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Backpacking a Shoal Pond Lollipop

Mount Carrigan looms over Shoal Pond
Mount Carrigan looms over Shoal Pond

As I stood there on the shore of Shoal Pond, I realized I couldn’t hear a thing. No motorcycles in the distance or helicopters flying overhead. I couldn’t hear the wind, no ducks quacking, or even the water lapping against the shore. I can’t remember the last time I’d heard absolute silence. It was the magical moment I’d come for.

It’s funny how you always find something you never expect whenever you go backpacking. I suppose that’s the lure that my solo trips have for me when I’m alone in the wilderness and free to amuse myself at my own pace and inclination. On this trip, I’d explored some off-trail river gorges in search of elusive brook trout, traced the headwaters of the biggest river in the Pemigewasset Wilderness, and enjoyed the early fall foliage.

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I’d set off the previous day from the Lincoln Woods Trailhead just outside Lincoln, NH to hike through the eastern half of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, a 45,000-acre tract in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest. I wanted to hike up to the headwaters of the East Branch (Pemigewasset River), loop up the North Branch, check out Jumping Brook, before hiking south along Shoal Pond Brook back to the East Pemi. Fishing season is coming to an end soon and I wanted to enjoy a little Tenkara time before it’s over. I’ve found that backpacking and fly fishing make a great combination if you’re willing to hike deep into the backcountry to fish virgin streams that very few people have ever visited. The fish are smaller but the rewards can be huge.

Headwaters of the East Branch Pemigewasset River at its confluence with Carrigan Brook
Headwaters of the East Branch Pemigewasset River at its confluence with Carrigan Brook

But the rivers were running kind of low, so I focused mostly on hiking and admiring the early fall foliage. There’s nothing like autumn in the White Mountains and I make a point to head up north every few days so I don’t miss peak foliage. Winter is on the horizon and my goal is to soak up as much backpacking time as I can before it arrives in early November. Winter backpacking also has its rewards, but it’s a different kind of pleasure and far more social.

I hiked up the East Side Trail along the East Branch Pemigewasset River and continued on the Wilderness Trail until I reached the Carrigan Brook stream crossing. The best fishing along the East Pemi is in the gorges and cascades which coincide with the stretches of trail that veer away from the river. In other words, you need to hike off trail and scramble along the river banks if you want to reach these secret places. The rewards are immense though if you’re in search of the sublime.

I hiked along the banks of Carrigan Branch to the point where it drains into the East Branch and spent some time playing tag with brook trout. I got lots of bites and hooked one good, but he wriggled off the hook in mid-flight. I planned to hike by this point the next day and have another go at it, so I headed back to the Thoreau Bridge in order to hike up the Thoreau Falls trail find a good campsite before dark.

Bridge over the East Branch at the bottom of the Thoreau Falls Trail
Bridge over the East Branch at the bottom of the Thoreau Falls Trail

The Forest Service is thinking about taking down this bridge in accordance with the Wilderness Act and because it’s not in such great shape. The bridge consists of a plywood decking nailed on two huge tree trunks that span the river. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they did take the bridge down, but the ford here can be quite deep and fast in spring and after heavy rain. The best ford is a good deal farther east up-river, but that is also subject to high water flows.

Crossing the Thoreau Falls bridge is not for the faint-hearted
Crossing the Thoreau Falls bridge is not for the faint-hearted. Weight limit. One person at a time.

Over the bridge, I hiked up the Thoreau Fall Trail looking for a campsite where I’d spent the night in 2014, the first time I’d hiked this trail. I passed its approximate location but kept on going in hopes of finding something better. The backcountry regulations stipulate that you camp 200 feet off trail in the Whites, which means finding a spot where the trail veers sufficiently far from the adjacent river or crossing the river and camping along the other shore. I was lucky and found a legal pre-existing site without crossing the river, just before sundown and set about pitching camp.

Hammock camping in porch mode
Hammock camping in porch mode

With sunset now at 6:45 pm, I knew I wanted to have a small fire in camp. So, I’d brought along a small wood stove so I could cook dinner and then sit around a bit feeding it with fresh wood before going to bed. I propped it up on some river rocks (it has a flash screen to put underneath to prevent scorching rocks and the ground) and got it going. I ate a nice meal and hung out a bit before I hung up my bear bag and crashed in my hammock. That’s the way I like it.

The next morning I worked my way up the North Fork below Thoreau Falls, one of the scenic highlights of the White Mountains. The gorge below the falls is even more magnificent with swimming holes and trout pools galore. But hike down the trail to get to it. Don’t do something stupid like trying to climb down the falls. That’s a good way to get killed.

One of the more claustrophobic sections of the Shoal Pond Brook Trail
One of the more claustrophobic sections of the Shoal Pond Brook Trail. You can only tell it’s a trail by following the moose prints in the mud.

After the falls, I hopped on the Ethan Pond Trail for a 0.5 mile and then headed down the Shoal Pond Brook Trail, which is definitely one of the wildest trails in the White Mountains. How do I define wild? When you expect a bear or moose to crash through the woods alongside the trail at any minute and come face to face with you. This trail is definitely like that.

Bright and sunny at Stillwater Junction
Bright and sunny at Stillwater Junction

I passed Shoal Pond and plunged headlong down the upper trail which is pretty wild with floating bog bridges and deep mud. It opens up farther south passing through open woods before passing through dense spruce until I reached Stillwater Junction.

From here it was about an 8-mile hike back to my car, which I hiked casually, with occasional stops to fly fish along the way. We still have a few weeks before fall foliage peaks, but it was nice to enjoy a short hike (about 30 miles/w 2000′ of elevation gain) before the color peaks.

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  1. “…moose prints in the mud.” Now that’s something you don’t hear often here in the South!

  2. ” A short hike ( about 30 miles) “.


  3. Living the dream right there!

  4. I’ve had a few hikes and kayak trips that got me to locations I couldn’t hear anything whatsoever except sounds of nature and my breathing and saw no sign of human presence other than the gear with us. I recall being a two day walk from the nearest road on a couple trips with my brother in Montana. Those are increasingly rare speciall places and memories to be cherished.

  5. I recommend visiting Labrador Pond, drains into the Shoal Pond Brook. It was only a beaver marsh when I visited it but the sense of remoteness was thrilling. I ended up during that after chickening out on trying to locate the Stillwater Cutoff.
    The Labrador Brook (stream?) was a calming handrail.

  6. I’m confused by your description of your search for a legal campsite. I understand 200 feet off trail, but why would that mean needing to find a spot where the trail veers from the river or crossing the river? Couldn’t you just move further off trail in the other direction away from the river?

    (I have no doubt I’m missing something obvious as a result of my lack of experience on this particular trail…and welcome the answer delivered in an envelope of “well, duh”. And I’m always looking for ways to continue learning about how to stay on the right side of the law on my backpacking trips into the Whites.)

  7. Very much enjoy your trip reports. Always well written and with great photos.

  8. Thank you. A pleasure to live vicariously. Maybe some day I’ll get out there.

  9. Thanks for the trip report! I’ll be doing this route next week. I attempted it this winter but turned back after experiencing the exhaustion of plowing through hip-deep snow just south of Thoreau Falls. It didn’t look like anyone had been through there all winter.

    Two updates I noticed from this winter:
    1 – The Thoreau Falls bridge has been taken down. A winter crossing wasn’t too bad with spikes. I stayed dry.
    2 – A section of trail has collapsed down to the river about 2 miles north of the former bridge. It was pretty gnarly to go around the collapsed section since the slope is pretty steep to the right. I’m sure it’s easier to navigate around without the snow. :-)

    • BTW, I just checked the Guthook app and both of the updates I mentioned (no bridge and trail washout) are there.

      • This trip report *was* written four years ago and the bridge removal is very well signed on the way out there. :-) Even for people who don’t use Guthook.

        Just to add – Guthook does a good job at keeping his maps up to date. He doesn’t list all the trails in the White Mountain Guide, but most of them.

    • I did this full loop in a single day a few weeks ago, but I wasn’t fishing along the way like Phil. :)
      – The washout isn’t that big of a deal to get around
      – There is no bridge and crossing the river by rock-hop wasn’t that big of a deal but the river was running pretty low
      – Shoal pond trail is deserted, It seemed like I was the only one to go through there in a week. Lots of moose tracks and scat. Also the bugs were BRUTAL.
      – It was a Saturday but I got to Lincoln Woods at 6:30AM and I think I got the last legal spot.

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