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Middle Sister and the Carter Ledge Trail

Self Portrait below Mt Chocorua
Self Portrait below Mt Chocorua

Middle Sister (3340′) is a sub-peak of Mt Chocorua, one of three sub-peaks known as the Three Sisters that are situated just below that famous summit. The remains of an old fire tower, in operation from 1927-1948, can be found on the summit of Middle Sister, which commands excellent views of the southeastern corner of the White Mountains from Conway to Ossipee and over the state line into Maine.

Mt Chocorua and the fire tower foundation on nearby Middle Sister
Mt Chocorua and the fire tower foundation on nearby Middle Sister

Despite their proximity to Chocorua, climbing the Three Sisters by themselves is a worthy destination, especially if you want a bit of solitude. Middle Sister is also on the 52-With-a-View Peak list, a quite exceptional list of mountains to climb if you enjoy breathtaking scenery.

While you can hike up to The Sisters via the less challenging Middle Sister Trail, it’s possible to hike a nice loop by climbing up the famed Carter Ledge Trail instead, although you’d best avoid it if you’re afraid of heights. The Carter Ledge Trail has a sketchy, exposed scramble over a steep drop-off that can be intimidating and potentially dangerous unless you keep your wits about you.

Three Sisters Hiking Loop
Three Sisters Hiking Loop

The Carter Ledge Trail starts at the White Ledge Campground off Rt 16. Access is limited however when the campground closes for the season on October 15, and you may need to park down Rt 16 at a pull-off 100 yards south of the entrance in order to find a legal place to park a car. New Hampshire law requires that all of your wheels be off the pavement when parking along a road. Alternatively, you can park at the Piper Trailhead and take the Nickerson Ledge Trail which has some nice views as well, before it joins up with the Carter Ledge Trail.

Trail climbs through gorgeous woods
Trail climbs through gorgeous woods

After the Nickerson Trail Junction, the Carter Ledge Trail begins to climb steeply through forest, providing many fine views of Mt Chocorua’s rocky summit, especially in autumn, once the leaves are down and the views are unobstructed. But the autumn weather can be harsh on these mountains when you get into early November and it’s best to bring warm clothes, hats, and gloves, in addition to microspikes for added traction on the rocky ledges when ice forms on cool days.

The Carter Ledge Trail travels over open rock with excellent views to the valley below
The Carter Ledge Trail travels over open rock with excellent views to the valley below

When reading trail descriptions that describe ledges in the White Mountains, authors mean that trails traverse open rock instead of more protected forest paths. While these open expanses are quite beautiful, they are often wet, fully exposed to the wind, and have steep drop-offs or cliffs below them that require a bit more caution. At elevation, the ledges on the Sisters will also be considerably cooler than the valley 2000′ below, so check the forecast before you venture up this trail. The alternate route up the Middle Sister Trail is entirely forested and a far better alternative in challenging or icy weather (it’s also a much more gradual climb).

The Three Sisters from the Carter Ledge Trail
The Three Sisters from the Carter Ledge Trail

Eventually, the Three Sisters come into view. They’re all linked by the Middle Sister Trail which runs over them. If you follow the trail to its south end, it leads to the Chimney Falls Trail which runs up to the summit of Chocorua.

The crux move on the Carter Ledge Trail
The crux move on the Carter Ledge Trail

But before you reach the Middle Sister Trail junction, you need to cross over a rocky ledge that has a steep, unprotected drop-off on one side. While it doesn’t look that bad in the picture above, you need to slow things down and proceed with caution. Parts of this ledge are covered with seeping water and lichen that can make the surface quite slippery. The hand-holds are also quite limited and far apart. My advice would be to climb this short stretch with a long limbed partner who can lend you a hand, get low and close to the rock, and to wear shoes with sticky rubber soles. I did it solo and it was an ass-puckering experience. :-)

Middle Sister Trail Junction
Middle Sister Trail Junction

The Carter Ledge Trail ends when you get to the Middle Sister Trail junction. Other than a few rock scrambles the trail is mostly level with across the three peaks. The trail can be a bit difficult to follow however where it runs over open ledge, so be on the lookout for yellow blazes painted on the rock or rock cairns.

Paugus Pass
Paugus Pass

When you arrive at the fire tower foundations on Middle Sister, be sure to pause and take in the views. My favorite are the one to the west in the Sandwich Range, including the cliffs on Mt Paugus, seen here.

To descend, I wouldn’t advise going down the Carter Ledge Trail, but suggest you take the easier Middle Sister Trail, which is quite beautiful and well blazed.

Total distance: 9.4 miles RT w/2400′ of elevation gain.

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5 comments

  1. For you to refer to the Carter Ledge Trail the way you do here… It must be really scary. How does it compare to some other notable steep spots like the Tripyramid slides?

    • It’s one scramble, not most of the trail like the Tri slides or the Flume Slide. I’d compare it to the spot at Hi Cannon when you get off the ladder at the top, except you’re stepping onto a sloping ledge that has (if I remember right) a steeper/longer dropoff. The rest of the trail isn’t as bad as that one spot, which I didn’t think was too terrible (although it could definitely be dangerous if icy or slick, which it probably is this time of year). When I hiked this trail in May the ledge was completely dry.

      Philip mentioned the loop involving Piper, Nickerson, Carter Ledge, and Middle Sister. Using those trails over the first two sisters to summit Chocorua is a fantastic hike.

    • It’s nothing like the North Tripyramid Slide. Just a small open ledge.

  2. I thought you were writing about the Three Sisters in Oregon, which also has the middle one named “middle sister”. I suspect there might be more “three” sister mountains than just these two.

  3. That’s a great day loop … good views of Chocorua along the way !! I can’t believe the number of trails that are on Chocorua … looking forward to doing the others.

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