Member Trip report
Willey Range - Carrigain Backpack Loop
Trip Report/Photos from shep5
The Willey Range and Mount Carrigain are not a set of mountains, which are usually hiked together due the distance between them, but I had wanted to visit the eastern interior of the Pemigewasset Wilderness and this trip would allow me to explore Skoal Pond, Stillwater Junction, the Wilderness Trail and Thoreau Falls. With the weekend forecast to be absolutely beautiful, I figured this was my chance.
I arrived at the Zealand Trailhead at 6:45AM. I got ready and quickly set out. The Zealand Trail was modest in grade with extended flat sections. I reached the junction with the A-Z Trail at 7:40. I turned onto this trail. The trail looked like it has been recently re-blazed and it seemed easier to follow than with a previous trip. As I climbed it became a little steeper just before reaching the junction with the Willey Range Trail. I headed a little further north for the Mt. Tom Spur Trail. It was 9:10 and I was surprised that there were already a few hikers here. I headed up and along the way there was a ledge with a view of Mount Carrigain in the distance and a little further up I reached the junction, where a spur trail headed east with a partial view of the Presidentials and of Mount Field. Back at the junction I headed down the other spur and reached the summit of Mount Tom (4051') denoted by a cairn in the woods. It was 9:40 and just beyond this there was a great view over towards Zealand Notch. I headed back down the spur trail and in 25 minutes I turned onto the Willey Range Trail heading up to Mount Field, reaching the summit at 10:40 (4340'). The view here was getting a little overgrown, but Mounts Washington, Jefferson and Adams were visible across the valley. I continued along the ridge and in 50 minutes I was passing the summit cairn for Mount Willey (4285'). This was in the trees, but a great ledge looking down on Crawford Notch was just a little further down the trail. It was pretty crowded here already, so I just continued on the journey. I headed down off the mountain. This trail was very steep in spots, but there was a section where there were a number of ladders to assist in the descent. It leveled out close to the bottom and in a short time later I reached the junction for the Ethan Pond Trail. I took this and it climbed again for a while, but leveled out just prior to the spur trail out to Ethan Pond. It was 1PM and I decided to go have lunch on the shores of the pond. After 20 minutes I returned to the trail and continued west. Just beyond the pond, there was a nice view of the backside of Mount Willey. I passed a few thru-hikers as well a group of boy scouts and by the time the trail met up with the Ethan Brook/North Fork Pemigewassest River, I reache the trail junction with the Skoal Pond Trail. I turned south on this trail. Almost immediately the trail was pretty overgrown with rotten boardwalks over the wet areas. This trail was mostly flat and by 2:30 the trail reached the shores of Skoal Pond. I walked a short distance to the shore and was rewarded with a beautiful view of Mount Carrigain looking south over the pond. The rest of the Skoal Pond Trail was fairly flat with a very slight downward grade. It crossed the Skoal Pond Brook several times and at times the trail was narrow and overgrown and at times it was very wide. At the southern end of the trail, there was a short section of railroad ties, so it was likely that parts of this trail coincided with an old railroad grade. By 4:30 I crossed the Norcross Brook and immediately upon climbing the other bank, I was at Stillwater Junction. Aside from a concrete bridge abuttment in the water, there wasn't anything very special about the area. I understood that this was a major junction in the logging days for several spur lines and I guess I thought it would be more open...instead it was thickly wooded. In any case, the remnants of the Wilderness Trail headed off to the west and the Carrigain Notch Trail headed south. I turned onto the Carrigain Notch Trail and after awhile this paralleled the Carrigain Brook with a couple of nice tent sites along it. By 5PM I reached the junction with the Desolation Trail and I immediately crossed the brook and began to climb. The trail was modest at first by progressively steepened as it climbed the nothern side of Mount Carrigain. This was pretty good, but about two-thirds of the way up, it became very steep, where I had to scramble up rocks in a few places. As I was pretty tired, my pace slowed down to a crawl! Along the ascent there were partial views out towards the Presidential Range. Finally by 6:55 the trail emerged from the woods with predominantly blue skies overhead. After a final scramble up, I could see the platform above me. I reached the summit of Mount Carrigain (4700') at 7PM. I checked out the view from the summit platform and it was simply spectacular in all directions! It was particularly cool to see the wilderness, which I just traversed. My plan had been to re-descend back down and camp along Carrigain Brook (for the water), but I was so sore that I figured, I would stay up on the summit overnight. Also, I still had a little over a liter of water, so I would just have to make due. The tent sites just off of the peak were occupied by a large family, so I set up in an opening just inside the trees next to the tower. I set up my bivy and made dinner. After dinner the members of the other group came back up to the summit to watch the sunset. It was amazing as the sun set over the Franconia Ridge in the distance. It seemed early as the sunset was at 8:10PM. I chatted some with the group and as it was windy and getting rather cold...it seemed to be in the upper 40's...I headed to bed by 8:30. It took me awhile to warm up, but then I quickly fell asleep.
Saturday's miles and elevation gain: 19.6 miles with approximately 6100 feet in cumulative elevation gain.
In the morning, I awoke to members of the other group climbing the tower platform at about 5AM. They got up early to watch the sunrise. I got up and joined them. The sun finally rose above the mountains just east of the Presidential Range at 5:25AM. It was beautiful to see the sun start to illuminate the peaks. I then went back down and began to break camp, while I made breakfast. At 6:10 I started my descent off of the peak using the Desolation Trail again. While it was slow for some of the steeper sections, the descent took only 80 minutes. It also warmed up quickly again as I descended. Back at junction with the Carrigain Notch Trail, I stopped at the brook crossing here to filter additional water for the day. I retraced by steps back to Stillwater Junction and at 7:45 I turned onto the Wilderness Trail. After a short distance, the trail crossed Carrigain Brook and after hiking over a ridge, the trail met up with the East Branch Pemigewasset River. At times the trail was along the river and at other times the trail climbed high on the bank. Not long after hiking along the river, there was an old wood burning stove along the trail. It was cool to see and there must have been a logging camp in the vicinity at one time. In another 10 minutes there were the remnants of bridge supports along the bank. This trail climbed high up on the bank and by 8:50 I reached the junction with the Thoreau Falls Trail. I turned onto this trail, which seemed to backtrack up the river by lower on the bank than the Wilderness Trail. It quickly turned towards the Pemigewasset River and in 10 minutes I came across a foot bridge. I immediately noticed the sign posted on the bridge, which stated a weight limit of one hiker on the bridge at a time. I figured this must be the bridge, which was damaged in Hurricane Irene and there has been a good amount of debate about whether to remove or repair it. In any case, as I crossed the bridge it seemed rather shaky and was somewhat tilted to one side. Despite this there were views of Mount Carrigain and possibly the Bonds out from the bridge. On the other side, the trail was fairly straight and flat as it made its way north. After 20 minutes I came to a clearing, where there were a number of old items scattered through the woods and along the trail. There were old cans and an old stove door, but one of the larger pieces looked like a support of some sort, but I couldn't identify it. In about 20 minutes further down the trail, it met up with the North Fork Brook. The trail started to follow the brook closely. Further up the brook there was an old piece of rail in the brook and shortly after this point the bank was eroded away. After this the trail would periodically climb high above the brook only to descend again. Finally at 11:10 the trail left the brook to climb up the bank. The trail did not meet up with the brook again until I reached the top of the Thoreau Falls. This was fantastic as the trail crossed right at the top of the falls with views of the Bonds in the distance. The falls drop a total of 80 feet through a series of cascades. One of the guys I was speaking with on top of Mount Carrigain had suggested that I climb to its base to get a better view, but I didn't see any easy way to get down there and I wasn't feeling up to bushwhacking my way down, as I was pretty drained as it was. I continued along the trail after crossing the falls and by 11:30 I was exiting the Pemigewasset Wilderness and out onto the Ethan Pond Trail (AT). Following this to the north, it wasn't long before the trail emerged from the woods into Zealand Notch with Zeacliffs across the valley and Whitewall Mountain towering above. This trail was mostly flat and I was passing a number of thru-hikers along this segment of trail up to the junction with the Zealand Trail, which I reached at 12:40PM. It wasn't long until I ran across the junction with the A-Z Trail again, which completed the my loop. I continued back to the Zealand Road parking, which I reached at just before 2PM.
Sunday's miles and elevation gain: 15.0 miles with approximately 1600 feet in cumulative elevation gain.
This was certainly a strenuous backpack (almost 35 miles), but well-worth it to see some infrequently visited areas in the eastern Pemigewasset Wilderness. This was another area that has a real, distinctive wilderness feel. In the wilderness itself, I only ran across 5 others and these people were all camping along the Carrigain Notch and Wilderness Trails. I saw noone along the Skoal Pond and Thoreau Falls Trails. It was also cool, to think about all the logging history back in this area and it was cool to run across the remnants from this time period.
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