I am starting to think this is the worst idea I've ever had. Barely 20 minutes into our climb, I'm afraid my children's first real hiking adventure may be over. It's hot, nearly 30 degrees, and the humidity is intense – the kind of day we'd usually spend on a beach. But we are on the Crawford Path in the White Mountains, a shady, rocky trail that will take us uphill for the next two and a half hours so we can spend the night in one of the Appalachian Mountain Club's historic high huts.
But right now, I have doubts that we'll make it.
"Why did you bring me here?" wails my nine-year-old as he plops down on a rock, his face wet from tears and sweat. "I'm too little for this!"
I sympathize, but I don't think Jack wants to hear the truth: You are here because your parents want you to experience the mental and physical (not to mention scenic) rewards of pushing your limits; because you can't find anything like the AMC's full-service huts in Canada (we don't need to carry tents or meals, and we can borrow good hiking gear instead of buying it); because climbing a mountain in real life is so much better than scaling one in Wii life.
I want to give my kids a taste of that mountain high, but I have no idea if they can handle a major expedition. That's why we've driven nine hours to this White Mountains oasis in New Hampshire, where we can try a small portion of the 125-year-old hut-to-hut hiking route.
My son is not in a listening mood. Instead, I offer water. Our incredibly patient AMC guide Julie Higgins hands him a Snickers (this isn't the first meltdown she's seen on the trail), encourages him to look for frogs, then sets off after my 13-year-old mountain goat of a daughter, Bethany, who is already out of sight.
Alone, and still catching our breath, Jack and I stare at each other. It's hard to push your limits with someone who knows how to push your buttons. He wings his backpack at me in disgust and stomps off up the trail. Well, at least he's moving.
Our New Hampshire adventure started divinely. Just that morning we had gazed up at these mountains from wicker chairs on the vast, wraparound veranda at the Omni Mount Washington Resort.
We felt like the Rockefellers – they were among the families that summered here when the palatial hotel opened in 1902 – as we strolled through the lobby, swam in the marble-tiled pools and fine dined in the fancy-dress splendour of the circular dining hall (old money does not want to be stuck at a corner table).
It's hard not to be impressed when presidents, a prime minister and royalty have stayed here before you – Thomas Edison even flicked on the electricity when it opened. But the hotel doesn't lean too heavily on past glories. An $80-million renovation by Omni Resorts has brought the grand old dame up to a new level of luxe: There's a 25,000-square-foot spa with private mountain views, and hallways built wide enough for two women in elaborate hats and bustles are now wired for WiFi. Wandering these corridors of privilege, we saw a cyclist carrying his mountain bike down the grand staircase and hikers tracking dirt through the grand hall. The unpretentiousness of it all was as refreshing as the mountain air.
A few days later, we discover more of that can-do camaraderie at AMC's Highland Center Lodge, a hotel/hiking base where we meet our guide. Julie draws three stick figures.
"Imagine yourself on a nice day, a snowy day and a rainy day. You need to make sure you've got clothes in your pack for all three," she says.
Snow? In July? In the White Mountains, she explains, anything is possible since three major weather systems converge in the area; it's notorious for surprising hikers with bad weather. We might be inexperienced, but at least we won't be unprepared. L.L. Bean donates thousands of dollars worth of gear – from boots and fleece to sleeping bags and water bottles – to encourage beginners. All are free to borrow when you book through the AMC. The club, launched in 1876, is the oldest non-profit organization in the U.S. devoted to outdoor education and conservation.
The plan is to arrive at Mizpah Spring Hut (elev. 1,151 metres) for a night and then climb a few mountain peaks the next day before heading back down to the Highland Center for our second night. There are a total of eight off-the-grid, full-service huts spaced about a day's hike apart. The route covers 90 kilometres of the 3,500-kilometre, 14-state Appalachian Trail.
Our uphill traverse is just more than three kilometres, and takes us nearly three hours (with only a couple more tantrums). As we get closer to the top, the trail flattens out and, surprisingly, that's all it takes for Jack to perk up and take the lead, yelling back to us as if it was Christmas morning: "We made it to the hut!"
Mizpah Spring Hut sleeps 60 in eight co-ed bunk rooms, and it is full that night. (Thank goodness the earplugs are also free.) I had forgotten the conviviality and bonding that happens among hikers at high elevations, and we share stories over our four-course dinner, served family-style on long wooden tables. Homemade bread, roasted pork, bow-tie pasta, French-cut beans, chocolate-chip brownies – the food is tasty and cooked from ingredients the staff brought up on their backs that day. (The hike takes these recent university grads – carrying 18- to 36-kilogram packs – less than one hour.)
It's lights out at 9:30 with a morning wake-up call at 6:30, sung by two harmonizing staffers to lessen the sting of the early hour.
After savouring a hearty breakfast and listening to a hut staffer deliver the longest weather report I've ever heard – no one wants to get caught in a storm on an exposed mountain ridge – we head out, with Jack now excitedly leading the way up the rock scramble to Mt. Pierce. The trail is as steep as yesterday's, but much shorter. As we climb above the tree line into the alpine zone, Jack is so far ahead he surprises a bunny on the trail. Julie tells him it's rare to see animals this high up, and he's chuffed. I think he's finally having fun.
After we've been hiking through mist for some time, Bethany notices the clouds are close enough to jump up and touch: We must be near the summit. The lack of any view at 1,300 metres is disappointing, but not the buzz kill I'd feared, and it makes the decision to take on another mountain an easy one. As we continue farther on the Crawford Path (the oldest continually used mountain trail in North America), the clouds drift apart for about 10 seconds and our jaws drop at the view – we're in the middle of a mountain range.
Midway up our last ascent, the clouds clear out for good. Now we can see the Appalachians for miles; the farthest mountains look like paper cutouts against the sky. As we scramble up the switchbacks to the peak of Mt. Eisenhower (1,460 metres), Bethany is the first to see the red roof of our old stomping grounds, the Omni. Leaving that lap of luxury was hard for her, but I watch as her lips curl into a smile and she says: "Now all those people on the veranda are watching us on the mountain."
And that's when I finally start to relax. Operation Hike Appreciation is a success.
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO STAY
Live like a robber baron at the elegant, four-star Omni Mount Washington hotel. Several restaurants, including the fabled main dining hall, offer grand views of the mountains. Seek out the hotel's old speakeasy, the Cave, and you can pretend it's Prohibition all over again. A 25,000-foot spa and two adjoining golf courses mean you may never want to leave. If you tire of gazing from the veranda, book an outdoor adventure through the hotel. The three-hour Canopy Tour has four zip lines, rope bridges and other treetop balancing acts with views of the Presidential Range ($99 a person). Too scary? Let your little one ride a kiddie ATV ($20) or drive them yourself on a much bigger machine in a guided tour through the bush. It's messy, unbridled fun (from $60). The nearby Bretton Woods scenic chairlift ride is free. Rooms from $279. 603-278-1000; omnihotels.com/mountwashington
Another great base for hikers is the Highland Center Lodge, run by the Appalachian Mountain Club. An incredible outdoors-themed playground is just the start. Free nature programs and walks occur daily; we hadn't even checked in before a staff member was waving my kids over to look at sun spots with a special telescope. Private rooms start at $113 a person a night; high huts run about $118 a night (including breakfast and dinner). Bretton Woods at Crawford Notch on route 302; 603-466-2727; outdoors.org/lodging
WHAT TO DO
Start kids on easier hikes that end with a natural reward. In the White Mountains, AMC's Zealand Falls Hut is beside a rocky waterfall, and there's a glacial lake by Lonesome Lake Hut. "If you get [to the end] and there's a fantastic view, that helps wipe away the pain," says AMC naturalist Nancy Ritger.
When you need a break, head to the Mount Washington Cog Railway, the first of its kind in the world. At the track's steepest point (37-per-cent grade), you'll gain 35.5 centimetres of elevation for nearly metre forward. At the top (1,916 metres), you can see into Quebec on a clear day. Adults, $64. Bretton Woods, at the end of Base Station Road, off route 302. 603-278-5404; thecog.com
Here's one way to keep the kids content during the drive home. Stop in quaint Littleton, NH, at Chutters – home of the world's longest (34-metre) candy counter. Let them fill a small bag and savour their selection slowly. 43 Main St., Littleton, NH, 693-444-5787, chutters.com
Shopping anyone? New Hampshire doesn't charge tax on retail goods, and less than hour away from the White Mountain resort area are the outlet malls of North Conway. The newest hotel in town is just down the street: Residence Inn by Marriott. Rooms from about $200 (U.S.) a night. 1801 White Mountain Highway; northconwayresidenceinn.com.
The writer was a guest of New Hampshire Tourism. It did not review or approve the article.