NH48: Mount Carrigain Backpacking Adventure
I delight in sharing outdoor experiences with people and introducing others to new outdoor activities. I don’t believe we are ever too old to try something new or discover a new hobby/passion. When I found out my cousin was interested in backpacking, I knew we needed to plan a trip! Having gone to the White Mountains in New Hampshire for recent hiking trips, I figured we could plan one epic backpacking trip, checking off many items from our bucket lists: (1) Bag one of the NH 48 4,000-footers, (2) My first backpacking trip on the East Coast, and (3) Daniel’s first backpacking trip EVER. With advice from a White Mountain National Forest park ranger, consultation of maps, and studies of options in the area, Daniel and I planned to hike Mount Carrigain. The major attraction? An established epic campground only 100 feet from the summit.
NH 5/48 with a perfect campground?! Not bad for my FIRST backpacking trip on the East Coast and Daniel’s first backpack ever!
Date Hiked: July 10-11, 2021
Distance: 10.1 miles (round trip)
Elevation Gain: 3,448 feet
Highest Elevation: Mount Carrigain summit (4,700 feet)
Route: Out and back via Signal Ridge Trail
Drive from Boston: 3 hours, 15 minutes
Parking/TH: The trailhead is 2 miles down Sawyer River Road from Route 302, with the parking lot on the left. The fee is $3, unless you have a parking pass (I have an “America the Beautiful” annual pass).
Weather/Conditions: Pretty sunny & toasty in the low-80’s, but tree cover through much of the trail made it more tolerable! We got lucky after Hurricane Elsa swept the northeast (and seemingly missed the Whites).
Highlights: 360-degree views from the fire observation tower, camping near the summit, sunset/star rise/sunrise, Daniel’s first backpacking trip ever & my first backpack on the east coast!
Mount Carrigain is the 13th highest peak in the New Hampshire 48 peaks over 4,000 feet and is named after Philip Carrigain, who was New Hampshire’s secretary of state from 1805 to 1810. We opted to hike out and back via the Signal Ridge Trail, but there’s also options to make a loop. Per AMC’s White Mountain Guide, “The loop back to Sawyer River Road via Desolation and Carrigain Notch trails is interesting but much longer, rougher, and more strenuous.”
During my last trip to the White Mountains, I stopped at the Visitor’s Center in Lincoln to chat with a ranger about camping and backpacking in the Whites. He provided awesome advice and resources, including a White Mountain National Forest (WMNF) Developed Campgrounds guide and various maps. I’ve learned the cost associated with campgrounds depends on who operates the land (such as WMNF, AMC, or DOC). Our first-come, first-serve selected campground on Carrigain was free because it’s operated by WMNF. Other backcountry campgrounds may have fees, so be sure to “know before you go”!
Speaking of knowing before you go…
Stay tuned for a full “Backpacking Essentials” post but, in general, preparation for a backpacking trip involves the 10 Essentials (my version here) + sleeping and cookware items. Our additions to the 10 Essentials included:
- Shelter: Daniel and I shared my two-person tent (Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2)
- Sleeping pad/bag: Daniel brought a sleeping bag and I supplied 2 sleeping pads.
- Cookware: We shared my JetBoil stove to boil water for our freeze dried meals & oatmeal.
- Water: We packed extra water, knowing the water sources were more spare near the summit. I brought my Sawyer Squeeze for refills on the way back to the car. I am glad I was forewarned on a WMNF forum NOT to drink the well water near Carrigain’s summit!
- Bear Preparation: You must also be “bear aware” in the Whites, which is home to black bears. I brought a bag & cord to hang our food & scented toiletries away from where a bear may be able to access them. Another option is a bear canister. General recommendations from WMNF is to store anything with a scent including toiletries 10 feet up and 5 feet out on a tree limb that cannot support a bear.
‘Nuff business talk! It may be a habit I learned from working in healthcare, but I always like to START with Safety. It’s important to remember how to stay safe when accessing the outdoors! With my Wilderness First Responder training, it’s definitely the first thing to cross my mind. Be prepared, as Scar from Lion King would say!
Our trip began with a visit to White Mountain Bagel Co in Lincoln, NH (a new classic move on my part) for egg sandwiches. We arrived at the Signal Ridge Parking Lot around 11:45am, where we happened upon an open parking spot! SCORE!! Sometimes, timing aligns perfectly. This was one of those times. It was a day of good omens and vibes.
The trail begins on the south side of Whiteface Brook. Much of the lower part of the trail is along easy logging trails. At 1.7 miles (and about 1,900 feet), Signal Ridge Trail turns right and crosses Carrigain Brook ~60 yards later–a great water source, but there are a few more further up the trail.
The trail then veers left at 2 miles, while Carrigain Notch Trail heads straight. The first two miles of Signal Ridge Trail are a breeze. We hiked 2.5 miles in 45 minutes, ascending 500 feet. At the trail junction with Carrigain Notch Trail, we crossed a small brook on a log bridge, then the trail began ascending. As elevation increased, our speed decreased. It’s been a while since I’ve walked with a heavy pack and Daniel was a total champ given this was his first backpacking trip. The trail became most steep at 2.7 miles, where the trail makes a few sharp left turns. At 3.1 miles, Signal Ridge Trail turns sharply right into a birch-lined straight section. My phone created an illusion when I went to photograph the treed path, which I thought to be the mountain air circulating… but instead, it was just sweat wiped across my camera that created the illusion (lol oops).
Truth be told, we were a bit sweaty from our efforts on the ascent, but this didn’t distract us from enjoying the sounds and sights of nature. Daniel had a unique perspective and experience with the trail, given his environmental science background. He pointed out the different bird calls and mosses along our way.
At 4.5 miles, we got to Signal Ridge with sweeping mountain views from 4,420 feet on the southeasterly spur. Here, you can see the cliffs of Mt. Lowell across Carrigain Notch. Fueled by views of our objective and cotton candy grapes (seriously, have you had them??), we continued on the rocky path toward the summit.
From here, we dipped back down and to the left as we returned to the woods. At 100 feet from the summit, we found home for the night at designated campgrounds (off the trail to the left – lookout for little tent sign!). We decided to drop our packs and refresh our sweaty selves before heading to the summit so we could fully take it all in! We set up our tent site, which was neighbored about 50 feet away by two other hikers. Once settled in at 4PM, we climbed the observation tower to see the magnificent views of Mount Washington and the Pemigewasset Wilderness.
Having never backpacked in the White Mountains before, I was a little nervous we wouldn’t get a campsite, considering it is first-come, first-serve. We were truly blessed to have relative solitude, a clear sky, beautiful weather, and unexpected company. There was a family of three + family friend staying near the summit of Carrigain. Each member brought different dynamics to the mountain. We shared time together on Carrigain’s fire lookout for dinner, sunset, star gazing, and sunrise… accompanied by a shotgun of beer, airplane biscuits, and an astronomy book.
As the sun set, we watched as the stars rose above us and the Milky Way Galaxy revealed itself. We saw a satellite circling Earth and a few shooting stars – all signs we were in the right place at the right time. Nearly falling asleep under the stars, cozied in my sleeping bag, I knew all was well in my soul.
We woke up at 5AM to catch the sunrise at the observation tower, eat breakfast, drink coffee, and pack up camp for out trek out. We refilled water about 1 mile from the summit, in a small stream across the trail. We got back to the car in just under 3 hours, and returning to the trailhead around 10:30AM. We made it back in town to have an EPIC burger at Lincoln’s Black Mountain Burger Co. (10/10 recommend).
I think Daniel would go backpacking again and I KNOW I’ll be back in the Whites to sleep in my tent again soon.
Overall, I’d say Mount Carrigain was a moderately difficult trail that’s well worth the effort for the views at the top. Have you hiked Carrigain? What constellation would you look for in the starry sky?