As one of the last remaining fire towers in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the beautiful structure resting on the summit of Kearsarge North near North Conway, New Hampshire is certainly a hot spot for visitors and locals alike. What was once a forester’s base for fire detection has become a hiker’s sanctuary.
The endless view above the trees, including the astounding sight of Mount Washington, home of some of the world’s worst weather, is breath taking. There’s nothing like a 360 degree view.
Hiking Kearsarge North is always a treat, but some prime times to be up there are during sunset or sunrise. So why not both? The secret to this well-known and last remaining fire tower in the area is that it’s the perfect place to camp out for the night when you hit it right. The key is to be the only party up there.
Trailhead For Kearsarge Fire Tower
You’ll find the trailhead is attached to a rather small parking lot off Hurricane Mountain Road in Bartlett, a town right outside the small ski town of North Conway, New Hampshire. Parking on the side of the road is prohibited when there is too much snow, a challenge we came across during our first attempt at this overnight. Parking can be very limited in the winter months in the White Mountains. Once parked you can find a trailhead sign for the Kearsarge North Trail.
Distance: ~6 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: ~2500’
This is a steep and technical trail all the way to the summit. The trail also tends to have wet and rocky sections, meaning slick city! There is a subtle rock scramble just before the summit, a tough climb, but the ROI is substantial. When we did our overnight, there was snow and the trail was already packed out, making it a much less technical ascent and descent.
Book Time: 4-6hrs
Google map: https://goo.gl/maps/zi5YSHqhuddGyTWd7
Winter in the White Mountains
In the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the winters can be long and oftentimes unforgivably cold. With the snow arriving as early as October this year, by mid March, us hikers were practically begging for warmer weather.
There are many upsides to winter hiking. Its beauty is unworldly. It can also be easier on your body because the snow creates a marshmallow like protection for your joints while the trails are slightly less technical as the snow has filled in all the potential hazards. Winter hiking does have its dangers and downsides, however, but Kearsarge North can be a great option for beginner to intermediate winter hikers.
What Makes a Winter Overnight Tough
The gear for a winter over night is substantially more than what you would need in the warmer seasons. This means more weight in your pack, more layers, and lots of expensive gear. For those new to winter overnights, or winter hiking in general, being aware of the extra weight you are carrying is very important.
What To Pack For A Winter Overnight
For our overnight, I checked the weather and decided to bring my 20 degree sleeping bag along with a small pillow and a sleeping pad. Although I slept on the floor, there is one set of hooks for a hammock, that my friend opted for. Along with sleeping gear, I packed:
- Smartwool Top and Bottom Set (well worth the investment)
- wool socks
- L.L. Bean Sweater Fleece Pullover
- Hand and Foot Warmers
- My North Face Thermoball (great for layering when I’m still moving and need some extra warmth)
- L.L. Bean Ultralight 850 Down Hooded Jacket (for hanging out in at the summit or the descent)
- Marmot Minimalist Gore-Tex shell (my favorite piece of gear, it always adds extra warmth, dryness, and wind protection.)
The important thing to remember is to remember that extra change of clothes, staying in sweaty layers can turn cold and miserable fast and be detrimental to your safety. There’s nothing like changing into dry clothes and layering up once you get there. I change into my Smartwools and layer them under my sweats and my pullover.
For food, my friend and I packed Good to Go Pad Thai, which was delicious. We cooked it using her MSR Windburner, which took almost no time at all. She also supplied the gas, the lighter, and the utensils, while I provided the meal. We always double and triple check that we have everything we need collectively and individually to have a successful and safe trip in the mountains even if we are protected in the tower.
Having snacks, like trail mix, was nice to wake up to for a quick breakfast. Making sure you have enough water is integral. You need it both for cooking and drinking, and in this case, we had two four legged friends that needed some as well.
What We Wore On the Way Up
With everything listed above in our packs, we set off from the trailhead with our long sleeve wicking tops, fleece lined leggings, gloves, socks, gaiters, neck warmers, and wool hats on. In the winter, it’s tempting to start your hike with all your layers on because you start out freezing, but this leads to sweating too much and having to continuously take 30 to 40 pound packs on and off as you peel off layers.
For us, this would have been a big issue since our packs were very heavy, something we were not yet accustomed to since most of our winter ventures were strictly day hikes. On our feet we had 200 gram winter hikers and Kahtoola micro spikes, while our snowshoes were strapped to our packs, just in case.
Hiking Up and Watching the Sunset
We knew our packs were heavy, but when we really started to climb, it hit hard. 30 minutes into our hike we were aching and hunched over. It felt like every step we took took everything we had. We were working muscles in our legs we didn’t know we had, and we didn’t resemble the avid hikers we knew ourselves to be.
Next time we will be more mentally prepared for the physicality of winter backpacking and will most likely start a little earlier, so we arrive at the summit well before sunset. Headlamps are always in our packs, even when our plan is just to do a day hike. Winter days are short, and you never know when your adventure might take you longer than planned.
The long trudge to the summit was well worth it. We made it just before the sun dipped below the presidential range. Even though we were tired and depleted, the sunset made us forget how beat we were with its undeniable beauty. As the yellow, pink, and orange hews set in around us, we made our way up into the fire tower and watched the sunset unfold from within. The colors reflected onto the glass windows, like we were entrenched in a wild forest fire.
Staying the Night
Once the sun was almost gone, we set up our sleeping areas and laid our gear out on the table inside. After laying out our bedding and changing our layers, we filled up on Pad Thai and the exhaustion began to set in. We went to bed with full bellies and tired limbs.
After tucking ourselves in, I quickly realized that I needed more layers and put on my puffy jacket because it was colder than what my 20 degree sleeping bag could handle. For a better night’s sleep next time, I will bring a warmer one if the temps look like they might be at 20 or below.
Waking Up To The Sun
Staying in the tower was really cool and not having to set up a tent is a huge perk. Waking up to the sun beginning to greet us was my favorite part of the whole trip. There’s just something incredibly serene about rising with the sun. As that all too familiar, but always pleasant, golden glow spread over our sleeping area we jumped out of bed to take some pictures.
Once we had our fill of the magical scene surrounding us, we began to pack up. Our trip was short, but well worth the magnificent sights we saw. Just like that, we left our home for the night, as if we were never even there. Leave no trace has been burned into our brains. We wouldn’t want to ruin such a special privilege for ourselves or for anyone else in the future.
Staying in the Kearsarge North fire tower is unlike any camping trip I’ve taken. It’s a tough hike up, especially hauling all that gear, but the reward is nothing short of a phenomenal experience. This hike is great in all seasons with the right gear. You are less likely to encounter others staying up there on week nights as it is a very popular destination. We will be back.
Victoria is a trail/mountain runner and hiker living in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. She is rarely without her husky pup, Mika. If they aren’t on the trails, they’re probably enjoying one of the many other activities the mountains have to offer.