Vanish To: The White Mountains – via the Pemi Loop

Welcome back to “Vanish: To…”, my film diaries of various escapes and attempts to vanish from the city for a few days in nature.

For this installment, the crew and I set off to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to hike the wildly popular Pemigewasset Loop, known simply as the “Pemi Loop.”

This 30+ mile trail is famous for its rollercoaster ride ups and downs and the ability to conquer about 15 peaks, 8 of which are over 4,000 feet in elevation, with two of those (Mt Lafayette and Lincoln) clocking over 5,000 ft, for a total elevation gain of ~10,000 ft. All of which is doable within a couple of days of intense but rewarding hiking. Some of the locals and trail runners manage this feat in just one day!

For your struggles you are redeemed with ever shifting landscapes, and views of the of the Whites, including Mt Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast.

Perhaps more infamous than its views and elevation gains, however, is the quickly changing weather conditions in this region, which we both prepared for and experienced first hand.

We planned our trip over four days.

Day One was simply the drive. From NYC it is a bit of a trek, but there is a parking lot at the base of the trail and it is a short three mile hike to a campsite where you can stay for the night before starting in earnest the next day.

Day Two: Hoping to avoid crowds on trail and at the shelters, we opted to hike the Loop counterclockwise as opposed to the more popular clockwise route. This lead to a fairly grueling ascent up Mt Bond on the first day and a stacked day of miles before reaching our planned campsite for the evening. The day was certainly a challenge. It was hot and our legs were not yet warmed up and accustomed to the constant ups and downs, but it also gave us some of the most incredible vistas I’ve seen in the Northeast. Mt Bond in particular felt like a place that should only exist somewhere out West, and not a seven hour drive from New York City.

Day Three had promised rain and it delivered. We awoke early to a downpour with intense winds and hastily packed up camp, eating a wet breakfast before resigning ourselves to what would be a damp, grey hike across the most famous part of the trail: The Franconia Ridge Traverse. The traverse resides above the tree line and hits four of the 4,000 ft peaks: Mt Flume (4,328), Mt Liberty (4,459 ft), Mt Lincoln (5,089 ft), and Mt Lafayette (5,260 ft). Due to the exposure, wind gusts can easily exceed 60mph, with severe temperature drops and a high risk of lightning strikes during thunderstorms. Needless to say it’s not a place to be stuck in in-climate weather.

With no signs of the rain slowing, and fear of being exposed to thunder and lightning, we resigned to hike the nine mile traverse as quickly as possibly with no stops.

Due to the fog and rain, our path was hidden from us most of the trek. Visibility was about 100 feet if that, requiring us to stay close to each other, and also obscuring the seemingly endless onslaught of peaks from view until they were immediately before us. While this meant we missed out on the famous views on this part of the trail, it made for a unique and exhilarating experience all the same, if not also exhausting.

Eventually we made it to our next campsite, and were thankfully greeted by the sun and a chance relax and more importantly to dry out before our hike out the next day.

Day Four was much of the same. Less rain but just as much fog. Mountains became shadows in the clouds and the wind ripped through the peaks and valleys as we continued up and down with a final steep descent to the valley below. Thankfully, by this point most of the trip was behind us and we had a shorter hike out followed a refreshing dip in the Pemigewasset River before heading back to the city.

Some notes on the shelters: You will see this on any site about the Pemi Loop, but the camping shelters here are platforms: raised decks made of wood and built into the steep mountainside. Some of my ultralight companions struggled to pitch their pole-less tents on the structures. Even with my freestanding Big Agnes, I had to great creative with the rain fly and fight for space next to my fellow campers. Additionally, those accustomed to other Northeastern camping, and the mostly isolated lean-tos found in the Adirondacks and Greens might be surprised to find care takers at each shelter. A small fee is required to camp and each site is set up with an outhouse, bear box, and separate cooking area. Bring some cash, and don’t expect to have any fires once you’ve crossed the tree line. Lastly, there are sections of the Appalachian Trail that merge with the Pemi Loop and you can opt to stay at one of their sites as well. These must be reserved in advance, but offer bunks, cooked meals, and a great place to just stop and resupply while on trail.