Table of Contents

These notes are written to help you compare the various routes that are commonly used to hike to the peaks. They are written on the assumption that you have a guidebook and a set of maps, so no directions are given to trailheads, and the trails are not described in any detail. I have omitted hikes that are substantially longer or more difficult than the standard ones, or that are simply less often used. The fact that a trail is not mentioned here does not imply that it is unsuitable.

The warnings about weather and strenuousness given for Mount Washington are just as applicable to the Northern Presidentials. All are exposed, and all the routes (except for the Caps Ridge trail to Mt. Jefferson) include substantial elevation gains.

Mountain Weather Forecast

The best forecast for Mount Washington and its neighbors is the Mount Wasington Observatory's Higher Summits Forecast. There is also a point forecast for Mount Jefferson.

Online Map

If you do not have a printed map handy you may want to look at a TopoZone map of this section of the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

Huts and Established Trailside Campsites

The AMC's Madison Spring Hut is located at the end of the Valley Way [ow: 3.8 miles, 3,550 feet, 3:40]. It allows a relatively easy two day trip to both Madison and Adams. It may also be used as part of a three day (two nights) Presidential traverse, spending the other night at Lakes of the Clouds hut.

The WMNF maintains two campsites and a group of primitive (no platforms, no outhouse) camping areas in the Northern Presis. There are no fees, and reservations are not accepted.

The Randolph Mountain Club has four shelters in the area (see map for their locations). Unlike the AMC huts, the RMC facilities are open in winter. Fees are charged at all of them (follow the link for each shelter), and no reservations are accepted.

All four RMC facilities can be used for overnight trips to Adams and either Madison or Jefferson, though I find the Log Cabin too close to the road to be very useful.

Here is a summary of the distances, elevation gains and book times (one way) to these facilities:

Distances and Elevation Gains to Facilities
Facility Distance Elevation Gain Book Time
Madison Spring Hut 3.8 3,550 3:40
Valley Way campsite 3.1 2,800 3:00
Osgood Campsite 2.6 1,150 1:50
The Bluff (primitive) 2.8 1,000 1:55
Log Cabin 2.4 1,900 2:10
Gray Knob Cabin 3.2 3,050 3:10
Crag Camp from Appalachia 3.3 2,900 3:05
Crag Camp from Lowe's Store 3.7 3,050 3:25
The Perch from Lowe's Path 3.7 3,050 3:05
The Perch from Bowman 3.7 2,950 3:05

Routes to Summits

Routes to Individual Peaks (one day)

Mount Madison

There are so many possible routes to Mount Madison that it now has a separate page.

Mount Adams

This is the second highest peak in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and the one with the greatest elevation gain by any of the standard routes. There are two direct routes: the Airline Trail from the Appalachia trailhead [rt: 8.6 miles, 4,500 feet, 6:30] and Lowe's Path from Lowe's Store (nominal parking fee charged at store) [rt: 9.6 miles, 4,400 feet, 7:00]. The Airline Trail has great views down into King's Ravine from the "knife edge" of Durant's Ridge. I put the words "knife edge" in quotes, the exposure there is minimal, the views great.

The steepest part of the Airline may be bypassed by a slightly longer path, starting up the Valley Way, then taking the Scar Trail to the Airline Trail [rt: 10.0 miles, 4,500 feet, 7:15].

An equally scenic route, though perhaps steeper and rougher than the others, is to go up the Spur Trail, reached from Appalachia by the Amphibrach and Randolph Path, passing the Knight's Castle, a great outlook into King's Ravine [rt: 10.4 miles, 4,400 feet, 7:25]. Look at your map to see other options for that trip.

Routes to Mount Adams
Route Distance Elevation Gain Book Time
Airline 8.6 4,500 6:30
Lowe's Path 9.6 4,400 7:00
Valley-Scar-Airline 10.0 4,500 7:25
Spur trail 10.4 4,400 7:25

Mount Jefferson

The easiest route up Mt. Jefferson is the Caps Ridge Trail, which starts at Jefferson Notch, at an elevation of 3,000 feet [rt: 5.0 miles, 2,700 feet, 3:50]. It is steep, rough, involves scrambles over ledges, and has what some may consider an uncomfortable degree of exposure (a very individual assessment). In spite of that, it is definitely the easiest route for those comfortable with moderate exposure.

All other approaches are longer, with substantially more elevation gain. Probably the easiest way is to go up the Jewell Trail, from the Base Station, to the Gulfside Trail to Jefferson [rt: 11.0 miles, 4,150 feet, 7:35]. It is nowhere very steep or rough, but is exposed to the weather for a long time.

From the North the most common approaches are by the Castle Trail directly to the summit [rt: 10 miles, 4,200 feet, 7:05], or by Lowe's and Randolph Paths and the Gulfside Trail [rt: 11 miles, 4,350 feet, 7:40]. Both involve some steep sections, and the Castle Trail involves some scrambles on the Castles.

A very interesting loop can be made by going up the Caps Ridge Trail, and descending by the Castle Trail to the Link, which returns to the Caps Ridge Trail. This loop is short [lp: 6.7 miles, 2,900 feet, 4:50], but not as easy as it may seem, since this section of the Link is very rough.

Routes to Mount Jefferson
Route Distance Elevation Gain Book Time
Caps Ridge 5.0 2,700 3:50
Caps Ridge-Castle loop 6.7 2,900 4:50
Jewell trail 11.0 4,150 7:35
Castle trail 10.0 4,200 7:05
Lowe's and Randolph Paths 11.0 4,350 7:40

Routes to Multiple Peaks (one day)

The summits on the main ridge are fairly close to each other, and it is quite easy to arrange trips over more than one summit. The ultimate route to multiple peaks is, of course, the Presi Traverse!

Mount Madison and Mount Adams

This is a classic "big hike" for the fit. It is almost always done as a loop from Appalachia, using the Valley Way, with or without the Watson Path, and the Airline [lp: 10.0 miles, 5,000 feet, 7:30]. From a distance you may think that the two summits are close together, it is 0.9 mile and 1,000 feet from Madison hut to the summit of Mt. Adams!

The more ambitious may choose to go up Mount Adams from the hut using the Star Lake Trail, which adds 0.1 mile. It is steeper and rougher than the Airline Trail, and at the end it has a section that requires the use of one's hands for scrambling. It is rarely used, so even on a summer weekend you will probably be alone on that trail (but not on the summit!). It is not a good trail for descent; I would suggest going down by the Airline trail.

Mount Jefferson and Mount Adams

Another long and strenuous trip! One way to do it is to take Lowe's and Randolph Paths to Edmands Col, then the Jefferson Loop to the summit of Mt. Jefferson, return to the Col and follow the Gulfside to Thunderstorm Junction, finally ascending Mt. Adams by Lowe's Path. Return to the car by Lowe's Path [lp: 12.4 miles, 5,200 feet, 8:50]. It can be done equally well in the opposite direction.

Another way is a loop from Bowman. Take the Castle trail up to Mt. Jefferson, go to Mt. Adams as above, and return to Bowman by the Gulfside, Israel Ridge and Castle trails [lp: 12.6 miles, 5,050 feet, 8:50].

Mounts Madison, Adams and Jefferson

The traverse of the three northern Presidentials is a major undertaking. The easiest way is a loop from Appalachia, going up the Valley Way to Mt. Madison, then taking the Gulfside (looping over Mt. Adams) to Edmands Col, up to Mt. Jefferson by the Jefferson Loop, and back to Appalachia by the Randolph Path, Short Line and Airline trails[lp: 13.7 miles, 5,850 feet, 9:45]. Many other routes are obviously possible.

One Day Routes to Multiple Peaks
Route Distance Elevation Gain Book Time
Madison and Adams by Valley Way, Airline 10.0 5,000 7:30
Jefferson and Adams from Lowe's Store 12.4 5,200 8:50
Jefferson and Adams from Bowman 12.6 5,050 8:50
All three 13.7 5,850 9:45

Overnight Routes to Individual or Multiple Peaks

Some hikers may decide that the trips described above are a bit more strenuous than they would enjoy. Others may just want to spend one or more nights on the mountains. Thanks to the overnight facilities described above almost all of the single day routes (over single or multiple peaks) can be done as overnights. A few possibilities will be described, use your map and imagination to find many more!

Mount Madison (and optionally Mount Adams) using Madison Spring Hut

The easiest way up is by the Valley Way, which ends at the hut. After settling down and resting, summit Mt. Madison. Next day, if you want to summit Mt. Adams, go up the Great Gulf trail to the Airline trail, and follow it to the summit of Mt. Adams, and descend by the Airline trail. Otherwise return by the Valley Way. The more ambitious may choose to use the Star Lake Trail.

Mount Madison (and optionally Mount Adams) using the Valley Way Campsite

A very similar trip can be done using the Valley Way campsite rather than the hut. If doing both Mts. Madison and Adams you may return to the campsite in one of two ways. You may simply make a round trip, up the Valley Way to the hut, then up and down Mt. Madison, follow the Gulfside to the Airline and hence to the summit of Mt. Adams, and retrace your path. Alternately you may descend by the Airline Trail to its junction with the Upper Bruin trail, and take that trail back to the Valley Way slightly above the campsite.

Mount Adams and Mount Jefferson from the RMC Facilities

Excellent loop trips with much above treeline travel can be done from either Crag Camp or Gray Knob, while trips from The Perch will involve more backtracking.

If starting from Crag Camp or the Gray Knob take the Spur Trail or Lowe's Path to the summit of Mt. Adams, then follow the Gulfside to Edmunds Col. From there climb Mt. Jefferson by the Jefferson Loop, and return to Edmunds Col the same way. Use Randolph Path and the Gray Knob Trail to return.

From The Perch you may take the Randolph Path to Edmunds Col, go up Mt. Jefferson and back, then follow the Gulfside and Israel Ridge trails to the summit of Mt. Adams, returning by the Israel Ridge trail.

The Northern Presidentials in Winter

Mount Jefferson is probably the hardest 4,000 footer in winter, due to the combination of considerable distance, elevation gain and exposure to severe weather. Mount Adams is easier, with less distance and exposure to somewhat less severe weather. Both, however, must be considered serious endeavors, with substantial distances and elevation gains, and a long and exposed stretch above treeline. Note that in all cases the "distance above treeline" in the descriptions is the one way distance.

That long stretch above treeline, plus the summit views, make these exhilarating trips in good weather. The major routes (Airline Trail and Lowe's and Randolph Paths) are heavily used and so likely to be well broken out.

Mt. Adams in Winter

Those doing Mount Adams without Mount Madison almost always use either the Airline Trail or Lowe's Path. Both trails have steep sections below treeline, which are often packed hard by glissaders and may require crampons. Both trails are above treeline, fully exposed to the wind most of the time, for about 1½ miles. Here there are sections with a treacherous mixture of bare rock, snow and ice.

Mt. Jefferson in Winter

Traditionally, most winter hikers attempted Mount Jefferson by the Lowe's Path, Randolph Path, Gulfside and Mt. Jefferson Loop route. This involves about 1.3 miles above treeline, with great exposure to the winds. The area around Edmunds Col is notorious for its winds; many a disappointed winter peakbagger will tell you: "I have bagged Edmunds Col three (or whatever the number may be) times", meaning that s/he was unable to go beyond it. The final climb to the summit goes over a rather steep snowfield, be sure you know how to self-arrest!

While most people do it in a single day, it can be done as an overnight trip, spending a night at either The Perch (lean-to or tent platform) or Gray Knob Cabin (heated cabin).

Now that the Cog Railway operates in winter (for skiers) and the road to the Base Station is open many hikers will attempt Mounts Monroe, Washington and Jefferson from the west. They will break out the Ammonoosuc Ravine and Jewell trails, which may make approaching Mount Jefferson from that direction more attractive than it has been in the past. In summer this is a long, but relatively easy, approach, with gentle grades to compensate for the greater distance. Winter hikers should note that it is above treeline for about 2½ miles, and being on the western flank of the mountain is fully exposed to the prevailing winds. This should only be attempted under excellent weather conditions.

Multiple Northern Presidential Peaks in Winter

Mounts Adams and Madison are often climbed together in a day. Together they make a long day with substantial exposure, but both the distance and the severity of the weather are less than on Mt. Jefferson alone. As noted under Mount Madison in winter it is probably easier to do this in a day than to carry the extra weight needed for an overnight trip, but some people do spend the night at the Valley Way campsite.

Almost everyone who attempts Mounts Adams and Jefferson on the same trip spends at least one night on the mountain. Most use the Randolph Mountain Club facilities. Those seeking the comfort of a moderately heated cabin will opt for the Gray Knob Cabin, while those who prefer camping out will chose The Perch, using either the lean-to or one of the tent platforms.