The Wild River Wilderness is a huge forested watershed sandwiched between the Wildcat-Carter Mountain Range and the Baldface Range in the far eastern section of the White Mountains. If you want to really get away from it all, this wilderness area is way off the grid, without any road access, cell phone service, no bridges or shelters, and sparse trail maintenance. It is also a fantastic place to experience the changing colors of autumn in the Whites.
That was our plan this past weekend, when my friend Steve and I led a 3-day, 2-night backpacking trip for the Appalachian Mountain Club, starting at the 19 Mile Brook Trail across from Mt Washington, up and over Mt Hight, and down the Black Angel Trail into the Wilderness. After spending a night near the Basin Rim Trail outside of Evans Notch, we hiked the southern section of the Baldface Royce Mountain Range, climbing North and South Baldface Mountains, before looping back through Perkins and Carter Notches and back to our cars.
This is the second year running that Steve and I have led a trip on this weekend (last year we did a Kilkenny Range Traverse) and this trip was also fantastic with great company and on-the-whole great weather, despite the usual White Mountain challenges of mud, rain, and mist.
Steve and I were joined by my friend Guthook, making for a small and fast moving group of experienced hikers.
Leaving from the 19 Mile Brook Trailhead, our first destination on Day 1 was Mt Hight (4675′), which has some of the best views in the White Mountains despite the fact that it’s not on the official 4,000 footer list. From the trailhead, it is a 3.8 mile hike with 3250 feet of elevation gain, which is a serious climb. But we made it to the summit in under 3 hours and had a long break to admire the views of the Presidential Range, the Carters, Carter Dome, and Moriah. Visibility was perfect and we could even see Old Speck Mountain in the distance, way north in Grafton Notch.
From Hight, it’s a short distance to the start of the Black Angel Trail which drops down into The Wild River Wilderness just north of Carter Dome.
As soon as you step onto the Black Angel Trail, it’s immediately clear that you are hiking on a less traveled path. The tree canopy closes over you and the trail drops steeply to the valley below. This was only the second times I’d hiked the Black Angel, the last time being back in 2007 on another AMC trip led by my friend Christine Benton. That was actually my first White Mountain Backpacking trip, a loop which included a night at the Imp Shelter and swimming in Moriah Brook.
After 5 miles, we came to the mighty Wild River, which can be a daunting ford in high water. Luckily it was running fairly low, making for a refreshing crossing which cooled off out feet.
Rather than camping by the river, we decided to keep going and try to close the distance to the Baldface Range for the second day of our backpack. Right after the river crossing, the Black Angel Trail climbs 800 feet of elevation on an old railroad grade or road which was easy to walk up, although steep. This entire region was heavily logged at one point and a fair number of the trails are clearly old logging roads.
We were aiming for the site of the old Blue Brook Shelter, which has been removed but is now a tent site with an excellent water source. While all of us would have preferred camping at wilder, stealth sites, the surrounding woods in the Wild River Wilderness have a fairly dense carpet of hobblebush, making it difficult to find a good pitch near water without a fair amount of searching.
While the Blue Brook Shelter sites were not perfect because they were packed earth tent pads, they were ok, since we expected a dry night that evening without rain. That said, we all pitched our tarps in such a way that we’d stay dry even if it did rain. For example, I pitched my tarp on a slight slope, avoiding the dished out section of the tent pad, and in such a way that rain water coming down the slope above me would be channeled around my tarp by the surrounding logs.
We cooked up a nice dinner as the sun set and Stephen and Ryan watched as I made a one-pot meal using my wood stove. Cooking on my Solo wood stove, as well as my one-pot meals, have really enhanced my backpacking experience this year. It’s a pain in the ass when it’s raining, but Esbit fuel works well enough for those times when dry wood is unavailable. Still having a small fire is a real mood enhancer and that fact that it burns to ash without a lot of mess is a real boon because it means you don’t scorch the ground or have to deal with the mess of putting the fire out.
The next morning we woke to mist, which was disappointing after Friday’s glorious weather. This was also the day we planned to hike the Basin Rim Trail and climb North and South Baldface which have extensive stretches of above-treeline alpine zone. I’d been hoping for views from the ridge into the valley below called Evans Notch, as well as views from the summits.
While I didn’t get to see Evans Notch, we were treated to fantastic views and a undercast or cloud inversion where the peaks of the mountains are visible above a sea of cloud. That was pretty special and made up for the lack of valley views.
We also saw an enormous moose bull as we walked down the ridge trail, by far the largest any of us had ever seen. He was making a lot of noise in the brush when we came up alongside him on the trail. It is moose mating season, so we were conscious about keeping tree trunks between him and us in case he decided we were competition and charged us.
As we approached North and South Baldface Mountains, the mist lifted enough the we had clear skies over the alpine zone below both summits. Both ascents were relatively small, only 500-600 feet, but required steep scrambling and exposed above-treeline walking to summit. We also had to climb North Baldface to get to South Baldface, and then re-climb North Baldface again on the return trip! Still it was nice to hike over such a long stretch of above-treeline terrain at such a low elevation and in such calm winds!
After we returned from the Baldfaces, we picked up the Eagle Link Trail leaving from Eagle Crag headed toward Perkins Notch Shelter where we hoped to camp for the night. After the glorious blue skies over the Baldfaces, we plunged back into dense forest.
Once you head back into the Wild River Wilderness from Eagle Crag, trail conditions become very very wet, and the trail becomes progressively less maintained the closer you come to its junction with the Wild River Trail. I’m not sure if this is due to lack of funding or because it’s a deliberate wilderness management strategy.
We picked our way down the trail trying to avoid slipping into the muddiest sections, but you now how it goes, sooner or later you will fall into the muck. The only relief came from numerous stream crossings where we could rinse our shoes and legs by wading through the water.
The weather forecast for that evening was heavy rain starting at midnight, so we were on the lookout for a good wild camp site but could find little with all of the hobblebush and dense understory. We decided to head for the Perkins Notch Campsite, which I encourage you to avoid if you have a choice in the matter.
The shelter has been removed and the tent site has packed-earth tent pads, which are useless for tarp campers because they flood when it rains. We all pitched up on sites in between the tent pads because they provided better drainage and then went in search of water. That’s when it started to rain.
So the bad thing about the Perkins Notch Tentsite is the water source, which is a swamp that you need to wade into to get fresh water. Imagine walking into a sea of marsh grass waist-high and you’ll get the idea. There is flowing water, but you get very wet in the process of getting it. Doing it in the rain was laughable.
When we all got back to camp, we cooked dinner in the rain. Luckily we’d all pitched up as soon as we got into camp so our gear was tucked away and dry. I cooked my dinner, a hot pot soup with polenta, sun-dried tomatoes, chili powder, and parmesan cheese, with two Esbit cubes, which worked nicely. Then we all went to bed at 7 pm. I was asleep 30 minutes later.
It rained heavily that night, but I stayed nice and dry in the little triangle of ground under my Duomid. I’d set up my tarp very carefully with the edges flush with the ground on a very slight decline, so the rain coming off my tarp would be channelled away from it or absorbed by the surrounding pine needles. This worked nicely, though I did experience internal some condensation. It wasn’t bad though, especially considering the amount of rain we had the night before.
When we woke up at 6:00 am, it was still raining and we decided to break camp a bit earlier than planned and hike out. We were about 4 miles to the Carter Notch Hut, where we planned to stop and get a cup of hot coffee, and perhaps a snack.
When we arrived at the hut, the hutmaster mistook us for thru-hikers and fed us a huge plate of pancakes. This was most welcome after our abbreviated breakfast in camp!
The crew was closing down the shelter for the season, so we worked off our debt folding up blankets and moving 50 pound bags of flour that they planned to airlift out later in the week.
From the hut, it was an easy 3.5 miles back to the trailhead to our cars.
This was really a great trip. I can’t wait to see where we go next year for our Autumn hiking season kick-off backpacking trip.
Total distance: 33 miles