Sean’s Favorite Day Hikes in the White Mountains: The Carter-Baldface Ranges

Since I was about two years old, visiting Cold River Camp in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine has been part of most of my summers. Over those decades, I’ve explored the mountains and valleys extensively. While I’m always eager to check out a new trail or summit, I want to share some favorite day hikes to which I keep returning. This post covers hikes in the Carter-Baldface Ranges and Evans Notch area.

Overview

This post covers my favorite hikes in the Evans Notch area and the Carter-Baldface Ranges. A second post describes my favorite day hikes in the Presidentials. Compared to the Presidentials, Evans Notch is much quieter, featuring green, rolling mountains with exposed granite ridges and summits and, typically, excellent blueberries by August. The Baldface range forms the west side of the notch and Cold River Valley. The wilderness of the Wild River Valley separates the Baldfaces from the Carter-Moriah range further to the west.

Hikes in this post are 4-11 miles. As always, check the weather, carry the right gear, and know your own limits. Many hikers — especially those used to more rugged mountains and greater elevations — underestimate the White Mountains and their notoriously fickle and dangerous weather.

The AMC White Mountain Guide offers in-depth descriptions of every trail described below—indeed, every trail in the White Mountains. The corresponding maps are excellent and I long for maps of this quality when I hike elsewhere.

The amount of depth in the White Mountain guide may overwhelm someone new to the White Mountains. For an alternative, consider the Cold River Camp Hiking Guide, lovingly published by Don Devine and the Chatham Trails Association. It features more focused, opinionated recommendations and suggestions of how to combine trails for the best hike.

The Baldfaces

A hike around the Baldfaces is the pinnacle of the week for many Cold River Camp hikers, and I think it’s one of the top hikes in White Mountains. Located in Evans Notch, the Baldfaces are less rugged than the Presidentials. They represent the quintessential White Mountain hike, though: streams, forest, granite ledges, two summits with 360º views, and a long ridge walk on the route I recommend.

There are two optimal ways to do this hike, in my view. For each, cross NH 113 from the parking lot to find the trailhead, then hike 0.7 miles to Circle Junction.

From here, I prefer the counter-clockwise route. For that, from Circle Junction, bear right, crossing the brook and continuing to the junction with the Bicknell Ridge trail. The Baldface Circle trail continues to the right, through the forest toward Eagle Crag. Instead, I recommend the Bicknell Ridge trail, which continues through the forest briefly before quickly gaining the ridge for views of the entire circuit: the ledges, South Baldface, and North Baldface. In July and August, hikers are usually rewarded with blueberries at the ridge as well. Once on the ridge, the trail ambles in and out of trees but frequently offers views.

Eventually, the Bicknell Ridge trail joins the Baldface Circle trail. Ambitious hikers might drop their packs and head over to Eagle Crag, but most should just continue on the ridge, climbing to the summit with North Baldface. The trail continues to enter and leave trees, but views continue to improve. A few false summits later, you reach the exposed summit of North Baldface (3,606′). From here, views include the Carter-Moriah range, the Presidentials, mountains near Conway (e.g., Kearsarge North), all of Evans Notch, and well into Maine.

Once ready to leave the summit, another mile or so along a ridge — descending and re-ascending — brings the hiker to South Baldface (3,547′). Though slightly lower than North Baldface, it has an even more exposed summit. Views are comparable to north, just from a slightly different vantage point.

From the summit of South Baldface, a completely exposed (other than blueberry bushes) trail leads down to Baldface Knob. To the right, a trail leads toward Mount Eastman (views mostly obscured by trees) and the Slippery Brook trail. If the weather is good, descend to the left, on the ledges. These granite ledges are steep and exposed, offering excellent views of the Evans Notch area and Maine for the entire descent. Again, blueberries here are usually quite good and often excellent. Do not, however, attempt the ledges if they are wet or the weather is bad — instead, choose the forested route down via Slippery Brook (which is much less slippery).

If you follow the ledges down, you’ll reach Baldface Shelter less than 100 yards after reentering the forest. From here, it’s a pretty quick walk out to Circle Junction. At this point, you are faced with a choice: detour to Emerald Pool or return to the trailhead. I recommend the short detour to Emerald Pool, if only to take in the view and dip your feet in the cold water.

I love this route and direction. After the long, forested walk in — which you get out of the way at the start — you do much of your elevation gain along Bicknell Ridge. Descending the ledges has you looking out and enjoying the view the whole way.  However, this route is not for everyone — in particular, some find descending the ledges too exposed, and much more nerve-racking than climbing them. If that sounds like you, you might consider ascending the ledges (again, using Slippery Brook as an alternative if it is wet) and reversing this route. That — clockwise — is also the traditional direction from Cold River Camp.

Distance, as recommended (Baldface Circle to Bicknell Ridge, over the summits, down Baldface Circle trail): 9.7mi and 3600′.

Caribou

Near the north end of Evans Notch, Caribou Mountain offers a loop hike that combines streams, a waterfall, and a ledgy summit. The mountain takes its name for being where the last caribou in the area was shot in 1854, so don’t expect to see any caribou.

From the parking lot off NH113, you can choose to proceed either clockwise (the Caribou Trail and then the Mud Brook Trail) or counterclockwise (the Mud Brook Trail then the Caribou Trail).

Most days, I prefer counter clockwise. The Mud Brook Trail parallels its namesake for a ways, making for a pleasant, forested walk. Overall, though, I think the Caribou Trail is prettier. As a result, it’s nice to do this section on fresh legs. The first two miles of the ascent are gradual, before climbing steeply for a mile to  a rocky ledge with views back down Evans Notch to the south and to the east. From there, it’s just another 0.4 miles to the ledgy summit, offering many places to spread out for lunch and enjoy the view.

Continuing counterclockwise from the summit, the Mud Brook Trail trail descends in steep bursts and interrupted by small level stretches, before reaching a junction with the Caribou Trail. There used to be a shelter here, but now this is a wilderness area and the shelter has been removed.

From the junction (at 3.9 miles), take the left fork along the Caribou Trail.  About a mile from the junction, you will reach a small stream crossing. Look below at the 25′ is Kees Falls. A side trail leads to the base of the waterfall, with a view and a swimming hole that is typically pleasant but chilly. Whether or not you swim, and whether or not you go to the base of the falls this is a good spot for a break.

From here, it’s just another two miles back the parking lot. Much of the trail follows Morrison Brook for another lovely forested walk.

Distance: 6.9 miles, 1900′ elevation gain.

This hike is in the Caribou-Speckled Mountain Wilderness. Please adhere to regulations about group size.

Basin Rim (& on to Mount Meader and Eagle Crag)

For days with questionable weather, we often head to Basin Rim. The hike is almost entirely in in the trees, providing shelter from rain, the route offers both lovely brooks and a viewpoint at the end, and trails offer good options for some hikers to walk back to Cold River Camp if the weather clears up.

The hike starts from a trailhead just outside the Wild River Campground, up a five mile gravel road from ME-113. From the parking lot, take the Basin Trail east as it skirts around the edges of the campground, with sections on old logging roads. After about half a mile, the trail reaches Blue Brook. 1.3 miles from the trailhead, the trail crosses Blue Brook. Rocks along the stream and a small cascade make this a pretty spot for a break.

Once across the brook, the trail continues to follow it, climbing a bit more. Several social paths lead down to the brook, offering places to stop in small pools or on granite slides. Moss and fallen leaves can be slippery, so use caution if you venture down; I skinned many knees on these rocks as a child.

Seven tenths of a mile after the stream crossing, you reach a junction. To the right, a trail leads to the former Blue Brook Shelter, which is now a tent site. If you go to the tent site, you can follow the Black Angel trail for 0.3 miles to Rim Junction. Alternatively, you can just continue directly on the Basin Trail 0.2 miles to Rim Junction.

From rim junction, head north a few hundred yards to a side trail on your right. This leads out to a ledge and cliff overlooking Basin Pond, with views of Basin and across to Speckled-Blueberry.

From here, you have a choice. You can return the way you came, and at least someone should to get the car(s), unless you were dropped off.

On to Mount Meader

For a longer hike, return to Rim Junction. From here, the Basin Rim trail leads south to Mount Meader in 1.4 miles and 1000′ of elevation gain. On the ledgy east knob of Mount Meader, you are presented with another choice. You can descend the Mount Meader trail to NH 113 (3 miles), passing over ledges with some views back to the basin and the Royces about 0.1 miles below the summit.

On to Eagle Crag

Alternatively, take the Meader Ridge trail, passing a spur trail to Meader’s true summit, which offers few views, at 0.2 miles. Around 0.4 miles from the junction, you’ll see a sign for a spur trail. This 100 yard detour used to have good views to the Carter Range in the west. As of the last time I was here, though, the trees had grown to obscure the view. The viewpoint was so anti-climatic that someone had painted “end” on the rock. Still, for only 100 yards, it may be worth checking whether winter storms have opened up the view any.

From here, the trail alternates between short ascents and descents before emerging from the trees on granite ledges 1.9 miles past the junction. Another tenth of a mile brings you to the summit of Eagle Crag, with views to the Baldfaces and Bicknell Ridge, and back to the north. From here, you can descend the Baldface Circle Trail (3.7 miles). It is more scenic, though, to continue 0.3 miles up the Baldface Circle Trail to the Bicknell Ridge Trail and descend from there.

Options

  • To and from Rim junction: 4.5 miles, 1950′.
  • With a detour to the former Blue Brook shelter: 4.8 miles, 1950′.
  • From trailhead to camp, via Mount Meader and Mount Meader Trail: 6.7 mile, 2950′.
  • From trailhead to camp, via Mount Meader, Eagle Crag, and the Bicknell Ridge trail: 9.2 miles, ~3500′.

Mount Hight and Carter Dome

One range east from the Presidentials and one range west from Basin Rim and the Baldfaces, you’ll find the Carter-Moriah Range. This range includes several hikes with lovely brooks and great views of the Presidentials. The best of these, in my view, is the hike over Mount Hight and Carter Dome, then down into Carter Notch.

This hike is a “lollipop” — you get a loop over the summits but start and end on the Nineteen Mile Brook trail. Start at the trailhead on US16 in Pinkham Notch. The trail, once a road, follows the brook, passing a dam at 1.2 miles. At 1.9 miles, it reaches a junction with the Carter Dome trail. From here, I prefer the clockwise loop.

Take the Carter Dome trail, beginning the long climb up toward Zeta Pass (3890′). At the pass, you intersect with Carter-Moriah trail. To the north (left), the trail leads to Carters and Shelburne-Moriah. Save that for another time, and proceed toward Mount Hight. Two tenths of a mile after the pass, you reach another junction. The Carter Dome trail goes to the right bypasses Mount Hight’s summit—a good option if the weather has taken a turn—while the Carter-Moriah trail climbs steeply to the left to the summit of Mount Hight (4675′).

At the summit, still bare from a 1903 fire, take a break. Before you lay the best views from the Carter-Moriah range. Mount Madison, Mount Adams, Mount Jefferson, and Mount Washington, with the Great Gulf between them, are to the west. To the east, the roadless Wild River Valley separates you from the Baldfaces, Mount Meader, and the Royces.

After taking in these views, continue south along the ridge, descending slightly. The Carter Dome trail rejoins, shortly followed by a junction with the Black Angel trail, which leads down into the Wild River Valley and on to Basin Rim. That route presents interesting options for long day hikes or backpacking trips, but continue on the Carter Dome trail. From the junction, a short, gradual climb brings you to the summit of Carter Dome (4832′). Here, you’ll find some open granite ledges surrounded by trees, offering only broken views. A fire tower used to top this broad, flat summit, but it was removed in 1947. You can thank its presence for your well-graded ascent on the Carter Dome trail; this used to be the road to the fire tower.

From the summit of Carter Dome, the trail descends steeply on switchbacks into Carter Notch. The steep descent can be hard on knees, and if you find descents rougher than ascents, you’d probably prefer to do this hike in the reverse (counter-clockwise) direction. About 0.3 miles before the base of the notch, the trail passes short side trail to a granite outcrop and a good view of the notch.

Carter Notch presents another good opportunity for a rest. During the full-service season, the AMC Carter Notch Hut (3288′) often has leftover baked goods or soup available for purchase. The hut croo can also point you to ice caves (boulders that hide ice late into the summer) in the notch to explore, and there are also two small ponds.

When you are ready to go, follow the Nineteen Mile Brook trail out. After the steep descent into the notch, the gradual grade is a welcome reprieve. Boulders, however, dot the trail and can make for slower going than one might expect from the contour lines. 1.8 miles will bring you back to the junction with , and another 1.9 miles brings you back to the trailhead.

Distance as described: 10.5 miles, 3500′ elevation gain.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *