Distance: 5 miles to Mt. Carrigain Summit via Signal Ridge Trail; 13.5 miles for full Carrigain Notch Trail Loop
Time: Signal Ridge Trail up and back, 5-7 hours; full loop, 6-8 hours
Difficulty: Weekend Warriors
Mt. Carrigain Elevation: 4,700 feet
Recommended Gear: Hiking Boots or Trail Runners, Trekking Poles
Thunderstorms swept the White Mountains overnight, leaving us to find the Signal Ridge Trail soggy and glistening in the morning light. The air is cool and refreshing, but it won’t last, summer’s heat already reclaiming the breeze. It’s a race to the summit, and with Mt. Carrigain’s observation tower awaiting its daily hikers, it’s impossible to quell the anticipation. So what are we waiting for? Let’s get going.
The songbirds are out, and as the trail weaves through the trees, they’re soon joined by a chorus of running water. A few rock hops—no skips—possibly a jump and the Whiteface Brook crossing is in our rearview.
The faintest of climbs awaits us on the opposite bank. Paralleling the brook, we could now skip to the soundtrack of gushing water, which reaches a crescendo at a few small cascades that are tantalizingly out of sight. What do you say—should we take a peek?
Away from the brook we go. The trail is wide and relatively level, the old road it follows long-gone but not entirely forgotten. Is there anywhere to camp? you ask. There aren’t any designated camping areas along the loop, but stealth sites are aplenty, and an early option presents itself along another old road that intersects the trail. Staying the course, a plank walk delivers us to the Carrigain Notch Trail intersection at the 1.7-mile mark.
Interested in hiking the full loop? Well, of course you are. Why trek ten glorious miles on Mt. Carrigain alone when you can enter the Pemigewassett Wilderness for 13.5? With the full loop on the docket, the consensus is to take the Carrigain Notch Trail here. The rationale being that the Desolation Trail is much steeper than Signal Ridge, and thus better for the ascent. That’s just common sense. So naturally we’ll be going up the Signal Ridge Trail.
If you’re reading this purely to get the trail dirt on an up and back of the Signal Ridge Trail—don’t worry, we won’t think less of you. In fact, it’s why we’re doing the loop in reverse to put your info first. It’s the Northeast Hikes reader commitment. That’s our story, anyway, and if we survive the Desolation Trail descent and live to write about it, we’re sticking to it.
Now, onwards and upwards we go.
Signal Ridge Trail
We begin the 3.3-mile climb by crossing Carrigain Brook, another simple rock-hop in normal conditions. We’re soon climbing the mountain, the easy approach section a fast memory. The trail grinds into the mountainside at an angle—sharp switchback turns keeping us on target. Eventually the back and forth settles into a prolonged climb over scattered rocks, moderate-plus on a steepness scale but relentless.
We’re still under the canopy, but the day’s heat is catching up. Our heartbeats have taken notice and sweat is pouring. Signal Ridge Trail has been called strenuous, and if there’s one thing for sure, we’re burning calories. It’s cool; we didn’t need them all anyway. As we continue, we spot glimpses of Mt. Lowell through the trees, mere appetizers of the full-course vista meal to come.
A small ledge awaits our arrival ahead. No worries, it’s merely a speed bump.
And then it happens. So unassuming we didn’t realize it at first. Yes, this is it. We’ve cleared the trees, and Signal Ridge lies before us. We gasp. Mt. Washington and the southern presidentials crown the landscape. There are no words for this.
Hey—wait up! I’m so excited for the summit, I nearly forgot my trekking poles. It’s easy to lose your head in the mountains, isn’t it? Away we go, tramping into a thickly-walled tunnel. We’re climbing again, one last half-mile push, short and sweet to the summit. We pass a wood-topped well on the right that once went with the fire warden’s cabin. The water is accessible, but the sign reads “non-potable,” so you’ll need a filter to drink it safely. The trail turns to the right over one last knoll, and then we find ourselves staring up at the belly of the observation tower.
We drop our poles and unsling our packs, eagerly assaulting the stairs. If they make you feel a little uneasy, just take a deep breath and don’t look down. It’ll be better on top. And better it is. The White Mountains are spread out before us as if we’re perched atop a real-life topographical map. There’s Mt. Washington and its presidential pals; and that way, Franconia Ridge and the entire Pemi Loop; and to the south, the Sandwich Range Wilderness.
Wait—where are you going? I know, I know, you said you were just doing and up and back. And we promised to be cool with that, but aren’t you curious to see what lies ahead? C’mon now, you have time. Keep scrolling a little bit further…
Desolation Trail—sounds bleak, doesn’t it? If the name alone isn’t quite enough, the 1.9 miles with 2,500 feet of elevation gain (or in our case, loss) can deliver second thoughts. Is this a good idea? If you fall on the Desolation Trail, will anyone hear you scream? Well, there’s only one way to find out. We forge ahead, in the process crossing the boundary marker and entering the Pemigewassett Wilderness.
The descent begins with a short-lived gradual stretch, seemingly there to build anticipation (regardless of direction). Then, we’re looking down. It’s steep, alright, and of course, rocky. The Desolation Trail is as advertised, up would be the preferred route. But it’s too late for that, and to be honest, the trail’s not that bad—fairly typical for the White Mountains. Just steeper than most. Fortunately, the rocks have dried off from the rainstorms, and as long as we go slow and take care not to step on any roots—piece of cake.
Down we go, coming to a particularly tricky spot. The rocks have grown. Good for them. And us. What’s a hike in the White Mountains without getting your hands dirty, too?
The rocky section is an isolated stretch, and soon after completing it, the Desolation Trail undergoes a transformation. We traverse a rocky crosswalk, on the other side of which, the path angles down the mountain with smooth sailing.
What was that? A wire sticking out from underneath a rock caught my foot. I bend and tuck it underneath the rock, so no one else trips on it. Now that I’m paying attention, I see the wire running through the trees alongside the trail. According to the AMC guide, it’s a former telephone wire that went with an old logging road, which also explains the trail transformation.
We come to a brook, a tributary of the Carrigain Branch, and on the opposite bank reach the Carrigain Notch Trail junction.
Carrigain Notch Trail
We turn right onto the Carrigain Notch Trail, heading in the direction of the Nancy Pond Trail. We’re immersed in a fog of green, all different shades, from the trees, the ferns, the moss, everywhere. And a trail runs through it. This section follows an old railroad grade. I’m not a whistler, so I’ll spare you that butchering, but if ever there was a trail to inspire a good whistle, this is it.
After 0.8 miles of glorious hiking, we reach the junction with the Nancy Pond Trail. Make no mistake, Carrigain Notch, because it’s exiting the railroad grade, bears the appearance of the trail less traveled. Slightly overgrown but easy to follow, Carrigain Notch takes us around some marshy areas. There’s a fresh moose track in the mud—we hold our breath, hoping to catch a glimpse around each turn.
No luck with the moose, but considering our surroundings on this 4.1-mile stretch to the Signal Ridge Trail junction, it’s hard to say we’re unlucky on such as beautiful day.
The Carrigain Notch Trail does give us an easy climb somewhere around the half-way point of this section. For those hiking the loop counter-clockwise, it’s nothing more than a warm-up. For us, a gentle reminder that we aren’t out of the mountains just yet. The trees keep the trail well covered through here; the only view we spot is a partial shot of the Mt. Lowell cliffs.
Cresting the hill, we officially exit the Pemigewasset Wilderness.
The trail is easy going for the rest of the way. There are a couple of old logging roads that intersect it, and as we get to washed-out stream beds, it’s a sure sign that we’re getting to the Signal Ridge Trail junction.
The Signal Ridge Trail begins off Sawyer River Road, a narrow dirt road that’s closed in the winter. Sawyer River Road is accessed from Route 302, well south of Crawford Notch. If traveling south on 302, Sawyer River Road will be on the right, noticeable in part by the parking lot that’s at the road’s entry. Hiker Parking for Mt. Carrigain is two miles in on the left, just after a bridge over Whiteface Brook. The trailhead is just before the bridge.
More Signal Ridge fun…