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Climbing the mighty Carrigain

The wild Desolation Trail loop

The view from the observation tower on Mt. Carrigain is cited by many hikers as the best in the White Mountains. It was described by nineteenth century writer Samuel Adams Drakas “a bristling array of dark and shaggy mountains.” The sharp peak seen here is the summit of South Hancock. Steve Smith. (click for larger version)
September 24, 2009
No one has described Carrigain better than Laura and Guy Waterman in Forest and Crag, their classic history of Northeastern hiking: "…the quintessential eastern mountain, in lordly isolation at the south end of the Pemi, with its deep-cut sides, majestic ridges and hidden secrets."

The observation tower on Carrigain's partly wooded summit commands what many consider the finest view in the Whites, due to its central location in the mountain region. Indeed, 43 of the other 47 4,000-foot summits can be seen from Carrigain, tying it with Mt. Washington for the highest number of visible peaks.

Though most hikers climb Carrigain up and back via the Signal Ridge Trail – a solid 10-mile round trip – there is a longer and highly rewarding loop option using the Carrigain Notch Trail and Desolation Trail. This 13-1/2 miler takes you through wild Carrigain Notch and into the remote "Desolation" region (so named because of early 1900s clearcutting) at the northern base of the mountain. Then you engage in a brutally steep climb up a northwestern ridge, reaching the summit 8-1/2 miles from the start.

The descent is made via the Signal Ridge Trail, with superb views from the open crest of Signal Ridge. It's a full day with a great variety of scenery. I had done it once before, back in 1999 with several friends as our annual White Mountain Cropwalk, an anti-hunger fundraiser.

That was my last time on Carrigain, so a visit was long overdue. Last Tuesday morning (Sept. 15), I drove up the gravel Sawyer River Road from Route 302, 3.7 miles west of Bartlett. After two miles I turned left into the parking area for the Signal Ridge Trail. A pair of hikers were already setting out. I would see only three more trampers the entire day.

With recent dry weather, the crossing of Whiteface Brook a quarter-mile in was easy. The trail climbed along the brook past several cascades, then leveled for a gentle walk to the Carrigain Notch Trail junction at 1.7 miles.

I turned right here and hopped across Carrigain Brook. From the edge of a beaver swamp Signal Ridge could be seen rising above the trees. The next mile on the Carrigain Notch Trail was easy cruising on a soft footway, with a few crossings of dry stony streambeds. A fine century-old hardwood forest cloaks this part of the valley.

From a trailside gravel bar on Carrigain Brook I admired the ledges of Vose Spur, the satellite peak of Mt. Carrigain that forms the west side of the notch. Soon the trail began to climb into the pass. I paused to chat with a southbound couple who had camped near secluded Shoal Pond.

Nineteenth guidebook editor Moses Sweetser wrote of Carrigain Notch, "In some respects this is the finest pass in the White Mts.," but lamented that there were few views up to the "lofty and well-marked peaks" on either side. Approaching the height-of-land, four miles from the trailhead, I was able to steal a few peeks up at the ragged cliffs and clay-colored slides on the west face of Mt. Lowell. Views or no views, it is a wild and mysterious place worth visiting.

At the high point I entered the Pemigewasset Wilderness, and immediately began descending into the Desolation region, among the most remote backcountry areas in the Whites. It sure felt that way as the trail meandered for two miles down through endless ranks of gloomy spruces.

At the junction with the Nancy Pond Trail I turned left onto the old bed of timber baron J.E. Henry's most far-flung railroad line, a good 15 miles from his mills in Lincoln. Smooth walking brought me to the site of Camp 20, where the loggers roared and snored while the northern slopes of Mt. Carrigain and Mt. Hancock were cut clean from about 1910 to 1915. I spent a few minutes exploring the site, finding a sled runner poking up through the leaves.

Before starting the ascent of the mountain, I made a side trip farther north along the Carrigain Notch Trail to visit the Carrigain Branch. Not far down the trail there were a couple of spots where I easily accessed this wide stream, a real beauty chock full of boulders, slabs, cascades and pools.

Around one o'clock it was time to suck it up and tackle the Desolation Trail: 2,500 feet of "up" in 1.9 miles. The first 1.3 miles of this trail climbed 1,300 feet, sustaining a moderate, steady grade on a straight old logging road. For quite a ways it kept to the west side of the ridge, then it angled over to the east side, following a remarkable sidecut on the brink of a deep, trackless ravine.

Where the old road ended, the trail suddenly shot up a tumble of angular, slippery rocks. This section is tricky, and I wouldn't want to come down it. Occasional branch-framed Pemi views gave me excuses to stop and catch my wind. Higher up the footing was less treacherous, but the steep grade was relentless until it eased a bit near the top. This trail was cut in 1932 to make Carrigain accessible from the new Zealand Falls Hut. The trailmasters opted for the direct route – in the last 0.6 mile the trail ascends 1,150 feet!

After two slow hours of climbing I broke out into low scrub just below the summit. I turned and faced north to take in the sprawling vista across the eastern Pemi to the Willey, Bond and Franconia Ranges.

The summit clearing and observation tower were empty. I plodded up the stairs to take in the justly renowned 360-degree panorama, where in nearly every direction you see what 19th century writer Samuel Adams Drake called a "bristling array of dark and shaggy mountains."

Unless you've been there on a clear day, it's hard to imagine how stupendous the Carrigain view is. Despite a persistent cloud cover, I could spot all but four of the 43 visible 4000-footers; only the highest Presidentials were buried in fog. Distant landmarks included Mt. Monadnock in southern New Hampshire, Stratton Mountain in southern Vermont, and, just barely, the Camden Hills on the Maine coast.

Whenever I'm up there, I think of the words penned in 1890 by Rev. Julius Ward, a practitioner of purple prose in the tradition of Thomas Starr King: "…but I think that the sense of utter separation from humanity, the sense of utter lostness in the wilderness, the sense of complete abandonment of the soul to Nature was never realized as it was during my stay of a few hours on the topmost peak of Mount Carrigain."

I enjoyed nearly two hours of utter lostness, and during that time only one other hiker came up for just a short visit. Late in the afternoon I headed down the Signal Ridge Trail, which presents consistently rocky footing but never gets too steep.

The jackpot on this trail is the open crest of Signal Ridge, Carrigain's high southeast shoulder. I paused there to peer down the steep scrubby slope on the east face of the ridge, where early Carrigain-climbers ascended via a crazy route known as "Cobb's Stairs." (This feat has recently been duplicated by at least two adventurers I know.) Across Carrigain Notch the shadow of Vose Spur was creeping up the slide-scarred face of Mt. Lowell. Such was the beauty of the scene that I lingered a while longer, ensuring that I would exit by headlamp.

The loop described here is 13.6 miles with 3,750 feet of elevation gain, a long and strenuous day. Up and back by the Signal Ridge Trail is 10 miles round trip with 3,300 feet of elevation gain, a seven to eight hour trek.


BRIDGE NEWS: As of Sept. 21, the "Swinging Bridge" over the East Branch, 5.4 miles in on the Wilderness Trail from the Lincoln Woods trailhead, has been permanently closed. It is presently being removed by Forest Service crews and will not be replaced, and the 0.7 mile section of the Wilderness Trail between the bridge and the Bondcliff Trail will be closed and brushed in. Hikers trekking into the Pemi Wilderness from Lincoln Woods must decide at the trailhead which side of the river to walk on, as there will be no designated crossing. For more details, visit the WMNF website, www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/ white_mountain/. Meanwhile, reconstruction on the suspension bridge over the West Branch of the Peabody on the Great Gulf/Madison Gulf Trail was slated for completion this week, and the damaged and closed bridge on the Dry River Trail is scheduled to be replaced this fall.

Martin Lord & Osman
Varney Smith
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