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Black Angel Backpack

South Baldface, Evans Notch, White Mountain National Forest
South Baldface, Evans Notch, White Mountain National Forest

The hawk soared effortlessly above Eagle Crag as we labored over the open ridge toward North and South Baldface, the pair of open summits that book end Evans Notch. Although it was just the middle of the afternoon, the autumn daylight was already waning. “We’ll come out well after dark if we climb the two peaks,” said Ken. We decided to skip the peaks, opting instead to hike down the Bicknell Ridge Trail, which provides excellent views of the cirque below the summits. It was the right decision under the circumstances and one that still provided us with fantastic views from the trail’s open ledges in the fading daylight.

Ken at the one remaining Wild River Bridge
Ken at the one remaining Wild River Bridge

Ken, Lisa, and I were just finishing up a 2-day backpacking trip through the Wild River Wilderness and along the Baldface Ridge, near the New Hampshire / Maine state line which runs through Evans Notch in east side of the White Mountain National Forest. While the three of us day hike and bushwhack together frequently, this was our first backpacking trip together, following a mellow route that gave us plenty of time to admire the beauty of autumn’s colors without encountering the crowds that descend on New Hampshire over the Columbus Day weekend.

We stopped frequently to absorb the sun and autumn colors, hiking out to sandbars in the Wild River to sit near the water
We stopped frequently to absorb the sun and autumn colors, hiking out to sandbars in the Wild River to sit near the water

The Highwater Trail

We couldn’t have asked for better scenery or weather for this trip, as we hiked up the Highwater Trail which runs along the northern half of the Wild River from the site of Hastings, an abandoned logging town, to the Black Angel river crossing some 10 miles upstream. Wanting to spend time with my friends, I’d decided to leave my Tenkara rod at home for this trip despite the many opportunities to fish for trout that I knew would present themselves, since the Wild River is known as a prime fishing stream. I was definitely scouting the stream for future visits however, especially since I hadn’t hiked much of this segment of trail previously.

Hiking past spring flood debris
Hiking past spring flood debris

Having worked as a lumber estimator in the past, Ken was in his element along the trail, identifying many old growth trees and wild plants along our route. While parts of the Wild River Wilderness had been cut over during the early twentieth century, the cutting had been selective leaving many huge trees behind which continue to thrive in this Wilderness Area today.

While the northern end of the Highwater Trail is easy-going, the trail gets a bit wilder and more challenging the deeper you travel into the Wilderness Area. My friends, not used to carrying overnight gear labored a bit, but we made it to the Black Angel river crossing by mid-afternoon. Not feeling rushed, we decided to stay near the river and have a relaxing evening meal, rather than hiking up to the old Blue Brook campsite before dark.

Ken crosses an easy tributary along our route
Ken crosses an easy tributary along our route

This being Lisa’s first backpacking trip ever, I thought it’d be fun to build a small leave no trace fire on mineral sand, so we collected some firewood before it got dark. We cooked up some dinner and sipped a few victuals, as we watched the sun set before making a small fire and going to bed.

Lisa and Ken cook up some dinner before it gets dark
Lisa and Ken cook up some dinner before it gets dark

The Black Angel Trail

We had a relaxed morning the next day, taking our time over breakfast and coffee before breaking camp and tackling the Black Angel River crossing. The site of a now defunct bridge, this river crossing is often marked as the site of the Spider Bridge on many maps of the region, including the Caltopo bridge at the bottom of this article.

Just downstream of the Black Angel river crossing of the Wild River
Just downstream of the Black Angel river crossing of the Wild River

This being autumn, the water in the Wild River is super cold. While I normally would just walk across a river in my trail runners in warmer weather, I took up Ken’s offer to borrow his crocs for the crossing so I could keep my socks and shoes dry, as did Lisa. Ken hiked across and threw his crocs back across the river, allowing us to cross in turn.

From there, we climbed the Black Angel Trail, which links the Wild River Valley to Evans Notch. The Black Angel Trail was named by Mr. Alva Richardson who was a Forest Guard stationed at the Wild River Ranger Station. Alva helped build the Black Angel Trail in 1927. It was named because they found a blackened tree stump that resembled an angel. Per a retired forester. (credit “Puck” on Views from the Top)

Basin Pond
Basin Pond

The Black Angel Trail is a pretty trail, muddy in spots, with a noticeable grade. It passes by the site fo the old Blue Brook Shelter (now removed), before coming to Rim Junction, a short walk from the Basin Rim Trail which encircles the giant valley in Evans Notch. We soon came to a view of Basin Pond from far below, which is actually a man-made flood control pond, situated next to the Basin Pond Campground. While not quite at peak, the autumn colors in the valley below were still dazzling.

Mt Meader loomed ahead
Mt Meader loomed ahead

Evans Notch

Having reached this spot on the Basin Rim Trail, we still had quite a ways to go to reach North and South Baldface, which we hoped to climb and traverse in clear weather. But first, we had to climb Mt Meader, which proved to be more strenuous than I’d remembered from hiking this same route on previous trips. I chalked that up to the fact that I was carrying extra water, since this segment of the trail all the way to Slippery Brook (past South Baldface) is dry, except for one very tanic and intermittent stream on the other side of Mt Meader. I hate being thirsty, so I’d stocked up with 3 liters that morning so I wouldn’t run out.

Mt Meader Trail Junction
Mt Meader Trail Junction

Once over Mt Meader, the trail quickly transitions from forest to open ledge with fantastic views of Evans Notch and the Wildcat/Carter Range to the West, which looms over the remote Wild River Valley.

Approaching Eagle Crag on open ledge
Approaching Eagle Crag on open ledge
The Wildcat Carter Range and Wild River Wilderness ablaze in Autumn Glory
The Wildcat Carter Range and Wild River Wilderness ablaze in Autumn Glory

While we could see the Baldfaces ahead, it became increasingly clear that we weren’t going to be able to climb them and down the Slippery Brook Trail to our car without hiking out in the dark. What with a shuttle and driving several hours home, continuing on would have required a very long day. That’s when we made the call to hike down the Bicknell Ridge Trail instead and skip the Baldfaces, which we’ve all climbed before anyway.

South and North Baldface, seen closeup from the Bicknell Ridge Trail
South and North Baldface, seen closeup from the Bicknell Ridge Trail

The Bicknell Ridge Trail parallels the Baldface Circle Trail, which is most people follow back down to the valley after climbing South and the North Baldface. It turns out to be the much nicer of the two with excellent views of the Baldfaces from its rocky ledges. The two trails intersect lower down and terminate at the same trail head along Rt 113 in Evans Notch, but I think I’ll be hiking down the Bicknell Ridge Trail from the ridge from now on because it so much nicer (and easier on the knees).

This was a great hike with two good friends during prime leaf-peeping season. If you ever get a chance to hike this route, I really recommend it. We saw two other people all weekend on the busiest (Columbus Day) weekend in the White Mountain National Forest and you can’t beat that for beauty and solitude.

Black Angel Backpack along the Highwater, Black Angel, and Bicknell Ridge Trails (click for interactive map on Caltopo.com)
Black Angel Backpack along the Highwater, Black Angel, Basin Rim, Meader Ridge and Bicknell Ridge Trails (click for interactive map on Caltopo.com)

Approximately 19 miles with 4000 feet of elevation gain.

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7 comments

  1. And I thought this was going to be a review of the Black Angel Backpack… I guess nobody’s made on yet.

    Two and a half years ago, my wife and I camped at the Hastings campground, where it proceeded to pour all night. She slept in a hammock and I slept on the ground. We strung a tarp between the trees to shield us both and we stayed pretty dry. I bought that tarp from you and brought it back up to the Whites so it could visit its’ old stomping (hanging?) grounds but you were in Texas at the time.

  2. Looks like a gorgeous area to backpack!

  3. My GF and I started hiking the Evans Notch area this Fall. Absolutely beautiful. We hiked East and West Royce and scouted out some future hikes. We were wondering if that was the Cold River camp you volunteer at?

  4. I hiked the other side of the Wild River a couple years ago and was intrigued by the Baldface side. That looks like a great place to spend a couple days. Thanks for the write-up Philip.

    • Can’t wait to get back up there. I’ll be working at the AMC’s Cold River Camp again this year as a hiking leader for a week and have plenty of redlining left in the Speckled Mountain Wilderness Area opposite the Baldfaces in Maine.

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