Trip Report: The Wildcat-Wild River Wilderness Loop

Posted by Matt Scharf on

Back in 2013 and 2014 I had caught the peakbagging bug hard and was making frequent trips to the ADKs and my home state of New Hampshire to tick off 4,000 footers. During that time I came up with a route that checks off the six 4,000 footers in the Wildcat-Carter Range of the White Mountains (Wildcat A&D, Carter Dome, South Carter, Middle Carter, and Moriah) and then surveys a broad swath of the Wild River Wilderness and a portion of the Baldface-Royce Range to the east, which despite relatively low elevation for the Whites boasts lots of alpine terrain, glorious granite slabs, and lots of spectacular views. Joffrey joined me for the trip back in September 2014 and we were both smitten with the route. With Joffrey and Annie having settled in NH, I've been trying to meet up with them a couple times a year to go to the Whites and with busy schedules all around we decided to go with a great route we already knew rather than planning something from scratch.

The logistics of getting to and from the Whites can be a bear, it's a long drive from the DC area - but reasonably priced flights can be had between BWI and Manchester, so Karan, Kylie, Sophie, and I decided to fly up Thursday after work and use the holiday on Monday to drive back. It was late when we rolled into Dolly Copp campground in Pinkham Notch to meet Annie and Joffrey, and Gen who had driven up after visiting his parents in Connecticut. After saying hello and setting up camp we settled in for a shorter nights sleep than we would've liked, but daylight gets scarce come October the further north and east one goes.

We didn't get a particularly early start on Friday. We had a somewhat leisurely breakfast at Dolly Copp then set up the shuttle, dropping Gen's car at the 19 Mile Brook Trailhead before heading to our starting point, the AMC's Joe Dodge Lodge in Pinkham Notch. Once there we were lured by the siren song of coffee as a mist started to settle in before we finally crossed Route 16 to pick up the Lost Pond Trail, which would bring us to the AT along which we would spend the rest of the day.

The temperature was around 60 degrees, which made wearing rain gear rather uncomfortable, especially on the steep climb up Wildcat E peak, which is one of the steepest sections of the entire AT. There are several ledges with fine views west to the Presidential Range which we stopped at to break up the climb. The foliage was almost at it's peak, with many beautiful hues of yellow and orange and red stretching out across the lower flanks of the mountains and through the valleys. After a time we came to the top of Wildcat 'E' peak where we enjoyed the views offered by the ski slopes before continuing on up to the slightly higher 'D' peak. We worked our way up and down over peaks C and B, and regrouped atop Wildcat A, and took on the view down to Carter Notch, where the AMC hut would provide rest, water, and, we hoped, hot soup. The descent down to the Notch was not as steep as I remembered it being. We took turns slipping on wet rocks, which was to be a theme of the weekend, and eventually found ourselves at the Carter Notch Hut. We did not find any soup, but there was coffee, tea, hot chocolate and baked goods to be had. We enjoyed a nice break and then commenced the climb up to Carter Dome, which in places rivals the climb up Wildcat in steepness and then after the steep half is over taunts you with a gradual but long uphill slog to the summit. We enjoyed some more views at the summit but didn't linger too long before heading off to Mt. Hight, which offers 360 degree views from its summit.

We didn't stop much the rest of the day, the occasional short break here and there. The Carter Range beyond Mt. Hight has some nice views here and there but we were watching the clock and our remaining mileage, which ticks by far slower in the Whites than the mid-Atlantic, and resigned ourselves to making it into camp by headlamp. We had intended to hike past the Imp Campsite to tag Mount Moriah before doubling back for the night, but our late start and the waning autumn daylight found us all calling it quits for the day at the Imp Shelter, with Joffrey, Annie, Sophie, and I making our way in by headlamp. We made dinner and chatted with a couple from Concord sharing the shelter with us and settled in for the night. Some were kept up a bit by snoring, but between the late night the evening before and the strenuous day (only about 12 miles but a stout 5,700 feet of gain) most of us were asleep before too long and slept suddenly with the exception of the occasional foot to the face, sorry about that Gen.

We woke at 0630, ate and broke camp. There was some debate about whether we would all go up Mount Moriah to start the day. My recollection of it from the previous trip had been that it 'was nothing spectacular'. In the end, everyone but Annie, who had ended the previous day with a lot of foot pain, would opt to head up to Moriah.

The older I get, the more I come to appreciate being proven wrong - and my pronunciations that the hike to Mount Moriah was not spectacular were absolute balderdash. The trail crosses over open slab after open slab with stunning views made all the better by the foliage. It is when of those ascents that is never particularly steep but seems to take a long time, but eventually we made it to the summit with more great views and a good head start on reaching our USGS Daily Recommended Allowance for granite slab.

After enjoying the summit we retraced our steps over the slabs and came to the intersection of the Moriah Brook trail, which plunges steeply from the crest of the Carter Range into the Wild River Wilderness. Being on the AT, the Carters are well traveled, but almost immediately after stepping onto the Moriah Brook trail one finds themselves in a most aptly named area. The Wild River Wilderness is vast and sees relatively few visitors. It is prime moose habitat, though we weren't to see any. After a mile or so the trail starts to follow Moriah Brook closely and passes by many fine swimming holes. We stopped for breaks at a couple but didn't swim. The views along the brook are excellent in the fall, this is one of my favorite sections of this route.

Matt Scharf posted on

Eventually we made our way down to the Wild River where we forded at the site of the old footbridge which was recently removed. We took a short break for lunch and water and then hiked through the Wild River Campground and began our ascent into the Baldface-Royce Range on the Basin Trail. The Basin Trail also follows a nice brook for much of its ascent. Gen and Joffrey explored some caves on the way up and the climbers among us admired a fine crag that juts up out of the forest. Before long we topped out on the ridge at a spot known as Rim Junction. We turned south and enjoyed the mild trail with occasional views east into main before the trail makes a left and goes straight the f*** up for about 700 vertical feet on the way up Mount Meader. By the time we made it to the summit of Mount Meader, which toys with the mind with several false summits, the weather had turned misty again and we found ourselves beginning to get socked in. We continued on along Meader Ridge. This section of trail had played mind games with Joffrey and I our previous time out, as on a map with 100' contour intervals it looks to be pretty much dead flat. The thing about 100' contour intervals is that you can pack a lot of 50 - 90 foot ups and downs into them. We trudged on resolutely through the mist and popped out into the alpine terrain of Eagle Crag, atop which we were reunited with Annie, who had enjoyed a very pleasant and restorative day hiking by herself, having opted not to start the day with the trip to Moriah.

After a short break we plunged eastward off of the ridge to descend to Emerald Pool. This section of the route makes a funny detour away from the primary objectives of the open summits of North and South Baldface, but there is the always tricky matter of water to tend to, and the water source at the Baldface shelter is referred to in guides and on the interwebs as unreliable - and so down the slabs of the Baldface Circle Trail we went. At some point the mist relented and we made it down the steep slabs without incidence. Eventually we made it to Emerald Pool after descending almost 2,000 feet. While it seems like an outlandish detour, Emerald Pool is really worth seeing. A cascade empties into a pool of emerald green water 15 to 20 feet deep. Joffrey took the plunge from the cliff above and Annie also went for a swim. We all tanked up on water and headed off to make the climb up to the Baldface shelter.

It isn't a particular steep climb, but it came with waning daylight at the end of a long day and it does gain over a 1,000 feet. Some folks opted to charge up it, I opted to take it slow and steady as did Joffrey and Annie. When we each arrived we were greeted by an unexpected and familiar face. Dave Shook, who had business in Portsmouth, had hiked in ahead of us with a case of beer and had a campfire going! The trail magic was well appreciated after another long day. We caught up with Dave, ate a dinner or two (thanks, Gen!). On a whim I turned on my phone to confirm the weather not expecting to have service, but lo and behold, I got roaming reception on the side of South Baldface. The forecast for Sunday was grim. An 80% chance of rain starting at 0700, just when we would begin making our way up the 1500 feet of granite slab between the shelter and the summit of South Baldface. What could possibly go wrong?

Matt Scharf posted on

With some mix of trepidation, at least for me, we turned in. Sophie, Kylie, and Karan shared the main portion of the shelter with Dave and another pair of backpackers while I slept beneath the overhang on the back, that I suspect is designed for keeping firewood dry. Joffrey, Annie, and Gen pitched their shelters a few yards up the trail, just before the start of the slabs. The night was warm and misty, 0600 came quickly. We ate and struck camp and like clockwork, the rain began to fall lightly just before we pulled out of camp. Kylie and Karan left about 10 minutes before the rest of us and we would not see them again until we reconnected at the Carter Notch Hut many hours later.

As soon as we reached the first slab things got off to an inauspicious start. It took me three tries to get passed the first slick, blank spot on the initial slab, twice ending up sliding down it on my backside. The third time was the charm and my footing was sound the rest of the day. This section of the trip had been pure joy for Joffrey and I three years prior. We had bluebird skies, warm temperatures, and bone dry granite slab and stunning autumn views as far as the eye could see. This time we had Scottish weather, the inside of a cloud to stare at, and an endless buffet of smooth wet granite to make our way up and over. Nevertheless, as we do in DCUL we made the best of it. We took our time picking our way up to South Baldface, helping each other through the trickier sections. Despite the lack of views and conditions that pushed the comfort zone, we managed to enjoy ourselves. Being in an alpine environment is a unique treat for those of us who spend most of their time in the mid-Atlantic. The weather was warm enough that we didn't have to worry about going hypothermic despite the rain and with careful footwork we were able to make it up and over both Baldfaces without incident. On the descent off of North Baldface to Eagle Crag we dropped below the clouds and were treated to some nice foliage views down in the Wild River Wilderness.

After reaching Eagle Crag, we descended westward on the Eagle Link Trail which takes its sweet time dropping down to the valley floor, often sidehilling, and sometimes going uphill. Joffrey and I passed the time by reciting most of Monty Pythons 'Search for the Holy Grail'. Sophie, was walking ahead of us, and saint that she is, is still on speaking terms with us after listening to us carry on about shrubberies, the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, and the employment of sheeps' bladders to prevent earthquakes for two hours.

By and by we reached the valley floor and followed the Wild River upstream through Perkins Notch to the Wildcat River trail. This is wild country, lots of blowdowns and mud and signs of moose and bear. Someone has been putting in work building bog bridges with an axe and crosscut saw. Stout work indeed. We didn't see anyone outside of our group the entire day until we made it back to the Carter Notch Hut. The climb up the Wildcat River Trail was our final ascent of a trip full of long climbs. The grades are at times mellow and at times steep and rocky, but we made relatively short work of it and enjoyed some sunshine as we made our way up to Carter Notch. We were reunited with Kylie and Karan at the Carter Notch Hut, where they had waited patiently for 2.5 hours for us and continued to wait while we all enjoyed some soup, snacks, and hot beverages. From there we descended down the 19 Mile Brook Trail to Route 16, shuttled to pick up the vehicles from Pinkham Notch and commenced the most arduous and harrowing part of our journey...finding a place to eat in North Conway on Sunday evening of a long holiday weekend during peak foliage seasons. We settled on option number three, a Thai restaurant and had a pleasant, if underwhelmingly spicy meal, before driving to Joffrey and Annie's house in Lebanon, where showers and beds awaited us. The next morning we enjoyed breakfast at the King Arthur Flour bakery and made the long drive down to BWI, stopping for lunch at the Sri Dosa Place in Woodbrige, NJ which is becoming the go to lunch spot on DCUL trips to the north country.

All in all this was a great trip. We had challenging conditions which hampered our enjoyment of the fall views to some extent, but we had a great group that made the hiking fun no matter what. Seeing as we got skunked on the views from the Baldfaces this year, I guess I'll just have to go ahead and post this trip again next fall.

Joffrey Peters posted on

Thanks for the trip report!

A note: we only got our USGS daily recommended dose of granite slab on the last day! Moriah is schist!

Karan posted on

Thanks for the excellent trip report, Matt.

Just wanted to echo that this was an amazing route and I highly recommend it. This was my first time in the Whites and I wanna go back fo' mo'!

Karan posted on

And while I didn't track using my GPS, I plotted our path on Caltopo (mostly using Matt's base plan for this trip):

Splits per above come out to: 11.4, 18.4 and 15.5 miles, total 45.3 miles. Elevation gains were 5600, 4500 and 3700 ft, total 13,800 ft. Pretty solid!