New Hampshire Appalachian Trail Section Hike: Rattle River to Lost Pond

Rattle River Trailhead

The first backpacking trip I ever took in New Hampshire’s White Mountains started at the Rattle River Trailhead on Rt 2 outside of Gorham. We met at the shelter that first evening, 2 miles up from the highway, and then climbed Mts Moriah, Middle Carter, South Carter, Hight, and Carter Dome, camping at the Imp Shelter along the way. I remember being intimidated by the White Mountains on that trip, which were far larger, steeper, and tougher than the peaks and trails I’d climbed previously.

It’s 10 years later and I’m still in awe of these mountains I thought, as I hiked up the Rattle River Trail, the last section of the New Hampshire Appalachian Trail before the Mahoosucs. I was heading southbound on this section, hiking down the Carter Moriah Range with the Wildcat Ridge tucked on at the end. A distance of 22 miles with about 8000 feet of elevation gain, I hoped to finish in 2 days, with enough daylight left on day two, so I could hitch back to my car.

Rattle River Trail
Rattle River Trail

It was cold and misty as I hiked up the Rattle River Trail, which follows the self-named stream up the back of Shelburne Moriah, a subpeak of the 4000 footer, Mt Moriah. I’d gotten an early start because I wanted to hike a big day. The trail starts easy and gets gradually steeper as it climbs. There are two long sections of large rock steps that I remembered with dread, before the trail tops out and follows slippery bog bridges to the Mt Moriah summit spur.

Mud on Moriah
Mud on Moriah

On the way down from Moriah, I met Flying J, who’s been section hiking the AT since 2008. He was up for a two-week hike with his buddies Inside-Out and Karem. They were looking forward to being “done” with the Whites, having been slowed to a 10 mile/day pace. People underestimate the place. They headed north and I continued south, meeting still more thru-hikers and section hikers, later in the day.

Flying J - just below Moriah Summit Spur - Appalachian Trail
Flying J – just below Moriah Summit Spur – Appalachian Trail

The mist cleared after I left Moriah and I hiked to the Imp Shelter in sunshine. Popped down the shelter spur to have a look at the lean-to and filter more water. I sat on the bench in front of the lean-to and ate a couple of bars before continuing on.

Imp Lean-to
Imp Lean-to

The climb up North Carter was tough, wet, and steep. But Middle Carter, and South Carter got progressively easier. Most of the blow downs that I encountered between South Carter and Zeta Pass over the winter when I climbed the peak, have been cleared. I only had to crawl on my belly once to get under one.

Below Imp w/ the Carters beyond
Below Imp w/ the Carters beyond

When I got to Zeta Pass, I was very low on water. When planning this trip, I’d been counting on finding a stream there, but it was dry. I sat on the old rotted bench at the pass, which I’d sat on 10 years earlier, and had a think. I could try to climb Carter Dome and then down into Carter Notch, about 3 miles with my remaining 1/4 liter or hike down the Carter Dome Trail and find water. Truth is, I was thirsty and know how hard hiking dry is. I went down on the blue blazed trails. It was the right call, but a let-down because I’d been anticipating Carter Dome and the adjacent Mt Hight all day. Hight has the best views in the Whites. Really.

Carter Dome from South Carter
Carter Dome from South Carter

I didn’t find water until I’d dropped 1000 feet. After that, I knew I couldn’t climb back up and then over Carter Dome. I’d been hiking close to 10 hours, had already hiked 13 miles, and was done for the day. I continued down the Carter Dome Trail and then turned onto the 19 Mile Trail, headed toward the Carter Notch Hut, another 3.5 miles. I wanted to get as close the Wildcat Ridge Trail as I could for the climb the next morning up to Wildcat ‘A’. I checked my topo map and found a place where there was flattish ground. I hiked there and found a nice pre-exiting campsite, way off trail. I set up camp, cooked dinner, and was asleep by 9:00 pm.

Wildcat A overlooks Carter Notch Lake
Wildcat A overlooks Carter Notch Lake

I broke camp the next morning by 7:00 am and started hiking again. Finished the climb to the Carter Lakes and hiked down to the Carter Moriah Trail Junction (at the bottom of the descent from carter Dome) to take a photo of the morning sun on the Lakes. Then back up to the Wildcat Ridge Trail for my biggest ascent of the day, the 0.7 mile/1000 ft slog up Wildcat ‘A’. There are five peaks on this ridge trail: A, B, C, D, and E and I’d bang them out in quick succession. If your headed northbound, E is definitely the hardest, and it was murder down-climbing it. For south bounders, the steepest is the A peak, but it is a short steep climb, and soon forgotten.

Lost Pond and Mt Washington
Lost Pond and Mt Washington

I met some old friends on the climb down E and had a snack with them on the open ledges overlooking Pinkham Notch. When I got down to the Notch, I hiked along the Lost Pond Trail, coming out on Rt 16 across the Pinkham Notch Visitors Center. I positioned myself slightly above the PNVC driveway and started hitching back to my car. It only took me 25 minutes and two rides to travel the 14 miles. Now that’s a record!

Total distance: 22 miles w/8000 feet of elevation gain.


Recommended Guidebooks and Maps:

Written 2018.

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  1. The Rattle River Hostel is at the beginning of the trail. Ive stayed there several times and its a great place I was thinking of doing this hike and staying there the night before. They have a shuttle service and will pick you up at the other end.

    • It’s changed hands a few times in the past couple of years. I remember it being a pretty good place about 3 owners ago. I asked that section hiker I met, Flying J, if he was headed there, and he said they’d been less than impressed with the hospitality a week earlier. The three of them were going to split a motel room for their zero.

      I did see a bunch of slack-packing thru-hikers on this section hike. I’ve never been into slack-packing, but this would be a good section to do it.

      • My NH section ended at PNVC, mostly because I just couldn’t fathom the idea of doing 21 miles in the whites, slackpack or no, and we didn’t have any time left to break it up.

        The hostels in Lincoln and Gorham are definitely advertising slackpacking for different sections – Moosilauke, the Kinsmans, and the Wildcats are all listed as slackpacks for different hostels. Some hostels are even doing a “half-slack” option now, where you take what you need for 2 days and then they meet you with the rest of your food. This trip was the first time I’ve ever heard of half slacks, and it’s an intriguing idea for some of these climbs. As a section-hiker, I don’t eat as much as a thru-hiker would, so my pack is never really that heavy, but halving a full resupply would certainly make some of that easier.

        And you’re definitely right — don’t underestimate the Whites. I was up to doing 25 miles easily in TN/NC on the AT, but was suffering to get 15 miles out in the whites. It’ll be a while before I can think fondly on that section! (Probably once my knees forgive me.)

  2. Lisa/Frosty Fern

    Thank you for this narrative. Which way would you recommend tackling this section? You went SOBO, but said going down was “murder.” Would you recommend coming at it NOBO instead? I use poles to protect my knees on the steep downs.

    • I don’t think it matters. It’s all steep ups and downs. Different if you were just climbing the Wildcats, but not the entire section.

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