If your daily path is an exhaust-sucking, construction-dodging trial, then it's time to get off the pavement and get lost in the woods. There's nothing like a good climb to replenish your lungs with oxygen-rich air. Use common sense and stick to the appropriate level of difficulty, and you'll make it back to your car rejuvenated. If you haven't climbed a mountain since the Red Sox were in the World Series, don't start with Katahdin. Even the hikes listed below as easy will challenge anyone who hasn't strolled uphill in a while. But once you reach the top, covered in sweat and surrounded by pines, it all becomes worthwhile.
Monument Mountain, Great Barrington, Massachusetts
It was August 5, 1850, when writers Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville met for the first time on a hike up Monument Mountain. Along with Oliver Wendell Holmes, they brought a wagon loaded with a picnic and Champagne to keep the conversation lively. But it rained that day, and the party took to shelter and drink in a recess on the west side of the mountain. The friendship Hawthorne and Melville developed here would become one of the most significant in American letters.
The hike up Monument is one of the easiest in the Berkshires, a gradual climb on a well-trodden path. In less than 45 minutes, you're on Squaw Peak, where legend has it a young Indian plunged to her death to appease the gods. [Easy. 11/2 to 2 hours. The parking lot is located on the left side of Route 7, exactly 3.6 miles north of the Route 23 junction in Great Barrington.]
Falling Waters Trail/Franconia Ridge/Old Bridle Path loop, Franconia Notch State Park, New Hampshire
The strenuous climb up Mount Lafayette is worthy of all the accolades hikers bestow upon it. With tumbling waterfalls, a steep ascent to three of the highest peaks in New England, and a 1.7-mile ridge walk where the spruce-studded White Mountains stand below, this could be the finest day hike in New England.
Turn into the woods from the parking lot and the sound of I-93 traffic is quickly replaced by the burble of a stream that keeps you company for a mile and a half. Three perfect falls swirl over boulders to pools of water the color of gin, the ideal stop for a breather. You'll need your energy to scale Little Haystack Mountain and the start of the Franconia Ridge Trail. Part of the Appalachian Trail, this path above the tree line offers a stunning panorama of New England's highest summits, including Mount Washington. Bag 5,089-foot Mount Lincoln and 5,249-foot Mount Lafayette before taking the Greenleaf Trail down to the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) Greenleaf Hut Â— a deep-woods convenience store great for lemonade refills. [Strenuous. 6 to 8 hours. From Woodstock, New Hampshire, take I-93 North to the Falling Waters/Bridle Path parking lot.]
Mount Willard, Crawford Notch, New Hampshire
If the thought of climbing a mountain has you sweating before you even step out of your car, give 2,804-foot Willard a try.
The hike begins behind the Crawford Notch Depot Visitor Center, starting off sharply but becoming more gradual as you crisscross through a forest of dense pines. Eventually, sunshine seeps into the woods, and you'll reach a large opening Â— the light at the end of the tunnel. Look down from the rocky ledge at the old railroad line carved into the mountainside. Then pat yourself on the back for climbing a White. [Easy. 1 to 2 hours. From North Conway, take Route 16 North to U.S. 302 West up through Crawford Notch. Park at the visitor center just next to the AMC hut.]
Welch/Dickey Mountain Trail, Waterville Valley, New Hampshire
The short summits of Welch and Dickey mountains offer such grand vistas that it's not uncommon to find wedding parties at the peaks. Which is not to say this 4.5-mile loop is easy.
From the parking lot, the trail enters a forest of beeches, maples, and oaks before turning sharply to the right to reach the southern ridge of Welch Mountain. A little over a mile later, you're on an exposed ledge, looking down at sylvan Waterville Valley. Unfortunately, this is not the top. The summit is another 0.7 miles up, through boulders and twisted jack pines stunted by their exposure to harsh winters. The 2,591-foot peak is a good place to have lunch. Then proceed to the summit of Dickey Mountain (2,734 feet). [Moderate. 3 hours. Take Exit 28 off I-93 and go east on Route 49 toward Waterville Valley. Turn left approximately 6 miles later, crossing a bridge and following Upper Mad River Road for 0.7 miles. At Orris Road, turn right and go 0.6 miles to the parking lot.]
Mount Pisgah, West Burke, Vermont
Arriving at Lake Willoughby from the south, you come upon Mount Hor and Mount Pisgah. Here, rock cliffs rise 1,000 feet to face each other above the deep-blue glacial waters. The scenery becomes even more enchanting as you twist your way to the 2,751-foot summit of Mount Pisgah.
The trail starts easily on switchbacks. Halfway up, take a detour to the left to stand on Pulpit Rock. This small ledge juts out of Mount Pisgah like a box seat at the Shubert. The arduous trail continues upward in a spiral fashion. On a clear day, you should be able to spot the spine of the White Mountains. [Moderate. 3 hours. From West Burke, take State Route 5A North for 6 miles to a parking area on the left side, just south of Lake Willoughby. The South Trail begins across the highway.]
Waterbury Trail, Mount Hunger, Waterbury, Vermont
Mount Hunger is a local favorite. Once you make it to the 3,539-foot summit, you'll understand why. The backbone of the Greens stands before you, including those famous ski areas, Killington and Stowe.
Like most of Vermont's trails, the climb starts from the first step, a steady uphill walk that becomes steep at some stretches. Eventually, the beeches, yellow birches, and maples give way to spruces and balsam firs and then to bare rocks at the mountain's top. Mount Mansfield's chin, nose, and other features are visible to the east; Waterbury Reservoir sits in the valley below, fringed by White Rock, Hunger's neighbor. Unlike Camel's Hump, Mount Mansfield, and the other popular peaks in the Green Mountains, Hunger is a place where you can savor this view all by your lonesome. [Moderate. 4 hours. From Waterbury, follow State Route 100 North to Waterbury Center. Turn right on Barnes Hill Road, left onto Maple Street, and right onto Loomis Hill Road. Bear left atop the hill as the road turns to dirt. Park 3.7 miles from the junction of Maple Street on the right-hand side of the road.]
Maiden Cliff, Camden, Maine
Maine's midcoast mountains reward hikers with views of the Atlantic, picturesque harbors, and three-masted schooners sailing on open waters Â— all for an hour or two of effort.
The Maiden Cliff Trail strolls through hemlocks until it comes to a junction at the half-mile mark. Turn right onto Ridge Trail, and the ledges open up onto Megunticook Lake. The view only gets better when you turn left at the Scenic Trail and continue to the summit. Follow the white blazes, and you'll find a huge, white cross. This marks the spot where 11-year-old Elenora French plunged to her death on May 7, 1864. She was running to catch her hat. It might be the fastest way down, but it's not recommended. [Easy. 2 hours. From Camden, take Route 52 West 3 miles from the intersection of Route 1. There will be a small parking area on the right-hand side of the road just before Route 52 borders the lake.]
Acadia Mountain, Mount Desert Island, Maine
A mere 681 feet high, the short peak of Acadia Mountain overlooks much of Acadia National Park. The trail is situated on the island's far less congested western side, where you'll rarely see more than a handful of climbers, even in midsummer. The path curves slowly through copses of birches before crossing an abandoned road and heading up. From your perch, the Cranberry Islands look like peas in a pod, and you can see the many yachts anchored in Southwest Harbor. That sight pales in comparison to Norumbega Mountain, which slopes sharply into Somes Sound, the only fjord in New England. [Easy. 1 to 2 hours. The trailhead is located 3 miles south of Somesville on Route 102. Park at the small lot where the Acadia Mountain sign is clearly visible. The path is located across Route 102.]
Mount Katahdin, Baxter State Park, Maine
Katahdin is a fitting northern end to the Appalachian Trail. Reaching the 5,268-foot summit is a challenge to the most experienced climber. Yet it's a disappointment that the Appalachian Trail ascends Katahdin from the Hunt Trail, the easiest route to the peak. Opt instead for the Knife Edge. As the name implies, this 3-feet- to 1-foot-wide granite sidewalk sharply drops off more than 1,500 feet on either side.
The best way to reach the Knife Edge is along the Helon Taylor Trail. All the ascents here are a struggle. You start at about 1,500 feet and don't stop until you run out of mountain. When the Helon Taylor Trail hits Pamola Peak, bear left to find the Knife Edge Trail. You'll ascend South Peak, then Baxter Peak, the summit of Katahdin. Rest those rubbery legs and take in the endless vista of northern Maine.
As you gloat, just remember that Henry David Thoreau climbed Katahdin without a trail. “It was vast, titanic, such as man never inhabits,” Thoreau noted in The Maine Woods. “Some part of the beholder, even some vital part, seems to escape through the loose grating of his ribs as he ascends.” [Strenuous. 8 to 10 hours. The trailhead is located at the Roaring Brook Campground, 8 miles north of the Togue Pond Gatehouse in Baxter State Park. Arrive by 6:30 a.m.; once the parking lot fills up, hikers are turned away.]
Snow in June. Avalanches. Record-high winds. Before you climb the Whites, brace for the unexpected.
There was no thunderous boom Â— just a slight hissing sound. Four feet apart at the base of Tuckerman Ravine, the valley-like bowl on the southeast shoulder of Mount Washington, Richard Doucette of Watertown and his climbing partner, Scott Sandberg of Arlington, were about to attach themselves to the same rope when an avalanche plummeted down the steep, icy crest of the ravine and created a fresh, new carpet of snow about 100 yards long and 20 yards wide.
In an instant, Doucette was thrown to the ground, his fall stopped only by a rocky crest in front of him.
“I looked downslope and saw a hand waving,” says Doucette. “So I ran over and dug this person out. It was somebody I didn't know. Then I saw another hand, and I ran to him. Again, it was someone I didn't know.”
Doucette would find Sandberg five minutes later, unconscious under the huge pile of debris, still clinging to the climbing rope. Sandberg died not from suffocation but from head and neck injuries caused by the swath of snow and ice that had tossed him the length of a football field. Along with Thomas Burke, 46, of Springfield, New Hampshire, who also perished last November 29, he became the latest victim of the deadliest mountain in America.
Walk into the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center at the base of Mount Washington, New England's highest peak, and an interpretive display tallies the number of people who have been killed in the Presidential Range. The current total: 137. Most telling about these deaths is that many were seasoned climbers.
Less than half the size of the Rocky Mountains, the White Mountains are often underestimated. The glacier that retreated 10,000-plus years ago to form them left in a hurry, without smoothing the edges. Narrow and steep mountainous passes, called notches, cut sharply through walls of unforgiving granite. Gorges plummet to the forest floor; cliffs in the Presidential Range protrude from bare summits almost 6,000 feet high. Climbing in these environs can be an unrelenting uphill battle against rock that doesn't give an inch.
Above the tree line, where many of the trails meander, the weather can become severe. The highest recorded wind surface speed on earth, 231 miles per hour, occurred atop Mount Washington on April 12, 1934. Every year, search-and-rescue squads have to save at least 100 people in the Whites who fail to understand the vast difference in weather between the parking lot and the summit.
“Name a month where it did not snow in the Whites,” former WBUR anchor Ted O'Brien says cheerfully. “None.”
O'Brien has good reason to be cheerful: He's alive. On Labor Day weekend two years ago, O'Brien said goodbye to his wife at his townhouse outside North Conway, leaving her a map to show exactly where to pick him up six hours later. An avid hiker who spent two summers in his youth hiking the Rockies in Montana's Glacier National Park, he had rarely climbed in the Whites.
Three-quarters of the way into his remote 9.6-mile climb, on a trail where there was barely a trickle of foot traffic, O'Brien lost sight of the yellow blazes he had been following. Severe ice damage the previous winter had felled the trees that carried the necessary clues for navigating through the dense pines. He veered off the trail and would not see civilization again for another two days.
O'Brien had two peanut butter sandwiches, four cheese sticks, and two bottles of water in a tote bag. He was wearing a sweatshirt and jeans. His lack of preparation exacerbated his predicament, says Lieutenant Todd Bogardus, a 16-year veteran of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. “Plan on a day hike not just being a day hike,” Bogardus says. “You need to always have a map, lights, and compass and know how to use them.” Other necessary equipment: food and water, extra clothes for warmth at night, wind and rain gear, some sort of fire-making device like matches, and a signaling device, like a mirror.
For his part, Richard Doucette has yet to climb Tuckerman Ravine. But he has returned to his beloved sport of climbing.
“The only way to avoid hazards in the mountains is not to go there,” he says. “If you like to climb, you've already made the decision that you're going to take that risk.”
Doucette has even returned to Mount Washington.
“The landscape in the Whites,” he says, “is far too spectacular to keep me away.”
For a complete list of recommended clothing and equipment for White Mountain hikes, visit the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department Web site at www.wildlife.state.nh.us/Outdoor_Recreation/hiking_safety.htm.
For other helpful hints on day hikes, visit the Appalachian Mountain Club Web site at www.outdoors.org/activities/hiking/hiking-essentials.shtml.
For up-to-date weather reports for the Mount Washington Valley and the summit, visit www.mountwashington.org.