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 side 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.

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 PDF

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

E5 - Toggle Open for Key

Distance

A: Less than 15 miles in distance

B: 15-20 miles

C: 20-25 miles

D: 25-30 miles or less

E: more than 30 miles

Elevation Gain

1: 3000 ft or less

2: 4000 ft or less

3: 5000 ft or less

4: 6000 ft or less

5: over 6000 ft

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

Maps

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.

I also recommend purchasing a GPS Phone App such as Far Out's White Mountain National Forest Guide, which lists most of the trails, trailheads, shelters, campsites, views, and water sources in the White Mountains National Forest. GaiaGPS is another GPS Phone App, which is stronger in terms of topographic map coverage for the White Mountains but does not have as much information about trailheads, shelters, campsites, views, and water sources. I use both frequently.

Trail Sequence

The route follows the following trails in sequence.

  • 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 Abutments (this is now a stream crossing)- 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

  • There is a designated USFS Campsite about 200 feet below the summit of Mt Carrigain, but it’s dry so you’ll want to bring extra water to camp there. Although there is an old well fire warden’s well several hundred yards down the signal Ridge Trail from the summit, I’d advise against drinking water from it as there have been past reports of contamination.
  • There are two nearby campsites that may be of interest, but both are off the route a short distance. Both are marked on the GeoPDF overview Map provided above as well as on the AMC maps and in Guthook’s App.

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.

The Appalachian Mountain Clubs Huts are taking reservation in 2022. Contact the AMC for reservations and information at outdoors.org. (Note: You don't have to stay in their facilities when hiking in the White Mountains.) All Randolph Mountain Club Cabins have reopened for 2022 on a first-come-first-serve basis.

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 the Far Out Guide 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 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 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 map.

Note: The Thoreau Falls Bridge was removed in 2018, so you’ll need to cross the stream here, although it’s not difficult to ford. In summer, the water is usually shallower and calmer on the west side of the old bridge abutments, but I’d recommend against crossing here if the water depth is higher than mid-thigh. If that’s the case, hike upstream to a shallower point and cross there, bushwhacking back along the shoreline to the continuation of the Thoreau Falls Trail on the other side.

After crossing the river, 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 beside the North Fork Pemigewasset River, with good wilderness camping starting about halfway up the trail. The best camping is on the far side of the North Fork, which is easily forded. This area is in the heart of the Pemigewasset and is 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 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 is 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 from 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 of 42 of the other 48 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 rock 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 fire 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 road walks 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 the 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 arrived 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 judgment 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 blazed 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, where 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 your chariot (car) awaits.

Last updated: September 2022.

About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 8500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 3000 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip has hiked all 650+ trails in the White Mountains twice and has completed 8 rounds of the 48 peaks on the White Mountains 4000 footer list with over 490 summits in all four seasons. He is also the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He lives in New Hampshire. Click here to subscribe to the SectionHiker newsletter.

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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13 comments

  1. East Branch Pemigewasset River, pretty high upstream.

  2. There’s a reason they call it a National Forest. (George…haven’t heard from you in a long time. Welcome back.)
    You’ll appreciate this post:
    https://sectionhiker.com/best-tent-backpacking-white-mountains/

    • I’ve been here on occasion.
      I was impressed with the look of this hike. Less than 200 ft of elevation gain per mile is not very difficult and my 21 yo daughter wants to go on a backpacking trip. We’re considering the Escarpment Trail (closer to NJ) or a stretch of the AT in NY, but this has to be considered now. It’s good to have choices.
      Thanx!

  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. It’s Carrigain, pronounced Carrigan. Thanks for catching that Typo.

  5. Instead of making the big loop north, could one follow the east-side trail up the Pemi River and then cut down to Carrigain? Or are those trails closed? I ask because I’m looking for a shorter loop to get the Hanncocks and Carrigain.

    Also, what’s the Franconia Brook East Campsite like? Does that fill up fast on weekends? It seems like it might, being so close to Lincoln Woods.

    I usually organize backpacking groups of 5-10 people. I don’t think its ethical to stealth camp with that many, so I’m looking for viable options.

    Thanks for putting these guides together. They’re very helpful.

    • Yes to East side trail. Those trails are all open. Franconia East is large but fills up fast. Check with USFS or the AMC. I believe there is a caretaker in the summer and maybe you can reserve a spot. There are very few designated sites in that area to choose from besides what’s off the Kanc in a USFS campground. Sawyer Pond, but that’s kind of out of the way.

  6. This is a great hike. I did it solo over Columbus Day weekend in 2020. I am a former avid backpacker but just got away from it after we had kids and needed to return to my roots. What a fantastic route! The best part about it is the natural diversity you experience travelling through each trail. With the exception of the tundra you get on the Presidentials, you experience pretty much every other ecosystem in the Whites. This hike has it all. I can see why it’s your favorite – Thank you so much for this post – it really helped me out to find both camp spots at Shoal Pond and the old logging road camp site near the base of Carrigain.

    A word of caution to readers – do not underestimate the water levels at water crossings. I took a chance on a forecast and I bet wrong. I should have known better from past experience, but it did rain my first night at Shoal Pond. Not only was the trail a swamp the next morning (thank goodness for the planking and railroad ties), but the trail crosses the drainage from the pond about 4-5 times and the crossings were ridiculously swollen and borderline life-threatening. I lost a good 3 hours bushwhacking to find a good spot to cross and even then I had to take some chances. I really had to hustle to make it up and over Carrigain before nightfall. I would not do this route again, solo or otherwise, unless I was absolutely certain that it would not rain.

    Parts of the forest on Shoal Pond Trail are surreal. The forest is still maturing from the fires. There are trees growing on dead trees that also grew on a dead tree below that. Almost impassible and loaded with bear and moose sign. I did my best to stay close to the streambed but it’s very wild – Wilderness to it’s truest extent. I would have gotten lost without GPS it’s so dark in there. I also found the Hancock Notch portion absolutely sublime. I have never seen landscape anywhere close to what nature provides there.

    I’ve done a lot of backpacking around the country and this is a lifetime Top-5 route for me. Worth every sore and ache! Thanks again, Werner.

  7. Hi Phil – thanks for all the work you do on these guides. Have used them to assemble 3 fantastic WMNF trips with a 4th planned in the next few weeks.

    Questions re: parking – I couldn’t seem to find any info on what kind of pass or payment is required to park at the Hancock Notch Trailhead for 2 nights.

    Also, do you think I would have any issues with finding a space in that lot if I arrived on a Friday around noon in late Sept. – early Oct.? If so, want to make sure I start making a parking contingency plan.

    • I’m pretty sure the Hancock notch lot is a paid lot. You just stick your payment in an envelope at the trailhead. Hard for me to remember because I just buy an annual pass – which I highly recommend. You’ll see a sign at the lot entrance. As long as it’s not Columbus day weekend, I suspect you’ll be able to get into the lot. If not, people park along the road just outside it. Just make sure all of your tires are off the pavement – NH state law.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the trip plans. I plan to expand the guide this winter when I’m indoors more!

  8. There is a designated tentsite right below the tower now on Carrigain. At least I don’t remember it being there 2 years ago when I was last there. I did the loop from Carrigain Notch around the back and up Desolation. Being Labor Day weekend the hike out to the trail split (left up Signal Ridge) was like a highway of people. Once I split to the right I saw 2 people the rest of the time until I got to Carrigain summit. It makes for a longer hike but would recommend that route to anyone looking for solitude!

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