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Backpacking the Desolation Loop in the Pemigewasset Wilderness

Pemigewasset Wilderness Sign
Pemigewasset Wilderness Sign

The Desolation Loop is a moderate 33 mile backpack through the eastern half of the White Mountain’s Pemigewasset Wilderness, bounded by the Bonds, Ethan Ridge, and Carrigan Notch. There are many excellent swimming holes and wilderness campsites along the route, which will appeal to more experienced backcountry adventurers interested in a relatively relaxing loop hike with many possible sides trips. The entire route can be backpacked in 3 days/2 nights or 4 days/3 nights if you want to complete it at a more leisurely pace.

Desolation Loop
Desolation Loop

Click for a Drill Down Version of the Desolation Loop in Caltopo

The route follows remote wilderness trails located in the Pemigewasset Wilderness where you might not see anyone for 24 hours or more. There is one steep ascent up Mt Carrigan, but an alternate low-level route is possible through Carrigan Notch that meets up with the route on the other side of the mountain if you wish to bypass the climb. Otherwise, this is a mellow ramble through the eastern half of the Pemigewasset on some trails that have great historic interest and beauty, but are seldom visited by day hikers.

Shoal Pond
Shoal Pond with a distant view of Mt Carrigan

History of the Desolation Region

The eastern side of the Pemigewasset Wilderness is called “Desolation” because loggers clear-cut much of the forest here between 1890 and 1940, leaving behind huge quantities of waste wood. This wood caught fire and burned uncontrollably for years at a time, casting a black cloud over the entire White Mountain region and polluting the watersheds. The fires and smoke are vividly described in early versions of the White Mountain Guide and other regional guidebooks, making one wonder how the hikers of the time could cope with the widespread destruction and blight of their beloved mountains.

Once stripped of its raw materials, the eastern Pemigewasset and other areas of the Whites were famously called “The lands no one wanted” until passage of the Weeks Act made it possible for the US Forest Service to purchase the land from the logging barons and administer it under the protection of the Wilderness Act. After 75 years of regeneration, the forest has largely recovered,  eliminating many signs of that era. This recovery is the great miracle of the 770,000 acre White Mountain National Forest, which is visited by more than 12 million people annually, more than Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks combined.

Desolation Trail on Mt Carrigan
Desolation Trail on Mt Carrigan

The Desolation Loop: Overview

The Desolation Loop starts just outside of Lincoln, NH and forms a large loop that runs from the Hancock Notch Trail (at the hairpin turn on the Kancamagus Highway) north along the Cedar Brook Trail to the East Branch Pemigewasset River, crossing over the Thoreau Falls bridge. It continues north to the famous Thoreau Falls, an 80 foot waterfall where you can sit and dangle your feet in pools above the falls.

Thoreau Bridge Over the East Branch Pemigewasset River
Thoreau Falls Bridge Over the East Branch Pemigewasset River

Continuing north, the route hops on the to Appalachian Trail briefly, before heading south on the Shoal Pond Trail, past a trout fisherman’s paradise at Shoal Pond and its adjacent tent sites. Continuing south to Stillwater Junction, the route follows the Carrigan Notch Trail before climbing up Mt Carrigan (4700′) via the Desolation Trail. The hiker-accessible fire tower on the top of Mt Carrigan is located at the very center of the White Mountains and has the best views in the entire region. Descending via the Signal Ridge Trail ,hikers follow the Sawyer River Road to the  Sawyer Pond Trailhead. A short side trip, Sawyer Pond is also a prime trout fishing location and has a lean-to and tent sites.

Flash Flood Damage on a Massive Scale - Hancock Notch Trail
Flash Flood Damage on a Massive Scale – Hancock Notch Trail

From the Sawyer River Trail Head, the loop follows the Sawyer River Trail to a 4.9 mile portion of the Hancock Notch Trail that is seldom hiked, but has an interesting “lost world” quality to it, passing through a remote valley with partial views of neighboring Mt Kancamagus and South Hancock. Parts of this segment are a bit sketchy where flash floods have wiped out the treadway and rerouted large streambeds. The trail is marked with pink surveyors tape where the path becomes more difficult to follow and a trail crew patrol has been through and marked segments requiring repair with orange flagging. The flood damage is so impressive that the word desolation could be used to describe it, but in a totally different sense than its historic antecedent.

After hiking through the remote part Hancock Notch, the trail returns to familiar territory at the Cedar Brook Trail Junction, which you previously passed on the way in from your car. From here, it’s another 1.8 miles back to the trail head parking lot on the Kancamagus Highway and civilization.

Desolation Loop Trails and Mileages:

  1. Hancock Notch Trail: 1.8
  2. Cedar Brook Trail: 6.1
  3. Wilderness Trail: 0.9
  4. Thoreau Falls Trail: 5.1
  5. Ethan Pond Trail 0.5
  6. Shoal Pond Trail 4.0
  7. Carter Notch Trail 0.8
  8. Desolation Trail 1.9
  9. Signal Ridge Trail 5.0
  10. Sawyer Pond Road 2 .0
  11. Sawyer River Trail 1.2
  12. Hancock Notch Trail 4.9
  13. Hancock Notch Trail 1.8

Total Distance: 33 miles

Possible Side trips along the Desolation Loop

  • North and South Hancock Mountains via the Hancock Loop Trail
  • East Hitchcock Mountain bushwhack
  • Swimming in the East Branch Pemigewasset River
  • Exploring the confluence of Jumping Brook and the North Fork Rivers
  • Shoal Pond Peak bushwhack
  • Thoreau Falls
  • Whitewall Mountain bushwhack
  • Fishing/Camping at Shoal Pond
  • Fishing/Camping at Sawyer Pond
  • Swimming holes along the Carrigan Branch
  • Swimming holes along the Sawyer River
Huge Landslip along Cedar Brook
Huge Landslip along Cedar Brook

Trip Report

I designed the Desolation Loop because I wanted a long wilderness hike off the beaten track without having to drive to northern New Hampshire. The start of this loop hike is located just outside of Lincoln, NH, a scant 2 hour drive from my house. I have also been yearning to explore new trails and sights along the White Mountain Trail system and this loop took me over many trails I’d never hiked before. I also scoped out a couple of side trips, mainly bushwhacks to remote peaks along the route, and set out at 5:00 am on a Friday morning to get a full day’s hiking in on my first day of the trip.

Day 1: Kancamagus Highway to Jumping Brook

I was on the trail by 8:00 am, flying down the familiar part of the Hancock Notch Trail which I’ve hiked on so many times in the past. It’s been a few years since I’ve been on this trail and there were clear signs of recent trail maintenance including heavy rock-work repairing the treadway, reinforcing eroded stream banks, and clearing blowdowns. Sadly there were also many new tent sites along the trail at major stream crossings and junctions despite no camping bans. However, the overuse impacts stop 0.5 miles past the turnoff to the Hancock Loop Trail (which leads to North and South Hancock Mountains,) and I was glad to put those eyesores out of my mind as I approached the Pemigewasset Wilderness boundary sign on the Cedar Brook Trail.

At the Wilderness sign, I stopped and studied my maps in order to scout possible routes up East Hitchcock, a trailess 3000 footer located a short distance away. I’d decided not to bushwhack on my first day because I wanted to hike deep into the heart of the wilderness. Still, I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to scout possible routes up East Hitchcock to see if I could identify a different route up to the summit than another approach I’d read about online.

Scoping out bushwhack routes up East Hitchcock
Scoping out bushwhack routes up East Hitchcock

I was very relaxed on this trip without a fixed itinerary or timetable. Hiking with an eye to possible diversions and side trips is a very different style of hiking than I’ve practiced in the past, where speed, mileage, and elevation gain have always been the metrics I’ve used to assess my progress. On this trip, I’d brought along a paperback to read and a hiking journal to write in, intent on savoring my moments outdoors and reflecting on whatever came to mind.

After packing away my navigation gear, I continued down the Cedar Brook Trail, paying careful attention to the contours between the trail and East Hitchcock, while tip-toeing through some of the muddier spots of the trail. The Cedar Brook Trail is maintained by two of my friends, June and John, who I count as true White Mountain stewards, and I was eager to finally hike the full length of their domain. As fate would have it, I ran into them 2 days later on Mt Carrigan, on the back half of my Desolation Loop route.

A muddy section of the Cedar Brook Trail
A muddy section of the Cedar Brook Trail

Mud is an unavoidable reality of most White Mountain Trails and something that should be embraced rather than spurned (if you want to retain your sanity). The Cedar Brook Trail has mud on its southern end, up to height of land (where one watershed end and another begins) but is relatively dry along its northern extent. Running parallel to Cedar Brook, which is more of a river than a brook, it’s possible to catch glances of landslips and massive boulder fields along the river’s path through the dense foliage that borders the trail. The Cedar Brook Trail is also littered with historic logging camp artifacts like many other trails in the area, which you can examine, but are illegal to remove due to their historic nature.

Chillin on the Banks of the Pemi
Chillin on the Banks of the East Branch Pemigewasset River

When I came to the end of the Cedar Brook Trail, I walked down to the banks of the East Branch Pemigewasset River where the old suspension bridge used to cross the river. I wanted to wash the mud out of my shoes and socks and give my feet a chance to dry out before continuing north. There was a camp group across the river resupplying their water and we traded waves across the formidable river.

After crossing the Thoreau Falls Bridge, I continued up the Thoreau Falls Trail walking over a downy layer of pine needles covering the trail. They glowed yellow in the sunlight filtering through the trees. While I was tempted to stop and camp, my goal was a few miles north at the confluence of Jumping Brook and the North Fork River, at the base of Shoal Pond Peak, a trailess 3000 footer I hoped to bushwhack the following morning.

Wilderness Camp near Jumping Brook
Wilderness Camp near Jumping Brook

Jumping Brook is not visible from the trail which follows the North Fork River, so I would pop down to the river bank periodically to see if I could see a small stream emptying into the North Fork. Jumping Brook, as it turns out, isn’t a little stream at all, but a massive river in its own right, which empties into the North Fork at a huge rock gorged “delta” where the two streams meet. I could hear the roar of Jumping Brook a 1/4 mile away.

Cooking Noodles on a Firefly Wood Stove
Cooking Noodles on a Firefly Wood Stove

Having reached the jumping off point for my morning bushwhack, I made camp at an existing campsite along the river rather than create a new one, and cooked up some ramen noodles on my wood stove. There was no wood anywhere near the camp site, but I was able to collect enough dry sticks on the ground to boil water. I wrote in my journal for a while after dinner and read my paperback, before crashing, just before sunset.

Old Logging Camp Artifacts in the Pemigewasset Wilderness
Old Logging Camp Artifacts in the Pemigewasset Wilderness

Day 2: Shoal Pond Peak to Carrigan Branch

I got a leisurely start the next morning and started climbing Shoal Pond Peak, a remote bushwhack, at 8 am. This area was ground zero back when the logging industry clear-cut the all of the trees in this region of the Whites.  While the forest has bounced back, it’s not true wilderness by any stretch of the imagination. It doesn’t take a very keen eye to see remnants of the old logging roads and drag ways and it’s not unusual to stumble across old tools and historic logging camp artifacts.

Calling something a Wilderness Area doesn’t make it a wilderness, but it does preserve the dream that the landscape will become wilder over time. I think I’ve come to terms with this in my travels through the White Mountains. I’m hopeful that there will be wilder areas that I can visit during the remainder of my life, but there is no true wilderness here that has not been disturbed by human activity.

The only thing that is a natural constant in the Whites Mountains is change, and that’s the thing I look for now on my hikes: changes wrought by natural forces that are more powerful than man. The mark of past glaciers, landslips, avalanches, flash flood damage, erosion and fire: I take comfort in knowing that these processes shape the White Mountains more from season to season than humans ever will. They are truly wild.

The North Fork below Thoreau Falls
The North Fork below Thoreau Falls

My off trail excursion to Shoal Pond Peak was successful and very satisfying (see Shoal Pond Peak Bushwhack), although the summit’s guard spruce scratched the hell out of me. Returning to the Trail, I hiked up the Thoreau Falls and hung out for a while on the top of the falls, airing my feet and filtering water for the next leg of my journey.

As I sat there Jim St Cyr, a long time Section Hiker reader appeared and was amused to see me, greeting me with “Boy, you really get around.” It’s been several years since I’d seen him in person, so we caught up and talked about our plans for the rest of the summer.

Shoal Pond Trail Head
Shoal Pond Trail Head

After a spell, I took off, hiking up to the AT, before turning down the Shoal Pond Trail, which is notorious for being difficult to follow and muddy. This was the first time I’ve ever set foot on this trail and I was eager to check it out. It’s really not hard to follow at all. It is muddy though, especially on the north end where it passed Shoal Pond and the boggy area surrounding it. This entire section has been flagged by a trail crew and I’ve heard there are plans to replace all of the rotten bog bridges that pass through this section.

When I passed by Shoal Pond, I saw a fisherman in an inflatable raft out in the middle of the pond which seemed rather unusual, since Shoal Pond is a significant walk in from the nearest road. It looks like a great place to fish, with an awesome view of Mt Carrigan in the distance. I plan on returning here in the not to distance future and hanging out for a while.

Upper half of Shoal Pond Trail
Upper half of Shoal Pond Trail

Past the bogs, the trail opens up and is easy to follow. Most of the trails in the Desolation Loop are old logging roads or railroad grades that were easily converted to trails. Heading south, the trail passes over several nice stream crossings with good water, but becomes bushier as you approach the southern terminus at Stillwater Junction. My friend June describes trails that have grown in like this as “car wash trails”, because they will soak your clothes if you walk through them after it rains.

Overgrown Southern Section of the Shoal Pond Trail
Overgrown Southern Section of the Shoal Pond Trail

However during my walk I met Julie, the new trail adopter for the Shoal Pond Trail, who had brought two friends along with loppers to cut back the vegetation that is obscuring the trail. She has her work cut out for her, with well over a mile of heavy brushing to do. If you know how I can reach her, let me know, since I’d like to volunteer a day of my time to help her hack back the vegetation to a more manageable level.

By the time I got down to Stillwater Junction, the day was waning and I started wondering where I’d spend the night. There were also dark clouds on the horizon and I was worried that it might start raining on me before I could get my camp set up and dinner cooked. I crossed the river at Stillwater Junction and headed toward Carrigan Notch, back on the same route I’d followed earlier in the spring on a hike that I had to abort because there too much snow on the trails and it was too dangerous to proceed (see Wilderness at Stillwater Junction).

Wilderness Camp near Carrigan Notch
Wilderness Camp near Carrigan Notch

I found an existing campsite near the Carrigan Branch (River) that looked good and cooked a hasty dinner, in case it started to rain. It didn’t rain, but I was pretty much done for the day anyway, and called it an early night.

Day 3: Carrigan Notch to Kancamagus Highway

When I woke up on the third day of my trip, I wasn’t planning on hiking 17 miles. I’d hoped to stay out another night, but things didn’t pan out that way and I ended up hiking back to my car and ending my trip earlier than expected.

Bill and Elena on the Desolation Trail
Bill and Elena on the Desolation Trail

After a quick breakfast, I packed up and was soon climbing the Desolation Trail up Mt Carrigan (4700′). This trail has a reputation for being horribly steep to climb with dangerous ledges, but I think it’s difficulty is way overrated. It’s no harder than any other trail in the Whites that climbs 1000 feet per mile, and there are many of them to choose from.

While climbing Carrigan, I spent a pleasant hour hiking with Bill and Elena, two Rhode Island hikers who I met on the trail that morning. Recently married, Bill proposed to Elena on the summit of Mount Monroe, the previous winter. They were hiking one of the routes in Matt Heid’s Guidebook, the AMC’s Best Backpacking in New England, which I helped fact check last summer. They really like the readability of Matt’s book, which I think is superb.

Mt Carrigan from the Signal Ridge Trail
Mt Carrigan from the Signal Ridge Trail

When I summitted Carrigan, the sky was overcast and misty. I think this is the fourth time I’ve climbed the peak, and I’ve never had clear views on the summit. Although this time, I was actually able to see something from the Signal Ridge Trail, which was a first! Nice mountain.

Vose Spur and the Cliffs of Mt Lowell in Carrigan Notch
Vose Spur and the Cliffs of Mt Lowell in Carrigan Notch

I descended Carrigan via the Signal Ridge Trail. There’s been a lot of trail work along this trail since I was last here.

Along the way, I looked for FR 85, which is a short cut leading to the Sawyer River Road, but it’s not signed along the Signal Ridge Trail. I was hoping to pick it up because it would have saved me 1.5 miles of walking toward the Sawyer Pond Trail Head.

Bridge to Sawyer Pond
Bridge to Sawyer Pond

At the end of the Signal Ridge Trail, I turned east and walked about two miles to the Sawyer Pond bridge along the Sawyer River Road. It’s a dirt road, so it’s not to hard on the feet, and its very fast walking.

Hancock Notch Trail Head
Hancock Notch Trail Head

I walked past the bridge to Sawyer Pond and passed the gate at the head of the Sawyer River Trail. This trail is used for snowmobiling in winter and has lots of confusing snowmobile-specific signs on it. I ignored them and followed a truck track which I hoped was the hiking trail through the woods until I came to the Hancock Notch Trail junction and sat down in heap to have lunch.

It was getting on past 2:00 pm and I hoped I’d be able to find a place to camp along the Hancock Notch Trail for the night, so I could pass another night in the woods. The other option was to hike another 7 miles back to the car and finish my trip one night earlier making it a 17 mile day (but a relatively easy one).

I opened up my food bag and made an Outdoor Herbivore Waldorf Salad, a cold salad made with olive oil and water in the bag. It’s loaded with 720 calories and tasted great. As I was waiting for my meal to hydrate (5 minutes), a very furry brown dog walked up to me and sniffed my foot. I hadn’t seen him coming and I let out a loud whoop of surprise when I looked up and saw him. He was a nice dog and didn’t get agitated when I yelled out. As few minutes later, his owner, Ken, turned the corner and we had a long chat about the Sawyer River area. Ken lives in nearby Bartlett and walks up here frequently.

After lunch, I set off down the Hancock Notch Trail looking for campsites alongside the Sawyer River, but I didn’t see anything that really appealed to me. The banks of the river were covered by heavy brush and the woods on the other side of the trail were wet and densely vegetated. It was still fairly early, so I figured I’d walk a ways for and find something better along the way.

Sawyer River Stream Crossing
Sawyer River Stream Crossing

But the farther I got into Hancock Notch, the wilder and wetter it got. The section of trail running along the Sawyer River was badly trashed from some extreme flooding, which I assumed was old damage from Hurricane Irene, although it could have also been from the heavy rains we had this spring. The trail crosses the Sawyer River many times in this section and became really sketchy and hard to follow several times because huge chunks if the trail had been washed downstream. Someone had tied pink flagging in between them so it is possible to still follow the remaining sections of trail, but I wouldn’t recommend doing it in the dark.

Washed Out Section of Trail
Washed Out Section of Trail

But the deeper I got into Hancock Notch, the more inhospitable the terrain became. About halfway through the notch, the trail leaves the Sawyer and runs through the actual notch (valley) between South Hancock Mountain and Mt Huntington. This section is very wet and fairly narrow. Parts of it actually reminded me of Mahoosuc Notch, where the trail runs through a tight dark gorge and contortionist scrambling is required.

This section of the Hancock Notch trail reminded me of Mahoosic Notch on the AT
This section of the Hancock Notch trail reminded me of Mahoosuc Notch on the AT (those rocks are the trail)

Studying the topo for this section of trail, I could see that this section of trail had a highpoint, what we call height-of-land in New Hampshire, which is a boundary between watersheds. I knew I was approaching it because I have an altimeter on my watch and use it to pinpoint my location on topographic maps. It’s an unbeatable combination when paired with a compass.

Pink Flagging at Height of Land on the Hancock Notch Trail
Pink Flagging at Height of Land on the Hancock Notch Trail

Height of land occurs at 2820′ feet. I’ve been told there used to be a sign marking the point, but now there’s just a piece of pink flagging. However, the trail gets much easier and drier to hike after this point, although there is a second false high point just beyond the height of land, before the trail descends to the familiar trail junction with the Cedar Brook Trail.

I must say I was a bit relieved when I saw that Cedar Brook Trail junction sign and I knew I was back on familiar ground. The sign has a very distinctive shape and I recognized it immediately even though I couldn’t read the sign from the direction I was coming from. Still seeing that sign was a bittersweet moment. While I was relieved to be back in a part of the forest I know well, I knew my car was an easy 2 mile walk away and that my Desolation Loop Backpack had come to an end.

Cedar Brook Trail Junction
Cedar Brook Trail Junction

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19 comments

  1. Sounds like a terrific hike. I’m curious what kinds of artifacts you found along the way.

    • The usual rusting buckets and assorted lumber camp trash.

      • It’s always neat to find that stuff and at the same time I think, “If this had been left here 10 years ago instead of 100 years ago, we’d be calling it trash.” Funny how we think about what is, essentially, historical trash, isn’t it?

  2. I never knew thats how the Desolation region got it’s name. I assumed it stemmed from how rugged the area is.

    Very interesting. I enjoyed the write up.

  3. It was great talking to you at Thoreau Falls. Thanks for the shout out though I must admit it’s kinda weird seeing my name on a blog.

  4. Just did this loop in 2 (very long) days this weekend – great time. I think your mileages may be off though – when I add it up, I get 36 miles! Anyways, thanks for writing this guide – it was very helpful, especially in place where the trails got a bit confusing.

  5. What are your thoughts regarding an early April hike on this trail? Thank you

  6. Considering doing this loop while visiting the area the week of June 26. Any advice regarding the black flies and/or mosquitoes for a visitor? I am used to the latter being from the south, but not the former. Thanks

  7. jonathan shipperley

    I’m planning on this trip soon. What do you recommend doing with your food? Do you hang it from a tree, or do you have a bear box, or is it really nothing to worry about?

    My other question pertains to water. I have a Sawyer squeeze, with tablets as a back up. Is there anything else I need to be aware of?

    Thanks a bundle.

    • Hang your food. There are bears here and you’ll be fined if you don’t. There are also patrolling Rangers…

    • Jonathan, I am curious to know if you completed this trip yet and the status of signage/blazes on Hancock Notch Trail, specifically, from the section of trail running along the Sawyer River to the Cedar Brook Trail junction. Were you able to easily follow the trail? Planning on similar trip in a few weeks. Thank you

  8. Philip, a hearty thank you for your write-up which provided me a marvelous pre-planned route for this past weekend. I must admit, I bailed on trying to navigate Hancock Notch Trail and exited on Sawyer River Trail Sunday morning which wasn’t a total loss as I came upon a moose grazing in middle of logging road. Sometimes you’re simply not up to the challenge.
    Threw in the Hancocks for good measure on day 1 and went over Carrigan on day 2 but otherwise followed in your footsteps. Thanks again and I’ll keep my eyes open for you on the trail.

  9. Dear Philip,

    I just wanted to thank you for the loop suggestion. I completed it yesterday evening. It was filled with solitude, beautiful wilderness and astonishing sights (the Irene damage is breathtaking!) It was my first hike in the Whites (I am an Adirondack guy myself, N/P Trail etc) but I was looking forward to the challenge of a new steeper terrain. Five days of food is hard to pack but I eat less now. Still, pack wieghts of 33 pounds are substantial for me and, at 51, my knees start to complain with too much elevation so this was actually perfect. Just enough climbing and rock hopping to keep me challenged yet not enough to make me scream in pain.

    – I obviously took the Carrigan Notch rather than attempt the Desolation Trail to the summit. For me the best choice – I have had a lot of views in my life and the resulting solitude was a fine trade-off
    – To that point, I didn’t see a single soul after the Hancock Loop spur for three days.
    – I took it slow, and spent a night on the Pemi then on Shoal Pond Trail a mile or so before Still-water Junction.
    -I spent a lovely two days/nights at Sawyer Pond. The first two days had been wet and I needed to rest and dry out.
    – The Hancock Notch was amazing – a complete challenge yet still doable. They have done a LOT of work on it but it should still be described as “difficult” for many reasons. It’s not for the faint of heart (multiple femur fractures are available every few hundred yards) but but but…impressive and different than any of the other sections.

    Thanks again!

    Paul M Valley
    Brooklyn, NY

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