Zealand Trail Junction to Rattle River Shelter, NH
The Presidential Range of the White Mountains in New Hampshire is one of the most anticipated highlights of the Appalachian Trail. It offers spectacular 360 degrees views, and for twelve miles, hikers can walk above the clouds, literally. The above treeline route walks past a dozen peaks whose name bare honor to presidents of the past. Names like Eisenhower, Jefferson, Clay, Madison, Franklin, Monroe, Washington and so forth.
Once above treeline my mind soared. It is here that I feel most at peace, my mind mellowed, soothed, as I drift high above all else.
It would be a drastically different story had I arrived here in either overcast or foul weather, but instead I had a 65 degree day and blue skies. Snow melted off the top of Mount Washington so fast it turned the rocky trail almost into a creek. Meanwhile, the cog railway that leads to the top of Mount Washington still had snow on its tracks, allowing only hikers, traveling far from the valley below, to reach the summit.
En route, I was pleased to have the company of a few other day hikers, including a 65 year old woman from Maine who didn’t think twice about hiking over slick ice, her mind set on the summit of Mount Eisenhower. I met a few other people from Maine, all very kind people who I enjoyed the company of.
After reaching the top of Mount Washington, I began the scenic traverse past more rock-strewn peaks, engulfing valleys, and horizon lines that seemed to stretch on indefinitely. The trail is more of a rocky scramble, one guided by cairns, and as lept from rock to rock, I was completely baffled when I saw my first bear of the trail, and not more than a quarter mile from the summit of Mount Washington. First I thought it was a big dog, and then realized that it was a big bear. I threw my trekking poles above my head, had a jolly conversation out loud with myself, and continued the traverse watching the side for more wildlife.
That night, after a gorgeous sunset, I camped beside the Madison Hut, which like so many others was currently closed, boarded up for the season. Also that night, a large creature stumbled into my camp which I don’t think was a bear, as a bear often sounds more graceful. Instead I believe it was a moose. This is the second time that I’ve encountered moose in the night, and I have to tell you that I’d really rather not meet them in the dark anymore, much rather prefer my moose in the daylight.
By morning, I pulled on frozen boots and began the short, but time-consuming ascent to the summit of Mount Madison. Sunrise greeted me at the top, and now, as I looked back upon Mount Washington and the Presidential Range, it looked more wintery. Rain was forecasted for the afternoon and I was so grateful to have experienced the White Mountains in such exceptional weather. I needed that break, that giant dose of pure joy.
I dropped down the shoulder of Mount Madison, the trail not a trail, but a boulder-strewn traverse. Down, down and down, and I opted for another blue-blaze route. Again, I didn’t need another long, horseshoe route that would no doubt lead me up a long, icy path and past a ski resort. I did the route up the Wildcat Peaks ten years ago, and this time I took the Great Gulf Trail down to the highway and then rejoined the Appalachian Trail at Zeta Pass using the Nineteen Mile Brook Trail. The Nineteen Mile Brook Trail is gorgeous, and led me up to the snowline, where I rode out South, Middle and North Carter Mountains. The descent down North Carter was particularly challenging, very steep and icy, but fortunately it was short compared to the climbs up and down Mount Moosilauke and the Kinsman Mountains.
That evening, I looked back on the Presidential Range, where weather stirred. Snow was forecasted, but my destination would take me all the way down to 1,260 feet. I arrived at the Rattle River Shelter after dark, a welcome sight and respite from the rain. It was a warm night and I slept in the next day. Sleeping in, for me these days, is around 6, and I enjoyed my little shelter in the woods, catching up on writing while listening to the rain compete with the churn of the nearby river. And by 9, the rain had stopped. I’d hike the remaining two miles to a road, hitch into Gorham, pick up a box of food, at which time a nice man handed me $20 and said to treat myself to lunch. A nice gesture and small dose of trail magic it was. I’d hoped to go to the Salt Pub, but like many services, they won’t be open until the first week of May. I’d settle on devouring two foot-long sandwiches at Subway while charging up my phone, and before I walked out the door, I had a ride back to the trailhead. That was sure easy, I thought.