I have a collection of vintage AMC trail guide books and maps, charting routes from Georgia to Maine. I’m no Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, but Jake and I have thumbed through the pages many times researching paths up and down the East Coast.
The White Mountains Guide is heavily earmarked by Jake, as he recounted family hikes up the Presidential Range as a kid, dutifully hauling the peanut butter and jelly supplies up steep trails. He’d described to me the rustic AMC huts that dot the ravines, offering warm bunks, thick oatmeal, and chess matches to weary hikers.
So naturally, we had to plan our own expedition to the Lakes of the Clouds AMC hut, situated between the peaks of Mount Monroe and Mount Washington. And what better time than early September, squeezed in between the final heat wave and the first frost.
Backpacks strategically loaded with the bare essentials, we drove up to New Hampshire on Friday morning. I saw the blue Presidential Range growing in the distance after a few hours, and began to wrap my head around the hill I was about to climb. Mount Washington is a big one, the highest in the Northeast, actually. And his co-patriots are no shrimps either. I got a little nervous but thought back to the time I concurred Camel’s Hump and the time I hauled up Zion and all the preparatory Berkshire hikes we’d done this summer, and figured I’d be at the top soon, one way or another.
We set off on the Jewell Trail, waving goodbye to senior citizens aboard the Mount Washington Cog Railway, chugging so, so slowly up the mountainside (I think I can, I think I can). The Jewell is an instant entry into deep, cool forest covered in moss, mushrooms, and alpine trees. It smelled like Christmas the whole way up. The route twisted and turned at a consistent grade up the west side of the mountain. The first hour was tough – this was my first serious hike shouldering a full backpack, and I was feeling the added weight. I adjusted as we made progress though, and things got easier.
About halfway to our destination, we broke through the tree line, welcomed with sweeping views. It was a clear day, the wind was thankfully light, and blue mountains faded into one another for all of eternity. We took it in while picking our way up the steep, rocky trail.
Veering right along the ridgeline, we took the Gulfside Trail over to the Crawford Path – the oldest maintained hiking trail in the country. We could see the hut as just a glimmering speck in the distance, and watched it slowly, slowly come into view and get closer.
We arrived at Lakes of the Clouds ten minutes before dinner was to be served at 6:00 sharp. We claimed our top bunks in room seven, and took our seats at the long tables as The Croo began clanging on pots and pans with their chef’s spoons; a mountaintop dinner bell. The menu was announced and large bowls of steaming food were passed happily around as the glowing sun set behind us. Chicken, cous cous, corn and peas, black bean soup and cheesy garlic bread were devoured, the clean-plate policy hardly an issue.
Reenergized, we bundled up and took a walk outside to take in the stars. The wind had picked up, but the sky was perfectly clear. The hut’s naturalist pointed out constellations, galaxies, and clusters, offering a peer through his telescope. You could see it all, and for miles.
Sufficiently exhausted, we maneuvered the bathrooms and crawled up ladders into our sleeping bags, headlamps guiding us through the dark cabin. I read some Annie Dillard and listened to the winds howl outside, having picked up to 50 mph.
Jake and I were up at dawn; neither of us had exactly had our beauty sleep that night. We bundled back up and shuffled around the cold hut, listening to a chorus of breakfast sounds coming from the kitchen. We were soon served oatmeal, nutmeg pancakes, bacon, and eggs, well-fueled for the journey back down. We’d be setting off on the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, the most popular and direct route to and from the hut.
This trail was absolutely beautiful, stimulating from beginning to end to make the time pass quickly. It brought us under tree cover almost immediately, which we were grateful for with winds still whipping. The trail follows the Ammonoosuc River, so there are no shortage of waterfalls and scenic stops along the way. It was steep though; my quads and calves were aching, but things are always a little more pleasant coming down. We cheerily greeted oncoming hikers making their way up to the hut, recommending they put on a jacket soon.
We emerged at the train station a few hours later, gazing at the slope and distant peak well behind us. Now that is a good feeling, second only to the hot shower that would soon follow.
The road back brought us luckily upon Lonesome Woods in Bethlehem, an antique and apothecary shop I’d spotted before on Instagram. We browsed their vintage backwoodsy cabin goods, and I came away with one of their handmade candles that smelled just like the piney Jewell Trail.
We burned the candle at home last night, the weather having turned like clockwork to chilly New England autumn. We rested our tired bones under layered blankets, heads still up in the clouds.