Winter Hiking for Beginners in the White Mountains
By Carly Eisley
Winter is here! For some this may mean hibernation, but for the adventurous souls, it means piling on a few more layers and getting out there to explore and play. In New England, the fun doesn’t stop when the temperatures drop–it’s just getting started. But what do you do if you’re not a skier or snowboarder? Cold temps and snow mean more caution and more prep, but camping and hiking in the winter is FUN and worth it! One of my favorite places to play in the winter is the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Here are some tips for a great winter adventure in the Whites with an Escape Campervan.
There are a few US Forest Service campgrounds that remain open year-round in the White Mountains. Check out their website here for more information on fees and locations. Barnes Field, Hancock, and Blackberry crossing campgrounds are all year-round. There are also some private campgrounds that remain open year-round, including (just to name a few) Ammonoosuc Campground near Bretton Woods, Apple Hill Campground in Bethlehem, Branch Brook in Campton (near Franconia Notch), Cannon Mountain RV Park in Franconia Notch, and Crazy Horse Campground in Littleton (near Franconia Notch).
Wherever you choose, it will be COLD. Be safe and be prepared, and you will have a fantastic time! (The great thing about campervan camping is there’s no sleeping on the ground.) Check your weather forecasts closely and count on well-below-freezing temps. Bring lots of layers, sleeping bags rated for the cold, and pack up that extra duvet and heater. Bundle up, make a campfire, and enjoy!
First things first: check your summit/elevation weather! Apps such as The Weather Channel, WeatherBug, etc. only give you the in-town type of forecast. To check the forecast of the higher elevations (above 4,000 and 5,000 feet) you’ll need to check out forecasts such as the Mount Washington Observatory’s higher summit forecast and the National Weather Service recreation forecast for the NH higher summits. (I know, I know, it’s not reeeeeeally elevation to you Western US types, but heights can be deceiving when it comes to weather around here.)
Layers and safety gear are key. I could list it all out here for you (making packing lists is one of my favorite things!) but it’s been done before and done well. I suggest taking a look at this Winter day hiking gear list by the Section Hiker. Pick up a copy of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s (AMC) White Mountains Guide as well as the waterproof White Mountains Trail map to plot your course. This may sound silly, but be sure you know how to use a map and compass–don’t rely on your phone, as batteries do NOT like cold weather. Keep your phone warm (inside an inner pocket with a hand warmer for good measure) and carry a portable charger for emergency use. To supplement your maps, download a GPS app such as GAIA, or (my favorite) Atlas Guides New England Hiker guide. It’s worth the small fee!
Don’t have (or don’t want to pack) snowshoes or poles? Want to try out xc skiing instead at one of the many great XC ski areas in the whites? Don’t fret. There are plenty of places to rent gear (and most of the xc ski areas offer rentals right there). A few suggestions:
- The Appalachian Mountain Club centers at Crawford Notch and Pinkham Notch have stores within them as well as demo gear to try out.
- International Mountain Equipment in North Conway offers gear rentals as well as new gear and a large consignment shop. They also offer different guided options for hiking and ice climbing through their International Mountain Climbing School, if you are interested in a more challenging adventure.
- Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) has a large store in North Conway offering rental gear.
Recommended Hikes (Beginner Edition)
Hiking in New Hampshire often becomes synonymous with the “4000 footers”–a list of 48 peaks above 4000 feet that are much more challenging than their name would let on. We don’t have elevation to contend with in New England, but the weather conditions in the Whites are notorious for sudden storms, high winds, and bitter cold. I would not attempt these unless the forecast is favorable AND you are an experienced hiker with a fair amount of winter hiking experience as well. It is very easy to underestimate these “little peaks” and end up in a lot of trouble.
As for the rest of us, here’s a list of a few of my favorite (as well as a few I haven’t done but come highly recommended) beginner-to-intermediate friendly winter hikes in the White Mountains. For current trail conditions, check out www.newenglandtrailconditions.com or www.trailsnh.com before you hike to see the most recently posted trail reports.
- Lonesome Lake – beginner friendly hike to the hut, where you can warm up
- Mount Willard – one of the “52 with a view” moderate hike with rewarding views at the top!
- Arethusa Falls – 1.5-mile hike out to a (frozen) waterfall
- South Moat Mountain – 5 mile out and back with fantastic views in Conway
- Tuckerman Ravine Trail (Pinkham Notch AMC center to the Hermit Lake Shelter) – a well-traveled climb to the caretaker’s cabin and hermit lake shelter. 5 miles round trip, or 6 if you continue on to the bowl of Tuckerman’s to watch the backcountry skiers.
- Kearsarge North – 6 miles round trip in North Conway area, with a fire tower at the top and stunning panoramic views
- Mount Crawford – another 52 with a view option, 4-mile hike in Crawford Notch with amazing views of the Presidential range
- Mount Pierce – another great beginner winter 4000-footer in Crawford Notch – best route is to follow the Crawford Path to the top. Starts across from the AMC Highland Center.
- Mount Tom/Mount Field – bag 2 4000 footers on this 6-7 mile hike (and add Avalon for some views and a 52 with a view.
- Mount Tecumseh – moderate 4000 footer great for beginners wanting to check one off the list. Trailhead starts in the parking area for the Waterville Valley Ski area.
So there you have it! A start to planning an epic winter visit to New Hamshire’s White Mountains. When you’re done adventuring, don’t forget to fuel up with some food and brews. Want to splurge on a night out or don’t feel like braving the cold manning the camp kitchen? Here are a few of my favorite places to grab a bite (and a beer).
- I highly recommend stopping by the iconic Omni Mount Washington at Bretton Woods for a drink with a stellar view of the Presidential range.
- Moat Mountain Smokehouse and Brewing in North Conway (one of my all-time favorites, awesome food and beer)
- Tuckerman Brewing company in Conway for some local brews as well.
- Flatbread Company in North Conway for some pizzas
- The Common Man in Lincoln NH
- White Mountain Cupcakery in North Conway for some sweets!
- Sunrise Shack in Glen NH if you’re done early (breakfast and brunch, they close at 3)
- White Mountain Cider Co. in Glen, NH