Not Quite Winter on Mt. Madison

Hike Summary

  • Difficulty: Difficult
  • Distance: 8.4 miles
  • Elevation: 5,367′
  • Elevation Gain / Loss: 4,100′
  • Hike Type: Lollipop
  • View: Excellent.


View full map on Caltopo.

Trip Report

This weekend the MIT Outing Club (MITOC) held its annual winter retreat at one of two cabins in and around the White Mountains. The day was spent training new leaders on how the club operates its trips including logistics, required gear, and general trip planning advice. Fiona, Evan, Christina, and I decided the weather was perfect to head up into the Northern Presidential Range to get some early-season practice on some of the larger mountains The Whites have to offer. After going over many different trip options, we opted to start the day with an easier plan on doing Mt. Madison, and extend the trip to Mt. Adams if we found ourselves with extra time. The weather proved to be perfect and we spent a relaxing day hiking, enjoying the summit, and eventually heading back to civilization. Full trip report below.

We arrived at the trailhead at almost exactly 8:00am after a quick detour to Gorham for some last minute donuts and a heated bathroom. We passed the parking lot on the way there and would have managed to be the first car of the day, but had to settle for donuts and the honor of being the third group to start up the mountain on Sunday. The parking lot temperature matched the expected summit high of 20ºF so we wasted no time getting our packs on and getting moving to generate a bit of heat.

The Valley Way Trail is a relatively easy trail for the White Mountains and not much changes in the Winter. The lower sections of the trail were mostly ice without much snow on them to add traction. We bare-booted until we found a minimum amount of reliable snow or ice cover and decided to put on spikes for convenience. This early in the season the trail would still have been passable without the aid of extra traction, but since we were carrying it anyway we decided we might as well use them. I switched from true Microspikes to Hillsound Trail Crampon Ultras two years ago after breaking three pairs of Microspikes in a single season. So far the Hillsounds have held up fantastic and I recommend them highly.

We continued up Valley Way until we reached the intersection with the Wastson Path. We had originally planned to continue up Valley Way all the way to Madison Hut, but since the day was easy and the weather was fantastic, we made a last minute decision to head up Watson instead. I had previously descended Watson during the summer months and found it to be not much harder than Valley Way, although it is steeper for much of its length.

Frozen waterfall and pond on the way of Watson Path.

We made our way up the Watson Path eventually entering snow-crusted trees at 4200′ before finally breaking treeline to find the day clear and calm. At this point we were greeted with fantastic views of John Quincy Adams and Mt. Adams proper. We opted to remove traction as there was less snow covering the rocks above treeline than there had been below treeline. We made our way carefully over the sometimes loose rocks as we continued to ascend Madison. The day was so nice that we didn’t worry much about time, often stopping to enjoy the view or try to get a nice picture.



The trail seemed to go on longer than expected, but eventually we met up with The Pink Link trail which cuts from Watson over to Madison Hut. From here it was just a short climb to finish our ascent to the summit of Madison. We found one other person on the summit, which was surprising given how calm the winds were that day. I would estimate the winds were no stronger than 5mph at their worst, with long periods of being completely still. We dropped our packs and took the first round of summit photos as Adams moved in and out of the clouds.


Taking in the view of Mt. Adams.

After a hearty snack to re-fuel us we explored the summit for a short time, continuing to enjoy the nice weather. We took another round of summit photos as Adams came fully out of the clouds, and generally just relaxed. I have had so few days where one could truly relax on the summit as long as you want. I believe we spent over an hour there, which is nearly unheard of in December.


After our final photos we began the descent to Madison Hut which has fantastic views of John Quincy Adams, Mt. Adams, and the Hut itself. The Hut has been boarded up long ago, but I took a few minutes to find the emergency shelter underneath the hut, incase it ever proves necessary to know. The valley way trail here was covered in thick ice, and we had some fun sliding the few feet down it.


We began our descent back to the trailhead without any traction, but as the way grew icier some of us decided it was time to put spikes back on. We made good time down the mountain without any notable events, reaching the cars just as the sun was setting. Overall this was an absolutely incredible day to be above treeline in the Presidential Range.

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