There are plenty of themed hotels throughout New Hampshire’s White Mountains, but none can compare with the essence of the Appalachian Mountain Club’s network of mountain huts in the Granite State. Accessible only by foot, they are a world away from the norm.
“I think that they are really magical and special places,” AMC huts manager Bethany Taylor said. “It’s a really great way to get out into the woods — and into the mountains — without the need to have a lot of camping skills.”
In all, there are eight huts located along the Appalachian Trail through New Hampshire. Three of them — Carter Notch Hut, Zealand Falls Hut and Lonesome Lake Hut — are available for lodging during the winter months as well.
The huts offer rustic comfort, but it’s the sense of community that makes a stay there feel like what Taylor called a “Narnian fairly tale.”
“Because you’re coming through the woods and you come to a place where, in the winter, there’s a wood stove and a caretaker (known affectionately as an AMC hut croo). There’s someone living there. And then in the summer, you hike to the top of the mountain and then there’s this little cabin that just appears and they’re like, ‘Oh, please come in. Have some lemonade. Have some soup.’
“It’s sort of a community of mutual delight. You have to be the sort of person that thinks that walking uphill for three miles is fun in the first place. Then you sort of land in a hut and find that there were 50 other people who thought that was a good idea. And you’re all watching the sunset together.”
The AMC huts are in backcountry locations and offer co-ed bunkhouses and separate washrooms with composting toilets and cold water sinks. The bunkhouses are not heated, have no lighting and no electricity. They also stay cold, so it is imperative that guests bring the proper sleeping gear.
The huts were inspired by the ski huts of Europe, where hut-to-hut backcountry skiing got its start in the 1800s. Madison Spring Hut, located at the northern end of the Presidential Range, was the first of the New Hampshire huts, built in 1888.
“It’s a very non-American environmental experience,” Taylor said. “I just hope the people are coming because they are excited and want to spend some time in the environments that the huts are in, in a different capacity than ether a backpack or day hiker.”
All huts are operated at full-service capacity during the summer months (June to mid-fall), when guests also are served breakfast and dinner. Carter Notch Hut, Zealand Falls Hut and Lonesome Lake Hut open on a caretaker basis during the winter (late fall through the end of May). The caretaker will take care of shoveling snow off the roof and keeping the stove going. He or she also will help guide people, who must bring their own food, on how to use the cook stoves and the kitchen.
First-timers looking to experience the hut system while there’s still snow on the ground might want to start the journey at the Lonesome Lake Hut. The hut is located in Franconia Notch State Park and offers “big-mountain scenery without the big-mountain effort.” It is only a 1.6-mile hike from the trailhead, making it an ideal first-time backcountry experience and a great introduction to AMC’s hut system. The trailhead is accessible via the southbound lane of I-93 Franconia Notch Parkway in Franconia Notch State Park, with parking at Lafayette Campground.
The Carter Notch Hut, the eastern anchor of the AMC hut system, was built in 1914. During self-service season (winter), it is a 3.8-mile snowshoe hike to reach the hut. Along the way, hikers will, according to AMC, “encounter a world of rock jumbles, towering cliffs and tranquil mountain lakes in the seemingly endless Wild River Wilderness.” The 19 Mile Brook trailhead parking area is located on the north side of Route 16, approximately one mile north of the Mount Washington Auto Road.
Zealand Falls Hut, constructed in 1932, is accessible via an easy 2.8-mile hike on Zealand Trail. The Zealand Trailhead (USFS parking pass required) is located at the south end of the Zealand Road, which begins at Route 302, approx. 2.3 miles east of the Twin Mountain intersection.
Hartman said tat visitors will see a mix of other people enjoying the same experience. There are a lot of families who want to get their kids into hiking but might be daunted by the idea of all the gear they would need for a camp in the woods. “The huts are kind of like, ‘Great, we can just walk there,’ ” Hartman said. “You don’t have to hike three miles in, set up camp, and then get a 3-year-old to eat whatever you’ve cooked over a cook stove.”
There also are individuals who seek out the huts. Hartman ran into one gentleman along the Appalachian Trail last year who was giving himself the hut-to-hut experience as a retirement present. Local camp and school groups will also come through, learning and playing in the mountains in their backyards.
The huts also serve as an open shelters for those caught in a storm, which sometimes can lead to a crowded space. Since the pandemic began, that might not seem the most attractive situation for some, but it does help contribute to the huts’ ability to build bonds.
“We were operating at full capacity last year, but part of the delight of the huts is this sort of communal experience in a common place with friends and strangers,” Hartman said. “The whole message of strangers coming together to be as one in a small, cozy place and eating together. … It’s not great for COVID, so capacity was down. Over the last two years or so, we can be very full to overfull if there’s a storm. We’re not going to send people off in lighting. People can use them as shelter as well as a destination.”
Hartman said the huts also can serve as an emotional refuge.
“We are sort of a world apart from the ordinary,” she said. “I think it is really comforting for people to come in … they are warm and welcoming landing spaces and they help people have a few minutes of being at home in a new and interesting environment where things are at a different pace.”
Hut rates start at $60 per night during the self-service season. During the regular season, when service includes dinner, lodging and breakfast, a stay can run $278. AMC members receive a 20 percent discount off regular rates (AMC membership is $50 for an individual, $75 for a family).
Anybody looking to reserve a hut should visit outdoors.org for complete information. Those interested also can call 603-466-2727 or email email@example.com. Hartman said AMC representatives are “predominantly online magicians” about answering questions about one’s hiking comfort level for each hut.
“One of the best things that the huts do is that you don’t have to be able to summit Everest to go and have a wonderful little outdoor experience,” Hartman said.
One fit for a fairy tale even.
Eric Wilbur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.