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The Presidential Range

presidential range photo

New Hampshire's Presidential Range includes the highest peaks in the Northeast. Mount Washington, at 6,288 feet, is the highest in the range, and is the only peak in the Northeastern United States which exceeds 6,000 feet in elevation. While Mount Washington, thanks to its height, is very well-known, its mountain neighbors also are worth knowing about.

The Presidential Range forms a ridgeline, about twelve miles in length, trending from Crawford Notch in the southwest toward Gorham, at the north end of Pinkham Notch, in the northeast. Perhaps the Range's most remarkable feature is its extensive area above treeline, the greatest contiguous alpine area in the United States east of the Mississippi. Treeline here, which averages about 4,500 feet, is significantly lower than in mountains in the west, thanks to the extreme climatic conditions, including cold temperatures, high winds, and frequent atmospheric icing. The unusual conditions above treeline have led to a fascinating landscape, seemingly barren, but decorated with low spruce and fir scrub and a variety of alpine plants, whose bright blooming usually occurs in a brief period from mid-June to late July.

The geology of the Range holds interest for amateur and professional geologist alike. The Range is formed mostly of gneiss and mica schist, metamorphic rocks that began as sediments in a shallow sea, several hundred million years ago. The sediments subsequently suffered compression miles within the earth, uplift, and erosion. In the last million to two million years, glacial activity scoured the peaks, and carved great cirques forming the major ravines. Erosion, including freezing and thawing cycles, led to the shattered rock which covers so much of the area above treeline.

The range is a popular one for hikers; though bad weather can be challenging, and often is dangerous, summertime sees uncounted thousands climbing the peaks. Fair weather can allow splendid views of the surrounding White Mountains and of peaks in Maine, Vermont, Quebec, and even New York State - in ideal conditions, Mount Marcy, 5,344 feet, New York's highest summit, can be seen from Mount Washington, which is about 130 miles away. While most hikers are "day-trippers" or on one- or two-night backpacks, some long-distance hikers visit the range, too, since the 2,100 mile Appalachian Trail traverses the entire range on its way from Georgia to Maine. While the majority of visitors hike the Presidentials in late spring, summer, or early fall, a growing number of winter climbers, with their special equipment and techniques, accept the significant challenges which the Presidentials provide in winter.

The Presidential peaks started acquiring the names of America's Chief Executives about 1784, as it appears that Dr. Jeremy Belknap, an early New Hampshire historian, named the highest peak in the Range at that time to honor George Washington. Of course, George Washington at that time wasn't yet President - he was an esteemed Revolutionary War general who would become the nation's first President in 1789. The other principal peaks remained unnamed until 1820 when a group of men from Lancaster, New Hampshire, led by famed guide Ethan Allen Crawford, climbed Mount Washington and gave names to several of the surrounding peaks - Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe. (They also named Mount Franklin and Mount Pleasant at that time.) The other Presidentials were named more recently.

Not all have been enthusiastic about the names of the Presidentials. Writing in 1860, the Reverend Thomas Starr King deplored the new names:

What a pity that the hills could not have kept the names which the Indian tribes gave them. ... Webster, Clinton, Pleasant, Franklin, Monroe, Washington, Clay, Jefferson, Adams, Madison. What a wretched jumble. These are what we have taken in exchange for such Indian words as Agiocochook, which is the baptismal title of Mt. Washington.

Some of the historic matter included here is derived from The White Mountains. Names, Places, and Legends, by John B. Mudge. Detailed information on trails in the Presidential Range can be found in the A.M.C. White Mountain Guide. Other helpful books include Forest and Crag: A History of Hiking, Trail Blazing, and Adventure in the Northeast Mountains, by Laura and Guy Waterman, Alpine Zone of the Presidential Range, by L.C. Bliss, A.M.C. Field Guide to the New England Alpine Summits, by Nancy Slack and Allison Bell, and Place Names of the White Mountains, by Robert and Mary Julyan. Most of these books, as well as many others about the White Mountains, are available from the Observatory's Museum Shops, year 'round at the Mount Washington Center, 2779 Main Street (Routes 16 and 302), North Conway, New Hampshire, or from mid-May to late October at the Mount Washington Museum atop Mount Washington.

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