Labor Day Weekend of 2019, the Argonauts contingent of Hudson Valley Hikers spent 3 days backpacking the Wildcat-Carter-Moriah range in the White Mountains. This range is full of challenges, but we broke it into three very manageable days. This was my last section of Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire, completing a continuous section from Shenandoah National Park to Grafton Notch. Everyone on the hike earned 6 New Hampshire 4000 footers.
Most of the people in our group had previously completed the Presidential Range and Mahoosuc Range. We were now left with the 22 Mile Carter Moriah Range in the middle. Many people chose to do this traverse in just one or two days. We had a long weekend, so we did it in three. Since this would be my last New Hampshire section of the Appalachian trail, I decided to treat myself to a night at Carter Notch Hut.
By planning to camp at Carter Notch Hut and Imp Campsite, we were able to break this trip into three manageable days of just about 5 hours of hiking each. I had heard a lot about the difficulty of this section, so I didn’t feel too bad planning such short days. It turns out the difficulty was somewhat exaggerated by my friends who had chosen to do the whole thing in one day. The most challenging portion was the first 3 miles up Wildcat D from Pinkham Notch, then it got much easier.
My trip plan below includes our start and stop points, camping options, peaks, and a few trail crossings. By heading west (left) down the trails from Carter Notch Hut, Zeta Pass, North Carter or down the Stony Brook Trail, you can hike down to US 16. These were our bailout options if weather got bad.
Most of our group met at the Rattle River Hostel in Gorham the night before the hike. Rattle River is a clean place with nice common areas and lots of outdoor space. Like many of the cleaner hostels, they require you to leave your gear in the “mud room.” They even have showers and changes of clothes right in the mud room so that you can get clean before entering. We got a good dinner (in town) and a good night’s sleep.
The next morning, we placed half our cars at Hogan Road, which is where we had started our Mahoosuc Range Hike a few years earlier. Then we drove up to Pinkham Notch.
The Pinkham Notch Lot fills up early, so we got there early and grabbed spots. Usually we are in a rush to get hiking, but today we only had about 6 miles to walk and reservations waiting for us at the hut. We took some time to have breakfast at the visitors center and explore the gift shop. I had been excited for this breakfast, but it was way too salty for my taste. You do need a lot of salt to hike, but this was over the top.
Day 1: Pinkham Notch to Carter Notch
After breakfast, we crossed Highway 16 and got started up the Appalachian Trail. This section is known locally as the Lost Pond Trail. The Appalachian Trail doesn’t follow its own footpath through most of New Hampshire. Instead, it follows a series of local trails. Many of these local trail names pre-date the existence of the Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Mountain Club, who maintain these trails, does their best to include the AT name on signs and to keep up the white blazes. Sometimes, the AT isn’t mentioned and this is the source of some animosity. Let it go!
The first mile of the trail is rocky but level. The next two miles climbs 2000 feet up to Wildcat D peak. This section is steep and rocky. There are both rock scrambles and slabs. I was happy to be going up this trail instead of down.
After the strenuous climb, we took a short break at Wildcat D. Wildcat D is a ski resort and there is access via a lift on weekends. You may be able to camp in the clearing if you had a self supporting tent. From there we continued on to Wildcat A, another 805 feet of climbing over 2 miles. While the elevation gain in this section wasn’t bad, the trail was rugged and tiring.
From Wildcat A there was a steep descent to Carter Notch Hut. The trail loses 1137 feet in just 1 mile, but the path is well maintained and there are many stepping stones. Reaching the bottom, we passed a few small ponds and arrived at the Hut.
Carter Notch Hut
We spent our first night at Carter Notch Hut. Because we had a big group, I made sure everyone booked their bunk at the Hut several months early. A night at a hut costs about $150 and includes a bunk, dinner, and breakfast. Everything is very family style. When you’re used to camping for free, $150 might seem like a lot for a bunk and 2 meals. Please remember that all of the supplies at the hut: food, fuel, sanitary supplies… all has to come up by foot or by helicopter. It is hard, expensive work to maintain and operate these places.
Dinner at the hut was a little disappointing. The crew decided to push a surprise social agenda on us. The meal was 100% vegan, and this was the first weekend they were testing out the new recipes. We had been expecting the usual Saturday Night Turkey Dinner! Now, I have nothing against vegans. I probably would have been OK with this meal if I had known about it ahead of time. But I signed up for turkey dinner and got pea-pot-pie. Come on!
In AMC’s defense, they are known for pushing a sustainability agenda. Raising livestock for meat takes a great toll on the environment than raising plants alone. The feces of meat eaters is more difficult for back-country privies to break down. They had a lot of good points for why they should do this experiment on us. I just wish I had known first.
Day 2: Carter Notch to Imp Campsite
We woke up the next morning and had breakfast at the Hut. Breakfast was pancakes, bacon, and eggs. Fortunately for us, the experiment only lasted for the night!
Departing the hut, we headed north up the Appalachian Trail toward South Carter. Over the next 1.2 miles we climbed 1529 feet. That’s a pretty good climb, but much of it was made easier by stepping stones. On most big climbs like this, I stop every 500 feet for water and every 1000 feet for a snack. This strategy works well to keep me hydrated and energized.
Arriving at Carter Dome, our group decided to split up. The hut was completely full overnight, and there were a lot of backpackers on the trail this weekend. Mountain Dew and I shot ahead so that we could get to Imp Campsite early and reserve space for everyone. We hike pretty quickly for the rest of the day without taking many breaks. It was a mild 7 mile day with 2600 feet of elevation gain. The trail was smooth, and we completed it in less than the expected 5 hours.
There’s no view at Carter Dome, but don’t be disappointed. There are great views at Mount Height, South Carter, Middle Carter, and North Carter. You won’t be starved for views here unless you’re socked in.
Over the last few years, I’ve done a lot of northern hiking in the late spring and early summer. During those months, bogs are typically flooded. Bridges like this are usually floating. It was a pleasure to walk across dry bogs with dry feet on bridges that didn’t move.
Imp Campsite and Lean-to
Mountain Dew and I arrived at Imp Campsite just after lunchtime, and the rest of the crew arrived an hour later. We did it! We were the first people to arrive at camp for the day. The caretaker showed us to a nice platform where we could fit a few tents and a couple other platforms that could fit 2 each. We got all set up and had time to hang out.
Soon the site started to fill up. Every platform was taken. The overflow area was taken. It was getting pretty crowded. Then, just before dinner, a big group of boys from a local private school showed up. They needed one big platform to set up their giant tarp for the whole group to sleep on. They needed our platform! We pretended to be just slightly annoyed, but it was OK. The move meant I could pitch my tent on the mulchy in the woods. The ground is always softer than a wooden platform.
The evening got a little chilly, but we bundled up and had our hot dinners, then hung out until dark and went to bed.
Day 3: Imp Campsite to Hogan Road
At some point in the night it started raining. It rained heavily. It was still raining when we woke up in the morning. We started texting each other between our tents to make a plan. We were wondering if we really wanted to go over slabby Moriah Mountain in the rain. Would the slabs be really slick and dangerous? We decided to get up and start moving and if the rocks in the first mile were slick, we’d turn off and head down the Stony Brook trail to US 16 and catch a ride.
Our worries were much ado about nothing. The rock we found in the first mile was grippy course granite. We decided to push on over the top. I was glad. I really didn’t want to have to come back again to complete this 9 mile section and bag an orphaned peak.
After about 2 hours of hiking in the rain, we made it to Moriah Mountain. The actual summit of Moriah is down the Carter Moriah Trail – a siding to the AT. From the juncture, it looks pretty intimidating. There is a very steep rocky scramble up the first 100 feet, but then it evens out. The winds were strong and the clouds were thick at the summit. there was no view for us.
We started heading down the Appalachian Trail. The AT over the next mile follows the Kenduskeag Trail, then splits off to the Rattle River Trail. The descent starts off steep and rocky and meanders through a few wet bogs. After dropping a few thousand feet, things level out. The last few miles of the Rattle River Trail are nice and smooth.
We stopped at Rattle River Shelter and had some snacks. We waited a while for the whole group to get back together. I don’t like to let people fall too far behind. This is selfish. If someone in my group goes missing, I don’t want to walk back too far to find them.
Rattle River was a nice shelter with plenty of tent space. This is one of the free lean-to shelters maintained by the forest service, not the Appalachian Mountain Club. It isn’t too far from the road, so it might get noisy visitors.
In a few more miles, we arrived at US 2 outside of Gorham. From here, there is a 0.7 mile road walk to the trail parking at Hogan Road. Along the way we passed Rattle River Hostel and crossed the Androscoggin River.
This section of the Appalachian Trail was easier than I had expected. I had heard a lot of intimidating stories, but it turns out that those pertain to the Wildcats and not the entire trail. Perhaps it was because I spent almost the whole summer hiking, but I found much of this route to be very manageable and felt a little silly breaking it up into 3 days.
I would not recommend this hike for a beginner, because it does have quite a few technical challenges. If you have some experience backpacking – meaning you know how to use all your gear – and you are in pretty good shape, you could get away with this hike in 2 or 3 days. Of course, experts will ditch the tent and do the whole thing in one day.