Wouldn’t it be nice to strap on a pair of snowshoes and escape deep into the snowy backwoods knowing that you have a warm place to eat and a soft place to rest your head? In New Hampshire’s nearly 800,000-acre White Mountain National Forest there is a network of eight backcountry huts offering just that.
The Huts are owned operated through special-use permit by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) and are situated along a 56-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail. The huts are spaced roughly a days-hike apart with the highest and most visited being the aptly named Lakes of the Clouds Hut at an elevation of 5,012 feet. There is a fee covering room and board and reservations are highly recommended.
While you might not mistake this for glamping, these wilderness retreats are equipped with working stoves, kitchen cookware and utensils, and composting toilets. The great rooms have wood fires, casual seating and are stocked with fun and educational materials. The co-ed, bunk-style sleeping rooms are fitted with foam mattresses but have no heat or electricity.
Raetha Stoddard of Freedom, New Hampshire, says that snowshoeing to the huts is like coming upon a little village after long travel. “It’s a magical experience,” she says. She has been educating adults and children about the outdoors for more than two decades and currently works at the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation. She loves winter getaways to the backcountry. “In the winter you can see further in the woods; you can see the depth of how ‘out there’ you are,” Stoddard says.
Only three huts are open during snowshoe, or as it is called, the “self-service” season. Guests still need to reserve their spot through the AMC. For thru-hikers there are limited work-for-stay options. Actual bunks are selected on a first-come, first-served basis. Guests get full use of the kitchen, access to sanitized water and outhouses. But they need to bring their own food and temperature-rated bedding. There is one caretaker who lights a fire in the evening in the main lodge.
Winter is a special time in the White Mountains. Clear skies are crisp blue and the earth is evergreen and crystal. It’s a great time to explore nature says AMC’s Senior Interpretive Naturalist Nicky Pizzo. “What I love in winter is that you have a blanket of snow. You can follow tracks and try to figure out what the animal was doing. Even though it’s winter, there is a lot of life in the forest,” she says. With the shorter days it’s also prime time for studying the night sky and nocturnal animals. “Owls call and mate. It is pretty active,” says Pizzo.
Lonesome Lake Hut
Choosing a winter escape will depend on your fitness level. “The White Mountains can be pretty intense,” says Stoddard. She recommends Lonesome Lake Hut. It’s a favorite among first-timers and families alike, but it can also serve as a base for the more adventurous traveler. The 1.6-mile trail starts at Lafayette Place Campground in Franconia Notch State Park and is moderately steep. The lake itself sits in a basin under two 4,000-foot peaks. It’s the scenery that people remember. “Standing at Lonesome Lake, you can see across to Franconia Ridge and that view is amazing,” says Pizzo.
The Lonesome Lake Hut sits just across the lake which, when frozen, provides direct access for snowshoers coming off the trail. In addition, there are detached bunkhouses that sleep 48.
Zealand Falls Hut in Zealand Notch
Zealand Falls is also a popular destination for skiers and snowshoers alike. The Zealand trail is considered a fairly easy 2.8-mile trek. But in winter the road leading to the trailhead is closed and parking is further away. People tend to ski in says Pizzo. The Hut is unique in that the bunkrooms are within the hut, sleeping a total of 36.
While Zealand Mountain’s summit is treed-in and viewless, trekkers are drawn to nearby Zeacliff which overlooks the beautiful Pemigewasset Wilderness. Snowshoers and winter adventurers beware: the high wind and low temperatures of this mountain are compared to those of Antarctica. As always the AMC advises you to check the weather and be prepared, or join a group tour with an experienced guide.
As you would expect, staying at the huts is an off-the-grid experience. Solar power and small wind generators supply energy for emergency equipment and lighting in the common areas. There are no working plugs and headlamps are recommended for getting around at night. There are no towels or napkins, minimizing waste. And there is a carry-in, carry-out policy.
The third hut that is open in the winter is “Cozy Carter.” The second hut built, Carter Notch Hut at Wildcat Mountain recently celebrated its centennial. It sits just 1.2 miles from the 4,832-foot Carter Dome, which is known for its dramatic views of Mount Washington and the Presidential Range.
It’s a 3.8-mile moderate trek up to the hut. It gets steep and rocky toward the top. For that reason, many prefer the trip to Carter in winter on snowshoes.
At 3,288 feet, Carter is surrounded by mountains and enclosed by the White Mountain’s spruce and balsam fir covered boreal forest. “It gives you a sense of just being tucked in,” Pizzo says explaining Carter’s “cozy” nickname. The hut is made of locally-sourced stone and the two detached bunkhouses sleep 40.
The AMC estimates that they get more than 40,000 overnight stays per year with full capacity during peak seasons. Yet, says Stoddard, there is something singular about these backcountry experiences. “You are just one of a very few people in the whole world that get off the main road and into the woods and you feel really good about that,” she says.
The Self-Service Season Scoop:
- AMC-member rates (2015): $27 per person midweek; $40 Saturday, plus tax
- Non-member rates (2015): $33 midweek; $49 Saturday, plus tax
- Food is not provided
- Bunkrooms are co-ed and all ages
- Bunkrooms are not heated or lit
- Bedding is not provided
- Carry In/Carry Out
- Pick bunks when you arrive
- Sign up for your shift to cook your meal
- No running water (water is carried in, boiled and available for cooking, cleaning and refilling bottles.)
For more information check out these handy sites:
- Hikesafe.com: http://www.hikesafe.com
- AMC Backcountry Weather and Trail Conditions: http://www.outdoors.org/recreation/tripplanner/go/backcountry-weather.cfm#NH
- White Mountain National Forest: http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/whitemountain/home
- AMC Huts: http://www.outdoors.org/lodging/huts/