The Most Challenging NH 4000 Footers

A close second to the snowshoe debate is the controversial question of the hardest NH 4000 footers. I personally have been hiking the NH 4Ks since 2012 and have done each one at least four times and in every season (some with many repeats). This gives me a unique position to rank the 4000 footers with a bit more perspective. I haven’t hiked every single route to the peaks so this is of course the most challenging 4ks based on my own opinion and experiences.

The hikes included do not entail “death marches” like a full one day Presidential Traverse or single day pemi loop. They do include pairs of peaks commonly hiked together by someone with the intention of hiking the full list. These hikes are what I would consider my top 5 most challenging hikes and are not listed in any particular order.

  1. Wildcats Traverse

Hardest hikes in new england

Most hike the three Wildcat peaks from Wildcat Ridge and Nineteen Mile Brook trails which itself is extremely rugged and steep. One autumn (yes, the photo above was taken the second to last weekend in fall!) I was finishing my NH 4000 Footers in that season and decided to do a different route, climbing the three from Pinkham Notch. I didn’t know at the time, but the section from Pinkham Notch to Wildcat E is the steepest section of the entire Appalachian Trail (2000′ in 1.5 miles, with one 1000′ climb in 0.5 mile). ! I later learned about this from Guthook’s site.

Hardest hikes in new england
Elevation Profile from Guthook’s AT App

That hike was particularly difficult because we broke trail the entire way through feet of snow. Each section usually entailed 3 steps forward, sliding backwards, and then going up again and really getting our snowshoe crampons into whatever solid surface we could find.

My first hike of the Wildcats was in the pouring rain which also makes the steep sections more difficult. No matter the route or conditions, the Wildcats are a difficult trio!

2. Jefferson

Hardest hikes in new england

Of all the trail options on the Terrifying 25 list, five of the trails ascend Mount Jefferson: Caps Ridge, Castle, Six Husbands, Sphinx, and Castle Ravine.

There are many aspects that make Jefferson difficult no matter the route. From extreme weather on exposed trails to navigating through ladders, boulders, scrambles, and ledges- Jefferson always packs a punch. 

Caps Ridge is the easiest route of all the options and it is still a rough and exposed trail to the summit. The Six Husbands Trail is a fun route and at almost 15 miles, a full day of hiking.

3. Owls Head

Hardest hikes in new england

lower section of Owl’s Head Path

Owl’s Head is notoriously left for almost last by most hikers checking off the 4000 footers. At 18 miles, it’s a long hike for a wooded peak. Overall it is a nice hike, but for many it’s their first overnight trip carrying much more gear than a typical day hike and staying in a wilderness campground. Owl’s Head is also the only NH 4K that involves hiking on an unmaintained trail and has the option for a couple of bushwhacks to save some mileage and avoid some larger water crossings.

4. Galehead and South Twin

Hardest hikes in new england

I remember the first time I hiked down South Twin I was so thankful I wasn’t hiking the Twins from the opposite direction as it is exceptionally steep. I prefer snagging the Twins along with the Bonds (and also adding in Hale and Zealand) as a two day hike to get a bunch of peaks in for not too much more effort than just doing the Bonds alone. The climb up to South Twin from Galehead hut is extremely steep and lasts quite some time. The views from South Twin do make it worth the slog!

5. The Bonds

Hardest hikes in new england

My favorite hikes tend to be the most difficult ones and it has to be for the effort-to-reward ratio. The Bonds are a 20+/- mile round trip hike. For that mileage you get a true wilderness experience, standing atop the summits without anything man made in sight. When I was working on the NH 48 in winter I actually burned the roof of my mouth because it was so cold out. Mouth breathing for 20 miles in one day in winter will do that to you!

There you have it- my personal opinion on the hardest NH 48 hikes! Are you just starting out? Here are my recommendations on 4000 footers for beginners!

I’d love to hear which of the NH 48 you’d say are the toughest! Leave a comment to let me know.

Last modified: July 29, 2019


— Update: 31-12-2022 — cohaitungchi.com found an additional article Beyond 48: The Northeast’s Hardest Hiking Checklists from the website goeast.ems.com for the keyword hardest hikes in new england.

For many people, just getting to the top of a New Hampshire 4,000-footer is a big accomplishment. For others, summiting all 48 of the state’s 4,000-footers is the ultimate goal and a sign that you’ve “made it” as a New England hiker.

But, for a select few, the White Mountains and New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers get in your blood. So, the idea of stopping at just 48 seems ludicrous. For these people, they move on to tackling more challenging ways to summit the New Hampshire 48, whether by linking them, attempting them in different seasons, or exploring them by different trails.

Hardest hikes in new england
The view from the Southern Presidentials. | Credit: Sean Greaney

The Big Hikes

In many cases, hiking your first 4,000-footer involves getting out of your comfort zone, accepting a new physical challenge, and returning to your car with a blend of jubilation and exhaustion. Perhaps it’s the desire to recreate this feeling that leads some to move on from the 48 summits to the White Mountains’ classic long, hard hikes.

Presidential Traverse

The most notable, the 18-plus mile Presidential Traverse climbs over 8,500 feet while summiting seven New Hampshire 4,000-footers. For planning out your journey, this includes Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, and Pierce. Some ambitious hikers even continue the extra couple of miles to tag the summit of Mount Jackson.

Carter-Moriah-Wildcat Traverse

Although the Presidential Traverse gets most of the attention and has more climbing, many insist that a Carter-Moriah-Wildcat Traverse is more difficult. Helping it earn this reputation, its steep rock trails and 7,200 feet of climbing take you over six 4,000-foot summits. Here, that list covers Moriah, South Carter, Middle Carter, Carter Dome, Wildcat A, and Wildcat D. However, losing the majority of the elevation previously gained and having to reclaim it near the middle at Carter Notch really make the Carter-Moriah-Wildcat Traverse feel difficult.

Pemi Loop

While traverses are great, sometimes you want to go big but only have access to one car. Here is where the Pemi Loop rules. The route, as you may know, combines two of the White Mountains’ classic traverses—Franconia Ridge and the Bonds—into what Backpacker Magazine has labeled the country’s second-hardest day-hike.

Covering over 30 miles and 9,000 feet of elevation gain, this legendary loop hike tags the summits of nine New Hampshire 4,000-footers. This time, you’ll reach Flume, Liberty, Lincoln, Lafayette, Garfield, South Twin, West Bond, Bond, and Bondcliff. The truly ambitious and fit will then add the summits of Galehead, Zealand, and North Twin for an almost 40-mile day that summits 12 peaks.

Hardest hikes in new england
Credit: Hannah Wohltmann

Gridding

Although the big hikes present equally large challenges, they can all feasibly be done in a day. For those looking for a longer-term commitment, on the other hand, you can attempt “gridding.” Gridding is defined as hiking every New Hampshire 4,000-footer in every month of the year. These journeys amount to a grand total of 576 summits and appeal to those of us who love checking boxes off our lists.

Until this January, completing the grid was considered a multi-year objective—that is, until Sue Johnston of Littleton, NH, became the first person to do it in a calendar year. And, according to the definitive website for gridders, 48×12.com, only 70 people have completed the whole shebang.

Named for the 48 x 12 spreadsheet used to document ascents, gridding adds the challenge of facing each and every mountain in all possible conditions. That covers the snow and ice of winter to the mud of spring to the heat and humidity of summer to the treacherous leaves of fall.

Hardest hikes in new england
Credit: Jeff Jacobsen

Red-Lining

If the idea of gridding sounds overly ambitious to you, red-lining will sound downright crazy. While hiking the New Hampshire 48 and gridding revolve around summiting the White Mountains’ highest peaks, red-liners seek to hike every mile of every trail, including viewpoints, campsites, and spur trails (approximately 1,420 miles) found in the AMC White Mountain Guide.

If that sounds like a lot of mileage, take into consideration that many of the trails are out-and-backs or crisscross with others. Typically, this forces red-liners to hike far more miles than just the 1,420 miles required.

Named after the act of highlighting completed trail sections, red-lining is most frequently done over multiple years. What’s truly incredible about it is, considering its relative closeness to major metropolitan areas and hiking’s surging popularity, only 35 people have finished the endeavor. One includes EMS customer Bill Robichaud, who we featured back in 2015:

While summiting all 4,000-footers is an incredible accomplishment, you don’t have to stop there! New Hampshire’s White Mountains can be explored and experienced in so many different ways. Whether you want to repeat your favorites, tackle the hardest, grid, red-line, or invent some new way to keep the challenge alive, just remember that the 48th summit doesn’t have to be your last.


— Update: 31-12-2022 — cohaitungchi.com found an additional article The 5 Toughest Hiking Trails in the White Mountains from the website sectionhiker.com for the keyword hardest hikes in new england.

Hardest hikes in new england
Many of the toughest trails in the White Mountains climb Mt Washington – the Great Gulf Trail climbs the headwall below the towers, shown above.

There are a lot of challenging hiking trails in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, especially if you’ve never hiked there. Here are five especially tough trails that even experienced White Mountain hikers find challenging. What are your favorites?

1. Huntington Ravine Trail – 2.4 miles w/ 2700′ of elevation gain

The Huntington Ravine Trail is considered the most difficult hiking trail in the White Mountains. Located on the east face of Mt Washington, Huntington Ravine is a steep bowl-shaped valley, called a glacial cirque. The trail climbs the headwall of the ravine and requires climbing open and exposed ledges, the use of hand holds, and good footwork to ascend. The first 1.3 miles are relatively easy until you get to the first aid cache at the ravine floor. From there, the trail gains 1650′ in the next 1.1 miles, which is seriously steep.

Hardest hikes in new england
The Huntington Ravine Trail requires climbing open ledges and is not recommended for people afraid of heights.

This trail is not recommended for inexperienced hikers. People with heavy backpacks should consider a different route. Descending this trail is also not recommended under any conditions. Extreme caution should be used if the upper parts of the trail are wet or covered with snow. Huntington Ravine is known for its avalanche activity in winter and daily avalanche forecasts are published on nearby signs and online during the winter months.

2. Tuckerman Ravine Trail – 4.2 miles w/ 4250′ of elevation gain

The Tuckerman Ravine Trail is the most popular way to climb Mt Washington, but that doesn’t make it an easy trail to hike up the mountain and return in the same day. While technically less demanding than climbing the Huntington Ravine Trail, most of the people who attempt the Tuckerman Ravine Trail are not regular hikers and may be surprised by the level of effort and time required to ascend the trail.

Hardest hikes in new england
The final section of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail leads through a boulder field to the summit of Mt Washington.

Tuckerman Ravine, like it’s neighbor Huntington Ravine, is a giant bowl-shaped valley carved by glacier activity. It also accumulates more snow during winter than any other spot in the White Mountains and advanced skiers come to ski the steep ravine headwall well into spring. Like Huntington Ravine, Tuckerman also has frequent avalanche activity and daily avalanche forecasts. The headwall section of the trail is frequently closed in spring if crevices still exist, because hikers have fallen into them and drowned before they can be rescued.

3. The Great Gulf Trail – 7.9 miles w/ 5000′ of elevation gain

The Great Gulf Trail also climbs one of Mt Washington’s steep ravine headwalls, but on its north side. The trail travels up the huge bowl-like valley called the Great Gulf, bordered by Mt Washington and the peaks of the Northern Presidential mountain range: Mt Clay, Mt Jefferson, Mt Adams, and Mt Madison. The Great Gulf Trail ends with a 1700′ ascent up a one mile avalanche slide that can be disorienting to climb in low visibility. Winter snow also lingers on the gulf’s headwall well into July, limiting the season when this final section of trail can be attempted.

Hardest hikes in new england
Running water flowing down the middle of the Great Gulf Trail at the headwall section of the trail.

4. Ice Gulch Path – 0.9 miles in length with 700′ of elevation gain

The Ice Gulch Path is a boulder-choked ravine in the town of Randolph, New Hampshire just north of Rt 2 near Gorham. The trail runs through the ravine which requires constant scrambling over wet and slippery rocks. The ravine is called Ice Gulch because it has an east-west orientation that gets little sunlight, creating a localized microclimate that is notably colder than the surrounding landscape. It’s so cold in the gulch, that lingering ice can be found year-round below the huge boulders.

Hardest hikes in new england
The Ice Gulch Path climbs through a boulder-choked ravine full of wet and slippery rocks.

The Ice Gulch Path forms a U-shaped loop and is best hiked uphill in a clockwise direction leaving from its trailhead on Randolph Hill Road. It’s a two-mile hike though forest to get to the base of the gulch where the scramble begins. Once started, the trail is very committing and difficult to backtrack on if you decide you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. The Ice Gulch Path is considered more difficult than the famous Mahoosuc Notch Trail section to the north, which also requires a rocky scramble through a boulder-filled ravine.

5. Mahoosuc Trail – 27.3 miles w/ 10,750 feet of elevation gain

The Mahoosuc Trail is a remote and wild trail that spans the entire Mahoosuc mountain range from Gorham, NH to the old firetower on Old Speck Mountain in Grafton Notch.  Most of the trail coincides with the Appalachian Trail, except a short section to the south that follows the path of the “Old AT” up to Mt Hayes and the intersection of the Centennial Trail. While the total elevation of the trail is relatively low, don’t underestimate the difficulty of hiking it. The trail climbs up and down many smaller mountains, through alpine areas and across bogs, as it threads its way north. Expect rain, mud, and bugs. Lots of each.

Hardest hikes in new england
North Goose Eye Mountain, Mahoosuc Trail

While the Mahoosuc Trail is accessible using side paths if you want to hike a section at a time, backpacking it is the most efficient way to complete a full traverse. Be conservative in how many miles you plan to hike per day because it’s tough-going with a fully loaded backpack. Timing your trip is also important. Deep snow can linger into June along the northern end of the trail. By late October, nighttime temperatures also begin to plummet, heralding the start of winter in the north country, and limiting the weather window where you can comfortably hike this trail to just a few short months each year.

More Tough Trails…

If you want to discover more tough trails in the White Mountains and plan great hikes, here the guidebooks and maps that I recommend you use. Good preparation is important in the Whites so you don’t get in over your skill and comfort level when tackling harder routes.

  • AMC White Mountain Guide
  • The 4000 Footers of the White Mountains
  • AMC White Mountain National Forest Map Set
  • Exploring New Hampshire Map from the Wilderness Map Company
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— Update: 31-12-2022 — cohaitungchi.com found an additional article The Hardest Hikes on the East Coast – Hiking & Trail Running from the website runbryanrun.com for the keyword hardest hikes in new england.

While it isn’t known for it’s mountains. The hardest hikes on the east coast have earned the nickname of the Beast Coast for a reason. With trails that are steep, uneven, rooty, rocky, and often covered with leaves hiding these obstacles. Switchbacks are a rarity for climbs so grades reaching 30%+ add to the fun. So if you’re looking for a challenge and some elevation I’ve got you covered with the most difficult trail in the east.

These are not in any specific order or ranked by difficulty. I’ll continue to grow this list as I find more worthy of being on the list of the hardest hikes on the east coast. If you feel like I have left your favorite trail off this list, let me know in the comments below!


Hardest Hikes on the East Coast


The Pemi Loop

Distance: 30.3
Type: Loop
Elevation Gain: 9,589ft
All Trails Link: Click Here
Features: Eight 4,000ft peaks and wide open views.

Description:
The Pemi Loop is a legendary loop for for north east hikers and runners. Located in the White Mountains of New Hampshire the trail is notoriously difficult. Taking you to the top and over eight 4,000ft mountains as you navigate around the bowl like ridgeline. The wide open views make the juice worth the squeeze. And knocking this one off in less the list will give you some major east coast bragging rights. 


The Presidential Traverse

Distance: 22+
Type: Point to Point
Elevation Gain: 9,500+
All Trails Link: Click Here
Features: 9 Peaks over 4,000ft

Description:
You had to know it would be on the list. Located in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, The Presidents Travers is probably the most famous east coast hike in the world not named the Appalachian Trail. Featuring miles of hiking above the tree line you will tag 9 total peaks over 4,000ft, and seven of those stand over 5,000ft. Known for weather that can change at the drop of a dime, and wind that can blow a runner off the steep trails. Summer storms have cost many hikers and runners the goal of completing the trail unbroken. And if you’re making a winter pass make sure you have the correct gear.


The Great Range traverse

Distance: 20.7
Type: Point to Point
Elevation Gain: 8,500+ (reports of up to 10,000ft)
All Trails Link: Click Here
Features: 12 peaks, 8 over 4,000

Description:
Let’s take a trip to the great state of New York with the Great Range Traverse. While the Presidential Travers may get all of the attention, this may give it a run for it’s money when it comes to pure pain per mile. Going over 12 total peeks in the Adirondacks Mountains. Eight peaks are over 4,000ft with the other two over 2,000ft. Be prepared for a trail that is ruggedly cut into the mountain side and for any type of weather. The better the view, the windier and colder it get in the north east.


Devils Path

Distance: 24
Type: Point to Point
Elevation Gain: 8,172ft
All Trails Link: Click Here
Features: Brutal trails with epic views.

Description:
Located in Elk Park, New York in the Catskills Mountains, The Devil’s Path is a brutal point-to-point hike with over 8,000ft of gain. You can expect sections of 40%-50% grades where you will be using your hands to help pull you up steep rock walls. And there is a reason Backpacker Magazine called this the second hardest hike on the east coast. Devils Path is one of the most famous trails for ultra runners in the north east and it’s considered a right of passage to complete.


Black Mountain Crest Trail

Distance: 11.3 Miles
Type: Point to Point (Often done as an Out and Back)
Elevation Gain: 5,147ft
All Trails Link: Click Here
Features: The two highest peaks in the east coast.

Description: 
Climbing the ridgeline of North Carolina’s Black Mountains. The Black Mountain Crest Trail is a point-to-point featuring the two highest peaks on the east coast. Culminating at the tallest, Mt Mitchell at 6,684ft. Much of this hike is completed at above 6,000ft making it the highest on the east coast. With a lot of the ridge line featuring narrow exposed trail. If you’re looking for a real challenge you can turn this into an out-&- back for 22+ miles.

You also might be interested in:

  • Alabama’s Hardest Hikes
  • Georgia’s Hardest Hikes
  • Kentucky’s Hardest Hikes
  • North Carolina’s Hardest Hikes
  • South Carolina’s Hardest Hikes
  • Tennessee’s Hardest Hikes
  • Virginia’s Hardest Hikes
  • West Virginia’s Hardest Trails

References

Read more  Hike the Jenny Lake Trail in Grand Teton National Park

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About the Author: Tung Chi