A Presidential Traverse is a single continuous hike that hits all of the peaks named after U.S. presidents. In all, there are 7 of these peaks, and the shortest route over all of them is about 20 miles long with roughly 8500 feet of elevation gain required. Given these requirements, there are many variations to a Presidential Traverse, including whether to go north to south or south to north, choosing one of the many trails up (or down) Madison, and adding "non-presidential" peaks to the route like Clay, Jackson, and/or Webster. We decided in advance that our goal would be the "minimal" traverse from north to south going up Madison from Appalachia on Rt. 2 via Valley Way and ending at the bottom of Pierce taking the Crawford Path out to Rt. 302. We would also bypass the unofficial Mt. Clay on the way up to Washington.
We had spotted a car on Friday night in Crawford Notch at the base of the Crawford Path and stayed at a motel on Rt. 2 near the Appalachia trailhead. Our plan was to be on the trail and hiking starting at 4:00AM. We were a few minutes behind and made it the trailhead parking lot at 4:15AM. The lot was completely full! There were also several other hiking groups there at that time gearing up for obviously the same thing. We parked on the shoulder of Rt. 2 and got ready to go in the dark. After getting our gear and headlamps together, and snapping a few pictures, we began hiking up Valley Way.
The initial ascent was interesting and not quite what I expected. For one, it was our first real experience hiking in the dark which was kind of neat, but different. Also, there were at least four other groups and well over a dozen hikers who started at almost the exact same time as us. Even though I knew this would be a very popular day to hike the traverse and we would likely see other traversers, I don't think I was quite expecting the train of headlamps ahead of us and behind us during that first mile. The intensity in the air was also abundant with the other hiking groups starting and stopping frequently to adjust clothing, adjust water bottles, adjust headlamps. We leapfrogged these groups several times right out of the gate. After a mile or so, though, things settled down.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the ascent, though, was how I felt. I basically felt like I was asleep. Normally I am not awake at 4 in the morning and my body was letting me know this. There was some initial adrenaline, but most of the hike up to the hut was a quiet slog. We set a reasonable pace, though, as Valley Way is a fairly steady trail and before we knew it, we were at Madison Hut. We continued right past the hut, after Katy briefly dropped her pack, and went right for the Madison summit. I was starting to wake up at this point, and we were finally above tree line, with the sun having risen and it starting to feel warmer. We could not have gotten luckier with the weather, as it was forecast to be in the 50's on the summits with clear skies, lots of sun, and not much wind. We made it to the Madison summit at 6:50AM fully awake now, feeling good, and ready to tackle what's next.
We doubled back to the hut and decided to stop to eat and fill our water. The hut was bustling with activity as the overnighters were all sitting down for breakfast. After a short break, we continued on to Adams and were at the summit by 8:20AM. For some reason ascending Adams this time seemed easier then any of the times I've done it in the past. It was at this point in the hike that we were well ahead of our estimated schedule, feeling good, and thinking this Presidential Traverse is going to be easy! Also, at this hour of the day, at this point in the hike, almost every other group that we bumped into was attempting a Presidential Traverse. It would be a theme throughout the day as we continued to leapfrog several groups several times. We did not stay on the summit long, and were back down off the Adams summit and back on the Gulfside Trail in no time.
The hike between Adams and Jefferson is long, but with some fairly flat sections. We continued our steady pace, still feeling good and made it to the summit at 10:20AM. A few pictures on the summit and on we went with the next stop Mount Washington. It's over 3 miles from Jefferson to Washington, with Mount Clay in between. We decided in advance that we would take the Gulfside Trail around Clay and save ourselves a couple hundred feet up and down of elevation. Once we made it around Clay, we still had about a mile to the summit and 1000 feet of elevation gain to climb so we decided to stop for a bit and eat. It was a good move and gave us the boost we needed to make it up Washington. When we reached the summit at 12:45PM I was expecting huge crowds as the Auto Road race was happening in the morning. However, the festivities must have just ended as it was surprisingly quiet with even lots of empty tables open in the summit building. We stayed at the top for about a half an hour, long enough to use the rest rooms, eat some food, drink some water, and rest up for the rest of our journey. We were over halfway done in terms of mileage and most of the climbing in terms of elevation gain was complete!
The hike down Crawford Path to Lake of the Clouds Hut was really quite easy. This trail is as nicely maintained as I remember with easy footing and lots of rocks setup as stairs. On the way down, we had a reunion with a couple of traverser groups that started the day with us way back at 4:15AM at Appalachia as they passed us going to the hut. We caught up to them at the hut, though, as they were still taking a break when we arrived. We quickly filled up our water and stayed for only a couple of minutes before heading for Monroe which was less then half a mile away. We made it to the top of Monroe at 2:30PM, almost the exact same time as the two other traverser groups, and stopped just long enough for a picture. On we all went, with one group taking off ahead of us that we didn't see the rest of the day, and one falling behind, that we also didn't see the rest of the day. We hope they made it!
It was another couple of miles before Eisenhower, and as we approached the final ascent, it was at this point that the hike began to take its toll. I began developing a dehydration headache and we stopped to eat again and drink more water. The refueling helped and we continued to the summit of Eisenhower, getting there quicker then it looked from the junction of the Eisenhower loop trail at 4:10PM. We were 12 hours in to the hike, with only one more peak to go! The hike over to Pierce is not a difficult, but we were slowing down at this point with so many miles and so many feet of elevation under our belts. We made it to Pierce at 5:10PM with the final summit complete!
It's a running joke that Katy has stated her life goal is to be able to do a "5K at any time." My sister Maureen insists that this can't possibly be a goal since there's no way to really achieve it. Well, it's 3.1 miles (or 5K) from the summit of Mount Pierce back to where we parked our car. At this point, we were tired, hungry, and in plenty of pain so if there's ever a time to "achieve" this goal, it was then. This was easily the most difficult part of the hike with our knees and quads speaking to us on every downhill, rocky step and my headache still a dull pain in the background. The Crawford Path is an easy trail by most definitions, but that easy 5K took us over 2 hours to complete. Any time though! We made it back to the car at 7:30PM, tired, sore, hungry, but it didn't matter because we had done it.
The Presidential Traverse was a goal that we had set for ourselves years ago, and it was finally in the bag. We had prepared for it, we were ready for it, and everything finally came together for us to make the attempt on an absolutely perfect day. Add to that the intangibles of the day: the anticipation of the event, the excitement of the goal, the intensity of the morning, the instant camaraderie on the trail, and just like that it was an instant classic.