A Florida Girl’s Guide to Hiking in the White Mountains
The highest point of elevation in Port St. John, Fla.—my hometown—is 84 feet above sea level. There, we’re not taught how to park on a hill. We don’t acclimate to walking on ice. And we absolutely don’t hike for 11 hours in a two-day period.
If only my Florida friends and family could see me now.
When I moved to New England in 2019, I started falling in love with the outdoors. It helped that my partner is a New Hampshire native, growing up hiking in the White Mountains. One day, when we were talking about summer camps we went to as children, he recalled a camp he had attended that included a hut-to-hut backpacking trip in the White Mountains. He vaguely remembered spending the day hiking, then eating a huge family style meal in a hut. Within days of our conversation, my partner had dug up the almost 30-year-old pamphlet, inspiring us to plan the same trip in the coming months. We would drive to New Hampshire from Boston the day before, spend our first day on the trail hiking to AMC’s Zealand Falls Hut, spend the next day hiking to AMC’s Mizpah Spring Hut, and on the third day descend refreshed and rejuvenated. Before I knew it, I was counting down the days to our August adventure.
I’ll frame the trip by saying this: I’m terrified of heights; I have an irrational fear of rocks; and the heaviest backpack I’ve ever carried was filled with books and dance shoes as a high school theater kid. So, I was obviously set up for success.
Starting from Scratch
The day we drive into Conway, N.H., we make a pitstop at REI so I can rent a backpack and sleeping bag.
“Have you hiked this before?” the helpful man at the rental counter asks me.
“Nope,” I say.
I smile as I sign my name on the dotted line and listen to a tutorial on the best way to wear my newly acquired backpack—even as I fear tumbling down a mountain, breaking every bone in the process, and being left for the wildlife.
I had hiked before: Mount Wachusett in Massachusetts, plenty of nature reserves throughout New England, a few trails in Colorado, and even a medium-sized sand dune in Florida, where a margarita was waiting for me at the top. What I had never done was totally disconnect and immerse myself in a hike. I was fine, in fact, not having cellular service while in the backcountry. Having no access to social media or streaming services didn’t bother me. As I rent basic backpacking gear the morning of my most ambitious outing, I am primarily looking forward to spending time outdoors. I just have absolutely no idea what to expect.
The morning of our first hike, we park at the Zealand Falls trailhead. My adrenaline is high—I am looking forward to perhaps living my own version of Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling hiking memoir Wild—but I am also quite nervous. My Florida roots show as I wonder several times on the drive what to expect. I had doom-scrolled various websites about experienced hikers who had completed a full White Mountain hut-to-hut traverse, read blog posts from Appalachian Trail thru-hikers (after Googling, “What does A.T. thru-hiker mean?”), and tried to make the connection between my previous outdoor experiences and the hike to come. Space Mountain at Walt Disney World? Sure, it was tall, dark, and terrifying, but it was also closely monitored by park attendants. Boogie boarding during a hurricane? Well, that was just stupid, so I wasn’t sure I could draw a parallel there. When it came down to it, I had absolutely no idea what I was in for. So, on that Sunday morning in August, I lace up my trail runners and take the first of what would be 48,000 steps over the next 72 hours.
Our mapped-out trip would bring us to two of the eight AMC high-mountain huts in New Hampshire: From the Zealand Falls trailhead to AMC’s Zealand Falls Hut, where we’d spend the day and night. Early the following morning, we’d hike on the A-Z Trail to AMC’s Mizpah Spring Hut, then retrace our steps back down to Highland Center, where we’d take the complimentary shuttle bus back to our car.
For my fellow Floridians and other sea-level inhabitants hoping to embark on their own White Mountain adventure, here are three realizations or reflections that came to me on the trail.
3: There will not be an ice-cold Coca-Cola waiting for you at the top.
This is probably not a shock to 97 percent of you, but somehow, I had convinced myself that the hut would have a small convenience store where I could swipe my debit card for a cold drink or a snack that hadn’t been shoved underneath dirty socks. What was waiting for us was somehow better than that: a waterfall with smoothed rocks that served as the perfect spot to untie our laces and dip our tired feet into cold water with views that stretch miles of the White Mountain. There were no salt and vinegar chips, but there was a dinner conversation with a fellow writer who caught a glimpse of the book I was reading. And while there’s no binge-watching Grey’s Anatomy, there’s the sunrise in the early hours of a new day, after having slept zipped up in my rented sleeping bag.
2: Your hike may provide a life-altering realization, but most likely it won’t.
I may not have found healing from my own childhood trauma out on the A-Z Trail, but I did realize that my body and mind could handle tough things. Most of the moments on the trail did not stretch me to my limits, but in hindsight, that’s because I told myself that I could do it. I allowed myself to enjoy it. I reveled in the beauty and the stillness that wrapped us up in the early morning, and I celebrated each time we saw a trail marker that cheered us on, displaying our progress. We laughed until we’d have to stop and regain our breath and found comfort in long stretches of silence—the only sounds being our footsteps on the soil. I had expected a life-altering trip, but what I got was a series of small moments that shaped how I now choose to believe in myself.
1: Actually, boogie boarding during a hurricane is more difficult.
Who would’ve thought that the small adventures of my Florida upbringing spent climbing up sand dunes, jumping off bridges into the ocean, or taking sunset bike rides along the coast would have prepared me for a New Hampshire summer spent with a 30-pound backpack, too much trail mix, and sore legs for days? If only that former Florida girl could see me now.
IF YOU GO
If you’re planning on easing into hiking amid the AMC hut system, the journey we took is a great introduction to what to expect. While our days were long, the hikes themselves were on the easier end for the White Mountains, and we packed in many beautiful sights along the way.
One night at AMC’s Zealand Falls Hut
One night at AMC’s Mizpah Spring Hut
How to get there
Before embarking, I highly recommend stopping by AMC’s Highland Center. Here, you can stock up on any last-minute necessities, buy a trail map, and purchase your permit to park overnight. This is also where the very convenient shuttle picks up and drops off.
After we stopped at Highland Center, we parked our car at the Zealand Falls Trailhead, with the plan to take the AMC shuttle back to our car from when we descended.
Zealand Falls Trailhead to AMC’s Zealand Falls Hut
With an elevation of 2,640 feet, Zealand Falls Hut is an absolute beauty. From the trailhead, take Zealand Trail 2.5 miles through spectacular, forested scenery, until you meet up with the Twinway Trail. This last 0.3-mile stretch is probably the most difficult part of the first leg, a short and steep ascent to the hut. Don’t worry, though, the ascent is quick and seeing the hut at the top is such a reward.
We were lucky to be met with a cloudless sky, so after dropping our bags, we walked over to the waterfall, where we sat on rocks surrounded by flowing water with views that you just have to see for yourself. This is a great place to spend time if you make it to the hut before your 3 p.m. check-in time.
Distance: 2.8 miles one way.
Zealand Falls Hut to Mizpah Spring Hut
From Zealand Falls to Mizpah Spring, you’re really getting your workout. We left Zealand Falls Hut a little bit past 8 a.m. with full stomachs and palpable excitement. The first 4.9 miles along A-Z Trail are easy, with very slight elevation increases. This brought us back to Highland Center. From Highland Center, we went 1.5 moderate miles on Crawford Path. This is where most of the journey’s elevation gain occurs, and these miles did feel a little taxing at times. You’ll eventually come to the Mizpah Cutoff, and after an additional 0.7 miles you’ll see the hut.
We retraced our steps back down, reversing our route to the Highland Center, where we caught AMC’s complimentary shuttle to our car. Be sure to call the shuttle beforehand to reserve your spot, as walk-on rides can be limited.
Distance (from Zealand): 7.1 miles one way.