— Like most of the trails in New Hampshire's White Mountains, the Gale River Trail begins with forgiving dirt and mud but quickly changes to unforgiving rock. For most of the 4.6-mile climb up the trail, my wife, Lisa, and I were serenaded by the sound of rapids rushing down the nearby river and the ominous rumble of thunderstorms in the distance.

We crossed over the waterway countless times on rock and log bridges, smelling the fragrant pine, before we reached the last leg — a steep ascent on awkward slabs of rock. Exhausted, we made it to our oasis for the night: the Galehead Hut, where a sign outside the door read, "Built 1932, Elevation 3800 feet."

We plopped down on the long bench outside the lodge, too tired to move, and admired the panorama of peaks before us. Ridge after ridge, a carpet of green tumbled down the flanks to the valley below. It was like peering at a Japanese silkscreen in Technicolor.

This was the vista that seduced us as we traversed 26 miles over five days in June, gaining and losing a staggering total of 15,000 feet of elevation.

Seems quite simple, really: one foot in front of the other. But when you're faced with adversity such as flooded trails, heavy humidity, biting black flies, the threat of thunderstorms, and ascents and descents on rock-laden trails that at times feel like a Marine Corps obstacle course, nothing is easy. Then you arrive at the next hut, each a day's hike apart, looking at this exquisite view, and all is good. You've accepted the challenge and this is your just dessert, one of the many reasons the huts continue to thrive 125 years after they were first introduced.

In 1876, 39 avid "trampers" met in Boston and created the Appalachian Mountain Club, a nonprofit organization dedicated to hiking in the White Mountains. Covering more than 750,000 acres in northern New Hampshire, this national forest is home to more than 1,000 miles of both talus-covered and soft stream-laced paths, including a good 117 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Many of the people in the room for that fateful meeting had climbed in the Swiss Alps and thus had firsthand knowledge of high-Alpine huts, mountain retreats for backpackers. They were eager to design this exact type of lodging in the United States for the increasingly popular sport.

Twelve years later, the stone Madison Spring cabin opened in a col between Mount Adams and Mount Madison. Under the tutelage of Joe Dodge, the determined founder of the AMC hut system, seven more high huts would be built in the Whites over the next 50 years.

You might expect these huts, which have such a long legacy, to be rustic old cabins in the woods. They may have started that way, but the AMC has been renovating the lodgings for years. So now, Lakes of the Clouds, the hut we'd stay at on our final night, has a wonderful new dining room with floor-to-ceiling glass windows that overlook the panoply of peaks. The Zealand Falls Hut sits beside a rushing waterfall, perfectly situated for soaking your feet after a long day of hiking.

The AMC knew exactly what it was doing when it chose these locales for its lodgings. And it continues to keep them up to date with solar heating, compost toilets and other green technology.

We'd Meet Up Again, Hut After Hut

Inside Galehead, Kimball, a member of the five-person hut crew (nicknamed the "croo"), planted a glass of lemonade in my hand and told us that we could choose any of the rooms to bunk in that night. Rooms hold six to 15 bunk beds, stacked as doubles or triples, and we locate two that haven't been taken. Lisa and I had chosen to bring sheets to cover the mattress, which was perfectly fine, but many other hikers opt to sleep in sleeping bags.

Before dinner, the skies opened up, and we were soon peering at a double rainbow that rose atop one of the neighboring peaks. After our calorie-burning trek, the meal that night was particularly soothing: turkey vegetable soup served with fresh-baked honey-oat bread, salad and stuffed shells with marinara sauce. We dined communal-style at long wooden tables.

Little did we know that we would hike the same route with many of the people we sat with that night, quickly becoming friends as we met up again and again, hut after hut. After dinner, we went outside with an avid birder, listening to the calls of the blackpoll warbler, the white-throated sparrow and Swainson's thrush while staring at a summit, Mount Stinson, that I would learn was 26 miles away.

As with camping, lights were out at 9:30 p.m., and we were in bed, reading our novels by headlamp.

The next morning, we rose to a hearty breakfast and bagged our first 4,000-foot peak, Galehead Mountain, an easy scramble from the hut along a waterlogged trail. Then we grabbed our packs, said goodbye to the croo and began a seven-mile hike that was by far the most grueling of the trip.

We spent the day on the Appalachian Trail, following the steep white blazes to the summit of 4,902-foot South Twin Mountain. We were rewarded for our efforts by the sight of a spruce grouse, posing patiently on the trail to ensure that we snap its photo.

After a far too quick lunch of peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, interrupted by black flies gnawing at our necks, we spent the better part of the afternoon on a long, tiring descent. With our legs like spaghetti, each step became more tentative, and we slipped several times on the wet rock.

"The only rock I want to see is the diamond on my finger after accompanying you on this trip," my wife blurted out at one point.

Banjo Music And A Skit From The 'Croo'

Not long after, thankfully, we heard the sound of rushing water, a sign that we were close to the Zealand Falls Hut. We checked in, found two lower-level bunks and took naps, opting to wash off in the falls after dinner.