Backpacking a Reverse Kate Sleeper Loop

Backpacking a reverse Kate Sleeper Loop

Autumn has arrived in the White Mountains, but leaf-peeping season is still a few weeks out. The Forest has been surprisingly empty the past two weeks and you can hike all day and just see a handful of people if any.

I’ve continued hiking 4000 footers, going on three months now, with 46 summits climbed, and I’m enjoying myself tremendously. I love the physical effort (most hikes are 10 miles + 3000 – 5000 of elevation gain) and hiking all the different ways up each peak lets me revisit a lot of trails I haven’t been on a while including many old favorites.

The weather is much cooler than in the summer, in the 60-70’s during the day and 40-50’s at night. It’s really perfect hiking and backpacking weather. My ankle and foot are feeling much better since I switched to a new brand/model of trail runner and started doing calf stretches more religiously. My left ankle feels more normal than it’s felt in over a year.  My balance is great, strength still rebuilding, but my hiking footwork is as nimble as it’s ever been. My metatarsal pain is greatly diminished and easily managed with Vitamin I. I really think it’s finally on the mend.

Anyway, it’s all coming together.

Reverse Kate Sleeper Loop

Objective

On this trip, I wanted to climb a couple of adjacent 4000 footers:  Mts Passaconaway, Whiteface, and Middle and North Tripyramid. So I planned out a 1-night loop hike, with a short road walk to connect the ends, and set off with Tenkara fishing rod in hand to go climb them. All four of the peaks require steep, boulder-strewn climbs up long, high-gradient trails.  But the ridge connecting them is more moderate and the loop includes two more mountains, East and West Sleeper, which have fun spurs to find and hike.

At the time, I thought that this would make a great trip plan to include in my free guidebook Backpacking the 4000 Footers, which I have been updating and expanding with new trips this summer. When I went to see if there was any overlap between my trip plan and what’s already listed in the guide, I was chagrined to see that my route matched a pre-existing route plan, The Kate Sleeper Loop, but in reverse! Too funny. But I figured it would be a good opportunity to see what the loop is like when hiking in the opposite direction to provide guidance to would-be hikers. It really is a lovely route both ways.

Mt Whiteface, a 4000 footer in the Sandwich Range
Mt Whiteface, a 4000 footer in the Sandwich Range

The Route Plan

  • Park at Downes Brook/Oliverian Trail trailhead off Rt 112
  • Walk East on Rt 112 for 1.2 miles
  • Oliverian Brook Trail – 1.9 miles
  • Passaconaway Cutoff –  1.7 miles
  • Square Ledge Trail – 0.7 miles
  • Walden Trail – 0.6 miles
  • Dicey’s Mill Tr – 0.7 miles
  • Rollins Trail – 2.4 miles
  • Kate Sleeper Trail – 3.3 miles
  • Mt Tripyramid Trail – 1.4/0.5 miles (out and back partway)
  • Sabadday Brook Trail – 4.9 miles
  • Walk East on Rt 112 – 1.2 miles

Initial Road Walk

A short road walk down the kancamagus highway to kick things off.
A short road walk down the Kancamagus Highway to kick things off. The 1.2 miles took about 20 minutes.

The beginning and end of this route differ slightly from the original plan in the guidebook. Rather than doing one long road walk at the beginning of the trip, I broke it into two smaller ones, parking at a trailhead at the halfway point. Road walks kill my feet, so I hoped that doing two shorter ones would be easier. It was.  This road walk runs along Rt 112, the Kancamagus Highway, which is a two-lane road that connects Lincoln and North Conway on the west and east sides of the Whites in New Hampshire.

The Oliverian Brook Trail doubles as an XC trail in winter.
The Oliverian Brook Trail doubles as an XC trail in winter.

Oliverian Brook Trail

This is a lovely old trail that follows an old timber railroad grade and serves double duty as an XC skiing trail in winter. It runs beside Oliverian Brook, also a lovely freestone stream. While I’d brought a fishing rod on this trip, I didn’t stop to fish although it was very tempting. It looks like marvelous trout habitat. I’d brought the rod to fly fish Sabbaday Brook Trail at the end of the trip when I’d put most of the miles behind me.

The Cutoff Trai is muddy before it gets really rocky and starts climbing.
The Cutoff Trai is muddy before it gets really rocky and starts climbing.

Passaconaway Cutoff

I turned off onto the Passaconaway Cutoff Trail which angles toward Mt Passaconaway, more directly, passing the Sandwich Range Wilderness Area Boundary. The start of this trail was pretty muddy before it begins climbing and gets much rockier. I noted a water source that I didn’t know about, which is the last place to get water before Camp Rich, on the opposite side of Passaconaway. It’s listed in Guthook’s White Mountain App which is the most accurate and up-to-date GPS app for the White Mountain National Forest.

The Cutoff Trail gets rocky when it starts to climb.
The Cutoff Trail narrows and gets rocky when it starts to climb.

Square Ledge Trail

I turned off onto the Square Ledge Trail and climbed it to the Walden Trail Junction, where I sat in a spot of sunlight and enjoyed a peanut butter and honey sandwich, what I refer to as an Amish Powerbar. I recalled a trip I’d taken a few years ago in winter with my friend Ken when we couldn’t find this junction or the trail because there was so much snow. We’d had to bushwhack our way off the peak, which was kind of miserable since the slope angle is so steep and the vegetation so thick. It took us forever and much cursing to get out of there.

I ate lunch at the trail junction.
I ate lunch at the trail junction.

Walden Trail

Refreshed, I headed up the Walden Trail which climbs up the back of Mt Passaconaway, quite steeply, more than any of the prior trails I’d hiked so far. It basically goes straight up a rocky scramble, climbing 650 feet in 0.6 miles, passing a nice viewpoint, before continuing to an unmarked spur trail to the summit cairn. I walked down the spur to the small summit cairn and then headed down the Dicey’s Mill Trail.

The Walden Trail is a steep and rocky scramble.
The Walden Trail is a steep and rocky scramble.

Dicey’s Mill Trail

The Dicey’s Mill Trail is the main trail climbing Passaconaway and it is relentless, so I was glad that I was down climbing it this time. It runs past Camp Rich which is an old tent site on Passaconaway accessible by an unmarked herd path. It’s still an official tent site (according to the White Mountain Guide), it has a privy, and it is close to water, but it is very heavily used. I walked down the herd leading to it, and I must say, it has not aged well. I can remember when there was a lawn here…now it’s just dust and beaten down tent sites between the trees.

You can camp there if you want, but I much prefer a legal dispersed camping site surrounded by nature and very private. That means being 200 feet off the nearest trail, to put it simply. See Backcountry Camping Regulations for a complete set of White Mountain National Forest Camping regulations.

I planned to camp somewhere along the Kate Sleeper Trail on this trip and had brought a hammock for that purpose because it can be so challenging to find level ground to pitch a tent or tarp in mountainous terrain. That’s one reason. I also really like sleeping in my current hammock, surrounded by warm quilts.

Mt Passaconaway seen from the Rollins Trail
Mt Passaconaway as seen from the Rollins Trail

Rollins Trail

I turned onto the Rollins Trail which leads to the small cairn marking the Mt Whiteface summit. I’d summited this mountain back in June, but had climbed up from the opposite direction on the Blueberry Cutoff Trail. The Rollins Trail is largely viewless, but fairly benign, although it has some elevation gain. It follows the ridge that connects Passaconaway to Whiteface.

The African delegation had just summitted Whiteface when I arrived.
The African delegation had just summitted Whiteface when I arrived.

Kate Sleeper Trail

I continued along Rollins to the Kate Sleeper Trail junction and headed down to Downes Brook to get more water in preparation for camping. The trail down to Downes Brook is easy to follow and pretty. When you get to the Downes Brook Trail, turn right and walk a few steps to get easier access to the stream on the left. I filled up 5 liters here because I knew I’d be dry camping a mile or two farther along the trail and that there was no water between this point and the Tripyramids, which are dry. The next available water along my route was on the Sabbaday Brook Trail.

The Kate Sleeper Trail is easy to follow and descends gradually
The Kate Sleeper Trail is easy to follow and descends gradually

The forest on either side of the Kate Sleeper Trail, between Downes Brook and East Sleeper was decimated by a storm, about 8 or so years ago, that blew most of the trees in that part of the forest down. It was a huge mess and it took trails crews a long time to restore the trail. Vegetation has since grown up over all the trees that were knocked down, but there’s still not much forest along this section. The current trail runs through a sea of ferns that are slowly encroaching the path because fewer hikers pass through here.

I headed west along the Kate Sleeper Trail towards East Sleeper Mountain.
I headed west along the Kate Sleeper Trail towards East Sleeper Mountain.

I’d started looking for a place to set up my hammock but there weren’t any really good stands of trees until after I’d reached East Sleeper and walked up the spur to the summit cairn. So I continued on toward West Sleeper looking for a flattish, off-trail spot that had decent spacing between the trees and no widow makers overhead.

Tree cover returns west of East Sleeper
Tree cover returns west of East Sleeper

I’d entered a beautiful lush section of the forest again, but I also came across many game trails that led into areas heavy with ferns that looked like moose beds. These look like circles of beaten-down ferns where the moose lay when they sleep. Moose are pretty mellow, but we’re getting close to the annual rut and the last thing I wanted was a visit by a male who wanted to fight with my hammock tarp. So I avoided several good sites in order to avoid any animal encounters.

I found a suitable dispersed site and set up my hammock.
I found a suitable dispersed site and set up my hammock.

I was getting close to West Sleeper when I found a good dispersed stealth site, deep in the woods, and off-trail. The spacing was good and there weren’t any broken trees overhead to worry about. It was on a slope, but hammocks make it much easier to camp in spots that are too unlevel to set up a tent.

I set up my hammock, changed into my sleeping clothes, and got ready to cook some dinner. I’d carried those 5 liters of water an extra 1.5 miles with about 500 feet of elevation gain, but it also put me very close to the Tripyramids and shortened the remainder of my route. I still wanted to fly fish the Sabbaday and looked forward to doing that at a leisurely pace, without being hurried.

I ate dinner on the trail because there really was no other place to sit.
I ate dinner on the trail because there really was no other place to sit.

I cooked dinner – a Knoors Rice Side mixed with a can of Tuna in Olive Oil, hung my Ursack, finished a book on Audible, and went to sleep for the next 10 hours!

I’ve always enjoyed sleeping in a hammock, but this 11′ Hammock Gear Wanderlust Hammock System including a Hammock Gear Econ Burrow Top Quilt and a Hammock Gear Econ Incubator Underquilt is the most comfortable integrated hammock system I’ve ever used. I like it so much, I’ve gone and sold my 10′ Warbonnet Blackbird and a Warbonnet Wookie Underquilt because it’s so much easier to use, especially with its two-sided bug net. Plus that extra foot of length makes a huge difference in getting a diagonal lay and sleeping flat. Size does matter when it comes to hammocks!

I got a late start the next morning, but I cooked up a big pot of tea as I packed up and ate my last Amish power bar. It was really cold and a pair of passing hikers, who had also slept out, told me that it had dipped below 40 at night.

Looking down the South Tripyramid avalanche slide.
Looking down the South Tripyramid avalanche slide. This a hiking trail!

I got going and finished the rest of the Kate Sleeper Trail quickly, before turning onto the South Tripyramid Slide and climbing it about 300′ to the summit. This is an avalanche slide covered by boulders and gravel which is also a hiking trail. I had a friend break his leg on it last year who had to be carried out, so I was extra careful in my foot placements on the ascent. I have to look him up sometime and see how he’s doing. He was also hiking the White Mountain 4000 Footer Grid and I’m curious when he’ll get back onto the trail. He’s not one to give up the quest.

Once you make it up to the connecting ridge that joins the North Middle and South Tripyramids, they’re quite easy to summit. This is Middle Tripyramid.
Once you make it up to the connecting ridge that joins the North Middle and South Tripyramids, they’re quite easy to summit. This is Middle Tripyramid.

I continued along the Mt Tripyramid Trail and summited Middle Tripyramid and the North Peak. Once you’re on the connecting ridge, they’re easy peaks to climb. Unfortunately, they don’t have views. I then backtracked to the Sabbaday Trail Junction between the Middle and North peaks and the final leg of my trip.

Sabbaday Brook Trail

It’s been a few years since I hiked the Sabbaday Brook Trail and I recognized a number of features that I’d encountered on previous trips. I also saw a number of things that I hadn’t noticed before, probably because I wasn’t looking for them. It’s interesting how Tenkara Fly Fishing has changed the way I look at the landscape and watercourses.

The upper portion of the Sabbaday Brook Trail descents quite steeply.
The upper portion of the Sabbaday Brook Trail descends quite steeply (it’s worse than it looks).

The Sabbaday Brooks Trail plunges down from the Tripyramid Trail very steeply. Hiking down it is very different from hiking up it and provides a very different perspective. At one point, high up on the trail, there’s a long smooth slab of rock that you need to descend which is not for the faint of heart. I was glad I was wearing a pair of trail runners with very sticky soles and that the trail was dry. Of course, you can also slide down the thing on your butt and probably make it down alive. Going up is a lot easier.

The headwaters of Sabbaday Brook start high up the trail
The headwaters of Sabbaday Brook start high up the trail

I soon came to the small waterfall that is the top of Sabbaday Brook. The brook starts here as a trickle of water, growing wider and wider as it flows downstream before it ends at the Swift River. I paid particular attention to the uppermost part of the stream as it rushes past moss-covered rocks before widening and starting to form pools. The brook is still a little too narrow for fishing but it is quite pretty. This part of the stream also runs along the base of the Tripyramid/Sleeper Ridge and you can see where avalanches have come down into the stream bed. It’s a cool little ecosystem and a short enough day hike that I can hike back up there to see it again.

As I worked my way downstream, there was clear evidence of massive avalanche and flood damage from past storms. There are places where the trees are stacked up like matchsticks from flooding and the walls of the valley have collapsed into the brook. It also looks like the trail has been rerouted in spots to avoid the obstacles. I don’t recall any of this from my last trip up the trail, but, as I said, I look at the landscape with a very different lens than I used to.

Sabbaday Brook gets wider and wider as you work your way downstream.
Sabbaday Brook gets wider and wider as you work your way downstream.

I did some fly fishing on the way down the trail but not as much as I’d hoped for. The trail doesn’t really provide a lot of access to the river until you get much closer to Sabbaday Falls which is a major tourist attraction. I could have done more fishing if I’d been willing to do some bushwhacking to get streamside, but I decided to leave that for another day. I live close by and it’s easy to hike back up the brook, which is a blessing in more ways than one.

Final Road Walk

Once I reached the bottom of the trail, I did the short road walk back to my car at the Downes Brook trailhead.

Wrap Up

This was a great trip and I really enjoyed myself. Even though I am bagging grid summits, I’m still a trail hiker at heart and it was great to reconnect with these trails and see the landscape from a new perspective.

If you’re thinking about hiking a Kate Sleeper Loop, the original route and the reverse route are pretty equivalent in terms of elevation gain. I do prefer the shorter road walks on the reverse route that I took here, but that’s not an issue if you have two cars. The key factor for both directions is drinking water access and having an adequate supply for day 2. But planning that out is half the fun. Enjoy!

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2 comments

  1. I’ve always wanted to do the Sleepers. Will get there someday. September is the best month for backpacking! Interested in your comments about hammock and shoes (read your SP review). I love my DH Sparrow hammock with UGQ quilts…what do like better about the HG hammock? Also, I’m using a CRL from UGQ which is fine, but see you are using a split ridgeline…pros and cons? Also looking to lighten my system weight with a DCF tarp…suggestions?

    • I’m writing up a gear list post with more details, but here’s some feedback.

      I haven’t used the sparrow so I can’t compare. UGQ makes awesome quilts (I kept those). I really like the integration between the HG hammock and their underquilt because I can clip the two together (plastic rings on both line up) as well as clips on the hammock to connect the primary suspension, so I never have to fiddle with underquilt alignment after that. Randy at DH probably offers the same options. I use the HG ridgeline organizer – so much better than the Warbonnet side pocket for protecting delicates and staying organized. I find a split line tarp much easier to set up with HG mini-biners on the ends and linelocs on the ridgeline. Always have. I’ve given up on DCF tarps. They just let in too much light for me to sleep well, especially moonlight. I may get a new larger tarp for colder weather w/ doors, but in silpoly. Weight doesn’t bother me all that much these days. I keep it light, but I prioritize comfort. I still have a 13-15lb base weight, but it’s not the priority it used to be.

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