbling on the snow as we stamped into the logbook. Thankfully, the snow was only on the trees and not the ground, so walking around wasn’t an issue at all. We returned the letterbox, snapped a few more pictures, and began walking along the ridge between Mount Jackson and Mount Webster (which so happens to be part of the Appalachian Trail!).
The trail went down below the tree line, so we were safe from the wind as we walked along the ridge. The hike from then on was honestly very easy and we were giddy with excitement over what we were doing. Our vacation just felt complete now. We had seen beautiful things all over the NE and Atlantic Provinces of Canada, but we just knew that nothing could top this, and we would feel very content ending the vacation here.
As we walked, I thought about how none of my favorite hikes that I’ve ever done have happened on “ideal hiking days”. By that I mean, I always hope for sunny skies and comfortable temperatures. I assume that having great weather will result in the perfect, easy hike. And yet, when I think of my favorite hikes we’ve done, they were far from perfect. In fact, the forecast for these hikes was enough to make us second guess our decision to hike them. We hiked the Grand Canyon on a grey, rainy, and foggy day; Mount Humphreys with high winds; Mount Washington was completely covered in a cloud. I realized that it’s really about the adventure and the memories we make that make these hikes so special. And now, this hike on a snowy and bitter cold day would become one of my favorites as well.
We reached Mount Webster, Curtis found the letterbox and I took a lot more pictures. What made today even more special was that we had ALL 3 PEAKS to ourselves during the time we spent on each! We always enjoy being alone and taking in the beauty in silence, so this was like the cherry on top of the perfect hiking day. 🙂
We completed the loop, passing by several small waterfalls, and this time as we headed back to our car, we followed signs for two different overlooks. My favorite was the last one we visited, Elephant Head. We reached the overlook right as the sun was disappearing behind the mountains to the West, and the trees were bright in their colors just as they were the night before at sunset. Today had been nothing like we had planned, and yet everything we had wanted it to be.
So, if you’re wondering if you should visit the White Mountains in the fall, the answer is a resounding YES! We highly recommend going in the second week of October. We also recommend bringing winter gear. We weren’t quite as prepared as we should have been for that. And if you find yourself trying to hike on Columbus Day weekend…be lucky! 😉