If you really want to experiece the AMC Hut system at it's most intense, you have to stay at Lakes of the Clouds on a Saturday night. Lakes is the largest (sleeps 90+) and most popular (nearly full every night) hut in the system. There's really nothing quite like it. My friend Terry had arranged this trip much earlier in the summer for a group of about 8 of us, but as the time approached, various people bagged out, and as the weekend approached there were just four of us: Jeff, Amy, Rich, and myself. Jeff and Rich had a desire to climb Mt Washington, I needed Isolation for my second time round, and Amy wanted to get through the hike with both knees intact.
The plan was as follows: meet at the Rocky Branch trailhead on Saturday morning, drop two cars there, drive to Pinkham and head up the Boott Spur trail to the hut, and hike out via the Davis Path, Isolation trail, and Rocky Branch, hitting Isolation along the way. We met at the trailhead by 8:30, Rich and Amy stayed at a B&B up north the previous night, I was at the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge. We drove to Pinkham and parked in the overflow lot since the main lot was full. After the usual mess around at Pinkham we loaded up and hit the trail. We started up the Tuckerman Ravine trail, past Crystal Cascades, and turned off at the Boott Spur trail. For the next two hours we barely saw anyone. The trail has a nice view of Washington down low, then climbs (occasionally steeply) to a wonderful viewpoint looking straight up into Tuckerman Ravine and Lion Head. This was our first lunch break and rest stop. You can even look across Pinkham Notch to Wildcat and the Carters. The summit of Washington was in and out of the clouds, mostly in, but the rest of the peaks were clear. The forecast was for an even better day tomorrow.
After our rest, there's some serious climbing as the trail gains the elevation needed to reach Boott Spur. Once we hit treeline, it was one of those perfect experiences, cruising along above the planet. In no time, we hit the Boott Spur Cut-Off, which drops steeply down into Tuckerman Ravine. The Gulf of Slides was to our left, Boott Spur directly in front of us. After the long stretches of relatively gentle terrain, we had to climb on rocks again. By the time we had made it to the top of Boott Spur it was a little more grey than when we started but still no threat of rain. Once you join up with the Davis Path, and then turn onto the Camel trail, it seems like you are there, but in fact there's still quite a distance and a good amount of up and down. But we had entered the famous Lawns around Mt Washington, big flat areas filled with vegatation. It's my favorite terrain in the world, but it's easy to see how you could get lost up there in bad weather.
Finally, after crossing the Camel, Lakes of the Clouds came into sight. Just as we caught sight of hut a sail plane swooped overhead, past the hut, and around the backside of Mt Monroe. We arrived, checked into our rooms (the four of us were in three different rooms) and took a well deserved rest. Amy settled into the main room of the hut, Jeff and Rich headed up Mt Washington, and I headed up Mt Monroe, since I usually avoid the summit of Washington in the summer. There were lots of dayhikers headed up Monroe, which is only a 10 minute hike from the hut. I took many photos, then headed down the other side of the Mt Monroe Loop with a small group who were doing a one-day Presie Traverse. We chatted as they hiked at a very good pace, pretty good since they started 8 hours earlier. The southern Presidentials were tempting, and I almost stayed with the traverse hikers until Eisenhower but I knew we had a big day tomorrow so I just looped back to the hut along the Crawford Path, which was pretty much empty. The solitude was nice, especially since I was headed back to Lakes.
Back at the hut I changed out of my hiking clothes and read a little bit, then wandered around outside the hut for while, eventually settling down by the shores of the lower Lake of the Clouds with Amy. Rich and Jeff wandered by on their way down from the summit and we all had a moment of relative quiet before heading back to the hut for dinner. The food and the croo were great, but during the BFD (Blanket Folding Drill - a skit to teach hut users how to fold their blankets and a blatent plea for tips) there was the most spectacular sunset, so several of us got up and went outside. One thing about staying at a hut is the chance to see great sunsets and sunrises. After dessert the visiting naturalist gave a short talk and answered questions for a while. We played some cards, then I went back outside for a night hike under the near full moon partway up Monroe. It was chilly, but the moon cast enough light to not need a headlamp. Some people were wandering around outside the hut, but no one else ventured very far away, so again I managed to find some solitude.
I slept pretty well that night, I hope my snoring didn't keep too many of my bunkmates awake. Lakes is divided up into several bunkrooms, some with 12 and others with 24 beds. I was in one of the 12 person rooms, and I brought my earplugs in case I was still awake while others were snoring. Although I misplaced my watch in the night, I got up at first light to wander around the hut for dawn. There was a great undercloud to the north, while the summits were all clear, except for a fine lenticular cloud on Washington, and the lakes were still. I love mornings. As the sun rose a bit higher I headed up Monroe, convincing some guy I met outside the hut to take a walk as well. Jeff, Amy, and Rich were still asleep. Just as we got to the top the sun made it over the ridge and hit us, gradually spreading down the southern Presidentials. It was a beautiful sight, one I'll remember for a while. Eventually our hunger overcame us and we headed down to Lakes for breakfast. Not quite enough food for the hungry hikers, but at the end of the season they have to pack out all food scraps, it's too cold to compost. As a result, they don't make extra if they can avoid it.
We packed up after breakfast and started out, because we had a long way to go that day. We retraced our steps from yesterday, over the Camel trail to the Davis Path, with some excellent views of Monroe, Lakes of the Clouds, alpine tundra, and the summit of Washington. The weather was perfect, with early morning stillness and cool temps. After a little up and down on the Davis Path, and a final look at the lawns and the ravines, we began the descent from Boott Spur, down to treeline, and into the woods. Except for the occasional grouse exploding from cover, we saw almost noone. It was getting a bit warm as well, so the shade was welcome. We stopped for a rest at the first junction with the Isolation trail, then headed for the Isolation summit. The only other time I'd been there was rainy, so I wasn't quite prepared for the spectacular views. A few other folks were there, but they eventually left, so we ate lunch then lay down on the rocks and napped. It's a magical place, isolated and beautiful. I could have stayed there all afternoon, except we had about 8 more miles to go.
Amy's knees were begining to bother her, so she and Rich slowed the pace a bit while Jeff and I headed on. Along the way I found the perfect Indian Pipe, something the naturalist had talked about the previous night. The Rocky Branch trail, surprisingly enough, follows and crosses the Rocky Branch, with a bunch of nice designated Wilderness Area campsites along the way. As we walked along side the stream, I heard something ahead of us, and as we rounded a bend, there were two moose in the trail. They quickly hightailed it out of there, but were in sight for nearly a minute. Very cool. At what turned out to be the final stream crossing I took off my shoes and soaked my feet for a while, bliss. At the Rocky Branch Shelter #2 we rested and waited for Amy and Rich. They arrived not to long after us, bummed about missing out on the moose, but ready for the final grunt. The last five miles are definately the longest, climbing a hill over muddy terrain, then finally dropping the last descent through nice forests. Eventually we heard the sound of Rt 16, not usually a pleasant sound but welcome in this case. Jeff and I drove back to Pinkham in my car to pick up his, changed, and drove back to Rocky Branch just in time to see Rich and Amy coming out of the woods. Yeah! We all survived!
All in all, an excellent trip, aided by spectacular weather and a route that took us away from the majority of the other hikers. Staying at Lakes of the Clouds isn't for everyone, and I don't have any urge to do it again soon, but it lets you spend some remarkable time in an area that is often difficult to reach.
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