Matt Scharf devised this delightful route in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The route is a lollipop with a short stick and begins with trial by fire ascending the Appalachian trail from Pinkham Notch up over the Wildcat range and down to Carter Notch. From there, it continues along the AT across the Carters (making the very worthwhile detour to Mt Hight), then up to Moriah and back to Imp Tentsite for the night. From there the route follows the thoroughly pleasant Moriah Brook trail down into the Wild River Wilderness, up to and along Meader Ridge toward the Baldfaces, down into Baldface Circle to Emerald Pool, and up to Baldface Shelter for the night. The route then heads over the Baldfaces, and out to Carter Notch again through the Wild River Wilderness, then pounds knees with the brutal climb and descent of the Wildcats.
The route is a touch over 50 miles with a little over 17 miles each day, with elevation gains of over 7000 ft on the first day, over 5000 the second, and over 6000 the third for a fairly stout three-day trip. Some of the trails are very steep, very rocky, and not really meant for quick pace. Other parts are easier to walk, but may divert with other pleasantness.
Matt and I set out on Wednesday morning, coffee in hand, battling traffic out of town. After the Beltway it was smooth sailing, barring a bio break in the madness that is Chelmsford, MA. It was after dark when we parked at Pinkham Notch and started making sure we had what we needed in our packs, and eating some last snacks to serve as our dinner. A moose cow lazily chewed greenery in the ditch between the parking lot and road, unimpressed by our UL packs, and flashy headlamps. We crossed NH-16, and picked up the AT, barely walking into the woods before bivying between the trees, just short of Lost Pond.
In the morning, we were walking just after dawn, and enjoyed the short Class 3 respite from the endless stairmaster up Wildcat D. The weather was nice with some thin clouds high in the sky, but long visibility and unseasonably warm temperatures with gentle breezes. If I couldnít look out and see the observatory on Mt. Washington, I might not have believed we were in the Whites. We took our time and moseyed across the range, tagging two of the Whiteís 48 4000 ft peaks, then dropped down to Carter Notch to the AMC hut for a snack, and some water.
Leaves were just shy of peak, but we could see some really delightful foliage in the valleys along the Presidential Range, and in Carter Notch which is lined with a mix of deciduous and evergreen forest. After a rest at the AMC hut, and brief chat with the autumn caretaker, we headed up Carter. I donít remember this being too bad, but Matt tells me it was a very steep climb. It tapered off and before long, we were cruising along the ridge. The Carters arenít that interesting as they are largely treed in, but interspersed is Mt. Hight, which is just off the AT, and which is totally open with views in all directions.
Dropping off the Carter ridge toward Imp was one of the steepest most brutal descents I can remember - itís right up there with the descent from South Twin to Galehead in the Pemigewasset. It was feeling late in the day as we passed the sign to Imp Shelter, but we pushed on. The ridge out to Moriah is agonizing - it doesnít really gain or lose meaningful elevation, but itís constantly hopping up and down rocks, and you canít see much through the trees as you creep closer to the summit. Just below the summit rocks, we ran into a group of young AT hikers southbound and all wearing suits. It seemed somewhat late, but their attire was stylish, so we figured they must know what they were doingÖ After a quick scramble to the summit with attending summit push-ups, we raced back toward Imp, or at least tried to. We were both beat from the full day of climbing and descending and constantly pounding our feet on rock. Eventually we made it to the shelter, and chatted briefly with the merry gang there - the young AT hikers in suits and a number of others. The kids had just purchased the suits the day before in Gorham to help lift their spirits, but their pace had been low, having left Katahdin one month earlier. Their packs were ~45 lbs, and it seemed unlikely that they would manage to finish the trail. Matt and I pitched our tarps on platforms, and slept as well as we could given the night time temperatures in the 50s (too warm!).
Up again and walking by 7 am, we quickly retraced our steps to where the Moriah Brook trail cuts off, and began our descent into the Wild River Wilderness. The weather was lovely - bluebird skies, and warm temperatures. The leaves were spectacular, at times flashing the reds and oranges of maples through bright greens of the beech and deep dark greens of hemlocks, and at times bathing the whole trail in a golden hue as sunlight sifted through yellowed birch leaves above. The creek babbled happily beside us, offering many enticing swimming holes. Eventually, we obliged, and took a much-needed swim. Frankly, with such elevation gains and warm temperatures, we didnít smell too good, and the wash helped.
After an unpleasant encounter with yellow jackets burrowed in a social trail to an otherwise beautiful campsite, we plodded along, having not really made much progress on the day thanks to the beauty of the scenery and delight of splashing in a cool creek. Navigating some sections flooded by beaver dams, we made it to Wild River, found a bridge that unbeknownst to us had been replaced after washing out in Hurricane Irene, then trotted up the relatively easy grade to Meader Ridge.
The ridge held a few more challenges than expected. We had a very steep climb up to Mt. Meader and then what looked to be a level ridgeline proved not to be. 100 foot contours can hide some rather nasty stuff; it was just so on the ridge out to Eagle Crag before the drop into the Baldface circle. The ridge was riddled with 50 ft drops into little gullies, then steep climbs back out. It was slow moving. When we finally reached the open meadow at Eagle Crag, it was a relief. The descent down to Emerald Pool was quick on the dry, grippy, granite slab, then soft beech forest floor trail. Emerald Pool is not to be missed - a 20 foot wide chasm in the rock drops 10-15 feet into a calm pool which goes at least 20 feet deep below the cliffs. I dove in rather ungracefully while Matt filmed and laughed at my flop.
An eastern-European woman gave us a show as we regained the trail, then we fled upward to the serenity of the Baldface Shelter, about halfway up South Baldface. After a lovely nightís sleep (though again too warm), we walked onto the east-facing slabs near the shelter to greet the sun, then it was onward and upward scrambling the broken friction slab up South Baldface. The mountain reportedly was swept clean of vegetation in a 1903 wildfire, and much of the granite is still exposed, leaving a really fantastic view from the whole upper ridge and the summit of a mountain well below the 4000 ft mark. We had splitter weather - perfect bluebird skies, a nice breeze, and warm without being overly hot. We took many pictures, then swept on to North Baldface, and dropped back down to the ridge at Eagle Crag.
The trail back down into the Wild River Wilderness wasnít particularly long, but I again totally mis-gauged how far we had gone, estimating us to be nearly at the bottom of the descent when in fact we were only half-way down. Oh, well. The foliage was superb - very near peak - and I took many photos.
Even the flatter ground in the valley leading back to the climb up into Carter Notch was slower than expected. Boggy terrain, stream crossings, and general White Mountains shenanigans kept our pace well below 3 mph. The climb back up to Carter Notch seemed to go quickly, and soon we were chatting again with the Carter Hut caretaker who I recalled was briefly featured in an AMC video about Madison Hut last year. I believe he was stoned out of his mind in that video, and the effects seemed to linger.
We tanked up on water and prepared for the final push up and over the Wildcats. I raced to the top of Wildcat A, but after a break, I had to face the reality of the steep, treacherous ups and downs that form the Wildcat range. Progress was slow, but we saw many more people than we had in the previous days. On the top of Wildcat D where the Wildcat ski resort lift tops out, there was a couple taking wedding photos with what appeared to be the better part of their wedding party. One imagines they must have taken the lift up, or else high heels are better trail wear than expected.
The plunge down from Wildcat D toward Pinkham is brutal. The trail is well-maintained, but it doesnít really switch back, it simply follows the 40ish degree slope down the mountain, all in tall stone steps. My knees complained, but I kept going and eventually, reached the bottom. The last mile or so back to Pinkham Notched seemed long and slow on battered legs, but we marched on, thinking the whole time about the lovely food at Moat Brewery in North Conway.
Back at the car, we showered in Pinkham Notch (5 quarters for 3 minutes of hot water, I believe), I chatted in Norwegian with a skier living in Jackson, NH, and we headed off for food. Saturday night is a tough night to get a seat at Moat. The wait was 1:15, but Matt and I were too tired, and too set on the good food to bother to try anywhere else. We waited outside in the pleasant evening air, watching the wide variety of other guests come and go.
I polished off a beer, veggie burger and fries, then a huge mud pie for dessert, a meal performance to make Heavy-D proud. Moat does a good job for vegans and vegetarians for a beeríníburgers joint. Matt and I camped in a state forest campground along NH-112 (The Kangamagus Highway - everyone loves the name), then had coffee and breakfast at Half Baked and Fully Brewed, a nice little coffee shop in Lincoln, NH, just off I-93 south of Franconia Notch. Another full day of driving brought us home, tired, but satisfied by a truly lovely White Mountain experience.
I highly recommend this route to anyone who can do 17 miles a day with over 6000 ft of elevation gain a day in the White Mountains (probably equivalent to 22ish with the same gains in much of the mid-Atlantic). The loop is beautiful and exposes the backpacker to some of the higher summits, bubbly brooks, roaring rivers, a couple of alpine lakes, and exposed granite slabs in a less-visited part of the White Mountains.
Thanks for writing the trip report, Joffrey! I really enjoyed this route also. So often when I plan trips I look to connect as many high points as I can and while this one certainly did that with the Wildcat-Carter-Moriah traverse portion, I think I enjoyed the Wild River Wilderness and Baldface portions the most. Definitely a route I'll revisit at some point in the future.
Yeah, the drive's long, but I wouldn't mind seeing this or something like this become a DCUL classic.
Thanks for the detailed trip report Joffrey!! Enjoyed all the beautiful photos you guys had taken. Hope to go there sometime in the future[:D]
You're welcome, and you should make it a point to get up there. The autumn is wonderful (though it can come with nasty weather sometimes).