One of my favorite things to discover as a hiker has to be locally owned and operated companies. It is amazing how we use some many items and resources to simply walk in the woods. If you’re an avid reader at Trail to Summit you know I love gear, the people who make it, and especially the people who make hiking possible for many!
In the past, if you wanted a place to crash in the Franconia Notch area you had to have a tent or do a good deal of driving -unless of course you were willing to fork up loads of cash for many of the more traditional local lodging options. If you are thru hiking the Appalachian Trail, you likely were relegated to the tenting option of the three.
This was until The Notch Hostel opened its doors! I had the pleasure of chatting with Serena who runs The Notch and learned so much about their motivation to open, their background as hikers, and the inside scoop to life at a hostel in the Whites! If you are coming from afar, spending lots of time on foot in the area, or just want a weekend in a bunk surrounded by good company, you’ll find Serena and Justin’s business is a notch above the rest! (Yes, I know… and it’s so true!) Enjoy learning about The Notch and let us know below if you’ve had the pleasure of staying there!
TTS: When did you open The Notch and what inspired you to run a hostel in the White Mountains?
Serena: It all started three years ago. My husband (then boyfriend) Justin and I had been hiking and backpacking in the White Mountains year-round for several years. In July 2014, we took a 2 week vacation from our jobs in Boston (I was a research assistant, he was a construction field engineer) and traveled to the west coast to climb Mt. Rainier and Mt. Hood. During our trip, I was reading “AWOL on the Appalachian Trail”, a first-hand account of thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail by David Miller. At some point on our journey home, I turned to Justin and said, “We should start a hostel in the White Mountains.” As fate would have it, the hostel idea stuck.
Tapped into Seattle-Tacoma airport wifi, Justin browsed Zillow for houses that met our needs. Five minutes into our first search, we found the charming 1890, 4000-square-foot farmhouse in North Woodstock, NH that was to become the Notch Hostel. Three months later, we bought the property. In May of 2015, I quit my Boston job to move to the Notch (Justin followed suit soon after), we got married on June 27th, went on a two-week honeymoon in the Alps and did a glacial traverse from Mt. Blanc to the Matterhorn, and then returned to open the Notch Hostel for business on July 15. It was quite a year!
TTS: What was the most difficult part of starting your own business?
Serena: The process of starting our own business could be described as testing and then walking through a series of doorways, each of which could have locked us out from our goal. We had to consider everything from the legality of converting a single family home into a commercial property to what brand of toilet paper to provide. Our to-do lists were a mile long, and since we were both still working in Boston at the time, we did most of the start-up work on weekends and vacation days. We painted walls, built new showers, redid floors, added a stone fireplace, built bunk beds, installed fire escapes, repaired the deck, and took on about 500 other projects in order to convert the house into a hostel suitable for White Mountains visitors. It was the most taxing and gratifying job I’ve ever undertaken. Needless to say, we did not make it out on too many hikes!
I think the most difficult part for me was deciding what to prioritize (for example, should I first focus on furnishing the house or marketing?) and what services/amenities to offer (free breakfast or free shuttles for thru-hikers?). With the help of an army of friends, family, and fellow business owners, we plodded through the decision-making. We were surprised at how many doors DID open for us — it felt like the mountain gods were cheering us on and helping us to make our goal a reality.
TTS: The most rewarding?
Serena: For me, the most rewarding part of starting the Notch has been meeting so many incredible people who have traveled from all over the world and somehow ended up at my doorstep. I still feel surprised and blessed every time we have another 100% booked night. I’ve heard horror stories about hostels in the city, but honestly 99% of the people who have stayed with us have been genuinely good people who share a love of the mountains. There’s nothing more satisfying to me than walking upstairs in the evening to see the Notch living room and kitchen full of people talking, laughing, cooking, and playing guitar. It feels good to be able to provide a place for people to meet, talk, trip plan, and relax — without spending a fortune. I also feel extremely blessed to have had so many incredible employees, each of whom have made special contributions that make the Notch what it is today. Most of our employees have lived on the property during their time working for me, and it’s rewarding to have been able to provide fulfilling jobs and living situations for them and watch them learn and grow during their time at the Notch.
TTS: How did you decide on the location?
Serena: Over years of hiking in the White Mountains, we had come to know certain areas fairly well. To the east is the tourist epicenter of Conway and North Conway. To the west are the villages of Lincoln and North Woodstock. Connecting these two points is the famed Kancamagus Highway, home to Loon Mountain and a destination known well to hikers, skiers, and cyclists in the Northeast. Conway already has the successful and well-regarded White Mountains Hostel. On the northern side of the White Mountains, Gorham has the lovely Rattle River Hostel just off the Appalachian Trail. But the Lincoln/Woodstock area, despite being a mecca for hiking, skiing, snowboarding, climbing, cycling, and other outdoor sports, had no established hostels and very little in the way of affordable accommodations. Being from the Boston area, we usually drove straight to Lincoln after work on Friday, car camped in the woods, and then left from there in the morning to go on whatever hike we had planned for the weekend. Right off Exit 32 from Rt. 93, one mile from the Woodstock Station, two miles from Lincoln’s Loon Mountain, and ten minutes from Franconia Notch, the property we found for sale couldn’t have been in a more perfect location.
TTS: What’s an average day like at The Notch?
Serena: The first guest to wake up makes a fresh pot of coffee. In the summertime, our shuttles for thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail begin at 7:30 AM. After shuttling, the laundry and housekeeping ensues. We take cleanliness pretty seriously here so the housekeeping can take anywhere from three to seven hours for one person, depending on the day. The guests start to show up around 4 pm, and over the course of the evening we may check in up to thirty new guests and help them get settled and plan their hikes and other adventures. We have a large guest kitchen, so many people cook during their stay (we’ve even hosted a Thanksgiving dinner!) and share meals together in our common areas. We don’t have a television in the hostel (although we do have a projector for movie nights and special events), which I think encourages people to socialize with each other more. Guitar sing-alongs, poker games, and fires (by the firepit in the summer, in the living room stove in the winter) are all common occurrences here, always accompanied by discussions about who is hiking what trail tomorrow, what the higher summit forecast is, and whether or not there will be views at the top.
TTS: Tell us something unique that happens at The Notch that we never would have known otherwise!
Serena: The thru-hikers! We are close to the Appalachian Trail and serve AT guests from the trailheads at both Kinsman and Franconia Notch. Many of our local guests can only drive up to stay with us on the weekend, but the summer weekday scene at the Notch is chock full off thru-hikers. Because they do share space with non-AT guests, we’ve come up with a de-contamination system to remove stinkiness and maximize comfort. AT guests are provided with clean loaner clothes and a free laundry service, showers are encouraged upon arrival, and packs and boots stay outside in the “hiker shed.” Once they’ve gone through the de-con process, AT guests are provided with shuttles to town to resupply food and enjoy as many hamburgers and ice cream cones as they can manage. Our thru-hiking guests tend to become part of our family during their stay (we call it the hamily, or hostel family), as many of them “zero” (hike zero miles, hang out at the Notch) for several days here so we get the chance to form strong bonds and friendships. We often offer work-for-stay projects to interested thru-hikers, and it’s fun to look around my house and yard and recall how “Mr. Sunshine” dug my firepit, “Toothpaste” weeded my garden, and “Kickstand” installed my outdoor hose spigot. As fast as they appear in June, the thru-hikers disappear after September, so fall is always bittersweet for me. It’s nice not to have to run around like crazy looking for sewing kits for ripped packs and drive forgotten poles to the trailhead, but I also miss that magical energy and camaraderie the thru-hikers bring with them. But summer will be here again before I know it, and with it will come a whole new herd of AT hikers!
TTS: What’s your background as a hiker and backpacker?
Serena: I grew up in a woodsy town in Massachusetts and spent my youth taking dog walks in the forest, building fairy houses out of tree stumps, and that sort of thing. But it wasn’t until 2012 that I found out about the White Mountains and decided to hike Franconia Ridge with some friends. After that one hike, I was hooked (no wonder…National Geographic just rated it the sixth best hike in the world this year). Justin was already an experienced hiker and mountaineer when we got together, so he taught me much of what I know about backpacking, winter hiking, and mountaineering. I’ve since hiked all the 48 4000-footers and backpacked all over the Whites and other places (yes, I’ve done plenty of solo hikes, and no, I don’t bring a gun or taser). I love winter backpacking in the Whites, and have gotten into rock and ice climbing since moving up here.
TTS: Where do you enjoy hiking?
Serena: The White Mountains, of course! One of my favorite areas to hike is the Great Gulf Wilderness, as well as on the Randolph Mountain Club trails in the northern Presidential Range. The Castellated Ridge trail to Mount Jefferson takes my breath away. Moosilauke, Kinsman Notch, and the areas around Long Pond Road and Tunnel Brook fascinate me. And of course there is nothing like good old Franconia Ridge! On the West Coast, I love the Northern Cascades in Washington State and can’t wait to get back there.
TTS: Other than a hiking destination, what is a can’t miss place near the hostel?
Serena: I’d have to say the various river spots along Routes 3 and 112. Free, close to the road, and no backpack required! I love sitting on the rocks by the Lost River (across the street from the hostel) in the summertime and listening to the water. I also love to drive through beautiful Kinsman Notch, pay a visit to Beaver Pond, and then drive up Rt. 116 (less contested than 93) to see all the farmland and the majestic backside of Kinsman Ridge. And of course, I’ve got to give a shout out to my favorite healthy food options in town: the Gypsy Cafe, the Purple Tomato market, and Peaked Moon Bakery!
TTS: What are your upcoming plans? How about for the hostel?
Serena: We are approaching leaf season here in the Whites and are already doing a snow dance for the winter season. Last year we hosted courses such as Avalanche Awareness and Intro to Winter Hiking, and this year we hope to do even more. We are also excited to be hosting two women’s yoga/spiritual retreats this fall. Down the road, we’ve dreamed about building a yurt as a Notch annex (probably a pipe dream) and also opening up a outdoor guiding service in the Lincoln area (less of a pipe dream). Justin is currently planning a trip to climb Denali this Spring; I have yet to decide if I want to brave the negative 40 degree conditions with him. Maybe I’ll hike Mauna Loa instead!