Thursday, September 17, 2009


Few peaks dominate the White Mountain landscape like Mt. Carrigain, the 4,700-ft. behemoth that looms at the southeastern corner of the Pemigewasset Wilderness. Looking out from just about any major viewpoint, Carrigain's distinctive hump-backed profile is part of the scene. One of the best perspectives on the mountain is from Zeacliff.

I love the description given by 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."

Here's a different angle on Carrigain, from a ledge on a nameless knob east of Whitewall Mtn.

An eastern perspective from Mt. Crawford...

From the southeast, seen from a ledge on the backside of Owl's Cliff (near Mt. Tremont)...

And a look from the northwest, off the cliffs of the Pemi Wilderness Owl's Head...

The usual way to climb Carrigain, of course, is a solid up-and-back 10-miler on the Signal Ridge Trail. A longer, wilder and more challenging route is the 13.6 mile loop through Carrigain Notch, down into the remote "Desolation" region in the eastern Pemi Wilderness, and then up the steep Desolation Trail on the north side of the mountain. I had done this route with several friends in 1999 as one of our annual CROPWALK anti-hunger fundraising hikes. That was my last visit to Carrigain, so a return trip was long overdue.

On Tuesday morning I started off around 8:15 am on the Signal Ridge Trail. The crossing of Whiteface Brook near the start was easy, and soon an easy climb led past some nice cascades.

At 1.7 miles I turned right onto the Carrigain Notch Trail, a longtime favorite.

After an easy hop across Carrigain Brook, I made a short detour to the edge of a beaver pond with a glimpse of Signal Ridge rising above the trees.

The first mile of Carrigain Notch Trail is a very pleasant stroll through a fine hardwood forest, with good footing.

Along the way you cross several dry stony streambeds.

From a little gravel bar in the brook you can look up at the slabs on Vose Spur.

The trail passes by the boulder where many New England Hundred Highest aspirants begin their off-trail trek to Vose Spur.

Beyond here the trail steepens as it climbs towards Carrigain Notch, as wild a pass as can be found in the Whites. Trees restrict the views to veiled glimpses, such as this peek at the remarkable crack on the west face of Mt. Lowell. This chute has been traversed by a few folks in recent years. Looks well beyond this hiker's comfort level.

At the high point of the trail you enter the Pemi Wilderness.

The cliffs and talus on Lowell. I went up on that talus once years ago and found it to be a very wild and savage kind of place, with treacherous footing.

A couple of years ago Keith D'Alessandro and I went through the notch and whacked up to a somewhat more stable spot on the NW flank of Lowell, a steep gravelly slide patch with a sweeping view over the Pemi and a closeup of Vose Spur with Carrigain's summit behind.

These pole-type spruces are typical of the Carrigain Notch Trail as it descends north from the notch. The two-mile meander down to the floor of the eastern Pemi brings an increasing sense of remoteness.

A sprucey corridor farther down the trail.

At one spot you come beside Notch Brook, reputed to be one of the few gold-bearing streams in the Whites.

Near the junction with the Nancy Pond Trail is a brushy area that was devastated by a microburst storm in the 90s.

Upon reaching the Nancy Pond Trail junction, you turn left onto the old bed of J.E. Henry's most far-flung logging railroad line. From here it was 15 miles to the mills in Lincoln.

The trail passes by the site of Camp 20 near the Desolation Trail junction. Henry's crews stayed here while clean-cutting the northern slopes of Carrigain and Hancock about 1910-1915. The "Desolation" name was applied to this region after the axes and saws fell silent.

I found a sled runner poking up from the leaves.

One of the more remote trail junctions in the Whites.

Before tackling the Desolation Trail, I continued north a short distance on the Carrigain Notch Trail through a wonderful spruce forest.

I made my way down to the Carrigain Branch, a beautiful wide stream. The summit of Carrigain could be glimpsed looming 2,500 feet above.

Carrigain Branch has ledge slabs, cascades and pools to admire. I vowed to return and do more exploring along this stream.

At 1:00 pm it was time to suck it up and get after the climb up Desolation Trail: 2,500 ft. in 1.9 miles. The first part followed an old, straight road along the west side of Carrigain's NW ridge.

Farther up the road angled across to the east side, where it clung to a steep slope along a remarkable sidecut.

Where the road ended, a deep, trackless ravine could be glimpsed to the left.

At about 3,600 ft. the trail began its steepest rise: 1,100 ft. in the last 0.6 mile. The first part of this pitch led up a tumble of slippery, angular rocks - tricky footing and not a good route to descend.

An occasional view towards the Pemi provided a welcome excuse for a breather.

After the rocky stretch the footing became less difficult, but the grade was relentless right to the top.

After a slow two-hour climb, I emerged into low scrub just below the summit. Gasping for breath, I stopped to enjoy the Pemi views from the ground. Even without the tower, there are some great views on Carrigain. A look at the Bond range.

Looking over the Shoal Pond Brook drainage to Zealand Notch.

Lafayette and Lincoln above Owl's Head.

The gateway to the Desolation Trail at the top.

On to the tower, where the view is elevated to the stupendous.

A zoom on Zealand Notch.

The Sandwich Range to the south.

A look down at some ledges on a low northeastern knob of Hancock. I visited these years ago and dubbed the place "Carrigain View Ledge" for the massive vista up to the big peak. This spot also had an unusual view up the valley of the west fork of Carrigain Branch.

The great cliffs below Northwest Hancock. Some friends and I visited the uppermost crag when we climbed that peak in 1995. Some unique views from that airy perch.

Though there was a persistent cloud cover, Monadnock was visible on Tuesday. It can be faintly seen here, just left of Mt. Kearsarge, the prominent distant peak near the right edge of the photo.

South Hancock is quite the pyramid when viewed from Carrigain. Carr (L) and Smarts (R) on the horizon.

Sunlight illuminating the Black Brook valley between Bondcliff and Bond.

Looking down on Signal Ridge.

Of the 43 4000-footers visible from Carrigain, I could see 39 on Tuesday. Only the higher Presidentials were in the clouds.

During my 1 hr. 45 min. summit stay, only one other hiker came by, for just 10 minutes. All told I encountered only five fellow trampers on the entire trek. A farewell shot from the tower before heading down the Signal Ridge Trail.

The old firewarden's well. Don't drink the water...

This hinge is presumably from the warden's cabin.

Signal Ridge, one of the sweetest spots in the mountains.

The sentinels of Carrigain Notch, Vose Spur and Mt. Lowell.

Looking down the steep, scrubby flank of Signal Ridge. Early ascents were made up a drainage below here known as Cobb's Stairs. In the 1870s the Carrigain area was a favorite haunt of the White Mountain Club of Portland, ME. They used this ascent route, and named the ridge "Burnt Hat Ridge" after an incident with a campfire.

Looking back at the summit of Carrigain.

The summit rocks of Signal Ridge.

Signal Ridge casting its shadow towards flat-topped Duck Pond Mtn.

The shadow of Vose Spur creeps up on Mt. Lowell. Time to head for home.

The rocky footing typical of the Signal Ridge Trail.

Last view of the day, from the long traverse on the flank of Signal Ridge. Long summit stay = exit by headlamp, but well worth it!


  1. That was quite a loop-hike Steve! Loved your comparison photos at the beginning or your report showing Carrigain from the various perspectives!

    I have no opinions one way or the other, but am just curious what elements contributed to your decision-making process to do the loop counterclockwise vs. clockwise?


  2. Thanks John,

    I like doing that loop counterclockwise because I prefer going up rather than down on steep trails. For me, that one gnarly section of Desolation would be tricky and less than enjoyable to descend. Also, since I like to spend some time atop Carrigain, I'd rather have the shorter and more moderate route out after the summit stay.