Autumn in the White Mountains

Every year about this time, I start thinking about New Hampshire's White Mountains. In my opinion, there's no better region from which to view the fall foliage.

For color-watching, my favorite excursion is a two-day hike to the Zealand Falls Hut, one of nine mountain huts operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club in the White Mountains, and open to the public. It will cost only $7 a night ($ 5 on weekdays) to hike in one day, spend the night at Zealand Falls Hut, and hike out the next afternoon, having soaked up the foliage season in all its colorful glory.

Zealand Falls Hut squats atop a cliff next to a roaring river that bubbles past the hut, then plunges down to the lake below. You can dangle your hot feet in shallow, water-worn pools along the granite ledges while 100 miniature waterfalls bubble around you.

Looking out over the lake, there are broad hillsides of brilliant maples and dark green spruces mixed with tamarack, the only conifer that turns color and loses its needles in the fall.In the gap between the hills is the distant gray-blue peak of Mt. Carrigan.

It's an easy walk in to the hut, even if you have never been backpacking. The trick is to keep your pack light. The hut provides bunk rooms, plus a kitchen equipped with running water, stove, pots, dishes, and silverware. So just pack a sleeping bag, extra clothes, dried food, and, of course, a camera.

Weather is changeable at this time of year. It may suddenly rain or even snow, so be sure to carry extra wool sweaters, a wool hat, mittens, and raingear. Wool pants or long johns might feel good in the hut at night, even though shorts and a T-shirt are sufficient during the day.

The easiest trail starts at Zealand Road just off Route 302 at Zealand Campground, not far from Crawford Notch. It is 2.7 fairly level miles, first through what some people call the "Black Forest," with tall evergreens above and soft green moss and ferns below.

Later on, passing through birches, the forest is a mass of white trunks and lemon-yellow leaves. Hand-hewn log bridges keep boots dry for hiking over a swamp, where there is an enormous beaver dam. Around the lake, up a short steep climb, and you reach the hut.Rest on the sun-warmed rocks until dinner. Nights are spent playing cards or swapping stories with other hikers. This hut holds 38 guests in two large coed bunk rooms.

It is not uncommon to meet Appalachian Trail hikers on their way from Georgia to Maine, anxious to make it to Maine's Mt. Katahdin before the first snowfall.

It may be worthwhile to spend two nights at Zealand Hut. In fact, those doing guided week-long hikes in this area usually plan their layover day at this hut. Only an hour's walk away is beautiful Thoreau Falls, a perfect spot for a leisurely picnic lunch.

It is tricky to hit the height of the color, for it depends upon the weather, but there would certainly be good color between the last week in September and the second week in October.

Don't worry too much about rain. For the most part, these trails are under tree cover, and you can take advantage of nature's umbrella. Some people think fall foliage looks most beautiful on a rainy day, with wet, black tree trunks and pale gray skies. The smell of the woods in the rain is particularly pungent as you walk along through a thick bed of crimson maple leaves, listening to the quiet drips off the trees.

Zealand Hut is open all year.

If this is your first hiking trip to the White Mountains, stop in first at the Appalachian Mountain Club's headquarters at Pinkham Notch Camp on Route 16. The hut crew is well informed on trail conditions and will give you the latest weather report. Guidebooks, trail maps, and other items are sold at the small store.

You can stay at Pinkham Notch Camp, the only hut to which you can drive a car. There are bunk rooms of various sizes, a few small ones for two, but most of them for four. Showers and a dining room, living room, and game room make this the largest, best equipped of the huts. A night in the bunk room, plus dinner and breakfast, costs $21 ($10.50 for children). The hut crew is usually a lively bunch and often entertains guests with a skit along with the meal.

Day hikes from Pinkham Notch Camp are numerous -- you could hike for a week and never take the same trail twice. A favorite: the trail to Mt. Washington's Tuckerman's Ravine, well known as a spring skiing spot.

An afternoon's hike up eastward from Pinkham Notch will bring you to a beautiful rugged notch with steep cliffs on both sides and a lake for swimming. Carter Notch Hut is an old stone hut, built in 1914, the oldest hut still in use. It is a cozy place to sit and eat dinner.Bunk rooms are in separate buildings. Children like to explore the "spooky" caves formed when the mountain above cracked and dropped part of its peak into the notch. (Open all through fall and winter.)

For reservations at all of the huts, contact Pinkham Notch Camp, Gorham, N.H. 03581, or call (603) 466-2727. In Boston contact the AMC headquarters, 5 Joy Street, 02108, (617) 523-0636, for information.

Concord Trailways runs buses from Logan Airport and Boston direct to Pinkham Notch Camp: South Main Street, Concord, N.H. 03301, (603) 224-3381.

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