This past weekend, I co-led an Appalachian Mountain Club backpacking trip with my friend Stephen, completing a full traverse of the Kilkenny Ridge Trail, starting at South Pond and hiking south to the Starr King trail head in Jefferson, NH. We had a total of 6 hikers in our group, all experienced backpackers, making this an exceptionally fun and intimate trip.
The Kilkenny Ridge Trail traverses some of the most wild and remote scenery in the White Mountains and provides an extended 27 mile route (7,350 feet elevation gain) for backpackers interested in avoiding the crowds of day hikers who frequent the southern and central Whites. The trail is moderately difficult hiking with many steep climbs, moss-covered rock, and wet footing. Trail maintenance is less frequent than in the south and the trail is often blocked by blow downs or obscured by (wet) ferns, hobble bush, and spruce saplings.
Despite the lack of amenities, the region is a joy to hike due to its varied terrain and undeniably wild appearance. Bearded trees, their branches and trunks festooned with moss and fungus, line the ridgeline, battered by wind and storms. Open ledges and summits provide magnificent views of the entire end-to-end ridge as it undulates north to south, past vast stands of forest shrouded in mist and cloud, with scant evidence of a human presence.
We did the traverse in 3 days/2 nights at a fairly leisurely pace, hiking an average of 9 miles per day with about 7 hours of hiking per day. This time of year, there are only 11-12 hours of daylight per day, giving us plenty of time in camp to cook, do our daily chores, and putter about.
Trip participants met on Friday morning in Jefferson, NH, a 3 hour drive north of Boston. The weather forecast for the weekend looked terrible with thunderstorms predicted for Saturday, Saturday night and Sunday morning. We discussed several shortened route options to mitigate the impact of a washout, but in the end everyone unanimously agreed to hike the entire route anyway, even if that meant hiking in the rain all Saturday. These were definitely my kind of backpackers!
After shuttling north to South Pond for 40 minutes, we hiked into the now-gated South Pond Recreation area to the trail head, which starts off very mellow through mixed forest. Less than a mile up the trail is a side path to a gorge called the Devils Hopyard, which is billed as “a gorge of huge boulders set in picturesque confusion.” While not up to the caliber of Mahoosuc Notch, it was still a fun diversion and would make an excellent scramble for kids.
After hiking back from the Hopyard, we topped off our water and continued hiking to Roger’s Ledge, an unexpected highlight of the trip. Roger’s Ledge is situated on a 3,000 foot hill with southeasterly views of the entire Pilot Range, The Horn, and The Bulge, two peaks farther south along the Kilkenny Ridge. We lay in the sun on the warm granite for a good 20 minutes soaking up the incredible view.
From Roger’s Ledge, we descended to Kilback Pond, a large beaver pond that I’d read about at Steve Smith’s Mountain Wandering blog. I’d hoped to spend the night here, but we were worried about rain on Saturday and decided to keep going a few more miles to the Unknown Pond campsite.
When we arrived, we found a large group of teenage boys there, one of those prep school orientation trips that fill the northern forest with rowdy, fire-obsessed teens each autumn. They and their adult supervisors had taken up 80% of the tent sites, so we had to venture into the woods to find extra pitches for the night. No worries, I prefer sleeping on soft forest duff rather than hardened tent pads.
I scouted around and found a soft campsite for myself and one for Beth, well out of earshot of the boys, who turned out to be well-behaved after all. Although my site was quite small, the double-walled EMS Velocity 1 tent I tested on this trip fit into it nicely, making it an excellent tent for camping in unprepared forest locations.
The next morning, we broke camp at 8:15 am. We had a big day ahead of us, climbing The Horn (3905′), The Bulge (3950′), Mount Cabot (4170′), and Terrace Mountain (3655′). This entire stretch of trail is dry, so we all carried extra water for the day – I carried 4.5 liters and had about 0.5 liters left when we finally resupplied.
The Horn (3905′) was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. This open summit, one of the New Hampshire Hundred Highest has excellent views of Mount Cabot, The Bulge, and the Pilot Range. Getting to the rocky top requires a bit of a scramble, but it was nice to have sky above our heads after walking under tree cover for nearly a full day.
Despite the dire forecast, the rain held off all day and we even caught a bit of sunshine at lunch. From the Horn, we quickly climbed the next peak called The Bulge (3950′), followed by a steep ascent of Mount Cabot (4170′), the northernmost White Mountain 4,000 footer. After a short lunch at Cabot Cabin, we descended to Bunnell Notch before climbing back over Terrace Mountain to Willard Notch, where we camped in the woods next to small stream that intersected the trail.
In addition to finding water (New Hampshire has been quite dry this year), we stopped at Willard Notch because the sky had grown noticeably darker and it looked like we were in for the thunderstorms that had been predicted for earlier in the day. The wind had come up the way it does before a storm and I knew we’d get drenched if we continued climbing to North Weeks for another hour, to a dry camp.
Rather than risk having to set up camp in the rain (most of us had double-walled tents), we decided to stay put and pitch camp. That turned out to be a prudent decision, because it started to pour rain and lightning by 4:30 pm, just after the majority of us had finished cooking dinner. I went and hid in my tent, promptly falling asleep by 6 pm and sleeping throughout a tumultuous night of lightning and heavy rain, by all accounts.
Faced with another 9 mile hike and a long reverse shuttle, we woke up extra early on the last day of our traverse, breaking camp by 7:15 am. Thankfully, it had stopped raining by 5 am when most of us awoke and we were able to eat a hot breakfast before starting the last leg of our journey.
Immediately after leaving camp, we climbed 1200′ from Willard Notch to North Weeks Mountain (3901′). The blood was definitely flowing by the time we summitted the viewless peak an hour later. From here south, the Kilkinney travels up and down Middle (3684′) and South Weeks (3885′), Mt Waumbek (4006′) and Mount Starr King (3907′) before finally descending to the trail head in the hamlet of Jefferson, New Hampshire.
I love this section of trail, which is bordered by stubby, storm-wracked trees and dense understory. That morning, the peaks were still shrouded in an ethereal mist, further heightening the sense of isolation one experiences when walking down this trail. Despite a plethora of puddles and wet ferns that soaked our pants and legs, we made good time that morning, arriving at Mount Waumbeck by 11:30 am and at the trail head by 2 pm. By then the storm system had blown out of the Whites and the sun was shining again, an odd sensation after being shrouded by the dense Kilkenny forest and mist for several days.
Having now experienced the isolated northern section of the Kilkenny, I am once again attracted by the allure of the Cohos Trail, which continues northward into even more remote parts of New Hampshire. There’s something so refreshing and pure about hiking on trails that few tread. Now that I’ve had a taste of the great northern wilderness, I feel the urge to drink deeply of its bounty, once again.