Spring hiking conditions in New Hampshire’s White Mountains can be quite unpredictable depending on your location and elevation. Despite the change in season and longer days, snow usually lingers on the high peaks well into late May, and daytime temperatures remain quite chilly, only turning warmer in June.
In addition to all of the normal winter hazards of hiking in the Whites, hikers need to be prepared for icy trails, postholing in soft snow, boot-sucking mud, freezing rain, and high-water crossings. This requires wearing gaiters and winter footwear and carrying traction aids such as microspikes and snowshoes on hikes.
While you can check weather forecasts for the day of your hike, they’re usually not specific enough because localized conditions vary so widely in different regions of the mountains. They can also change dramatically based on your elevation. While it may be sunny and warm in the valleys, winter weather can linger at higher elevations. It’s not unusual to strip down to a t-shirt and shorts at the trailhead only to encounter a snowsquall or deep snowdrifts when you break above treeline. You can’t let your guard down.
In addition to wet snow and mud, hikers need to walk on monorail which is an icy layer of snow about 6-8″ wide that persists in the middle of popular winter trails, including those that climb the White Mountain 4000 footers. Monorail is densely packed snow and ice that’s created when hundreds of hikers walk in the middle of a trail in winter. As the temperatures warm in spring, the snow along the sides of the monorail softens and begins to melt while the denser monorail remains. One false step to either side of the monorail, and you are likely to posthole in soft snow, which can be quite exhausting and drenching.
Spring Hiking Footwear
By mid-May, many trails are bare of snow at lower elevations and many of the snow bridges that form over streams will have collapsed. Despite the warming temperatures, you’ll probably want to wear waterproof footwear that can take a pair of crampons or microspikes for walking on ice, handle mud, snowmelt, and even water crossings without freezing.
Fording streams further complicates footwear selection because the temperature of snowmelt in the White Mountain stream is ice-cold. It’s best to avoid any trails or hikes where you need to cross a stream or river before the temperatures warm up. In addition to high water levels from snowmelt, but you want to avoid having your shoes or boots freeze, especially on overnight trips.
Planning Spring Hikes
The best thing to do before any spring hike is to carefully study the AMC White Mountains Maps, The White Mountain Guide, and to read any recent trail condition reports about your planned destination on NETrailConditions.com. These trip reports provide the most up-to-date information about trail conditions, whether you need microspikes, crampons, or snowshoes, and the danger level for stream crossings on the trails.
One other thing you’ll discover is that the elevation of the snowline gradually increases during the months of April and May as the lower elevations melt off. This is a very good time to hike on lower elevation trails and climb smaller mountains, like those on the 52 with a View Peakbagging List, which fall between 2000 and 3500 feet of elevation. They can be just as strenuous as climbing a 4000 footer, but they’re likely to be snow-free much earlier.
There are few areas in the Whites where spring comes sooner than others, that I recommend you check out. The trails east of NH 113 in Evans Notch are usually snow-free by mid-April and are quite fun to hike. The same is also true of the trails in the Western Whites between Hanover, NH and Mt Moosilauke, and the trails in the Sandwich Range north of Mt Winnepasauke.
Whatever you do, remain cautious about spring hiking conditions in the White Mountain National Forest. While frustrating, postponing your hike or backpacking trip until mid-June when conditions improve might be the best option.
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