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The Winter Route up Mt Carrigan

The summit of Mt Carrigan (4681') from Signal Ridge
The summit of Mt Carrigan (4681′) from Signal Ridge

The route up Mt Carrigan (4681′) in winter is one of the longest, but most rewarding, scenic hikes in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Fourteen miles in length with 3800′ of elevation gain, the winter climb up Carrigan is one of those hikes where more often that not, you’re likely to hike out after dark by headlamp. That doesn’t make it less appealing to climb, but you need to have the stamina for a long day and a potentially grueling snowshoe, since the trail is often covered in deep snow.

Katie at the Mt Carrigan Summit Tower
Katie at the Mt Carrigan Summit Tower

That was my experience on Saturday, when I climbed Carrigan for the second time in winter, leading an Appalachian Mountain Club hike to the summit with my friends Michael and Katie. We had seven hikers in total on this hike, which is a bit on the low side for an expedition of this magnitude (I prefer at least 10), since we expected to have to break trail to the summit. (We had several last-minute cancellations due to illness.)

Winter Route Up Mt Carrigan, via the Signal Ridge Trail
Winter Route Up Mt Carrigan, via the Signal Ridge Trail

While snowshoes were necessary over unconsolidated powder for 10 miles of our hike, the trail had already been broken out. If it hadn’t been, I doubt we would have made it all the way to the summit before running out of gas to reach the top. Each of us carried full winter packs including extra layers and survival gear, including three liters of water and food, which is a chore to haul up a mountain of this magnitude on snowshoes.

Hiking Up Sawyer River Road at the start of the hike
Hiking Up Sawyer River Road at the start of the hike

The reason that the route up Carrigan is longer in winter than the rest of the year, is because Sawyer River Road, the route to the 3 season trailhead, is closed to cans and trucks. This add 4 miles to the hike, 2 miles at the beginning of the day for the road walk in, and 2 miles at the end back down to RT 302. Peakbagging rules require that you begin and end the hike on open roads, so the extra distance must be walked for the climb to count on the winter 4000 footer list.

When we started our hike at 7:30 am, it was a balmy negative (-11) at the parking lot at the bottom of Sawyer River Road, although the temperature was supposed to rise to 20 degrees later in the day. The wind chill however was forecast for -24, a potential issue because part of this hike passes over a highly exposed section of Signal Ridge, without any tree cover.

Vose Spur (left) and the Cliffs of Mt Lowell (right) from Signal Ridge, Mt Carrigan
Vose Spur (left) and the Cliffs of Mt Lowell (right) from Signal Ridge, Mt Carrigan

Running in the open for about 100 yards, it’s a narrow ridge with a steep eastern drop into Carrigan Notch with a wall of krummholz to the west. Hikers attempting the summit need to cross this open stretch to get to the main top of the mountain, which is then fairly well protected by trees until just below the observation tower.

Southern End of Signal Ridge, after it heads below treeline
Southern End of Signal Ridge, after it heads below treeline

The views from Signal Ridge into Carrigan Notch are actually more impressive in my opinion that those from the observation tower, if only because bad weather often obscures them. On Saturday, I was able to see the cliffs of Mt Lowell on the other side of Carrigan Notch, as well as Vose Spur, a sub-peak of Carrigan. Having climbed Carrigan a half-dozen times previously, this was the first time I had clear enough weather to see both of these magnificent sub-peaks from Signal Ridge.

Michael on top of Mt Carrigan the the Desolation Trail Junction and Wilderness Boundary
Michael on top of Mt Carrigan the Desolation Trail Junction and Wilderness Boundary

We summitted the main peak after an arduous 6:30 climb, and promptly left the summit shortly before snow squalls descended on the mountain. From there, we flew down the peak, hiking back to the three-season trail head and back down Sawyer River Road in exactly 4 hours, barely avoiding having the take out our headlamps to follow the road out. I’d like to say that we left the trail broken out, but with the wind and the 8 inches of fresh powder that fell that afternoon and overnight, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Signal Ridge Trail needs to be broken out again.

Stream Crossing
Stream Crossing

In addition to our group, we only saw five other people on Carrigan last Saturday, three solo hikers and a couple. While hiking Carrigan solo is possible if the trail is broken out, you can improve your chances of summitting if you hike with a larger group that can share the labor of breaking trail, not to mention the additional safety benefits that hiking in a larger group provides.

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5 comments

  1. I’m envious. That looks like a great day out. Thank you for the trip report. Do you have posted somewhere accessible the gear list you would expect someone joining a group on a winter day hike outing like this to have? One of these days I will have the chance for a real winter hike. Your reports are an inspiration!

    • You know, I don’t think I’ve ever published a winter checklist with recommended winter day hiking gear. I should do that as a reader resource. The gearlists for above-treeline and below-treeline hikes are somewhat different.

  2. Philip, the trip sounded like a lot of fun. Could you explain what you are referring to when you say ” trail is broken out”? Maybe I just don’t get out enough. Thank you in advance.

    • Winter trails are often covered with deep snow, 1-3 or even 4 feet deep. If you try to hike them in that state (unbroken) you won’t get very far because they require an immense amount of energy to press down the snow with your snowshoes (a process called breaking trail). You really do need a group to trade off being the lead hiker, since he or she does the most work up front. Breaking trail is like postholing while you’re wearing snowshoes.

      Once a trail has been broken out, it’s much easier to hike, but the wind and fresh snowfall fills up the trench created by previous hikers relatively quickly. This is one of the main reasons why we post winter trip reports and detailed trail conditions. So other local hikers know if the trails are broken out or not.

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