The North Country of New Hampshire does not disappoint. That’s what I was thinking about 5 miles into a grueling backpacking trip I took last weekend along the Kilkenny Ridge, covering 32 miles and climbing 9,000 feet in two days.
The Kilkenny Ridge Trail
The Kilkenny Ridge Trail starts in Jefferson, New Hampshire, at the base of Mt. Starr King (3,907 ft) and Mt. Waumbeck (4,006 ft). Waumbeck is on the White Mountain 4,000 footer list and an easy 7.8 mile loop hike. The trail up is well maintained, if slightly overused, and there’s even a spring for water along the way. But, go past Mt. Waumbeck, and you enter another world.
My old 1987 copy of the White Mountain Guide describes the Kilkenny like this: “It is sometimes referred to as the Kilkenny Wilderness, wild in that it lacks hikers’ amenities. Hunters and fishermen are especially attracted to the Kilkenny, as are others who enjoy the sense of being far from the crowds. Those who expect to find their trails groomed and manicured are doomed to disappointment, and possibly the inconvenience of getting lost.”
After Mt Waumbeck, the Kilkenny runs west for 2.5 miles before heading 20 miles north past a spot called the Devil’s Hopyard to South Pond. From south to north, it traverses a number of mountains and scenic passes, with many rigorous ascents and descents, including:
- South Weeks Mountain (3,885 ft)
- Middle Week Mountain (3,684 ft)
- North Weeks Mountain (3,901 ft)
- The Willard Basin (2,500 ft)
- Terrace Mountain (3, 655 ft)
- Bunnell Notch (3,000 ft)
- Mt Cabot (4,170 ft)
- The Buldge (3,950 ft)
- The Horn (3,905 ft)
- Unknown Pond (3,000 ft)
- Roger’s Ledge (3,000 ft)
The hiking is very rugged and the trail is choked by vegetation and debris. Water is scare on the ridge and if you are hiking solo, you need to be careful. Don’t expect anyone to come walking by casually, like in the southern sections of the White Mountain National Forest. You are on your own.
My trip started with, what I thought at the time, were pretty modest expectations. My plan was to do a loop hike up the Kilkenny to bag Waumbeck and Mt Cabot, another 4,000 footer which is 14.5 miles from the Starr King trail head off Rt 2.
I wasn’t exactly sure which route I was going to take up Cabot, since there are multiple loops possible after the descent to the Willard Basin. One option was to spend the night on top of Mt Cabot which has a cabin on top. I wasn’t thrilled about sharing that with anyone, so this wasn’t high on my list of priorities. Another option was to hike down to Willard and camp near Unknown Pond, looping around the base of Cabot to approach it from north over the Bulge and The Horn. That was my preferred plan, but it required an 18 mile day to Unknown Pond. That kind of mileage is doable down south on easier trails, but would ultimately prove to be too much up here.
Weather was another factor. The forecast on Saturday called for convective thunderstorms with hail. A low was supposed to pass through the region on Saturday night with 40-50 mile per hour winds, with lower humidity and clearing skies forecast for Sunday. This is pretty lousy weather for a mountain backpack, but I was a little desperate and needed some mental relief from work. I figured that I’d be safe as long as I was off the peaks by mid-afternoon on Saturday, when the sun has had time to heat up a thunderhead.
I didn’t have a great map (I’m not sure there is one), and the one I have didn’t show many streams along the ridge, so I had the foresight to bring extra water. That was good, because Saturday was a very hot and humid day and I probably drank 8-9 liters by the end of it. I was drenched in sweat all day: my skin was soaked and the brim of my ball cap was even dripping with it.
Old Chimney atop Mt Starr King (3,907 ft)
Day One: Jefferson to Mt Cabot (11 hours, 16.5 miles, 5,000 feet ascent)
As usual I reached the trail head at 7:30 am and started hiking. Parking at this trail head is very remote, but there are houses close by, so I felt like my car would be safe. Sadly, parking break-ins are an threat in the White Mountains this summer.
After leaving my car I made it up the first peak called Mt Starr King in a little more than an hour. I love that name. The mountain is named after Thomas Starr King, author of The White hills; their legends, landscape, and poetry, a book about the White Mountains, published in 1860.
After another mile, I made it up Mt Waumbeck, an uninspiring 4,000 footer.
After Waumbeck, it quickly becomes apparent that the Kilkenny Ridge Trail is a battleground for the forces of nature. Shattered trees and blow downs block the trail. Moss and lichen cover the trees. Ferns and small pine trees close in on the sides of the trail so thickly that you can’t see your feet or where the trail leads.
Like the Mahoosuc Range to the east, this is the wilder North Country with few visitors to disturb the evident bear and moose population. I only saw two other hikers the entire weekend, which is saying something in the vicinity of two 4,000 footers. It also ups the ante in terms of a solo backpack, since there is so little recourse for help if you lose consciousness due to an injury.
Small stream on North Weeks Mountain
After Mt. Starr King, the Kilkenny Trail is dry for the next 8 miles. During this stretch, it undulates up and down a series of lesser mountains, also view-less, called South, Middle, and North Weeks. There is a very small stream just after the unmarked North Week summit, where I was able to refill my water bottles for the next stretch of trail.
After descending North Weeks, the weather and forecast of thunderstorms were still very much on my mind when I turned east at the York Pond Trail Junction.I t was still early afternoon, around 3 pm, and the mist was just starting to break up enough that I could see clouds overhead. I couldn’t see how big they were however, and I didn’t want to be on the ridge during a thunderstorm, so I continued along, gradually descending east in the direction of the Berlin Fish Hatchery.
Eventually, I came to a clearing at the intersection of the York Pond Trail and Bunnell Notch Trail. It was filled with wild flowers, and finally provided enough open space so that I could read the clouds above. Surprisingly, they were breaking up and blue sky was evident, which was a very good sign. It meant that I could take a crack at climbing Mt Cabot on day one if I wanted to. There was still a risk of thunderheads, but it looked like there was a window of safety.
Still cautious, I decided to hike back towards Cabot up the Bunnell Notch Trail which parallels a large stream and has many good stealth camping sites along its banks. I figured I could descend back towards Bunnell and set up camp if the weather turned bad. I had only brought an ultralight tarp on this trip, and camping near the Cabot summit was going to be a non-starter. Still I had almost 6 hours of daylight left to bag the peak and descend to a calmer altitude.
Wildflowers along the Bunnell Notch Trail
By this time, the hot humid weather had taken it’s toll and my pace was definitely slowing down. I was tired, but it was still early enough in the day that wanted to continue hiking. I passed some great spots along the Bunnell Notch Trail for wild camps, which I noted for the evening, but I kept climbing back up to the Kilkenny Ridge and the base of the Mt Cabot Trail.
I started climbing Cabot at about 5pm with just under two miles to go. I was carrying extra water again, because I’d read that Cabot has an unreliable spring. Five quarts of water weighs 10 pounds. Luckily I was ultralight on this hike, under 10 lbs, but still the extra weight was tiring.
Unlike Mt. Waumbeck, the ascent up Cabot is befitting of a 4,000 footer with slab rock most of the way up. The trail switchbacks back and forth several times and is only lightly sheltered from western exposure. Weather in the whites almost always blows in from the west to the east, and this degree of exposure would factor into my decision making the following morning.
One you get to the summit ridge, you pass by Cabot Cabin, a remote but cozy shelter, about 0.3 miles from the true summit. I reached this point at exactly 7pm and decided that I’d had enough for one day. There was no one at the shelter and I decided to stay in it because I had it all to myself. It also let me get out of the low that was forecast to blow through that evening.
Mt Cabot Cabin
By this point I was seriously bonking, so I dropped my gear on the porch and cooked up a big dinner of Ramen noodles in miso soup. Once fortified, I stowed my gear and hiked to the summit of Cabot in the twilight just before sunset to finally bag the peak.
Day Two: Mt Cabot to Jefferson (10 hours, 14.5 miles, 4,000 feet ascent)
I woke during the night to go to the bathroom and the stood outside on the cabin porch, staring into a thick mist. The wind was battering the cabin, gusting to 40 mph, as the predicted low moved through the area. I thought it was a good thing that I was in the cabin and not under a tarp somewhere in the woods, before returning to my sleeping bag and going back to sleep.
View from Mt Cabot Cabin, Morning
The next morning I awoke at 4 am and lay in my bag. The storm was still howling and I didn’t think going outside was such a great idea. I needed to hike down the exposed western flank of Cabot and decided to see if the weather would improve if I waited a bit longer.
I woke again at 5:30 am and it had started to get lighter outside. The sun was definitely trying to break through the cloud and mist. That heartened me and I decided to pack up, eat breakfast and depart.
Closed section of trail, due to a landowner access dispute
After I’d eaten and packed up, I left the safety of the cabin and started down Cabot. It must have rained significantly overnight because there was a lot of water streaming down the trail. I had very little water left, so I stopped an restocked my bottles with the water on the tread way. It was clear and perfectly fit to drink.
I was using a two stage water purification system on this hike, using Katadyn Chlorine Dioxide tablets with a 30 minute exposure time and an Aquamira Frontier Pro screw-on water filter, to filter out Cryptosporidium cysts. The Frontier Pro has a mouthpiece that you suck on to pull water through. It’s not a bad system, and has been growing on me during my last two backpacking trips. I was also testing a water straw on this hike that has a built in purifier (not just a filter) from Seychelle.com. It’s got a great form factor and I’ll post a review about it next week. It has strengths and weaknesses, like everything else.
After refilling my water, I continued down the Cabot trail which was quite slippery. I think my Terroc treads have finally worn down after about 350-400 miles of hiking and need to be replaced. They’re really grippy when they’re new, but I was sliding all over the rocks on the descent.
As I descended, the wind started to die down and blow itself out. I arrived at the Bunnel Notch Trail junction after an hour and continued along the Kilkenny, instead of turning down the Notch Trail, which I had hiked up the day before. This was a section of the Kilkenny that I’d never been on and it was much harder than anything I’d experienced the previous day.
The Kilkenny-Bunnel trail junction is at an elevation of 900 meters. From there, I had to climb two unnamed peaks, and one named Terrace Mountain (3,655 ft), over the next 3 miles. That shouldn’t have been hard, but trail conditions in this section were frightful and I spent a good part of the time bushwhacking around blow downs and searching for the trail amidst masses of ferns. My pace actually slowed down to 1 mile an hour during this section. That’s really slow.
The trail was littered with lots of hidden boulders and I had a scare at one point when I turned an ankle hard on a mis-step. I was in the middle of nowhere, SPOT, or not, and it could take someone a full day to get to me. Luckily, it wasn’t as bad as it felt immediately and I kept going. I figured, if it’s going to swell up, I might as well walk as far as I can before I have to stop.
I finally came to the trail junction with the York Trail, that I’d passed the previous day. From this point it was 10 miles back to my car, back over North, Middle and South Weeks, and Waumbeck and Starr King Mountains. After the previous section, this stretch didn’t seem as hard as it had been the previous day. Despite some steep climbs, I made good time and ate up the remaining miles in 7 hours.
As I started descending Mt. Starr King however, I had a very strange experience. I couldn’t remember anything about the final 2.6 miles of this hike, even though I’d climbed it the previous day. Nothing seemed familiar. It was really unsettling, because I have a really good memory for such things.
I made it back to my car by 5pm and was relieved to get off the Kilkenny in one piece. I had experienced a physically challenging hike including a high level of fear and self-doubt. The terrain had really taken me for a loop, but I had made it out in one piece, which was satisfying.
This is the kind of experiences that solo backpackers must contend with from time to time, but there are great rewards in knowing that you have the skills and stamina to handle whatever the trail throws at you and get through it.
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