The 5 Toughest Hiking Trails in the White Mountains

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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About the Author: Tung Chi