AMC Huts & Unification of White Mountain Trails

See Introduction below.  The primary content of this post is this link to a reprint of Chapter 36 “Unification of the White Mountain trails” from the book Forest and Crag (AMC Books, 1989) by  Laura and Guy Waterman.  This chapter is reprinted with kind permission of Laura Waterman and AMC Books.  Forest and Crag is the Waterman’s magesterial history of hiking and trailblazing in the Northeastern US.  Chapter 36 is preceded by a chapter on the Long Trail and followed by a chapter on the Adirondacks region.


Introduction to Chapter 36 reprint

by Sam Demas

Huts and trails:  you can’t have huts without trails, hut building usually follows trail building, and the presence of huts inevitably shapes patterns of hiking in a region.  How does this work?  The AMC’s system of eight huts and the network of trails in White Mountains of N.H. were developed concurrently.  Chapter 36 of Forest and Crag (Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 1989) offers a fascinating look at how a cohesive regional trail system evolved over a period of about 20 years, 1910 – 1930 along with the AMC huts, the first in the USA.

This is the story of the interplay of rugged terrain, strong personalities, and the the development of America’s first hut system in creating one of the nation’s premier trail systems.  You’ll learn about legendary trail builders (Charles W. Blood, Paul R. Jenks, Nathaniel L. Goodrich and Karl P. Harrington), and that protean hutmaster, developer and manager of the AMC hut system: Joe Dodge.  Before huts (and automobiles) hikers were largely confined to one-day circuits that returned them to a base camp.  Over a twenty year period the intrepid trail builders shifted the orientation of the the White Mountain trail network from N-S to E-W; and the development of a system of eight huts offering mountain hospitality and shaped and reinforced the delight of generations of hikers in this famous traverse.

In retrospect, what can we learn from this results of this history?  Did these  planners get it exactly right?  These questions deserve consideration.  Due to environmental regulations it seems clear that huts will never again be developed above treeline in the USA as they were in the White Mountains. But where will future hut systems be developed and why?  Which trails should have huts on them, which shouldn’t, and why? How can future hut systems be sited and configured to accentuate their role in environmental protection?  What are the long term environmental implications of hut and trail development?  How do the development of hut and trail systems  relate as macro-level strategies in regional environmental management?

The nation’s challenge is to site and operate hut systems in ways that optimize their potential in skillfully concentrating use to protect from the environmental impacts resulting from over use.  The development of the nation’s first hut system and the concurrent (but how closely coordinated?) knitting together of a remarkable regional trail system in N.H. could serve as our nation’s earliest case study in the design and siting of hut systems as we ponder these questions.  Looking at the environmental pressures in the White Mountains today in light of the history presented in chapter 36 below could be the basis of a future case study in regional environmental planning.  I don’t know enough about the region to undertake such a study, but I suspect there are folks out there who might be interested.

It seems logical that huts and trails be developed in concert with each other and based on a unified set of environmental principles and goals for the region.  When planned together in the spirit of ecological harmony, hut and trail systems can be used as powerful macro-level tools in environmental stewardship, subtly shaping where and how people do and do not go.  But this must be an intention from the outset.  I found this chapter thought-provoking and worthy of wider discussion.


Note: Forest and Crag, along with other remarkable publications of the Waterman’s, offers thoughtful insights into the development of mountaineering in the Northeast and the environmental issues inherent in increasing use of trail systems.  The good work of the Waterman Fund is an ongoing inspiration in fostering the spirit of wildness and conserving alpine environments.  I commend their publications, particularly Wilderness Ethics: Preserving the Spirit of Wildness (2nd ed. 2014, Countryman Press) to people interested in the future of huts in the USA.

January 2017