Over the River and Through the Woods

On the Appalachian Mountain Club's trails in New Hampshire, hiking is only part of the thrill. Along the way, you can stay in huts straight out of summer camp, complete with picnic-table dinners, silly skits, and plenty of trail tales. Lights-out at 9:30!

Day one: starting out on the Old Bridle Path; tonight's Greenleaf Hut is several steep miles ahead
Day one: starting out on the Old Bridle Path; tonight's Greenleaf Hut is several steep miles ahead (Joshua Paul)
On the summit of 5,260-foot Mount Lafayette (Joshua Paul)

As unexpected luxuries go, there's a lot to be said for the notion that you can climb for six hours into the roadless New Hampshire wilderness, unshoulder your backpack, and find yourself, at 4,200 feet, face-to-face with a freshly carved turkey dinner.

For more than a century, the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), a Northeast conservation group, has maintained a string of eight huts in the White Mountains, each a day's hike away from its nearest neighbors, that shelter and feed thousands of hikers every summer. I've known about these cabins since I moved to Boston 15 years ago and, strange as it may sound, have diligently avoided them. I was an avid camper and backpacker in my early 20s, and these huts always struck me as a form of cheating: The outdoors is supposed to be a theater of self-sufficiency; it felt wrong to march into the open only to spend the night at a hotel. But now that I'm 38, I'm willing to change my mind. I haven't camped for more than a decade; these days, having someone cook for me after a hike is the only way I'm getting back to nature.

That's what brings me 2,000 feet above the trailhead off Interstate 93, the straps of a new backpack cutting into my shoulders. It's the middle of June, and I've decided to try a four-day trek, bunking down in a different AMC hut each night. For company, I've enlisted my friend Sam, an architect and fellow lapsed hiker. We've spent two weeks buying gear, marking our route on a waterproof map, and wondering whether we're crazy to think that, after years of tackling nothing harder than the hills around Boston, we can walk into some of New England's most forbidding terrain and emerge unscathed more than 25 miles later. Also along with us are a photographer, Josh, and his brother Jason. Their backpacks, I note, look suspiciously new, too.

We're bypassing the short route to our first hut in favor of a more picturesque—but also more challenging—climb over Franconia Ridge, which rises like a wall along

I-93 through the middle of northern New Hampshire. It's a clear, sunny Saturday morning, and we set off in T-shirts and shorts, hopping roots and brooks, with the cheerful wooden signposts of the White Mountain National Forest marking every junction. Soon, though, the trail takes a sharp turn for the vertical, and we find ourselves scrambling upward on our hands and feet, grabbing on to trees for balance, and double-checking the map to make sure we're going the right way. We're rapidly draining our water bottles, and conversation eventually dwindles into labored breaths. Am I wrong, or is my hiking party starting to look at me darkly?

At least the setting is magnificent. At one point, we hear a low rush of tumbling water and then come upon a 60-foot cascade deep in the forest. Sam poses before it with his hiking stick, grinning: If nothing else, we've made it this far! As our elevation ticks higher, the dwarfish windswept spruces and firs give way to an open gravel path lined with delicate little alpine plants. We press up the last few hundred feet to the ridgeline, and we're rewarded with a spectacular panorama of velvety green hills interrupted only by the brown stripes of landslides. Far below, the highway twists like a double strand of ribbon.

We hike along the crest for an hour, the view dramatically rearranging itself as we trace folds in the mountains. Then, after we summit the 5,260-foot Mount Lafayette, our highest peak of the day, we finally spot it: the roof of the Greenleaf Hut, about 1,000 feet below. Our moods brighten instantly—we can almost smell dinner—and we scramble down the trail. If this were a true luxury camping experience, Sam says, they'd have installed a zip line.

A two-story shingled house with green-trimmed windows and a porch, Greenleaf would be unremarkable anyplace else. But here, it is a small wonder, built nearly 80 years ago with lumber hauled up by burros. Inside, it looks like a charming ski lodge, with knotty-pine walls, a cathedral ceiling, and long wooden picnic tables scattered with backpacks. Bootless hikers lounge in sandals and fleece.

A man with a white walrus moustache checks us in by ticking our names off a handwritten list and then points us toward the bunks. The hut can accommodate 48 people, but the rooms are tight—most have two sets of beds stacked three high. In my room, the lower berths have already been claimed by a family of four playing cards. I try to change discreetly, hanging my sweaty clothes on wooden pegs and hoping that they'll keep their eyes on their crazy eights.

Before I left Boston, friends had offered some hints about hut life. "I hear it's quite a scene up there," one told me. There was a mention of guitars and of people drinking wine they'd packed in. I was slightly worried that we'd signed on for a happy hour in the woods. But in the main room, we meet Mike, a Boston money manager who hikes the mountains twice a month and knows the ground with a geologist's expertise. Then, Josh, who has just returned from Easter Island, starts swapping travel stories with Eric, a medical resident who backpacked across Central America. It's more like an adventure camp for grown-ups.

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