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Backpacking a Hancock Notch Lollipop

Dramatic landslide debris in Hancock Notch
Dramatic landslide debris in Hancock Notch

When people visit the White Mountains, the two geographic features they remember the most are the mountains and the notches, which are giant mountains passes that link different regions of the area together. When you drive down the narrow two-lane roads that snake through Franconia Notch, Crawford Notch, and Pinkham Notch, or the less well known Grafton Notch and Evans Notches, you can’t help but be awed by the cliff faces towering overhead.

A careful study of the White Mountain’s topographic maps reveals many such notches including Hancock Notch, Carrigan Notch, Mad River Notch, Mahoosuc Notch, Haystack Notch, and Miles Notch, just to name a few. These notches can only be experienced by hiking into them since they’re deep inside the interiors of the National Forest, but they’re just as magnificent as their paved counterparts.

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My objective on this trip was to visit Hancock Notch and nearby Carrigan Notch by hiking a big loop through both. My route also included a short detour to climb two nearby four thousand footers, North and South Hancock, which are linked by a dramatic curved ridge that spans the two peaks. This is a 32-mile hike w/ 5000′ of elevation gain that can be enjoyed in a brisk 2-day hike or a more leisurely 3 days, depending on your pace.

The route:

  • Park at the Hancock Notch Trail Head Lot (hairpin turn on the Kancamagus Highway)
  • Hancock Notch Trail: 1.8 miles
  • Cedar Brook Trail: 0.7 miles
  • Hancock Loop: 4.8 miles
  • Cedar Brook Trail: 4.8 miles
  • Wilderness Trail: 4.1 miles
  • Carrigan Notch Trail: about 6 miles
  • Forest Service Road #85: 1.5 miles
  • Sawyer River Rd: 1/3 mile
  • Sawyer River Trail: 2.7 miles
  • Hancock Notch Trail: 6.9 miles

What compels us to climb mountains that we’ve climbed before? I pondered that question as I started down the Hancock Notch Trail towards North and South Hancock, two peaks that I’ve climbed numerous times previously. While I relish the views from their summits, I periodically re-climb mountains as a way of gauging my physical and mental fitness as I age to reaffirm that I’m still able-bodied enough to get up them. A friend of mine recently remarked, “we’re older, but not old,” which seems a kind way to acknowledge the inevitability of aging, without succumbing into despair about it.

Arrow Slide - an avalanche landslide that bushwhackers climb on North Hancock Mountain
Arrow Slide – an avalanche landslide that bushwhackers climb on North Hancock Mountain

I’ve always enjoyed hiking the Hancocks, in part because the route involved numerous challenging stream crossings and muddy sections where there is simply no way to avoid getting wet feet and boots/shoes. I like to stomp in puddles as much as the next guy. But I noticed a considerable amount of trail reroutes this time around, which I’ve been told are designed to make the trails easier to hike. Is that progress?

“Was that your car in the parking lot? The one with all of the bumper stickers?” asked a fast hiker who overtook me on the trail. “It’s on fire,” he joked, as we fell into a conversation. “I’m 70% the way through the grid,” he announced. The grid is a peakbagging list where hikers climb each of the 48 x four thousand footers in every month of the year, so 576 peaks. I countered, “I’m 108% through hiking the White Mountain Guide,” which brought him up a bit short because it’s every bit as impressive as finishing the grid. “Biscuit man” was a very fast hiker though, I have to grant him that, although I was carrying an overnight backpack and he was just hauling a day pack the size of a women’s purse.

I took a quick detour to climb two 4 thousand footers, North and South Hancock
I took a quick detour to climb two 4 thousand footers, North and South Hancock.

We hiked a bit together before he sped off to climb North Hancock. I climbed South Hancock first because that’s the route I’ve always taken when climbing these two peaks. The trail crews made this trail easier too, going as far as to put steps into the steep ascent, where it was just heavily eroded and slippery gravel in the past. Ah progress. I can’t help but feel like a curmudgeon complaining about the way the trail system is changing and becoming easier.

While branching off to climb the Hancocks (on the Hancock Loop Trail) had been fun, I was eager to resume my larger loop around the Hancocks and Mt Carrigan. I turned north onto the Cedar Brook Trail and hiked past the Wilderness sign into the beyond. This is a marvelous trail that climbs to the height of land and then makes a gradual descent through dense forest. Parts are muddy and wet, but there are plenty of rocks in the trail to hop around the wet spots. The highlights are the sublime views of Cedar Brook, which is a massive boulder-choked stream bordering the Hitchcocks, and an (old) logging camp that the trail runs through.

You may have never heard of the Hitchcocks, but they’re a group of five trail-less three thousand footers located along the East Branch Pemigewasset River just beyond Lincoln Woods. North Hitchcock has an old helicopter platform on top, I’m told, but I have yet to climb it. See The Fourth Hitchcock for a trip report about bushwhacking three of the five peaks.

Cedar Brook is a massive boulder-chocked stream a the foot of the Hitchcock Mountain Group
Cedar Brook is a massive boulder-choked stream at the foot of the Hitchcock Mountain Group.

I finished hiking down the Cedar Brook Trail and got onto the Wilderness Trail, with just three hours of daylight left to hike the remaining 5 miles to my intended campsite. My plan was to knock out 15 miles on day one followed by close to 17 miles on day two, but with less elevation gain and therefore easier hiking. Day two was still going to be a long day though.

I made it to the Carrigan Branch (a stream) crossing near Stillwater Junction and set up camp at an off-trail campsite I’d spied from the river bank during a previous trip. The weather finally turned cold last weekend and a frost was expected that night, so I’d planned to sleep on the ground in a tent and in a quilt-like sleeping bag I’ve been testing this year, instead of my hammock. I ate a hot dinner and was in the sack shortly after dark.

Old logging camp stove on the Wilderness Trail
Old logging camp stove on the Wilderness Trail

I got an early start the next morning and was off hiking by 8:00 am. I passed by Stillwater Junction and headed up the Carrigan Notch Trail. I was delayering just as Chris Dailey appeared and greeted me. I’ve run into Chris numerous times in the Whites, so I wasn’t that surprised to see him. He’s an accomplished photographer, grid finisher, and trail runner who loves the White Mountains as much as I do. Chris was out scouting old logging roads and would loop me later in the day, reversing the route I’d hiked the previous day.

A brown bear visited my campsite that night
A brown bear visited my campsite that night

I headed up the Carrigan Notch Trail, which is much easier to follow in the autumn than in the spring when it’s covered with snow. I’d hiked this section earlier this year (see Backpacking the Livermore Loop) and required a GPS to find the trail in the trees. Being a weekend, I met more hikers including Bob Reynolds who recognized me from our Facebook group and two regular Section Hiker readers, who were off on a 1-night trip to climb up Mt Carrigan. This hike was becoming downright social, not that I minded. I’ve done four consecutive solo backpacking trips in the past month and it’s always nice to meet people along the way and have a friendly chat.

The Carrigan Notch Trail travels right down the center of a mountain pass, bordered to the east by the cliffs of Mts Anderson and Lowell, and to the west by Vose Spur, a subsidiary peak to Mt Carrigan. I could just make out the cliffs on Anderson and Lowell through the trees, as I walked along Vose Spur’s flank deeper into the pass. These mountains tower over the Carrigan Notch Trail, though you wouldn’t know it when the leaves are on the trees.

The forest service road provides a nice shortcut from the Signal Ridge Trail to the Sawyer River Trail
The forest service road provides a nice shortcut from the Signal Ridge Trail to the Sawyer River Trail. It’s a bit grown-in though.

I soon crossed the trail junction with the Signal Ridge Trail and started looking for a forest service road (#85 but unmarked) that I planned to follow to Sawyer River Road. This is a short cut that eliminates most of the road walk from the bottom of the Signal Ridge Trail to the Sawyer Pond Trailhead, where the Sawyer River Trail begins. The forest service road is heavily overgrown but easily passible, ending with an easy river crossing before you pop out onto Sawyer River Road.

From there it was about a third of a mile walk up to the next trailhead, where I spied my good friend Beth Zimmer packing up her car. I can’t say I was that surprised to see her, but it was a happy reunion. I was up that weekend to attend her final White Mountain Guide trail and finishing party the next day. She’s now the 42nd person to finish hiking all 608 trails (1440.4 miles) in the White Mountain Guide.

Hancock Notch is one of the wilder parts fo the White Mountain National Forest
Hancock Notch is one of the wilder parts of the White Mountain National Forest

After meeting Beth and her friends, I still had to hike another 9+ miles through Hancock Notch and back to my car. I flew down the flattish Sawyer River Trail which runs along the river, before joining the Hancock Notch Trail, where my pace slowed down. The stretch between that the Sawyer River and Cedar Brook trail junctions is quite wild, with landslides, river crossings, and wet & muddy sections to hike through. Still, the trail is a lot easier to follow than the last time I’d hiked it a few years ago, now that the ambiguous parts have painted blazes and the washed out sections have been rerouted (See Backpacking the Desolation Loop).

Most people turn left at this sign onto the Cedar Brook Trail to climb the Hancocks. Few venture beyond it into remote Hancock Notch
Most people turn left at this sign onto the Cedar Brook Trail to climb the Hancocks. Few venture beyond it into remote Hancock Notch

While I thrive on the isolation and ambiguity of following a challenging trail, I was relieved when I reached the well-trodden section of the Hancock Notch Trail which most people follow to North and South Hancock. Little do they know that what lies beyond that trail sign in a more isolated section of Hancock Notch. Let’s just keep it a secret.

Total Distance: 31 miles with 5000′ of elevation gain

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  1. Philip, it was a pleasure meeting you. after our departure I was thinking how influential your blog has been, so I pondered the thought while snacking on l’equip dehydrated jerky and checking my pro trex altitude. later in the day we set up camp and loved our featherd friends ul flicker 30. as you suggested, climbing carrigan from the desolation trail was what one of us thought was the way to go, unfortunately Sharon asked why the hell would anyone come this way, I replied philip said. she replied f@## philip warner… I laughed and she got mad, at summit we were talking again and told her philip warner probably was an ass, and I sure am glad philip werner suggested this route. her first 4000 footer and all good. hope to meet again some day, hike safe.

  2. I hiked the Hancocks & Cedar Brook Trail recently to get from the Hancock Trailhead to Franconia Brook tentsite in advance of a 2-day pemi loop (the same weekend as you actually, but I think I was just ahead of you the whole weekend and therefore missed a chance to tell you in person how much I appreciate your blog!) The whole time on the Cedar Brook Trail I walked right into a spiderweb every few feet — it seems less well used than many of the other trails in the Whites. Thanks for the great trip report!

  3. Thanks for all of your trip reports. We followed your Kate Sleeper Loop last year on our first backpacking trip and are looking for a similar loop for this year. This seems like a good one. How many 4k footers are in this loop?

  4. I was just looking at the slope shading along the Hancock Notch trail. Some steep gradient in the upper reaches of the Sawyer and near the junction with the Loop trail. See any potential tent spots along the Sawyer?

    • The trail is overrun with illegal campsites. Depends whether you want to camp illegally or legally.

      • Definitely legal. Considering an overnight after Hancock Loop. As I understand it 200+ ft from trail and water, non-alpine. Looked like there’s a band of cliffs between trail and Cedar Brook. Looks like some flatter areas near Sawyer about a mile from the junction. Not sure about along N. Fork. One side near junction looks like a marsh. Testing a Dipole DW so it’s a little tougher finding decent spots as you well know.

        • There’s a gorge up Cedar Brook – try the west side below North Hitchcock. The north fork has great camping, especially on the west side of the river. I’ve been there many times. probably my favorite place to camp in the whites.

        • Thanks! After doing the loop, I scouted the area between the 2 crossings south of Loop Trail jct on the west but couldn’t find anything good more than 25 paces off-trail. Looked around before and after crossings, but everything was a major bushwhack. Not an exhaustive search and can see why you like that area!

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