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Outdoor adventures: Crawford Path reaches 200th birthday

  • Crawford Path extends to the summit of Mount Washington. Cut in 1819, the White Mountain National Forest trail turns 200 this year. Marty Basch photo.



Special to the Valley News
Saturday, June 01, 2019

The approximately 8.5-mile pathway along the southwest side of the Rockpile turns 200 this year.

Built in 1819, Crawford Path is widely considered the oldest continuously maintained and used trail in the country.

Credit father and son Abel and Ethan Allen Crawford for cutting the trail. The two were farmers and innkeepers in what is now called Crawford Notch and noticed how the dense woods on Mount Washington proved halting to a wealth of hiking parties. So the two set out to blaze a way to the summit from the valley.

Soon thereafter, Ethan Crawford led one of the first guided treks up the path. In 1840, his son Thomas transformed the trail into a bridle path, perhaps much to the delight of his grandfather Abel, who at age 75 is credited with making the first ascent of Mount Washington by horseback. Now the domain of hikers, the pathway wiggles by two 4,000-footers and two 5,000-footers in Mount Pierce, Mount Eisenhower, Mount Franklin and Mount Monroe.

About six miles of the trail is above treeline and thus exposed to the weather’s wrath. There are opportunities to travel through alpine zones containing rare plants including dwarf cinquefoil, long-ranging vistas and spotting wildlife. A portion of the trail includes a small section of the Appalachian Trail, which sees long lines of through-hikers passing through every year between Georgia and Maine. The path provides access to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Lakes of the Clouds Hut.

Located within the White Mountain National Forest, the heavily used trail begins off U.S. Route 302 and Mt. Clinton Road at the top of Crawford Notch near the AMC’s Highland Center. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the White Mountain National Forest draws millions of visitors annually with some 60% — reports data from 2015 — coming to participate in trail-based activities.

In anticipation of the bicentennial, a host of organizations coordinated through the White Mountain Trail Collective and U.S. Forest Service did a wide range of trail work on Crawford Path in 2018, with work continuing this year.

The idea behind the collective is having various trail clubs working together in the region for the purpose of accomplishing larger trail work by coordinating resources in cooperation.

It’s unique in that trail groups haven’t historically worked across areas, as most have their own set of trails or geographic areas. Plus, knowledge and technical trail maintenance skills are now being transferred across groups as well as to the next generation of trail builders through this collaboration.

The U.S. Forest Service reported nearly 300 trail workers from 11 trail crews and 20 partner organizations worked on Crawford last year. That included the Appalachian Mountain Club, Dartmouth Outing Club, Randolph Mountain Club, U.S. Forest Service, Wonalancet Out Door Club, Vermont Youth Conservation Corps, Student Conservation Association New Hampshire AmeriCorps and others.

The work completed included 26 rock waterbars, 83 scree rocks set, 63 rock steps, 329 linear feet of scree wall, 12 cairns, 17 square feet of rock cribbing, 60 linear feet of new side ditch, five rock retaining walls, four timber retaining walls, 180 feet of tread hardening, various removal of social (informal) trails, trail brushing, waterbar cleaning and new bog bridges installed.

Botanists were also embedded with trail crews as part of the Forest Service’s obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act, which establishes a broad national framework for protecting the environment.

The botanists worked ahead of the trail workers, flagging off areas to avoid that had sensitive plants. The botanists have also been able to directly work with the trail crews to teach them about sensitive alpine plant communities and how to avoid them. The arrangement is drastically increasing project efficiency, according to the Forest Service.

Work has already started on the path this year. In early May, a White Mountain Trail Collective quarry crew of six people filled 45 rock bags with tons of stone to be used on Crawford Path this season.

With its hardy history and present trail work, hikers trekking on the Crawford Path should have no trouble giving kudos to those who have come before them, because it is the hard work done by hand that allows those wearing boots to continue their adventures up the mountain.

Marty Basch can be reached at marty.basch@gmail.com.