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Great Hikes: The Moriah Brook Trail in the Wild River Wilderness

Philip Werner backpacking down the Moriah Brook trail in the Wild River Wilderness
Backpacking down the Moriah Brook trail in the Wild River Wilderness

In an area full of superlatives, the Moriah Brook Trail is considered one of the most beautiful gems in the White Mountain National Forest.

The Moriah Brook River Valley - A wilderness rebirth after the New Hampshire logging boom and wildfires of the early 20 century
The Moriah Brook River Valley – A wilderness rebirth after the New Hampshire logging boom and wildfires of the early 20 century

Located in the Wild River Wilderness, the Moriah Brook trail follows a mountain stream from its source high up on the Carter Moriah Ridge to its confluence with the Wild River some 5.5 miles distant. Passing cascades, mountain pools, and rocky gorges, the life of this stream has many different personalities as it flows through reforrested lands, born again from the ashes of the region’s logging boom. The scene of both industry and fiery conflagration, the Wild River Wilderness is testament to a forest’s ability to regenerate itself despite clear-cutting and slash fires that made the area a living hell for all who dwelled here, both man and beast.

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Dozens of cascades and mountain pools provide shelter and sustenance for cold loving trout.
Dozens of cascades and mountain pools provide shelter and sustenance for cold loving trout.

While the Moriah Brook Trail is a treasure for those who venture into its deep valley and experience its delights, the trail is gradually reverting back to a wilder state. The reallocation of trail maintenance funds, in part due to the extreme damage to other trails from Hurricane Irene in 2011, have shifted manpower away from keeping the trail pristine and in good condition.

Sections of the Moriah Brook Trail are mired in blowdowns and calf deep mud.
Sections of the Moriah Brook Trail are mired in blowdowns and calf deep mud.

Mud mires, rotten bog bridges, numerous blowdowns, enroaching vegetation and beaver activity are gradually obscuring sections of the Moriah Brook Trail. I’m not sure what can be done to restore the trail to its former state, particularly at its northern intersection with the Carter Moriah Trail. This section of trail  is virtually impassable from blowdowns without bushwhacking or following a nascent herd path which bypasses the established trail and pops out higher up on the Carter Moriah Trail. This is probably the most pressing trail maintenance priority. requiring a fair amount of ax work to rectify, since it’s in a wilderness area where power tools are prohibited.

Philp, swimming in Moriah Brook, circa 2007
Philip, swimming in Moriah Brook, circa 2007

Moriah Brook Memories

I first journeyed down the Moriah Brook Trail in 2007 on a trip led by my friend Christine Benton, a leader with  the NY/NJ Chapter of the AMC. We were backpacking a section of the Appalachian Trail from Rt 2 up the Rattle River Trail, across the Carter Moriah Range and back to the Wild River Campground on one of my very first White Mountain hiking trips.

I’d fallen in love with the Catskill Mountains in New York before I got hooked on the White Mountains, which is how a Bostonian ended up hiking with a group of New Yorkers in New Hampshire. I think I can trace my love of the Whites and Section Hiking the Appalachian Trail to that one formative backpacking trip, and the rest is history.

Christine had brought us half way down Moriah Brook to swim in its glorious mountain pools, but we hadn’t followed the trail along its entire route, instead hiking back up to the Imp Shelter to camp at night.

Fishing rod and net strapped on my pack
Fishing rod and net strapped on my pack

Revisiting Moriah Brook

With memories of that trip on my mind, I was determined to revisit Moriah Brook and follow its full length to the Wild River, along with additional hiking along the Highwater Trail and the Sherburne Trails, since I have a compulsion for exploring places in the White Mountains that I’ve never visited before.

“Is that a banjo? A portable grill? A butterfly net?,” day hikers I  met hiking up to the top of the Moriah Brook Trail, asked. No, “it’s a fishing net”, I responded optimistically, since I hoped to do a little angling on Moriah Brook, despite the trout-drought that fly fishermen are experiencing on the region’s streams after an exceptionally harsh winter killed off much of the wild fish stock. While I did get some strikes fishing on the brook, the trout I saw were very small. Hopefully the fishing will recover next year.

Blowdowns at the head of the Moriah Brook Trail
Blowdowns at the head of the Moriah Brook Trail

Finally reaching the head of the valley, I headed down the Moriah Brook Trail, passing a camp site where my friends Guthook, Hiker Box, and I had camped the previous winter (on over two feet of snow). But it was full of mud and blowdowns, a real wreck, a preview of what was to come. It’s amazing the effect that winter storms and snowmelt can have in the mountains: mightier than the hand of man, and far more random.

But the trail was so obscured by debris that I could not find it! Instead, I was forced to bushwhack the top of the valley for the first 1/4 mile, passing back and forth over the area where I expected the trail to be until I came across some rock steps, partially obscured by enroaching vegetation. I’d read a trip report earlier in the season that the Moriah Brook Trail was overgrown and in bad shape, but this really exceeded my expectations.

(I subsequently contacted a ranger at the White Mountain National Forest HQ, who said that the Androscoggin District Office was responsible for the Moriah Brook Trail. Their trail coordinator subsequently contacted me and hopes to get someone out there to clear the debris. Despite their best intentions, I didn’t get the sense that there was a trail crew that they could dispatch to address the trail maintenance concerns without calling on volunteers to pitch in.)

Having found the trail, I hiked through a few muddy sections before finding pay dirt: the cascades and pools that the Moriah Brook trail is famous for. Feast your eyes and you’ll understand what a beautiful lost world exists down this hidden river valley.

Cascade high up the trail
Cascade high up the trail
A side stream joins the main flow
A side stream joins the main flow
The same mountain pool I swam in seven years ago!
The same mountain pool I swam in seven years ago!
The head of the Moriah Gorge
The head of the Moriah Gorge
which drops 300 feet to its confluence with the Wild River
which drops 300 feet to its confluence with the Wild River

Five and a half miles in length, the Moriah Brook Trail can be broken into five distinct parts. The upper mile of the trail flows through a narrow valley largely hidden by forest. As the brook descends down the valley, it grows in size from a creek to a stream, as water from the surrounding drainage flows into it.

After a mile or so, you arrive at the Moriah Brook Cascades, a magnificent section of trail with numerous waterfalls and small pools. Next comes the swimming holes, even bigger pools which are easy to access from the trail and open to the overhead sunshine, heating up nearby boulders that you can lie on to dry off on hot summer days.

Beaver Dam
Beaver Dam

The next section of trail has been impacted by beavers, who’ve created a archipelago and meadow. You’ll hike over a beaver damn in this section, quite a solid one, which has been incorporated into the trail. This section has a bit of mud too, which was filled with guppies (proto-frogs) when I passed them. They started hopping up and down in unison when I splashed through the muddy puddle where they lived. I’ve never seen anything quite like that!

The final and lowest section of the Moriah Brook Trail starts at the top of the Moriah Gorge, a deep canyon which drops 300 feet to its confluence with the mighty Wild River. The trail runs above the gorge, although glimpses of its vertical rock walls are visible through the trees before reaching the Wild River Trail which runs along the river.

Getting There

The Moriah Brook Trail can be accessed from the northwest by climbing the Stony Brook Trail from Rt 16 or over Mt Moriah via the Carter Moriah Trail. These northern approaches require fairly strenuous hikes and are best done if you plan on backpacking in the area or camping at the Imp Shelter between North Carter Mountain and Mount Moriah. See the WMNF Backcountry Camping Rules if you plan to camp in the Moriah Brook Valley. The valley is a sensitive environment so care should be taken to minimize your impact when visiting.

A much easier point of access is from the southeast, via the Wild River Campground, which is very close to the southern end of the Moriah Brook Trail and only a few miles from the best swimming holes. Coming from the south also bypasses the blowdowns and mud which have compromised the top of the trail.

The Moriah Brook Trail is a gem of the White Mountain National Forest and a favorite trail with many local regulars.

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  1. I hiked this trail late last Fall and it was in much better shape, although the lack of blazing caused me some consternation here and there. There was one instance where the trail disappeared at a recent beaver dam. I discovered the trail on the other side of the dam by walking across the dam. And at the crossing of Moriah Brook just upstream from the gorge there are so many cam sites and herd trails that I wasn’t sure where to go. Crossed the brook and found the trail eventually. I really liked the trail though. If you have read Bill Gove’s book about north country logging you get a feeling of being immersed in the logging history. It’s a great way to access the Carters from the Wild River side. I hope the forest Service and maybe some volunteers can clean up some of the mess and at least make the trail apparent again. The Wild River trail was suffering from the tread-way being grown over too, speaking of somewhere where there are few if any blazes to keep one on track. I did the loop described in my best backpacks book up Moriah Brook Trail, over the Carters, through Carter Notch and back down through the wilderness. three days, 30 miles. Terrific three days!.

    • I think the Wild River Wilderness is the best area to do big loop hikes in the Whites. I’ve got another one scheduled here in October and I’m working on another trip plan at the moment that also ties in to Evans Notch. I’ll have to check out Gove’s book. I’m currently working myself through Belcher’s Logging Railroads book which really illustrates the legacy the the WMNF owes the railroads in terms of creating the backbone of the trail system.

      I hear that the Forest Services funding issues have been exacerbated by fire suppression costs out west. Apparently 50% of the Forest services annual budget is dedicated to fighting forest fires, although they only have the resources to visit 15% of the fires.

  2. Thank you, Philip. Your pictures of the trail remind me of hiking the adjacent Wild River Trail. Afterward, I wrote that I’d “forded the same river back and forth more times than I can remember, sunk above my ankles in mud, crawled under fallen tree trunks, and teetered on bog bridges that were sinking into the bog”. Good memories!

    • I had exactly the experience you describe on the Wild river Trail last Fall. Remember the two big trees across the trail adjacent to each other where I at least had to slide my pack under then crawl after it? And I do remember the rotting bog bridges and the confusing network of trails around the old shelter site which made me get my map and compass out to be sure I was headed in the right direction… And nary a blaze anywhere. All that said… I loved being out there!!! I’m eager to back and explore more of that area.

  3. I was there, David, in October last year. I remember pushing my pack under that trunk, and how the trail vanished at the river a short way NE of it. Rewarding!

  4. Unfortunately this seems lack of trail maintenance is going to continue. The Forest Service no longer has the personal to maintain the trails. My Dad retired from the Forest Service when there was an Office in Bethel ME. During the spring and summer they used to have teams of college kids and interns clearing the paths. Doing trail maintenance, camp maintenance and recording and marking Wells at old homesteads. Money just is no longer there.

  5. I gave the Moriah-Brook trail a try in the summer of 2017 and didn’t find it extremely difficult to follow. Some work must have been done on the trail since Philip’s original posting in 2015. The only time I lost the trail was at the sharp left the trail takes just below 2000 feet (where it follows the left fork in the river).

    I hope no one gets scared away from this beautiful hike!

  6. Jema @ Half the Clothes

    Just did this trail June 2018 – much better now. Only one small section near the bogs at the head of the valley that had a fair bit of blowdown – nothing serious.

    Ironically, Moriah Brook Trail was our unplanned escape from the Highwater Trail which is so destroyed we lost it several times between Shelburne and the Moriah Brook Trail junction before permanently losing it. (We didn’t give up easily. Bushwhacked all afternoon fruitlessly before returning to a clearing across the river from the Wild River Campground to set up shop for the night. On account of the rain and time, never crossed the Wild River to look for the lower “Wild River Trail” (the old railroad) on the other side. After all the rain, we woke to more huge trees (all 12″dia+) in the river and lots more sections of the highwater trail gone in new slides. After all that, the Moriah Brook Trail was darn near perfection!)

  7. Was just there over the weekend. Looked like the ax crew had been through very recently as the blowdown had been cleared from the trail near the top. Once again, I lost the trail crossing the brook. Finally, just decided to walk down the brook for a ways knowing that the trail wouldn’t be far. It worked, but was still frustrating that I couldn’t manage what was ultimately a simple tiny creek crossing. (On my return, realized the other side had some erosion that obscured the trail from view from the other side, but that’s little consolation/excuse.) [Note: this isn’t a complaint. Personally, I like that the wilderness trails are challenging. I’m mostly just disappointed in myself.]

    Woke (admittedly late in the morning, ~10a) to the sounds of what sounded like a large, but slow woodpecker. Later rationalized that maybe the trail crew was working on another blowdown near enough for me to hear it. I tend to sleep late on these solo trips because I struggle falling into a deep asleep until ~4a when the sun starts to rise.

    This trip included hearing something large approaching my tent which I rationalized was a curious moose and not a bear. And just as I was dozing off again, was startled by the sound…no, not sound, the *feeling* of the ground shaking from what I guess was a tree falling. It landed with a resounding thud that was very disconcerting.

    I still haven’t tried this trail from the southeast end for fear that I won’t be able to ford the river to get back the next day (as my propensity lately is for at least one night in the woods).

    (Related as it adjoins Moriah Brook, the Stony Brook trail gave a good look at some serious erosion on the banks near the trailhead. I suppose that sandy soil just doesn’t put up much of a fight.

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