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The Sawyer River Trail and Sawyer Pond Loop Hike – An Attempt at Least

Mt Tremont and Owls Cliff tower above Big Sawyer Pond
Mt Tremont and Owls Cliff tower above Big Sawyer Pond

The Sawyer River and Sawyer Pond Trails are in a low-lying area of the White Mountains bordered to the north by Mt Carrigan, to the west by Mt Huntington, to the south by the Sandwich Range and Wilderness, and to the east by Bear Mountain and the Moats. With the exception of a central high point, Greens Cliff, the Sawyer River and Pond area sits in a topographic bowl surrounded by its higher elevation neighbors.

Sawyer River and Pond Loop (click for interactive map on - not to be used for navigation, some paths are approximations)
Sawyer River and Pond Loop (click for interactive map on – not to be used for navigation, some paths are approximations)

While I’ve hiked extensively throughout the White Mountains, there are a few trails in the Sawyer River and Pond area that I haven’t explored fully, including a section of the Sawyer River Trail and the entire Sawyer Pond Trail. Providing access to good fishing habitat, I decided to bring my fishing gear along on a loop hike through the area, hiking in from the Kancamagus Highway along the Sawyer River Trail to the Sawyer Pond Trail, returning back to my car via a series of mountain bike trails marked on my map (Exploring New Hampshire’s White Mountains by the Wilderness Map Company.)

I packed for an overnight hike because I didn’t want to be rushed if the fishing was good, but I didn’t expect this hike to last into the next day. You just never know though. Heavy rain was forecast for the evening, so I packed accordingly.

Only this hike didn’t go as planned because I never found the mountain biking trails shown on my map and not for lack of trying.

Swift River Crossing and Swimming Hole - Sawyer River Trail
Swift River Crossing and Swimming Hole – Sawyer River Trail

No map is a perfect representation of reality, so you need to be prepared to make real-time route decisions when hiking, especially in unfamiliar territory. I made the decision to stay on a well-marked trail and hike out to the road rather than try to head off-trail through very marshy forest on what could have turned into an eight mile bushwhack. I knew I could probably hitch a ride back to my car when I got to the Kancamagus Highway, which is what happened in the end.

While I did come across a few signed roads on my walk, none of them were marked on my map.

Disappointing, but understandable in a way. While there are mountain bike maps for the White Mountains, XC ski maps, snowmobile maps, and hiking maps, there aren’t any that combine all of the sport-specific trail systems into one unified view, which is why I collect them. However, I wasn’t expecting that that amount of planning would be required for this on-trail hike. That’s the kind of planning I do for many off-trail bushwhacks.

Be forewarned if you try to follow my planned route, shown in the map above. I never made it from the Sawyer Pond Trail back to my car as planned. I suspect you can follow the Nanomocomuck Ski Trail most of the way back, although it will probably be a long and wet walk.

That’s it for the preliminaries. Time to talk about the hike!

The pool below the Swift River crossing
The pool below the Swift River crossing

Sawyer River Trail

The Sawyer River Trail starts at a pull-off from the Kancamagus Highway which has room for three, maybe four cars. It passes through a recently logged area, before crossing the Swift River (which is known to hold trout downstream). I couldn’t resist fly fishing in this beautiful spot and the plunge pools above and below it. It was a sunny day, so I waded in my trail runners.

I got a couple of bites, but couldn’t hook any. I realized in that instant that it doesn’t matter whether I catch any fish or not. Standing in the cold water, casting my fly with precision, drifting it with the current, reading the current and riffles…there is a beauty and simplicity to the act of fishing that transcends the need to catch any fish. I never expected that!

Marshland along the Sawyer River Trail
Marshland along the Sawyer River Trail

Continuing down the trail, I saw a hiker wearing an external frame pack coming toward me. He was clearly a fisherman and we chatted for a few moments. He’d been at Sawyer Pond the previous evening, and reported that it had just been stocked with millions of fry, so no good fishing. As we talked, he and I were covered by a swarm of mosquitos; there much have been a dozen on him and me both. We parted ways quickly, since walking fast seemed to be the only way to keep them from landing on you.

I hiked, then fished, hiked and fished my way along the Sawyer River Trail, stopping at all of the pools and riffles that were easily accessible from the treadway. It’s a magnificent river. I didn’t catch a thing, but I had a blast.

Fishing along the Sawyer River Trail
Fishing along the Sawyer River Trail

Sawyer Pond Trail

I followed the Sawyer River Trail to its junction with the Sawyer Pond Trail at the forest road gate. You can drive to this point by driving up Sawyer River Road from Rt 302, passing the Signal Ridge Trailhead to Mt Carrigan.

The trail from the parking lot up to the pond is about a mile and runs next to a small stream. The campsite at the pond is very popular on weekends, when the trailhead parking lot gets full.

Sawyer Pond Shelter
Sawyer Pond Shelter

All of the tent sites at the Pond have platforms, and all tents are required to be pitched on them. There’s also a lean-to style shelter which is in decent condition, close to a flowing stream for water.

Sawyer Pond Camping Regulations
Sawyer Pond Camping Regulations

I met a SectionHiker reader who recognized me at the pond and we chatted for a while. He asked me to write a post about how to shit in the woods, since his dogs, two white ones, enjoy finding and rolling in people’s poop. Gross.

I also talked to a backpacker who planned to stay at the shelter that night to avoid the rain. He’s hiked the AT from the Hudson River to Katahdin, but has decided not to hike the southern half of the trail. I encouraged him to finish. He’s headed to the hike the John Muir Trail this summer and hopes to stand on Mt Whitney on his 50th birthday.

I filtered some water and had a snack before leaving the pond, headed south on the Sawyer Pond Trail towards the Kancamagus Highway. This section of the trail is considerably drier than the one I hiked to from the parking lot, but the forest is wide open, evidence of past logging activity.

Hard to know if this is the Birch Hill Bike Trail with that sign
Hard to know if this is the Birch Hill Bike Trail with that sign

I flew down the trail, trying to make up for the hours of fishing I’d spent earlier in the day. The terrain was level and I was probably covering close to 3 miles an hour. I passed a few roads, but nothing signed as a mountain bike trail called the Birch Hill Trail or FR318. I suspected I’d missed the road I was looking for, but I was positively baffled when I saw this sign, indicating the Brunel Trail to Mt Tremont, because it didn’t correlate to the map I had.

I was baffled by this sign
I was baffled by this sign

With daylight waning, I decided to stay found on the Sawyer Pond Trail and hike it to the road. It was only a mile farther, with one big stream crossing. I scouted the crossing for a bit hiking up and down the river, but the best alternative was to hike straight across. The crossing looked familiar and I could have sworn there was a post-Irene, washed out bridge around here previously.

Final River Crossing - Sawyer Pond Trail
Final River Crossing – Sawyer Pond Trail

It took me about 40 minutes to get a ride after I got to the road and rather than wait, I walked about 2 of the 8 miles back to my car. A nice couple, hikers, picked me up after a couple of dozen out-of-state plates passed me by.

This wasn’t exactly the hike I expected, but I have a few more trails to explore in the area including the Brunel Trail to Mt Tremont, which will hopefully let me suss out what’s what with the trails and roads in this area.

Recommended Guidebooks and Maps:

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  1. Good story. I haven’t been in this area in years and it makes me want to go back in and explore.
    I always get a kick out of reading your blogs after I’ve heard them from you while we are hiking.

  2. It would be wonderful if the US was covered coast-to-coast with maps of the quality and consistency of the UK OS (if anything the OS maps tend to show trails that no longer exist on the ground, instead of omitting features that do).

  3. I read your blog before heading out to retrace the loop. The key to completing the loop as you have it shown on the map, is to follow the snowmobile trail/gravel road that you took a pic of(Bear Notch Road in the opposite direction) It brings you back to the Sawyer River Trail near where it crosses the Swift River. It has been well maintained by the snowmobile clubs, with numerous bridges over the many streams coming off of Greens Cliff.

    • Next time I’m just going to bring a GPS so I can navigate in real time. Most of those roads aren’t on hiking maps and I’ve learned the hard way not to follow them because they may lead you way off course.

  4. HI Philip
    A friend and I will be pulk sledding into sawyer pond this Friday via the sawyer river road. Looking forward to this over night trip.
    I want to thank you for the added intel your articles give me as there seems to be a lot of traffic at the pond in the warmer months. We will be hot tenting with an ammo box stove I made along with a shelter similar to the ones pomoly makes.
    thank you again
    MIke Pratt pownla maine

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