A trek to an AMC hut adds to the magic of family adventures in the White Mountains

Story and Photos by MEGHAN McCARTHY McPHAUL
Special to the Sunday News
August 17. 2018 3:15PM
Hiking can be hard work. The reward of reaching a hut, getting into comfy clothes, and relaxing until dinner time is known to cause an outbreak of kid smiles. Above, from left, Izzy Lawton, Ella McPhaul, Katy McPhaul, Owen, McPhaul, and Wyatt Lawton pose for the obligatory photo by the sign outside Lakes of the Clouds Hut on Mount Washington. 
An AMC hut primer
Good for first-timers:

Lonesome Lake Hut: Only a mile and a half from the trailhead, this hut is nestled in Franconia Notch on the shores of its namesake Lonesome Lake. It's a great option for younger or less experienced hikers, and more adventurous types can access trails above the hut to Cannon Mountain and the Kinsmans.

Zealand Falls Hut: The trek into Zealand is a moderate 2.7 miles that passes wetlands and beaver ponds. The trail is relatively level until the final quarter-mile scramble to the hut. Zealand Falls, just below the hut, are spectacular in any season. Hikers looking for a challenge may opt to summit 4,260-foot Mount Zealand and beyond. Others can loop around to Mount Hale on their descent.

Mizpah Hut: Only 2.6 moderate hiking miles from the trailhead, Mizpah is a great option for first-time hut guests. Kids will love its second-story library and sitting area. The hut is just below treeline, situated between two 4,000-footers: mounts Jackson and Pierce. The summit of the latter is less than a mile from the hut.

And for peak-baggers:

Greenleaf Hut: Hikers may opt to climb either the Greenleaf Trail or Old Bridal Path - both under 3 miles - to reach this hut, perched about a mile below the summit of Mount Lafayette. A night at Greenleaf gives hikers an early-morning head start to beat the crowds on Franconia Ridge and the lofty summits of Lafayette, Lincoln, Haystack, and - for intrepid trampers - Liberty and Flume.

Galehead Hut: This is the most remote of the AMC huts, located 4.6 miles from the trailhead, on the edge of the breathtakingly beautiful Pemigewasset Wilderness. From here, it's a quick jaunt to the summit of Galehead Mountain - and a longer trek to the Twins, the Bonds, and other summits.

Lakes of the Clouds Hut: With bunks to accommodate 90 hikers, Lakes is the biggest of the AMC huts. The views from the dining room - with tall windows adorning three sides - are breathtaking. Two pristine lakes - named simply Upper Lake and Lower Lake - give the hut its name. A day's hike north will take you from Lakes to Madison Spring Hut, with the option to summit or traverse across the sides of mounts Washington, Clay, Jefferson, and Adams. Or head south over mounts Franklin, Eisenhower, and Pierce toward Mizpah.

Madison Spring Hut: Built in 1888 - and replaced a few times since then - Madison is the oldest hut in the AMC system. It's also a gateway to the northern Presidentials. Mount Madison's summit is a half-mile scramble from the hut, Mount Adams is about a mile away, and lovely little Star Lake is a few minutes' walk from the hut.

Carter Notch Hut: One of three huts open year-round (along with Lonesome Lake and Zealand Falls), Carter is the place for those seeking less-crowded trails - and access to the Wildcat and Carter mountain ranges. This is the eastern-most hut in the AMC system, about 30 miles from the Maine border.

-- Meghan McCarthy McPhaul

The sunset seemed to last forever, the sun glowing pink as it dropped below the silhouetted summits, then turned the sky from rose to amber to deep ochre.

Perhaps it was because we were at an elevation of 5,050 feet, or because mountains surrounded us on all sides, or simply because we wanted to hold on to this day in the Presidentials that had started with howling winds and swirling mist, traversed through warm sunshine and across mountains, and ended here - at the Appalachian Mountain Club's Lakes of the Clouds Hut.

The AMC operates eight White Mountain Huts, spread along a 56-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail from Lonesome Lake Hut in Franconia Notch north and east to Carter Notch Hut near the Maine border. Our hiking crew of five kids, aged 8 to 11, and three grownups was on a three-day traverse of the Northern Presi's, which included a night each at Madison Spring Hut and Lakes.

The huts offer more than respite - and hearty meals - to hikers. They provide endless adventuring opportunities for explorers, from Appalachian Trail thru-hikers to mountain-loving families.

"The huts have a huge value (for families) because they make it easier to get kids into the woods," said Amy McKeever of Easton, my friend and last week's hiking companion, who has spent several happy nights ensconced in AMC huts with her kids. "The huts take a lot of work out of being in the backcountry. Staying a night in the woods has a whole different feel than just going for a day hike, and I wanted my kids to feel that."

For about what you'd pay for a hotel room, a night at an AMC hut includes a bunk, a four-course dinner, a huge breakfast, free cocoa refills - a big hit with kids - and the joy of waking up in the mountains.

Bunk up

Bunk rooms have anywhere from four bunks to 15, and chances are you'll be sleeping in a room with strangers. At Madison we had our own bunk room, connected by a wide, open doorway to two more rooms. At Lakes, we were joined by six other hikers in our small room.

There are hooks for hanging packs and clothes, and everyone figures out how to fit into the space. With that many people, though, earplugs are a must - and the huts provide them for free. "Hut shoes" - like Crocs or lightweight sandals - are also great to pack, because it just feels good to get out of hiking boots at the end of a day on the trail.

Each bunk has three wool blankets and a pillow. We pack in a sleeping bag liner for each person (a lightweight sheet will also work) and our own pillowcases, as well as something comfy to sleep in. We also bring headlamps, which allow unobtrusive reading after lights-out.

"The first thing the kids do is choose their bunks and set up their beds - lay out their sleep sacks, hang their things everywhere, pull out their solar lights and book," McKeever said. "They like making that space their own. The mountains can be big and a little out of their comfort zone, so being able to carve out and claim their own space is comforting."

Read up

McKeever adds a lightweight book to her kids' to-bring list. Each hut also has a small library, which generally includes a few novels and several natural and cultural history books.

Each hut also stocks a small collection of games. We always pack a deck of cards, and this time added a cribbage board for some high-alpine competition.

A large part of AMC's mission is educational, and there is plenty of opportunity for learning during a hut stay. Each hut has a naturalist as part of its "Croo" (AMC vernacular for "crew") ready to answer questions about local flora and fauna. Croo members are mainly college- and just post-college-aged folks, and they tend to be friendly and knowledgeable about all things alpine.

They give natural history presentations and Green Tech Talks before and after dinner, with topics ranging from how the huts produce electricity and process waste to what plants are growing nearby and the human history of a place.

Trampers from ages 5-12 may collect a Junior Naturalist book and complete the activities within to earn an AMC Junior Naturalist patch.

Eat up

Nearly two years after my kids' first hut trip (to Greenleaf Hut on Mount Lafayette), they still talk lovingly about the Dijon chicken we had for dinner there. I'm not sure if it's some secret ingredient, a bit of mountain magic, or just the big appetite worked up along the trails, but hut meals are amazing.

Meals are served family-style at long wooden tables, where friends and strangers pass bowls of food hand to hand. Dinner starts with homemade soup and loaves of bread baked that day, progresses to salad, then on to the featured entrée before ending with dessert.

Breakfast always includes oatmeal, along with eggs, breakfast meat, and usually pancakes or a baked item.

It's all made from scratch by the Croo, who consult a time-tested binder of recipes to figure out each night and morning how to feed up to 90 people.

"The hut Croo live there, so they're pretty invested in the food," said Nancy Ritger, AMC hut programs manager. "It's simple food. It's not really spicy or complicated."
Each hut has a guest log, where guests write notes or poems or draw pictures. The huts keep the logs in the library, so hikers may look back years later to find earlier entries from past adventures. Here, Ella McPhaul signs the Madison Spring log. 

Simple - and delicious. To ensure there's no repetition for hikers tramping from one hut to the next, there's a set schedule of the main ingredient each night. The weekly meal schedule culminates with a full turkey dinner each Saturday.

With the exception of dry goods (flour, oats) and canned items (like tomato sauce), which are flown in by helicopter at the beginning of the season, all the food - from milk and cheese to fresh veggies and, yes, the Saturday turkeys - is carried up on the backs of the Croo. They make two trips each week, each Croo member carting from 30 to 80 pounds of ingredients on the wooden pack boards the AMC has used for a hundred-plus years.

While the food is truly awesome, McKeever suggests packing in extra snacks for picky eaters. If kids don't like what's on the menu for the evening, there's no alternate offering.

Pack up

The opening chords of "Rocky Raccoon," strummed gently on a guitar, served as our wakeup call at Madison, as a Croo member sang us awake. At Lakes it was an a capella version of "Wild Mountain Thyme."

Whatever the method of delivery, wakeup comes at 6:30 a.m., with breakfast served promptly at 7. And then comes one of the most fun parts of staying at a hut: the post-breakfast skit.

It might be a Harry Potter theme or Lord of the Rings, Cinderella or the sinking of the Titanic. Each Croo puts its own spin on this morning tradition to encourage guests to pack out their trash, properly fold their blankets, and leave a little something in the tip jar before leaving.

Remember to sign the guest log when you visit. The huts keep all the logs back to the 1960s and beyond. During our stay at Greenleaf two years ago, I found the entry from my first hut trip, when I was 9 years old. Some guests draw elaborate illustrations and share fun details about their mountain adventures, so even if you've never visited a hut before, it can be fun to leaf through the old logs.

A bit of advice

More than 45,000 people stay at AMC huts each year, so if you're planning a hut stay, it's best to make reservations early - especially if you'll be hiking with a larger group. The fall season, which starts around now, is slightly less busy, but the earlier you try to book a bunk, the more likely you'll be to get the date you want. Reservations may be made at www.outdoors.org.

As with any hiking expedition, make sure you're carrying the Ten Essentials. You can find these and more advice for staying safe at www.HikeSafe.com. The hut Croo delivers - and posts - the most recent high-summit forecast each morning, and hikers should be prepared for changing weather.

Get the kids involved in planning. Before our most recent hut trip, I printed a packing list for each of us, and the kids checked off items as they loaded up their packs.

McKeever has made packable maps highlighting the route for each of her family's hut trips. This year, she laminated copies for my kids, too. The kids can pull their maps out along the trail, and it's a great way to encourage them to develop good map-reading skills.

"Mostly, be genuinely excited and enthusiastic," McKeever said. "Kids will pick up on that."

It's quite a hike

With the exception of Lonesome Lake, a mile and a half from the Franconia trailhead, all of the AMC huts require a hike of more than 2 miles, most over moderate or challenging terrain.

Hikers (young and old) should have some mileage in their boots before planning a hut expedition.

Visit UnionLeader.com/KidsHike for thumbnail descriptions of each hut and what it takes to get there, and for Meghan McCarthy McPhaul’s earlier story on getting kids started in hiking.
Hiking can be hard work. The reward of reaching a hut, getting into comfy clothes, and relaxing until dinner time is known to cause an outbreak of kid smiles. Above, from left, Izzy Lawton, Ella McPhaul, Katy McPhaul, Owen, McPhaul, and Wyatt Lawton pose for the obligatory photo by the sign outside Lakes of the Clouds Hut on Mount Washington. 
One benefit of staying at an AMC hut is the opportunity to get onto the trail early and beat the crowds on more popular routes like this one - along Franconia Ridge, near the Greenleaf Hut. (MEGHAN MCCARTHY MCPHAUL)

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