BRETTON WOODS — The 8.5-mile Crawford Path, which recently celebrated its 200th birthday, is the oldest continuously maintained and used hiking trail in the United States.
And just in time for its bicentennial, a two-year project to upgrade the trail was recently completed.
According to Matt Coughlan of Conway, Crawford Path project manager for the recently formed White Mountain Trail Collective of trail users, field work on the path — which starts east from roughly where the AMC’s Highland Center sits and goes all the way to the summit of Mount Washington — wrapped this week.
The $500,000 Crawford Path upgrade began last year when it was overseen by the U.S. Forest Service and has continued this summer under the supervision of the new collective, a non-profit collaborative comprised of numerous local conservation and trail organizations whose motto is to “protect the trails, preserve the legacy.”
Cristin Bailey, trails manager for the Forest Service’s Saco District, said the work consisted of drainage features and corridor clearing on western parts of the trail, along with bog bridging on Mount Pierce (Clinton); and scree walls, tread hardening and social trail closures on Mounts Eisenhower, Franklin, Monroe and Washington.
A season-end White Mountain Trail Collective party for those who worked on or sponsored the project is set for Sept. 28 from 3-6 p.m. to complement a grand opening for outdoor store REI at its new North Conway location at 1498 White Mountain Highway, in Settlers Crossing.
REI has been a major contributor, donating $200,000 donation each of the past two years to the National Forest Foundation, which then granted the funds through the White Mountain Trail Collective and in sweat equity trailwork sessions.
The U.S. Forest Service and the Appalachian Mountain Club — two leading members of the White Mountain Trail Collective — held a Crawford Path Bicentennial ceremony Aug. 9 at the trailhead just east of the AMC’s Highland Center off Route 302 near Bretton Woods.
On hand were White Mountain Trail Collective members, including White Mountain National Forest Ranger for the Pemigewasset District Brooke Brown and AMC Senior Vice President Walter Graff of Randolph, who told the gathering he had climbed the Crawford Path more times than he could recall since he moving to the area 45 years ago to work for the AMC.
All four members of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation sent representatives to read congratulatory statements.
Also present were Tiffany Benna, White Mountain National Forest, public and technical services team leader and a trails collective board member; the AMC’s Zack Urgese, trail crew supervisor; Erik Samia, the forest services’s Crawford Path coordinator and a past AMC trail crew member; Melanie Luce, the trail collective’s executive director; and Coughlan.
AMC archivist Rebecca Fullerton provided a bit of Crawford Path history, saying that before the era of the grand hotels, there was “the humble inn: the farmhouse on the side of the single road through the pass where the rare, weary traveler was welcomed.”
Fullerton explained that during the 18th century, “that house was the home of Abel Crawford, his wife Hannah Rosebrook Crawford, and their seven children.”
The Crawfords had come from Guildhall, Vt. They settled in what is now Bretton Woods “before moving deep into the foreboding valley known only as ‘The Notch of the White Mountains’ at Hart’s Location,” Fullerton said.
“Abel’s son, Ethan Allen Crawford, would be an innkeeper, too, piling on numerous, industrious endeavors: hunting, trapping … and guiding people up the tallest mountain in New England,” she continued. He and his father cut what is now known as the Crawford Path, creating a trailhead north of Saco Lake.
“After just a few parties requested his assistance in guiding them up the trackless Mount Washington, he decided to cut a trail there in June 1819,” she said. “He and his father Abel cut a route as far as ‘treeline’ on Mount Pierce and then proceeded to take out newspaper ads to promote it.”
Despite all his efforts, Crawford was chronically in debt and died essentially broke in June 1846. He and Lucy had moved back to Vermont in 1837, but returned to the mountains in 1843.
“The influx of visitors hoping to witness the sublime beauty and terror of the magnificent White Mountains … surely benefited the Crawford family,” Fullerton said. “They would continue to aid Ethan’s brother, Thomas Jefferson Crawford, who inherited the care of his family’s magnificent trail and ran the inn at its trailhead. He was the one to formally improve it to a bridle path (for horse riders) in 1839 and 1840.
“The path originally cut by Ethan Allen was likely not much different than a poorly maintained yet highly overused trail today,” she explained. “Mount Pleasant — today named Mount Eisenhower — was the only summit traversed until Mount Washington itself.
“By the 1860s and 1870s, riding on horseback up Washington over a rough path was no longer in vogue,” Fullerton noted.
“The Mount Washington Carriage Road (now named the Auto Road) opened in 1861 and the Mt. Washington Cog Railway in 1869, both making for an easier, quicker and more comfortable rise to the top. Sometime in the 1880s the last horses are said to have passed over the Crawford Path. Hiking on foot was coming into fashion, and people have been hiking the trail ever since.”
Today, she said, the Crawford Path makes up a portion of the Appalachian Trail — one of the first two trails designated as National Scenic Trails under the National Trails System Act of 1968.
AMC Lakes of the Clouds Hut, which can sleep 90 paying guests, lies directly on the Crawford Path about 7 miles from its trailhead on Route 302, she said.
“Surely the original trail builders would have been astounded to see such things, but likely thrilled to find their path still in use 200 years on,” Fullerton said. “And, so the Crawford Path remains, ironically outlasting most of the hotels that helped to keep its popularity alive through the decades.”
In remarks Chuck Henderson delivered on behalf of U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, he said that “the White Mountains are now a thriving, well-known, four-season tourist destination, where travelers in numbers Abel and Ethan could not have imagined come to observe unparalleled natural beauty.”
The last speaker at the ceremony was Crawford Path project manager Coughlan.
“This special moment in the history of the White Mountains … marks a new way forward in how we care for our trails. The collective was started because of the increasing need for serious restoration work on the trails that surround us,” he said.
“There are large-scale erosion and human-impact problems that seem to be beyond the capacity of any one organization to manage. But together we’re starting to make a difference, and the two-year-long Crawford Path project has brought together new partnerships and new funding sources that are increasing our capacity to make a meaningful difference.”
Coughlan emphasized that many benefits have come out of the new regional approach besides the much-needed restoration of the Crawford Path, including providing three levels of skills trainings to several trail crews.
“The White Mountain Trail Collective plans to continue to offer joint trainings to enhance the collective knowledge of trail restoration practices and to continue to develop working relationships between trail-workers,” he said. “The collective will be tackling several projects in the Mount Washington Valley over the next two years, including work on hiking trails, mountain biking trails, and backcountry ski glades that will extend our reach beyond the White Mountain National Forest and into conservation properties managed by other organizations and with a variety of recreation issues.”
Coughlan expressed his appreciation to the many organizations who’ve stepped up with substantial sweat equity support and volunteer workdays, including Red Bull, Athletic Brewing Co. and REI, the latter of which, as noted earlier, donated funds which were channeled through the National Forest Foundation.
He also thanked the Mt. Washington Auto Road, saying it has been critically helpful to allowing trail crews to cruise “up and down” every day; Mount Washington State Park, specifically Patrick Hummel, in helping with logistic challenges; the Mount Washington Cog Railway and Erik Samia of the AMC the first year and with the WMNF the second year; and Luce of the White Mountain Trail Collective whom Coughlan praised for “being crucial on either side of the spectrum in making this season a success.”
He also cited Amanda Peterson of the AMC for coordinating the volunteer trail days.
But he said deserving most of the thanks “are the trail crews who have put in endless hours and daily hikes of 3-7 miles, Monday through Friday.”
According to Coughlan, 13 different trail crews have worked on the Crawford Path project, including the AMC professional crew, AMC Camp Dodge and Volunteer Vacations crews, U.S. Forest Service White Mountain National Forest crews from Pemigewasset, Androscoggin and Saco Districts, the Armed Forces Conservation Corps, Randolph Mountain Club and Student Conservation Corps-NH.
Also helping were the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps, Northwoods Stewardship Center, Plymouth Conservation Corps and Cardigain Highlands Trail Crew.
In a follow-up interview, the Forest Service’s Bailey, who was the Crawford Path project’s supervisor last year, described the process.
“We used specialized alpine rigging with the tripod to lift and skyline rocks from one side to another,” said Bailey. “And it involved something we call ‘rubbling’ — where you put really small stuff in areas where we didn’t want people to walk in to allow vegetation to grow.”
She said crews were fortunate to enjoy mostly favorable weather both summers.
“It’s such a great place to work — we were blessed with great weather. I love working in that environment — and I also love my trail crew work here on the Saco District,” said Bailey, who spent eight years at the AMC before shifting over to the USFS’ Saco District in 2006.
For Samia, 28, a 2010 Kennett High and Paul Smith College graduate, it was rewarding to work on a project that will extend the life of the nation’s oldest continuously used trail.
“Being a local guy who grew up with these mountains in my backyard, so to speak, to be part of such a special project with all that history has been very special,” Samia said. “It definitely grabs you to know that past and that you are doing something important.”
Adding to the historical account this week were longtime local hiking historians David Govatski, of Jefferson, now retired from the U.S. Forest Service, and Steve Smith, co-editor of the AMC White Mountain Guidebook and owner of the Mountain Books and Maps in Lincoln.
“The Crawford Path is one of the most remarkable trails in America,” Govatski told the Sun.
“This 8.5-mile trail traverses a full range of life zones from Northern Hardwood forests at its start in Crawford Notch to Old Growth Spruce in the Gibbs Brook Scenic Area, to scrubby sub-alpine balsam fir, and finally the windswept felsenmeer on the summit cone of New England’s highest mountain. For 200 years, visitors have trodden this trail to enjoy its magical qualities on the rooftop of New England.
“The Crawford Path is full of wonders,” he continued. “Some of the rarest plants in New England are found along its rocky route. The Appalachian National Scenic Trail carries hikers from all over on 6 miles of the Crawford Path. The Crawford Path is a major part of the Presidential Traverse route that challenges hikers in summer and winter. The challenge is difficult especially in winter and several hikers have perished along the historic travel way.
“The Crawford Path has long been my favorite trail,” Govatski said. “There is just no other trail that compares with its long history, natural wonders and spectacular scenery. The Crawford Path represents an extraordinarily long history of use and care. This care is now best exemplified by the creation of the White Mountain Trail Collective with numerous partner groups and agencies helping maintain this historic route.”
Sharing that sense of wonder was Smith. “Thinking about the Crawford Path at the two-century mark, I try to envision what it was like when Abel and Ethan Allen Crawford first laid out this route through the primeval woods and across the untrodden skyline,” he said.
“Those were true pioneer days. It’s amazing to consider that when the first edition of the AMC White Mountain Guide appeared in 1907, the Crawford Path had been around for 88 years. In a nod to the trail’s importance, the 1907 guidebook noted that the Southern Peaks of the Presidentials were sometimes called the ‘Crawford Path Ridge,’” he added.
“Surely, the Crawfords could not have envisioned the many thousands of hikers — and runners — who would tread on their footway each year in the age of Facebook and Instagram,” Smith mused.
“But one thinks they would heartily approve of the magnificent work of the White Mountain Trail Collective’s partners in restoring the trail, so that generations of trampers to come may enjoy this exhilarating ridgecrest route,” he said.
For more, go to wmtrailcollective.org/crawford-path-2019 or check out “The AMC White Mountain Guide” — and give a nod of thanks to Abel and Ethan Allen Crawford the next time you head up their path.
Berlin Sun reporter Edith Tucker contributed to this article.