When Europeans go “backpacking,” many ditch the gear and stay in the rustic, ubiquitous—and full service—mountain hostels called “huts.”
That experience is rare in the United States—but America’s premier hut system is 125 years old this year. Scattered for 56 miles along the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (view the interactive map) in New Hampshire's White Mountains, the Appalachian Mountain Club’s system of 8 huts and two major lodges are all about a day’s hike apart. Their locations range from valleys on gurgling stream-sides and lapping lake-shores to perches way above timberline in the Appalachians’ rarefied alpine zones.
“This is an AT adventure of the first order,” says Rob Burbank, director of media and public affairs at the Appalachian Mountain Club. “Imagine an opportunity to hike one of the most rugged and spectacular sections of the Appalachian Trail with just a tooth brush in your pack!”
In the Side Door
I discovered the huts as many aficionados of the Appalachians do—tackling the East’s most alpine peaks—New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. After a number of hut trips and winter climbs of Mount Washington and adjacent summits—I spent months in the huts while conducting backcountry recreation research affiliated with the AMC.
That was it. I got immersed in the AMC’s distinctive culture—much of it centered around these high hostels. For more than a century, young, strapping AMC hutmen, and later hutwomen (left), have epitomized the camaraderie of the New England outdoors for hikers and hutgoers.
There are legends—the massive loads of supplies packed up on straining backs (also left), the ridiculously youthful rivalries and pranks staged between huts. And then there’s that lawnmower that ended up sitting out in the waving alpine grasses of Mount Jefferson’s appropriately-named Monticello Lawn.
The huts were a local New England lifestyle till Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas hiked a few huts and proposed that National Geographic run a story. A 35-page article, “The Friendly Huts of the White Mountains” was published in August, 1961. Hut visitation exploded. Then came baby boomer backpackers. The huts were cool—and crowded.
In The Beginning
Today’s 125th hut anniversary got it’s start with the 1888 construction of Madison Spring Hut, the year, the AMC has noted, that the Kodak camera was invented!
This earliest hut, spectacularly situated in the col between Mount Adams and Mount Madison (left), the northernmost Presidential Range peaks, went through a primitive series of permutations on the way to inspiring the expanded hut system enjoyed today.
Madison “Huts” went from one to three structures over the early 1900s. In 1929, Madison became one bigger hut—that burned in 1940. The hut was rebuilt, then in 2011, a $1 million rebuilding project brought Madison into the 21st century. The AMC says, “the rebuild preserved the 1929 core of the hut, including stone walls and foundation.”
Madison still just accommodates 52 hikers—but there’s a lot more room—and top bunk residents are only three beds above the floor instead of four.
The system grew slowly. Lakes of the Clouds Hut, now the largest hut that accommodates 90 on the flank of Mount Washington, was built in 1915 (view the video for a look at Lakes). In 1929 Lonesome Lake and Greenleaf huts came into existence. Zealand and Galehead huts were built in the early 1930s. Mizpah Springs Hut was built in 1964-’65.
Hut Seasons Vary
The huts have a brief summer season that varies in length, with opening and closing dates dictated by the severity of the weather at a hut’s location. AT hikers are part of the mix, so at some huts, “backpacker accommodations” permit through-hikers to get a bunk without paying full service rates that include dinner and breakfast.
Spring, fall, and even winter seasons extend the open dates at some huts—referenced by the "Caretaker Basis" sign you see at left. Users bring their own food and expect cooler temps—or downright cold in winter. A few huts like Zealand Falls have winter seasons when snowshoers and Nordic skiers slog in. The main dining room, where winter visitors prepare their own food, often on the hut’s stove, is heated and gas lamps flicker through the evening. But the bunk rooms are cold—so bring a great sleeping bag.
There are all kinds of permutations for a hut hike. Some huts are an easy short walk from the road—Lonesome Lake is a mere mile. Even for the loftiest hut—Lakes of the Clouds at 5,050 feet—is a lot easier if you start at the summit of Mount Washington by taking a shuttle bus or the historic Cog Railway to the top. That permits a downhill hut hike that appeals to older hikers or families with kids. Check out the video just below for a visit to Lakes of the Clouds Hut on one of those downhill easier family hikes.
What An Experience
However you do a hut hike, don’t expect a wilderness experience. Hut guests share a variety of bunk rooms. There are mattresses, blankets and pillows on the bunks but many hikers bring their own sleeping bags. (Light sleepers—bring ear plugs!) The bathrooms have running water but no showers.
Meals are a highpoint. Dining rooms bustle as the hut crew serves hearty, simple, homemade fare—and then entertain with skits that interpret the environment or just fall under the heading of quirky humor. Evenings too are spent in the dining rooms under gas lamps where people play cards, peruse books from the hut’s library, or share the life-shaping outdoor experiences that lie at the heart of backcountry sociability.
And, true to the AMC’s mission, interpretive programs are also offered at the huts.
Green Makes It Easy On You and the Environment
It’s easy to enjoy the hut experience because the AMC runs a system of bus shuttles between hut trailheads that let guests avoid spotting cars and wasting gas.
For decades, even during my days as a 1970s hut researcher, the AMC has striven to use green technologies in their backcountry lodges.
The newest “hut,” the Crawford Notch lodging/dining base called Highland Center is an award-winning “green” building using environmentally sensitive carpets, glues, and paints, a central biomass wood-burning boiler for heat. Sixty percent of the windows face south for passive solar gain. Low-flow and composting toilets are featured in the bathrooms and "Green Tours" are offered daily.
Even the highest huts have long been partially powered by small wind generators and solar panels. One even uses a hydropower system.
Historic—but Ready for the Future
There isn’t any direct evidence that 1880s AMCers had hiked alpine huts in Europe and were importing the idea—at least not in the AMC’s 1988 hut book A Century of Hospitality in High Places—but the possibility exists. The AMC was founded in 1876, which makes it the nation’s oldest conservation organization. The “Golden Age of Mountaineering” in Europe was just ending and huts were being built all over the Alps. Check out the Austria hut hiking video below.
However the hut idea got started and played out (read more history), we need more of these opportunities in my humble opinion. LeConte Lodge in the Great Smoky Mountains is a similar, though singular, hut experience that is so popular it’s often hard to find room at the inn! Explore LeConte Lodge in the video below. The Southern Appalachians could use its own hut system somewhere—but today’s public managing agencies don’t seem enthusiastic—even if user fees and aggressively green policies are pursued.
A friend of mine who manages a European park with a hut system says, “For the most preservation-oriented people, any facility is too much.”
More Huts Coming
That said, the AMC's hut system success is bringing more huts to New England’s future.
Maine Wilderness Lodges—the AMC’s string of traditional Maine sporting camps—are linked by trails that are groomed for cross country skiing in winter.
And Maine Huts and Trails is another hut system that’s also perfect for hiking and Nordic skiing. Between these two new hut systems, eco-tourism has established a strong presence in Maine’s awesome North Woods, an historically depressed area with an economy usually based on logging.
Addicted to Huts
Be forewarned—one trip to the AMC's great huts may be the start of a hut lifestyle for you, too. I've been back to "the Whites" over the years and even traded the summer hut experience for a memorable winter cross country ski trip to Zealand Falls Hut (granted, participating in a rescue of unprepared winter hikers was an unexpected "bonus").
The AMC ended up publishing my first book, but wherever your Appalachian Mountain Club hut adventure leads you, I can guarantee it'll be the beginning of a truly memorable encounter with one of the United States' landmark outdoor organizations and its stellar system of backcountry huts.
And to think the AMC started its White Mountain masterpiece 125 years ago!
Check out the AMC's new hut hiking handbook, Passport to AMC's High Huts in the White Mountains.
If you book a 3-day stay before May 15th for hut stays between June 2—28—you can chop 30% off of normal rates. Check this page for that deal and others.
AMC offers caretaker rates from mid-September or mid-October (depending on location) to late May: $25-50/per person/night. Guests provide their own sleeping bags and food and have full use of the kitchen, stove, cookware, dinnerware, utensils.
This year, full-service season runs from June 1 to September 21 or October 19, depending on location. Rates are $98-$120/per person/night and include dinner and breakfast. There is a discount of 10 % at Carter Notch Hut.
Top two: Randy Johnson/ 3rd: Lori Duff / 4th and 6th: Eric Pedersen / 5th: Herb Swanson / Bottom: Mike Kautz
All videos by Randy Johnson