James writes:

The snowy weather has us thinking back to our winter hike in the White Mountains in northern New Hampshire. The Appalachian Mountain Club maintains a unique string of huts along the ridge line of the Appalachian Trail over the Presidential Range south into the Pemigewasset Wilderness. In the winter, most of these huts are inaccessible, but a few remain open for winter overnights. One of these, my favorite, is Zealand Hut. They can all be booked through the AMC's online reservation site.

Dara and I rallied two friends, Jamie and Sara, to take it on. The visit was my second time to Zealand in winter and third stay overall. The drive from New York is about 6 hours, all highway, and Friday night we stayed in the AMC's Highland Lodge in Crawford Notch--a slightly soul-less new facility but a good staging ground for hikes in the area. We picked up topo maps, bars, and other supplies here before heading off.

The winter trail head is a short drive from Highland--there is a large parking lot on the side of the road. In winter the hike in is six miles with a steady up grade. It takes several hours, so we left early to arrive at the hut in daylight. Half of the trail is over a snow-covered road, and the first section crosses several snowmobile trails, which is tedious. (In the video below, Dara calls it "interminable.") The excitement starts over the second three miles, where the trail narrows and follows an old logging railroad bed, which is today nearly covered in a dense woods. We dressed warm as though skiing, and used snowshoes lashed to our winter boots. We also brought thick sleeping bags (actually two each to double up one in the other), ski poles, water, and enough food for dinner and breakfast at the hut and lunch on the trail.

The most challenging section of the hike comes in the last few hundred feet. Zealand is located on the side of a waterfall, and the trail goes steeply up. In the winter with the snowpack, we needed the spikes of our snowshoes to dig in our footing.

The Hut comes as a welcome sight. Unlike in the summer, when the huts are staffed with a half dozen 'croo,' in winter there is only one care taker. He tends to a pot belly stove in the main room and the gas lights. The kitchen is self-serve. It's very wet and cozy. 

Here's Dara at the hut:

The main room is warm, especially around the stove, but the bunk rooms get down to around freezing at night. We snagged the bunks against the back of the kitchen wall, which are slightly warmer. We also used the stove and overhanging racks on pulleys to warm up as much of our clothing as possible. The rest we stuffed in our bags at night.

Most of the other overnighters at the hut were part of organized groups, but from what we saw some of them were far less prepared than we were on our own (one group even started a day late). The kitchen can be a scramble for space, so we booked our stove time early upon arrival.

Thanks to its waterfall location, Zealand offers the best winter view in the hut chain, with beautiful sunsets and sunrises over the Pemi. The hike out is a treat with its steady down grade, and many people (including our friends) bring cross-country skies for the ride out. With its moderate trails and beautiful scenery, Zealand offers an excellent introduction to the joys of winter hiking, as it was for Dara. It's also a fun place to visit again. 

Here's Dara during our morning departure from the hut: