The White Mountains of New Hampshire have something for every snowshoe enthusiast.
The adventurous can explore the summits of the Presidential Range, which is every bit as challenging as many remote Western mountains.
The region also has moderately strenuous trails, easy walks, some of the swankiest resorts in New England, uncrowded state parks and plenty of diversions if you want a brief break from snowshoeing.
The best and worst part of the region is the weather. Northern New Hampshire has some of the most reliable winter snowcover in the East. Only northern and western Maine has as long and as deep a snow season.
The White Mountains are notoriously stormy, however. Until recently, the record for the highest wind speed record on earth was 231 mph, at the summit of Mount Washington. Conditions change on a dime. Sudden squalls, gales, swooning temperature plunges to 30 below or lower, and the odd rainy winter thaw are all de rigueur in northern New Hampshire.
Taking it Easy
Luckily, the mid-January morning I arrived in Littleton, N.H. to pick up my snowshoeing companion Ellen was the most perfect winter day of the year. Dawn brought subzero cold, but under a deep blue sky, temperatures were rocketing up toward 30 degrees. Uncharacteristically for northern New Hampshire, there was no wind.
It was perfect underfoot, too. A brief thaw early in the week created a firm base, and a week of light snowfalls dusted everything with about six inches of powder. You almost didn’t need snowshoes.
We opted for some leisurely, easy tours, all the better for two old friends to catch up with each other. A short pleasant jaunt in Franconia Notch deep in the valley near Cannon Mountain ended when my ancient snowshoes broke. After a trip to Lahout’s Country Clothing & Ski Shop for new snowshoes, and we were on our way to Weeks State Park.
The park rewards day-trippers with an easy trail that reaches a low summit with surprisingly expansive views in all directions. The trail was cluttered with a lot of snowmobiles, but for those who want to escape the cacophony, it is easy to veer off and bushwhack up the hill.
Weeks is perfect for the snowshoer who is new to the sport, or somebody in a hurry who wants a quick workout up a hill. From the perch atop the hill, the entire Presidential Range spreads out before hikers as they look to the south.
The Lap of Luxury
Ellen and I had more options than anyone could manage in a weekend. For the people who want pampering, the region has plenty of cushy hotels and inns.
The most famous of all is probably the Mount Washington Hotel, one of the grand old resorts in the White Mountains. The resort, with snowshoeing opportunities on its property, is a good base of operation for a snowshoeing vacation in northern New Hampshire, especially if you want to be pampered.
Another destination, the Franconia Inn, in Franconia, N.H. has about 30 kilometers of trails that are increasingly popular with guests. The trails have some of the best views of the Mount Washington valley in the region. The inn also has a variety of winter packages for tourists, starting at $179 per person.
The Presidential Range is probably the most challenging terrain on the East Coast. Especially for those going above the tree line, you’d better know what you are doing. Every winter, New Hampshire Fish and Game officials and law enforcement must set out in the worst weather imaginable to rescue unprepared, clueless snowshoers. And if your actions are especially stupid, the state will charge you thousands of dollars for the rescue.
The biggest mistakes people make are underestimating how fast weather can change in the White Mountains and how quickly darkness can fall in the winter, said Matthew Schomburg, a wilderness and back country ranger with the White Mountains National Forest. He said people also try relying on cell phones to seek help, which is a no-no in northern New Hampshire because cell coverage is spotty.
Schomberg said his favorite place to snowshoe in the Whites is anywhere above treeline. Yes, the winter is harsh up there, he said, but the workout and the views are worth it.
To prepare yourself for such trips, the best place to start is www.hikesafe.com, which was set up by several New Hampshire organizations as a one-stop shop for tips on preparing for a White Mountains jaunt.
That said, snowshoeing in the Whites is getting increasingly popular, said Rob Burbank, the public affairs director for the Appalachian Mountain Club’s New Hampshire chapter. He doesn’t necessarily stick to the trails. “Any patch of snow can be your playground when you have snowshoes,” Burbank said.
He just cautions that you’d better know how to use a map and compass. The AMC offers lessons on that, he said, in addition to guided tours.
Check the AMC of New Hampshire’s Web site, as the group lists several guided snowshoe hikes of varying difficulty for the rest of the winter.
If pressed to name a favorite snowshoe trail, Burbank picks a path leading to Carter Notch Hut. To get there, park at a trailhead on Route 16, a mile north of the Mount Washington Auto Road. Take the Nineteen Mile Brook trail for 3.8 miles to the Carter Notch hut, at an elevation of 3,288 feet. From there, Burbank said, you can go off in a variety of directions.
For more hiking suggestions in the White Mountains area, a good resource is www.hikethewhites.com.