WHITE MOUNTAINS, N.H. - Terry Kramzar casually splashed one foot in the transparent waters of a small pond at the foot of Mount Washington.
"This," she said with a sigh, "is the life."
Basking in 70-degree sunshine, 40-mile views, and almost-autumn mountain air, the previous day's agony of grappling with seven miles of rock faces called Webster Cliffs was fast becoming a warmer memory for the fiftysomething hiking enthusiast.
"What I really like about this," she went on, "there's no tent to pitch, no stove to light, and someone's making my dinner."
Welcome to the Presidential Range, a singularly beautiful and tortuous 56-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail with mountaintop huts that serve as hotels for hikers too young, old, or self-indulgent to carry their room and board on their backs.
"What people like about hiking the huts is you don't need to carry a tent, stove, or cookware," said Rob Burbank, public affairs director for the Appalachian Mountain Club, which maintains and operates the huts. "And you get to enjoy some of the most scenic mountains on the Appalachian Trail."
High and steep, the Presidentials offer views seldom seen east of the Rockies. The huts are strategically located a hard day's hike apart and also wherever the views are the best or streams or ponds can offer an invigorating soak for foot-weary hikers.
With names such as Lakes of the Clouds, Zealand Falls, Greenleaf, and Mizpah Spring, the huts sound as beautiful as the mountains they are built on. The hut-to-hut hike starts in the west with Lonesome Lake Hut, an invigorating 1 3/4 miles from Route 3 that the whole family can enjoy. From there on the family better be in good shape.
The trail from Lonesome Lake to Greenleaf Hut is 5 miles of steep, often rocky paths that take you up about a quarter of a mile, near to the summit of a famed winter hiking destination, Mount Lafayette.
In these more rarefied climes, rocks and boulders replace the dirt lining most of the trails, and trees are in short supply. You're not in the woods anymore, you're above them. This is a hard-bitten region of often rare plants that's called the alpine zone. The trees, if you can call them that, are reduced to patches of almost impenetrable tangles of spruce called krumholz - German for crooked wood. Stunted by the severe cold and wind, the krumholz can be a hundred years old but only a few feet tall.
Above 5,000 feet desperate plants with tiny, leathery leaves and delicate flowers encrust the earth wherever there's soil enough to grasp in an otherwise lunar landscape. These plants endure much of the year under ice and snow yet are readily uprooted by hiking boots. So, hikers are told to always stay on the trail as it winds its way up, down, and through myriad mountain wildernesses.
Where the trail faces moisture-laden east breezes, spongy mosses cushion the forest floor. Water trickles and pools anywhere rock outcroppings push through lush vegetation. Wooden planks support hikers inches above swamps that stretch for a half-mile or more in some spots.
On the drier west slopes blueberries abound and grasses pop up as the canopy overhead opens up. Before long you're back up in the alpine zone where a whole new ecosystem takes over. The plants of the Presidentials are a subject of scientific fascination that the average hiker can just as easily appreciate. That is, when they are not taking in the spectacular views.
"The greatest thing about the whole thing is the views," said Jesse Gildesgame, 16, as he prepared to leave Galehead Hut on a 7.2-mile hike that was to take him up and down 3,500 feet of elevation changes. Joining him were his sisters, Emma, 19, and Sophie, 14, and his parents, Catharyn, 50, and Mike, 61. The Arlington family has been hiking together since some of the kids were carried around in their parents' backpacks, Catharyn Gildesgame said.
They've covered mountains all over New England, weighed down by the hardware needed to sleep and eat outside. But every year they shed most of that gear and come back to hike the huts. "It's one of the highlights of the summer," she said. "The chance to have these incredible hikes and then not have to clean up a campsite when you're done: It's ideal."
There is more to the huts than a meal and a bunk. They are an immersion into a bohemian world run by college students and populated with nature lovers. The bunks are more like unisex barracks, seven or more to a room almost always shared with snoring strangers: Earplugs are $1 a pair and well worth the investment. The mattress is 3 inches of foam sheathed in plastic with a couple of wool blankets folded at the foot.
The day in the huts starts around 6:30 a.m., usually with oatmeal, pancakes, or Cream of Wheat; powdered eggs, bacon, coffee, and powdered juice mix. Meals are served family style in cavernous dining rooms filled with picnic tables.
There is lots of plate passing, and seconds are usually available. Dinner is a similarly starchy affair preceded by exhortations to take as much as you want but to finish what you take.
The huts have to be streamlined operations with minimal waste, said Kelly Bitov, 21, a Columbia University graduate who was the naturalist at Lakes of the Clouds hut when she wasn't washing dishes and sweeping floors.
Because of the mostly remote location of the huts, zealous efforts are required to keep trash from building up. Toilets discharge into a sophisticated composting device. The bathrooms are clean but could benefit from a little air freshener. Fresh water comes out of the tap but with written reminders to use sparingly. Sponge baths are not allowed regardless of how badly they may be needed.
The hut's crew communicates these and other messages of conservation to guests through a skit they perform each morning that always includes a belabored theatric on the proper folding of the bunk blankets. The skits are short on acting but long on laughter and the message, for the most part, gets through because the blankets, for the most part, get folded, Bitov said.
"The people are pretty cooperative," she said. "They get into the spirit of it."
Certainly the Gildesgames do.
"It's just the whole hut experience," Mike Gildesgame said. "It's a great thing for families. You have the challenge of the hikes, the views of the mountains, and then the camaraderie of the huts."
Not to mention the exercise on the trails. Lia Keyser, 12, and her brother Mac, 14, of Cambridge, hike the Presidentials in the summer to stay in shape for competitive ski racing in winter. But taking a full backpack on these trails is out of the question so they stay in the huts.
"We just hiked one of the highest mountains in Utah, and it was nice, but these mountains are hard," said their mother, Anne Keyser, as the family clambered up a steep stretch of trail leading from Galehead Hut. "And you have to be ready for all kinds of variables here."
Chief among those is the weather. The Presidentials are home to Mount Washington, which recorded the highest winds anywhere in the world: 231 miles per hour. In winter the weather can be deadly. In summer it's still dangerous as the lightning storms that roll up from the valleys present a special danger when hiking in the alpine zone, Burbank said.
"The weather is just so unforgiving up there," he said. "Even though it is only 6,000 feet high, Mount Washington is a serious mountain. You can get hypothermia in the middle of summer there. Anybody who ventures out above tree line like that should be pretty prepared."
That includes, at the very least, rain gear, a warm dry change of clothes, a sheet and pillow case for your bunk, and something to eat in case of emergency. More important is knowing the day's weather report before you set out and being prepared for it, Burbank said.
The weatherman said thunderstorms were on the way when Kramzar set out from Mitzpah Hut for Lakes of the Clouds at the foot of Mount Washington. She got inside just as a violent hailstorm with lots of lightning enshrouded the hut where she was to spend the night.
At 5,012 feet above sea level, the hut is in the alpine zone where a hiker protrudes above the landscape like a lightning rod. For those who followed behind Kramzar, wide-eyed fear slowly yielded to palpable relief as they shook the rain from their ponchos. Recalling the day a few weeks after her hike, Kramzar waxed philosophical. "I had big expectations for hiking in the White Mountains," she said. "I was prepared to be rain-soaked, sunburned, dehydrated, bug bitten, wind chilled, muscle sore, scratched, bruised, and blistered. The huts were a sigh of relief to be sheltered safely after a very unique experience."
Tim Wacker, a freelance writer in Newburyport, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.