While you’d be hard pressed to find an east coast hiker who is unfamiliar with the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), the majority have barely scratched the surface of the vast network of Randolph Mountain Club (RMC) trails in the White Mountains. Many have never visited or even heard of the RMC cabins nestled in the Northern Presidential Range. We interviewed RMC caretaker Carl Herz and Notch Hostel pro athlete Caitlin Quinn, about their experiences with the RMC and all it has to offer White Mountains enthusiasts.
Cabins and Shelters
The RMC’s cabins and shelters are a lesser-known overnight option in the White Mountains, especially during the winter. They offer their self-service amenities year-round at an extremely reasonable price. The RMC maintains over 100 miles of trails in the Northern Presidential Range and in the Crescent Range, offering plenty of unique spots off the beaten path.
On the north side of Mount Madison, Adams, and Jefferson, three of New Hampshire’s highest 4000-footers, the RMC maintains two cabins and two shelters for hikers and mountaineers to visit and stay at overnight. Each offers affordable overnight options, no prior reservation is required, and all spots welcome dogs.
Gray Knob and Crag Camp, both fully-enclosed cabins, are open to the public and cost $20 to stay the night ($15 for RMC members). Gray Knob sleeps up to 15 people and has a wood stove. It is located at 4,375 ft. on the Gray Knob Trail and is just 1.5 miles from the summit of Mt. Adams. It experiences moderate use year-round, sometimes filling up on summer weekends. Crag Camp sleeps up to 20 people and is located at 4,247 ft., on the edge of the King Ravine. This cabin experiences heavy use in the summer, but not in the winter.
The shelters, The Perch and The Log Cabin, are also open year-round and cost $10 per night ($8 for RMC members). The Perch includes four tent platforms as well as a three-sided shelter and can sleep up to about 24. The shelter is just off the Randolph Path and is approximately 1.2 miles from the Appalachian Trail at 4,313 ft. It gets heavy traffic in the summer, but not in the winter. The Log Cabin only sleeps up to ten and is used less commonly than the rest. At the lowest elevation of the shelters, The Log Cabin is at 3,263 ft. and is about 2.4 miles up from the start of Lowe’s Path.
These shelters are unique as they allow hikers to be self-sufficient as if camping, while still sheltered from the elements. There is no food for sale, and guests are encouraged to bring their own cooking stoves and utensils. The RMC shelters don’t take reservations and are first-come, first-serve, but the caretaker will help you find a spot in another shelter if the one you planned to stay in is full.
Sometimes, however, all the shelters are full. Carl explains, “If all shelters are full, the caretaker will use their discretion and either make room someplace or ask the guests to set up camp within the regulations established by the Forest Service. I personally believe this approach helps to remind folks that when you’re visiting the Presidential Range, you absolutely must be prepared for anything the mountain can throw your way. If you just book a night and know a hot meal and blanket are waiting for you, you could find yourself unprepared to take care of yourself out there.”
Caitlin and her hiking companion Vaida, a Newfoundland/Lab mix, frequent the RMC cabins in both summer and winter. Caitlin enjoys the remoteness and the true mountain experience they provide. “It’s what I envision huts in Iceland and European countries would be like.” They also welcome dogs, allowing her to overnight hike with Vaida rather than leaving her at home.
This winter, she stayed at Gray Knob cabin in -20 temperatures, and the year before, she had “one of the most incredible winter hikes over Adams [via RMC’s Lowe’s Path] with lunch in the sunshine at Madison Hut.”
When she visits in the winter, she always comes prepared. She makes sure to pack a 20-degree quilt, her sleeping pad, extra socks, essential wool sleeping layers, down mittens, and all her standard winter hiking gear. She also brings a compressible dog bed made from an old sleeping bag for her dog.
If you’re prepared, the RMC shelters can help provide memorable experiences and hikes all year round.
The RMC maintains an unique network of trails. The club describes their trail system as “one of the densest and most interesting trail systems in the country, offering short walks to lovely cascades, waterfalls, ledges and viewpoints, pleasant and relaxing forest paths, as well as the challenges of the mighty Presidentials.”
In 2010, celebrating their 100th anniversary, the club created the RMC 100, a list of 100 miles of RMC hiking trails in the White Mountains including “routes to the summits of the Northern Presidentials, scenic paths to the lower slopes” and beyond. The list spans 70 different trails and focuses on hikers “rediscover[ing] and enjoy[ing] our unique paths.” The RMC created a log book to help people keep track, and once they’ve completed their list, hikers can be added to the RMC 100 Wall of Fame.
The network of trails allows hikers to enjoy more than just the peaks. Carl explains his love for them: “I am here to challenge myself in my favorite hardcore mountain nooks and crannies, and to check out unique areas and seldom traveled gems. My treasured non-peak destinations are more special to me than many of the summits in the area.”
Caitlin also expresses her interest in the trails. She says she “really enjoyed exploring some of the side and spur trails. It’s nice knowing that even on a bad weather day you can travel below treeline until your heart’s content.”
The RMC provides a list of spots and trails to check out, ranging from easy to difficult. Carl has done more than 90% of the RMC trails, and he lists the Cliffway Trail, the Ice Gulch, and the Great Gully as some of his favorites in the Northern Presidential Range. Some other non-peak destinations that are worth checking out are the Quay (especially during sunset!), Castellated Ridge, and Emerald Bluff.
The caretakers are an integral part of the shelters with the RMC. They wield an intimate knowledge of the mountains, the weather, the trails, and more. They are a valuable source of information and hikers have much to learn from the history and traditions they have to offer.
Carl, a veteran caretaker, describes winter as his favorite season. He describes a typical day in the winter:
“…I’d be waking up around 5am or so to make coffee and get ahead on shoveling any wind-blown or fresh snow, stocking wood bricks for the evening fire so that by the time the Mt Washington Observatory does their 7am forecast I’m ready to head out right after. I’ll usually head over to the water spring to chip away any ice that’s formed, then check on Crag Camp to see if anyone snuck in after checking the night before. After that, I’ll head out into the alpine zone and get some miles in. The comfort level for winter excursions in the alpine zone for caretakers can be pretty different than that of visitors’ due to our intimate familiarity with how weather comes in on the trails, so unless it’s colder than about -45 I’ll try and do something above treeline almost every day, even if it’s just up to Abigail Adams or a real short walk. I’ve summited Adams over a hundred times (yes, really) and probably about 30+ times in winter. Around midday, it’s time to head back to Gray Knob and heat up something for lunch. Often there are chores that come up before I head out to check on the other shelters and collect fees. Once I’m confident all is well, I’ll head back to Gray Knob around dusk and stop by the Quay to watch the sun go down. After that I’ll go in for the night, build a fire and cook dinner. Every night concludes by checking in via radio with the valley.”
Along with welcoming and assisting hikers, and being a source of knowledge, the caretakers also assist with some light trail work and camp maintenance.
Some of Carl’s favorite memories are “…witnessing a pine marten chasing a snowshoe hare, several life changing undercast sunsets come to mind, insane physical challenges on the trail, listening to a full cabin of guests mingling and sharing the magic of the RMC camps with one another.”
RMC staff are passionate about their jobs and more than willing to give advice, so just ask!
Funding, Membership, and Support
The dedication of the RMC shows in their well-maintained trails and shelters. At around 1,000 members, the RMC functions mostly through support from volunteers. Most of the funding they receive from memberships, donations, and grants goes straight toward the maintenance and future projects for the trails and camps.
Carl recommends hikers help support the RMC and their mission by “becoming members, being gentle on the trails and paying their overnight fees.”
Membership is only $30 per year and gives a discount at the cabins and shelters. Hikers will see the influence they can make by observing the quality of the trails and shelters each time they pass through. Renewing your membership is important; by increasing their member numbers the RMC stands a better chance of receiving grants along with other volunteer-based programs and clubs. (Bonus: auto-renewal is a cinch to set up when you join on their website.)
We support this club and cannot recommend it highly enough. The dedication and passion toward the trails and their shelters is inspiring, and they are worth supporting. All of us at the Notch are RMC members, and hope you will consider supporting this club as well. Join today!