White Mountain National Forest

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White Mountain National Forest Overview

The White Mountain National Forest (better known as "the Whites") in northern New Hampshire and southwestern Maine is one of America's most popular public lands, registering more visitors annually than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined. It is not unusual for organized hiking groups of 20 or more—a big backcountry faux pas—to descend on the trail in peak season. As such, you should make every effort to avoid visiting on weekends in summer, both for the sake of the forest, which is easily damaged by overuse, and for your own sanity.

The Forest Service, working in tandem with the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), has made great strides towards minimizing the impact of crowds on the Whites while keeping them open to all who want to sample the grandeur of the Northeast's highest peaks, the Presidential Range.

One of the highlights of the Whites is the AMC hut system, a series of beautiful mountain lodges that provide food, shelter, and creature comforts for hikers. The huts make the Whites much more accessible to hikers of varying abilities. Because they are each about a day's hike apart, it is possible to traverse much of the range with a ten-pound daypack instead of a 35-pound bag laden with food, tent, and sleeping bag.

For backcountry veterans, the Whites can be a little frustrating. With so many crowd-control regulations, it is sometimes difficult to know where you're actually allowed to camp. You need to make reservations to stay in the huts, which don't come cheap. And even lean-tos and tent platforms come with a fee. Still, you'll find very challenging trails that always take you somewhere worth the trip, and it's not hard to find a backcountry niche where you can enjoy undisturbed views of the sweeping valleys and sun-drenched, wind-whipped summits undisturbed. What is more, if you steer clear of the Appalachian Trail and the Presidentials, you may very well have the woods to yourself.

Hike Hut-to-Hut
If you don't mind having a more sociable outdoor experience, the AMC huts along the Appalachian Trail are just plain fun. Eight huts dot these heights, ranging in capacity from 36 to 80 people. What better way to end a 2,000-vertical-foot chug up Franconia Ridge than a hot, family-style dinner and clean sheets at Greenleaf Hut? The next morning, you'll be rested and ready for your ascent out of the trees and up mile-high Mount Lafayette for a commanding view. Once you get above treeline in the Presidentials, the huts are less luxury and more necessity, since setting up a tent at these altitudes is unsafe. Make reservations well in advance if you plan to stay in the huts, though cancellations are frequent.

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Ski Premier Backcountry Downhill
Tuckerman's Ravine is mentioned in hushed tones among ski bums in the know. They don't want the word to get out about some of the choicest expert backcountry downhill east of the Mississippi. But when the skiing's this good, people just seem to hear about it. Don't worry, though: The two-plus-mile trudge in and out through heaps of New Hampshire snow and ice discourages all but the most committed. Of course, there is no cushy lodge for apris-ski pampering, much less a chair lift to take you back to the top. This is strictly "earn your turns" skiing. Bring your legs, bring your skis, and get ready to carve.

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Torture Your Quads
If there's one thing the Whites aren't known for, it's switchbacks. When a trail in the Whites goes over a mountain, it pretty much takes you straight to the top. For mountain bikers, that means digging in and climbing. In the northwestern part of the forest, Cherry Mountain Loop circumnavigates the Dartmouth Range, with a side trail beckoning you to the top of Mount Martha. The flip side is that, after you go up, you get to go back down again. There's also Bretton Woods, a commercial ski area in winter that becomes a mountain-biking center in the off-season. There's marked singletrack, chairlifts to the top, and, when you're ready to kick it, the downhill. Like most everything in the Whites, a little effort yields a big reward.

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Drive "The Kanc"
The Kancamagus Highway stretches from the Pemigewasset River at Lincoln 34.5 miles to the Saco River at Conway, climbing 3,000 vertical feet along the way. Don't drive too fast, or you'll miss the amazing alpine vistas—and possibly hit that moose standing in the middle of the road. Moose are plentiful in the White Mountain National Forest, and plenty big. When moose and cars meet, they both lose. There are numerous trailheads along the highway, as well as Forest Service campgrounds that are great for introducing the kids to the wonders of the Whites. Boulder Loop is a National Recreation Trail along the Kancamagus that features a guided tour of White Mountain ecology. It's a great way to learn about the history of the beauty that surrounds you.

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Explore Geological Oddities
The White Mountain region is renowned for strange rock formations. The most famous of these is the Old Man of the Mountain, a rocky profile that's also New Hampshire's state symbol. (Don't tell anyone, but it actually takes an elaborate network of wires and cables to keep the Old Man from falling off the mountain.) Other attractions include the Old Lady of the Mountain, who keeps the Old Man company as they watch over Profile Lake. Madison Rock is one of the largest glacial erratics—a rock dragged by glaciers to an unlikely resting place—in the world, rising three stories high and stretching 80 feet in length. It is a designated National Natural Landmark.

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