Backpacking the Desolation Loop

Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers. The Desolation LoopJPG

The Desolation Loop is a moderately strenuous 41 mile backpack through the eastern half of the White Mountain’s Pemigewasset Wilderness, bounded by the Bonds, Ethan Ridge, Carrigain Notch, and Hancock Notch. There are many excellent swimming holes and wilderness campsites along the route, which will appeal to more experienced backcountry adventurers interested in a loop hike with many possible sides trips. There are also three 4000 footers on this route (North and South Hancock and Carrigain), but they’re easy to bypass if you want a more relaxing hike with less elevation gain. The entire route can be backpacked in 2-4 days, depending on your fitness level and available time.

5/26/18 BRIDGE CLOSURE: The Forest Service has closed the Thoreau Bridge River Crossing and you will now have to ford the river, which is best done upstream from the bridge. Crossing the Pemigewasset River can be a difficult and dangerous ford in high water or if you pick a crossing where the water comes up above your knees. This is still a great backpacking route, but it’s now more difficult. I will post an alternate detour route that skips the Thoreau and Shoal Pond trails in the next few weeks. 

This is my favorite backpacking route in the White Mountains because of the solitude it provides, the sublime geologic features encountered, and its historical significance to the region.

Desolation Loop w arrows

History of the Desolation Region

The east side of the Pemigewasset Wilderness is called “Desolation” because loggers clear-cut the forest between 1890 and 1940, leaving behind huge quantities of slash. This wood caught fire and burned uncontrollably for years, casting black smoke clouds over the entire White Mountain region and polluting the watersheds. The fires and smoke are vividly described in early versions of the AMC White Mountain Guide and other regional guidebooks.

Once stripped of its raw materials, the Pemigewasset and other areas of the Whites were famously called “The lands no one wanted” until passage of the Weeks Act made it possible for the US Forest Service to purchase the land from the logging companies and put it under the protection of the Wilderness Act. After 75 years of regeneration, the forest has largely recovered. This recovery is the great miracle of the 800,000 acre White Mountain National Forest, which is visited by more than 12 million people annually, more than Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks combined.

Rating/Difficulty

*****/5 out of 5

Distance/Elevation Gain

41 miles w/7600′ of cumulative elevation gain

White Mountain 4000 Footers

  • South Hancock
  • North Hancock
  • Carrigain

Recommended Duration

2-4 days

Season

June thru October

Permits Required

None.

Regulations

Backcountry Camping Regulations for the White Mountain National Forest.

Wilderness Area Restrictions – A substantial portion of this route passes through the Pemigewasset Wilderness Area.

New to the White Mountains? Read this Quick and Dirty Guide to Backpacking in the White Mountains for information about camping regulations, road access, trail shuttles, lodging, dangerous wildlife, weather, etc.

Trailhead Directions

Trail Sequence

The route follows the following trails in sequence. Refer to the AMC White Mountain Trail Map 3: Crawford Notch – Sandwich Range (2017 ed), which is the best waterproof map available for this region, although I’d recommend buying the complete AMC White Mountain Waterproof Map Set (2017 ed) rather than one map at a time, because it’s less expensive that way. More detailed trail descriptions can be found in the AMC White Mountain Guide (2017 ed), which is considered the hiking bible for the region. Take photos of the relevant pages using your phone for easy reference, instead of carrying the entire book with you on hikes.

  • Park at the Hancock 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: 1.5 miles
  • Thoreau Falls Trail: 5.1 miles
  • Ethan Pond Trail 0.5 miles
  • Shoal Pond Trail 4.0 miles
  • Carrigain Notch Trail 0.8 miles
  • Desolation Trail 1.9 miles
  • Signal Ridge Trail 5.0 miles
  • Sawyer Pond Road 2 .0 miles
  • Sawyer River Trail 1.2 miles
  • Hancock Notch Trail 5.1 miles
  • Hancock Notch Trail 1.8 miles

Scenic Highlights

The following list provides cumulate distances on the route to each view or landmark

  • South Hancock Summit – 4.1 miles
  • North Hancock Summit – 5.5 miles
  • Thoreau Falls Bridge – 13.6 miles
  • Thoreau Falls – 18.7 miles
  • Shoal Pond – 19.5 miles
  • Stillwater Junction – 23.2 miles
  • Carrigain Brook – 24.0 miles
  • Carrigain Summit – 25.9 miles
  • Hancock Notch – 34 miles

Camping Shelter Options

Water

Natural water sources are plentiful in the White Mountains although you may need to descend to them from ridgelines along side trails if you run short. In any case, carry a detailed topographic map with you and don’t rely on the overview map provided with this trip description to find water sources.

I also recommend purchasing the WMNF Pemigewasset Region Map in Guthook Guide’s New England Hiker Smartphone App (IOSAndroid) which is a GPS guide to all of the trails, trailhead, shelters, campsites, views, and water sources in the White Mountains National Forest. I use it all the time and it is much more complete and current than using the maps bundled with the Gaia Smartphone App.

Stream Crossings

There are numerous stream crossings on this route, too many to account for in the trail description below. Most are quite benign and easily crossed by stepping on rocks or shallow calf-high fords. However a handful of these crossings can be challenging or downright dangerous in high water, so it’s best to check the weather before your trip and postpone it if a heavy rain event is forecast. The AMC’s White Mountain Guide and Guthook’s apps provide detailed descriptions of all water crossings and are good references to carry on your hike, in addition to detailed maps.

On the Trail

Leave the Hancock Trail Head Overlook Parking Area at the north end of the lot and cross the Kancamagus Highway to the start of the Hancock Trail. Follow it for 1.8 miles, turning left at the Cedar Brook Trail Junction. The Hancock Trail is a well marked gravel trail that is easy to follow.You’ll encounter a few small stream crossings along the route, with intermittent views of the North Fork of the Sawyer River on your left between the trees.

Erosion control structures on the Hancock Notch Trail
Erosion control structures on the Hancock Notch Trail

This was once an extremely muddy trail but trail crews have done a great job building erosion control structures which are a marvel of construction.

Turn onto the Hancock Loop Trail to climb South and North Hancock
Turn onto the Hancock Loop Trail to climb South and North Hancock

Follow the Cedar Brook Trail for 0.7 miles, crossing more streams, before turning right onto the Hancock Loop Trail. This trail climbs two 4000-footers, South Hancock and North Hancock. The climb up South Hancock is very steep, gaining 1600′ in 1.6 miles, but has been improved in recent years with more stonework to control erosion. There’s a small viewpoint at the summit that with partially obstructed views of Mt Carrigain and its subsidiary ridges.

Turn left at the South Hancock summit and continue along the ridge for 1.4 miles to the top of North Hancock, where a ledge to the west of the summit sign provides a view of the Sandwich Range. Descend steeply from North Hancock for 1800′, passing a flat area at the bottom and climbing slightly to the loop trail before it climbs South Hancock. Turn right and retrace your steps for 1.1 miles, turning right when you reach the Cedar Brook Trail again.

Arrow Slide on the south face of North Hancock
Arrow (Land)Slide on the south face of North Hancock..best seen from the climb up South Hancock.

Follow the Cedar Brook Trail for the next 4.8 miles. After leaving the Hancock Loop Trail Junction, you’ll soon cross the Pemigewasset Wilderness Boundary, before climbing a wet and muddy section of trail to height-of-land, the highpoint between two watersheds. As you descend towards the East Branch Pemigewasset River, you’ll begin to catch glimpses of Cedar Brook a wild mountain stream on your left. This stream runs along the east side of the Hitchcocks, a group of five trail-less 3000-footers that are a popular bushwhacking destination.

Huge Landslip along Cedar Brook
Huge Landslip along Cedar Brook

The Cedar Brook streambed has been ravaged by floods and landslides in recent years, which is a recurring theme on this hike. Hancock Notch, farther along on the route, is also the site of devastation. The Cedar Brook trail passes through several clearings with old logging camps that contain rusting historic artifacts, evidence of the region’s industrial past. Please do not disturb or remove these so future visitors can admire them. They’re also protected by federal law, which is strictly enforced in the White Mountains. If you’re interested in learning more about how the loggers lived in these remote logging camps, I suggest reading Tall Trees, Tough Men, which recounts the history of logging and log driving in New England (now on Kindle, too).

The end of the Cedar Brook Trail merges into the Wilderness Trail and follows it for 1.5 miles, before turning left onto the Thoreau Falls Trail. The signage at these trail junctions can be a little confusing, so make sure you double check your bearings with your map before proceeding. Trail reroutes due to flood damage have altered routes in the area, so be sure you have the latest 2017 AMC map or the Guthook Phone app to reference.

The Thoreau Falls Trail soon crosses a side channel of the East Branch Pemigewasset River over an old wooden bridge that’s seen better days. The bridge is built on top of two very long trees that span the river, but have warped with age. There is a weight limit on the bridge and signs indicate that only one person should cross at a time. Plans to remove this bridge have met with widespread objections locally, in part because fording the river at this point would be challenging for most hikers. While the bridge is still safe to cross, there’s no telling how much longer it will remain, so take advantage of it now before it’s gone forever.

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

After crossing the bridge, follow the Thoreau Falls Trail north for 5.1 miles. The trail follows an old logging road until the end where it climbs to picturesque Thoreau Falls, one of the most scenic sites in the White Mountain National Forest. This section of trail travels besides the North Fork Pemigewasset River, with good wilderness camping starting about half way up the trail. The best camping is on the far side of the North Fork, which is easily forded and rock hoppable. This area is in the heart of the Pemigewasset and an excellent place to experience the solitude of the wilderness area.

Saw cut on the Thoreau Falls Trail
Saw cut on the Thoreau Falls Trail

When the trail reaches the falls, you need to leap over a narrow stream of water onto the ledges at the tops of the falls. It’s not a huge jump, but this isn’t a stretch of water you want to ford because it’s very close to the top of the waterfall. This can be a dangerous crossing in high water and there may be a safer point to cross upstream by bushwhacking up the stream bank. Water flows in summer are normally safe unless there’s been a heavy rain (over 2″) in the previous one or two days. It’s always best to postpone backcountry backpacking trips in the Whites for a few days after major storms to let water levels drop if your route involves major stream and river crossings (or pick an alternate route.)

Thoreau Falls, White Mountains
Thoreau Falls, White Mountains

Once across, it’s worth taking a break and enjoying the view from the top of this 80′ waterfall where you can see the Bonds on the horizon. Camping in not permitted in the vicinity of Thoreau Falls, which is a protected area that receives a large amount of day use.

Continue north along the Thoreau Falls Trail for a short distance until you reach a trail junction, turning right on the Ethan Pond Trail. Follow it briefly for 0.5 miles, turning right onto the Shoal Pond Trail, which you’ll follow for 4.0 miles to Stillwater Junction. The Shoal Pond Trail soon passes Shoal Pond, which is stocked with trout. A fisherman’s favorite, it’s not unusual to see people fishing the waters from inflatable rafts. Mt Carrigain, your next big destination can be seen in the distance.

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

The top of the Shoal Pond Trail is usually quite muddy and vegetation choked, but soon opens up and follows a pleasant old logging road back into the Pemigewasset Wilderness. This trail has received a lot of attention by volunteer and professional trail maintainers in recent years and is quite easy to follow.

Upper half of Shoal Pond Trail
Upper half of Shoal Pond Trail

The Shoal Pond Trail ends at Stillwater Junction, which usually requires a shallow stream ford to the other bank. Turn left onto the Carrigain Notch Trail and follow it for 0.8 miles. The upper part of this trail follows Carrigain Branch, a lovely high-gradient mountain stream fed by Carrigain Pond, a remote and inaccessible pond on Mt Carrigain’s southwest shoulder.

Follow the Carrigain Notch Trail to the Desolation Trail, which climbs to the summit of Mt Carrigain and the Mt Carrigain Firetower. The 4700 foot mountain is the most centrally located 4000 footer and has views to 42 of the other 47 peaks on the 4000 footer list!

The Desolation Trail climbs steeply over rocky ground.
The Desolation Trail climbs steeply over rocky ground.

Turn right onto the Desolation Trail and climb 2500′ over 1.9 miles to the mountain’s summit. Parts of this ascent require rocky scrambles, but strategically-placed rocks steps ease the climb. The trail meets the Signal Ridge Trail at the base of the metal fire tower, which is open to hikers.

Mt Carrigan and summit Firetower from the Signal Ridge Trail
Mt Carrigain and summit Firetower from the Signal Ridge Trail

From the ire tower, descend Carrigain via the Signal Ridge Trail, soon passing the old Firewardens well, covered by wood. The trail soon emerges from the trees, providing impressive views of avalanche scarred Mt Lowell on the other side of Carrigain Notch. If you wish to skip the climb up Mt Carrigain, you can loop around the base of the mountain on the Carrigain Notch Trail and rejoin the Signal Ridge Trail on the other side of the mountain. This is also an enjoyable route through a high mountain pass, that passes an impressive avalanche slide at the base of the mountain.

Continue along the Signal Ridge Trail, past the Carrigain Notch Trail Junction to Sawyer River Road and the Signal Ridge parking lot. This is a good place to spot a car if you want to end your hike early. Turn right on the gravel topped Sawyer River Road and hike two miles to the Sawyer Pond Trailhead parking lot. This isn’t a bad road walk as roadwalks go, since this road is infrequently used. If you wish to bypass the road walk, you can also follow an overgrown fire road called FR 85, which leaves the Signal Ridge Trail 1.7 miles up the trail. This is an easy bushwhack, which crosses a stream at its end, before reaching Sawyer River Road about 1/4 mile from the Sawyer Pond Lot. You can also camp along this old fire road if you’re looking for a secluded wilderness site.

Don't cross this bridge but continue past it onto the Sawyer River Trail
Don’t cross this bridge but continue past it onto the Sawyer River Trail

When you arrive at the Sawyer Pond Parking lot (at the end of Sawyer River Road), continue straight past the metal bridge over the Sawyer River, following the Sawyer River Trail. This trail coincides with a snowmobile trail at the start, but makes a hard right at the end of a wooden bridge and it’s easy to miss wooden trail sign. It runs next to the Sawyer River for 1.2 miles, which should be on your right, before reaching a trail junction with the Hancock Notch Trail.

Continue straight onto the Hancock Notch Trail, bearing slightly right at the junction and follow it for the next 5 miles. The beginning of this trail follows an old logging road and is easy hiking. You’ll know you’ve arrive at the Notch proper when you see the landslides, eroded banks, and destruction before you.

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

There’s one significant water crossing in the Notch. While it’s marked with cairns, use your judgement about whether it’s the best place to cross, as there may be better places farther up or down the stream. I’ve stepped over a rock in the middle of the stream in the past without any issues, but the stream bed is dynamic and changes frequently.

Hanock Notch narrows as it approaches height of land
Hancock Notch narrows as it approaches height of land

The trail through Hancock Notch has been rerouted and reblazed after the most recent bout of major destruction, making it much easier to follow. The Notch narrows as it works its way up to height of land at 2820′ and can be quite wet in places.

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

Once past the highpoint, continue 0.8 miles to the junction of the Hancock Notch Trail and Cedar Brook Trails, that you passed on your initial approach to the Hancock Loop at the beginning of the hike. Continue straight along the Hancock Notch Trail for 1.8 miles back to the trailhead on the Kancamagus Highway and the Hancock Trailhead parking lot, where you chariot (car) awaits.

Written 2018.

About Philip Werner: Philip is the 36th person to finish hiking and backpacking all of the trails in the White Mountain Guide. He's also finished hiking many of the region's peakbagging lists including the White Mountain 4000 footers, the 4000 footers in Winter, the Terrifying 25, the RMC 100, and the Trailwrights 72. Philip is a 4 season backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a member of the executive committee for the Random Hikers, a Long Trail Mentor for Vermont's Green Mountain Club, and a Leave No Trace Master Educator. He also teaches several compass, GPS, and off-trail navigation courses each year, listed on Outdoors.org.

Safety Disclaimer

This trip plan can not alert you to every hazard, anticipate your experience, or limitations. Therefore, the descriptions of roads, trails, routes, shelters, tent sites, and natural features in this trip plan are not representations that a particular place or excursion will be safe for you or members of your party. When you follow any of the routes described on SectionHiker.com, you assume responsibility for your own safety. Under normal conditions, such excursions require the usual attention to traffic, road and trail conditions, weather, terrain, the capabilities of your party, and other factors. Always check for current conditions, obey posted signs, and Backcountry Camping and Wilderness Area Regulations. Hike Safe and follow the Hiker responsibility code. 

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9 comments

  1. That first photo–trouty looking river.

  2. From the pictures, it looks like hammocking shouldn’t be a problem.

  3. Nice to see a new write-up! The original article caught my eye some years ago, and was the first trip I took in the White Mountains. Heck of an introduction!

    Philip, thanks for writing these guides and drawing this Clevelander to the Heaven-on-Earth of the Whites.

  4. I’m a little confused. Is it Carrigain or Carrigan? Or is it two different places?

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