Introductory Guide to Visiting the White Mountains
This 8.8 mile hike takes you past Madison Spring Hut and up to the summit of majestic Mt. Madison. The Valley Way Trail is known for being one of the safer, more protected routes into the heart of the White Mountains. While the terrain is less extreme than other trails in the area, the hike still requires a little over 4,100 feet of climbing. It’s a tough hike, but the views make it well worth the effort.
View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike
My top goal for our 2014 New Hampshire trip was to hike up Mt. Madison. We both went to James Madison University and have worked there for years, so it only seemed fitting to take on the mountain that shared a name with our college. I even wore JMU Dukes gear almost like the guy that goes to a concert wearing a t-shirt for the band’s previous tour to show his super-fandom.
We started out the day on a rough note. Christine had put her hiking shoes and socks in the back of our car, so she could wear sandals on the car ride up. When we pulled over at one point, we realized one of our Camelbak tubes had pressed open and leaked all over the car, soaking her shoes and socks. We debated about if we would have been able to even do the hike in fear of blisters, but Christine decided to push forward.
There are a lot of ways up Mt. Madison, but in our research we found the most popular way was to make our approach by going up the Valley Way trail. We parked at the large Appalachia parking lot (which was so full we needed to park on the road) directly on US-2. We were worried there would be so many people on the trail, but this parking lot holds the beginnings of lots of trails that lead up to many peaks (including Mt. Adams and Mt. Quincy Adams).
The trail starts off from the back of the parking lot. The trail branches off in different directions but follow the signs for the Valley Way trail. The trail begins relatively flat and easy walking, as it runs along Snyder Brook. There were a few places where we could get some nice stream views and even a glimpse at the picturesque Tama Falls at .4 miles. At .7 miles, you reach another large junction, but continue to follow the signs to the Valley Way trail. The trail then begins the steeper uphill climb. Overall, I felt that the trail, while very rocky was not as steep and rocky as some of the other trails in the White Mountains. There is a relentless amount of climbing and many rocks to navigate, but it wasn’t as grueling on my feet as some hikes in New Hampshire have felt to me. At 3.0 miles, the trail gets very steep and rocky (often filled with larger small boulder-sized rocks to hoist onto) and will remain so until you reach the Madison Spring Hut at 3.8 miles. If you’re interested in camping on the mountain, but don’t want to stay at the hut, the Valley Way tentsite is at mile 3.1 on this hike.
Once we arrived at the hut, we saw there were a couple of ways up to the summit of Mt. Madison. At this point, we were above treeline, so we saw the rocky summit up above us. I went in and found one of the Croo members and she told me the Osgood Trail had the most direct route and was a little easier than making our way via the Watson Path. The final ascent up to Mt. Madison was .5 miles along the Osgood Trail (which is also the Appalachian Trail in this area). You basically needed to walk acrpss large boulders, following cairns along the way until you reached the summit. When you are above treeline, the summits of mountains seem so close to reach, but it is very misleading. As we climbed up, we looked back and saw the hut shrink with each step, finally giving us some perspective of how far we had come. We stayed a while at the summit. The views were breathtaking and you could see for miles all around. It definitely was one of the most beautiful scenes I have witnessed hiking and to realize the work we had put in to attain the peak, made it feel even more worthwhile.
While we were at the summit, we met a woman who had a sign pinned to her that had 48 over 50 written on it. She was over 50 years old and she had a goal to do all 48 peaks over 4000 ft. in elevation in New Hampshire. She had saved Mt. Madison as her last hike to meet her goal, so we were thrilled to be able to see her experience accomplishing her goal. What an inspiration! We also talked to a gentleman at the summit who was from Colorado that had done this same hike 30 years ago. He was staying at the nearby Crag Camp, run by the Randolph Mountain Club, just as he had done when we was a teenager. He wanted to see if this hike was just as amazing as he had remembered and he told us it definitely was. It made me further realize that everyone likes to hike for their own reasons and it is always a privilege to get to hear people’s stories on the hike.
We made our way back down and ate some lunch at the Madison Spring Hut. We then ventured .2 miles on the Parapet Trail to see Star Lake. This is a spot you definitely shouldn’t miss. The lake is more like a small pond, but it was so beautiful to view the summit of Mt. Madison, as it reflected into Star Lake. We debated about tackling Mt. Adams to bag another peak, but we realized that the summit looked close, but it was still a steep 1 mile away. Not wanting to add even more to our hike, we decided to make our way back down. The trail seemed to be even rockier on the way back down. While you can normally fly down some parts of downhill trails, you need to take your time on this one to navigate all the rocks. On our way down, we came into a rain shower, making the rocks a little slick. The last .8 miles were quite easy again and we did pick up some time at this point. We made our way back to the parking lot to make the round trip 8.8 miles.
The morning of our Mt. Madison hike started off cheerfully enough. We stopped for breakfast at Dunkin Donuts. I ate both a bagel with cream cheese and a Boston Cream donut. If I’m going to hike almost nine miles with over 4,000 feet of climbing, I’m going to enjoy any and all the baked goods I want! However, I was jolted out of my happy post-carb afterglow when I discovered my socks and sock liners completely soaked in the back of the car. A tough hike with wet socks sounded like a really bad idea. But, driving out of our way to find an outfitter with Thorlo socks seemed like an even worse idea. I’m super picky about socks, and Thorlo’s thick-cushion hiker socks are the only ones that keep my feet happy. I decided wet Thorlo socks were better than dry socks of another brand. (and they were … I hiked all day in wet socks and didn’t get a single blister!)
As Adam said in his post, the Valley Way trail is pretty moderate for White Mountain terrain. The trail is not as rocky and stays under the shelter of trees until you get to Madison Spring Hut. It’s a great choice if you want to visit the northern Presidentials, but stay largely sheltered from wind and other weather. There is still plenty of climbing, but until the last mile, it’s all gradual and moderate. Trails like the Valley Way exist due in part to people like J. Rayner Edmands. He was an early volunteer for the Appalachian Mountain Club. Starting in the 1880’s, he spent over 20 summers building trails in the White Mountains. He believed trails to the high peaks should be passable without stumbles, even in the dark. Backpacker Magazine did a neat article about Edmands in their October 2014 issue. Check it out if you have a few free minutes.
I very much enjoyed the little rapids and waterfalls along Snyder Brook early in the hike. Tama Falls was especially impressive. After we moved away from the stream, the hike was basically just a climb in the woods. As we ascended the trail got rockier, bit by bit. The last half mile to the hut was insanely steep and rocky. In one spot, my shoe got so solidly wedged between two rocks that I had to unlace it and contort my ankle to free myself. It took efforts from both of us to release my shoe from the rocks. It’s a good thing trail runners are so soft and flexible, because my feet definitely needed both shoes on this hike! I think the steepness of the terrain is actually what stopped me from getting hurt when my foot got caught. We were moving very slowly, picking our way across the rocks. Had I been moving at any significant speed, I think I could have easily broken my ankle.
When we arrived at Madison Spring Hut, it was already starting to cloud up a little. It wasn’t really overcast, but the sky had that heavy, hazy look about it. The weather was definitely changing and I wanted to make sure we enjoyed the best views possible. We headed up the Osgood Trail toward the summit of Madison. I don’t know if you can really call the path to the top a ‘trail’. It’s more of a scramble across rocks, following cairns leading you to the summit. The climb to the top is slow going, simply because there is never a simple place to put your feet. On our way up it was fun to look back and marvel at the towering peaks and the tiny hut tucked into the col.
At the top we enjoyed spectacular views of the Presidentials. Seeing the Mt. Washington Auto Road snaking down the mountain was really impressive! While the wind was a little brisk at the summit, it was really a warm, mild day for the White Mountain high peaks. Lots of people were hiking in shorts and t-shirts. Some people even basked shirtless in the summit sunshine. My blood is a little thin for that, but I wasn’t cold like I had been on the summit of Mt. Washington in 2013.
After taking lots of photos and doing our JMU rituals, we climbed back down and enjoyed our packed lunch at Madison Spring Hut. Of course, we supplemented our packed food with baked goods from the Croo. I always hear people talking about how huts are packed with dayhikers all summer long. I’m not sure if it’s our timing (we hike early), but we’ve found almost every hut we’ve visited nearly empty.
After lunch, we walked out to Star Lake. What a beautiful spot. The lake itself is small and shallow, but it makes a gorgeous reflecting pool for Mt. Madison. We were lucky to visit on a picture perfect day! While we were admiring the lake and taking in our final peak views, we started to hear distant rumbles of thunder in the distance.
Being caught in a thunderstorm in the Whites is definitely something I’d be happy to NEVER experience. Lightning strikes happen frequently, wet granite is very slick, and stream levels can change drastically in mere minutes. In fact, just last week I read a harrowing account from a solo hiker caught by storms in the White Mountains. Seriously scary!
We made our way down as quickly as we safely could. With a couple miles of hiking left, the rain started to fall. Fortunately, it was light rain and none of the thunder/lightning seemed close. We got back to the car right before the skies opened up and poured! What a great day with perfect timing. I’m really thankful that we had weather that allowed us to visit two more Presidentials on our 2014 trip!
- Distance – 8.8miles
MapMyHike Stats *
- Elevation Change – 4150 feet
- Difficulty – 5. The trail started off easier, but it is still a very tough, uphill climb.
- Trail Conditions – 2.5. The trail was well-maintained, but the rocky parts of the trail make this a challenge. The final push to the summit on the Osgood Trail also took a lot of precision. Bring trekking poles.
- Views – 5. It doesn’t get much better than this. If you are lucky enough to catch this on a day where clouds are off the mountain summits, you will be able to see all around you for miles.
- Waterfalls/streams – 3. The Snyder Brook runs alongs the trail early on the hike and you can see a few smaller waterfalls along the trail.
- Wildlife – 1. We didn’t really see any wildlife on the trail. I wouldn’t expect much at all once you get above treeline.
- Ease to Navigate – 2.5. There are a lot of junctions and side trails on the route because there are a lot of trails in this area. Keep following the signs for the Valley Way Trail until you reach the hut and then follow the Osgood Path via the cairns to the summit.
- Solitude – 2. We picked a gorgeous day in the summer to do this hike, so we weren’t surprised to see lots of people. We saw the most at the summit and the hut, but there was still places to find our own bit of solitude.
Download a trail map (PDF)
Directions to trailhead: From I-93: Take Exit 35 for Twin Mountain. Follow 3N for 12.4 miles. Turn right onto 115N for 9.7 miles. Turn tight onto 2E for 8 miles. The parking lot will be a large gravel area on the right.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.