Meghan McCarthy McPhaul's Winter Notes: Winter hiking offers scenery and solitude

By MEGHAN McCARTHY McPHAUL January 05. 2017 8:58PM
A trail sign lists route options near Lonesome Lake in Franconia Notch. (Meghan McCarthy McPhaul)

The nearly-full moon was rising over the snowy peaks of the Franconia Range when I reached Lonesome Lake in the pink-sky dusk of a winter evening.

It had been a cold, clear day, but clouds were moving in, bringing the forecasted storm that would drop several inches of snow overnight. Tomorrow morning, when I crawled from the warmth of my sleeping bag, I’d be glad for the snowshoes now strapped to my pack.

Many seasoned hikers know there’s little reason to pack up the trekking gear with the arrival of cold and snow. In fact, winter hiking has many benefits over warmer-weather outings: no bugs, far less crowded paths, and — as long as you’re not breaking trail — often smoother traveling.

Of course, like many things during the colder months, winter hiking requires a bit of additional planning and extra gear.

“The days are shorter, so people need to keep that in mind,” said the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Rob Burbank. “Getting where you want to go before it gets dark is a good thing.”

Beyond the regular list of hiking essentials that should be stowed away in the pack, winter hikers should add items like micro spikes, lots of extra clothing layers, and warm mittens. Burbank pointed me to the website for a full listing of what to pack for my hike, and reminded me to include ample water, stored in way that it wouldn’t freeze in the cold.

I’d planned an overnight adventure to the Lonesome Lake Hut in Franconia Notch, one of three back-country huts (along with Zealand Falls Hut and Carter Notch Hut) the AMC keeps open to hikers during the winter season.

The Lonesome Lake trail is one of my favorites in any season, mainly because the relatively short hike — just over 3 miles round trip — has steep sections to provide a good workout, and the view from the lake is among the best around. But this trail can be something of a super-highway during summer and fall, which means I tend to save it for winter.

During my Sunday afternoon ascent, I met only about a dozen people headed down the trail. The combination of well-packed trail and quiet woods made for the perfect winter hiking outing, and about an hour after setting out from the Lafayette Place parking area I reached the hut — just in time to watch that moon climb over the mountains across the untracked expanse of Lonesome Lake.

The two troops of Boy Scouts who’d filled the bunk rooms the previous night had cleared out earlier in the day, leaving me free pick of beds and ample opportunity to chat with hut caretaker Leigh Harrington.

Harrington has worked as a summer AMC “croo” member and naturalist and is well-versed, like all croo and caretakers, on local hiking trails. Winter hut caretakers also post daily weather reports and light a fire in the woodstove late in the afternoons. This year, they’re stoking the flames throughout the day on Saturdays, so day hikers can come in and warm up before returning to the trail.

Cocoa, tea, coffee, and candy bars are also stocked in the huts’ small shops, along with hiking essentials like trekking poles, guidebooks, and hand and toe warmers.

Reservations are required for overnight stays and may be made by calling 466-2727 or through the AMC website (, which also includes a listing of the AMC’s winter outings and classes. Winter is a “self-service” season, meaning that while each open hut has a caretaker on hand, guests are required to pack in, cook, and clean up their own food — and bring their own cold-weather sleeping bags; the bunk rooms are unheated.

I lingered by the warmth of the woodstove until lights out, then headed outside into a world transformed. While I’d been reading by the fire, the first flakes of the building storm had fallen, transforming the landscape to one of glittering snow.

The next morning, I stepped out of the bunkroom into about six inches of fluffy powder. I stowed the micro spikes in my pack and strapped on snowshoes for the hike down, through snow-hushed woods with nary another soul in sight.

Winter Notes is published on Fridays during ski season. Contact Meghan McCarthy McPhaul at

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