The huts are terrific, even if weather's not Accommodations: Hikers in New Hampshire can stay overnight in cabins on the back-country mountain trails.

Taking the Kids

September 14, 1997|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

"What about the rain?" I nervously asked the voice at the other end of the car phone as the deluge beat down on our minivan roof. "Rain doesn't stop anyone from hiking in the White Mountains," the Appalachian Mountain Club staffer replied, laughing.

I wasn't laughing. We'd had reservations since last winter to stay at one of the Appalachian Mountain Club's famed back-country huts along the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It never occurred to me it might rain.

Now, it seemed, carrying our sleeping bags and clothes in our backpacks, we had to hike nearly two miles in a downpour up a steep mountain trail, over slippery rocks and logs, to dinner and beds. Good thing I'd followed the AMC's advice and stashed rain gear and flashlights in our packs. Too bad the entire family was looking at me as if I was nuts.

"Consider it an adventure," I suggested halfheartedly as I strapped on my backpack.

Started in 1888

An arduous hike from the nearest road, these full-service back-country "hotels" are so unusual they draw hikers -- many with their kids and some with grandkids -- from across the country and abroad. The first was built in 1888, and they're still so popular that it's necessary to book nearly a year ahead, especially for late-summer weekends.

The kids weren't impressed with this information, of course, but gamely started up the trail anyway.

"It's a challenge for the entire family. Everyone has to pull together to get up the mountain -- not like at home, where everyone is going in different directions," Joe Doro, an entrepreneur from Buffalo, N.Y., told me the next morning at Lonesome Lake Hut. He'd spent several days at two AMC huts with his wife and six children, including a 6-month-old baby and 3-year-old. All of them, he said, were sorry they had to head back down the mountain.

There were plenty of other kids at Lonesome Lake, too: a 6-year-old hiking with her aunt, four 14-year-olds with one of their moms and assorted other messy, dirty, happy children. In fact, so many parents now are bringing their kids that the AMC has begun to offer nature programs for kids at Lonesome Lake Hut during the day and evening.

"It seems that people who backpacked when they were younger are coming back to it now with their kids," said AMC spokesman Rob Burbank.

I'd loved the concept from the time I learned of the huts: We could introduce the kids to the beauty and solitude of the back country without lugging a tent, stove, food and the rest of the gear we'd need to camp miles from the car. Not only would dinner and breakfast be provided (no meals for Mom to cook!), but we'd be treated to funny skits at mealtimes, courtesy of the college-age hut staff, as well as the kid-friendly nature forays around the lake led by an enthusiastic 28-year-old naturalist named Pete Winnick.

Operated by club

The 73,000-member Appalachian Mountain Club, the oldest recreation and conservation organization in the country, operates eight dormitory-type huts, each strung a day's hike apart along 56 miles of the Appalachian Trail. While a step up from a tent, these accommodations aren't anywhere near fancy. Guests are assigned cots in bunk rooms; they share communal bathrooms. There are no showers or electricity. (Make sure your flashlights have good batteries and bring along earplugs in case there are loud snorers in the cabin!)

On that bleak, rainy August afternoon when we started up the trail, I admit I was sorry we weren't staying elsewhere. But I was proud that my gang had enough moxie not to let the rain stop us. Besides, I'd already paid in full. So up the mountain we trudged.

The one-hour hike took us more than two as we navigated through puddles and mud.

When we arrived wet and tired well after dinner was over, the staff had ours waiting: first-rate fish chowder, lasagna, home-baked bread and chocolate cake. AMC spokesman Burbank told me later that the hut crews backpack in much of the food -- 65 pounds -- twice a week.

Parents and kids were sitting around the main lodge playing Monopoly and checkers by the light of gas lamps.

That night, warm and cozy in sleeping bags laid out on our bunk beds (we had a six-bed room to ourselves), we congratulated each other for our accomplishment, for not wimping out.

The next day, the weather started to clear as we headed back down the trail. The kids led the way.

When you go

The experience doesn't come cheap. It costs roughly $150 a night for a family of four, though prices vary depending on the day of the week or the season. (Call 603-466-2727 for information. Ask about the fall discounted rates.)

Besides rain gear, make sure to bring a wool sweater or fleece jacket -- they stay warm even when wet -- extra wool or ski socks, first-aid kit, high-energy snacks and trash bags to pack out your trash.

If the huts sound too rugged or you prefer a winter trip, consider the AMC's 103-bed Pinkham Notch Lodge, at the base of Mount Washington and open all year. It has electricity, showers, meals and some private rooms. There are family nature programs and the chance to hike or cross-country ski right out the door.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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