The Desolation Loop Backpacking Trip

Hike Summary

  • Difficulty: Hard
  • Distance: ~31 – 33 miles
  • Trailhead: Hancock Notch Trailhead
  • Elevation Gain / Loss: +/- 4,000′ without Mt. Carrigain.
  • Hike Type: Loop, Overnight
  • View: Good


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Desolation Loop in the Pemigewasset Wilderness. Full loop from SectionHiker shown in solid orange. Shortcut with dashed line. View interactive map on Caltopo.

Trip Report:

With the High Sierra Trailing coming up in a couple of weeks, Rachel and I decided we needed to make sure we could do the big 15+ mile days with full packs that would be required on the trail. We’ve already done the Pemi Loop twice, so we wanted something a little off the beaten path. After some research we found The Desolation Loop¬†description on SectionHiker which fit the bill perfect. It’s a long ~33 mile loop on the less-traveled eastern side of the¬†Pemigewasset Wilderness. SectionHiker opted to do the trail in 3 days with a bit of added bushwhacking. We were mostly concerned with testing how many miles we could put under our boots in a day so we chose to do the trail in two instead. We were also interested in determining our pace over more even terrain similar to what we would find on the mule-train graded trails of the HST. The loop provided secluded travel through parts of the forest few choose to see due to its distance from most 4000 footers. Below details the whole trip.

Day 1: Hancock Trailhead to Shoal Pond

We arrived at the parking lot slightly later than usual, knowing that we’d be spending the night and therefore less worried about starting early enough to make it back to Boston at a reasonable hour. The Hancock Notch parking lot on the Kanc was already quite full, and we had to fight to get a spot in the lot. We started down the familiar trail that leads to Mt. Hancock. The trails leading to the split with Cedar Brook Trail are very well traveled, and although we found blueberry bushes they were entirely picked clean. The trail is also wide and easy to travel, something we wouldn’t find later on the hike.

We reached the split with Cedar Brook Trail and the nature of the trail changed immediately. We left the wide path of The Hancocks and immediately faced denser foliage, less erosion, and slippery rocks. It was quite easy to tell that this trail was significantly less traveled. After rising for a few minutes we reached the boarder with The Pemi Wilderness, where we would spend the next two days. This crossing point has an additional sign alerting the hiker to the artifacts that may be found (and left) on the trail. This part of the Wilderness contains many old logging camps that were used before the land was purchased from the Lumber Barons and turned into a National Forest and Wilderness areas. The Cedar Brook trail descended for a few miles to the Wilderness Trail, providing a nice view of Mt. Hitchcock to the South West.

After a short walk along the railroad graded Wilderness Trail we reached the Thoreau Falls Trail and one of the few remaining bridges that cross the Pemi. The bridge is really just a large tree spanning two concrete supports, with a path and handrails nailed to the top of it. There is an ominous “Weight Limit 1 Person at a Time” sign at both ends that I suspect should be unquestionably respected. The bridge offered a surprisingly close and unique view of Mt. Bond that I assume only gets better later in the year with less leaves on the trees.

Pemi River crossing with Mt. Bond in the background.
Not a time or place I want to test my luck.

Along our way to Thoreau Falls, we encountered many of the artifacts mentioned in the sign when we crossed into the Pemi Wilderness. Some had quite obvious functions, while other remain more or less a mystery. Perhaps if we had more knowledge of what the old logging camps were like we’d be able to guess more at their nature. There are also blueberries and even the occasional raspberry bush along these trails for a nice surprise snack.

Thoreau Falls was incredible and absolutely one of the must-see sites in The Whites that isn’t a mountain summit. The falls were enormous with many cascades, pools to wade or swim in, and rocks to sun yourself. Sadly when we made it to the falls it threatened to storm, and the prospect of dinner kept our stay short.

Panorama of the lower half of Thoreau Falls.

After approximately 15.5 miles we made it to Shoal Pond. A quick search revealed a path going away from the Pond up the hill (mentioned in the White Mountain Guidebook) that led to approximately four nice (and legal) dispersed camping sites. We talked for a few minutes with the one other hikers staying there (one of the only people we saw after leaving the main Hancock Trail) before making dinner and going to sleep.

Recently when backpacking we’ve moved away from buying the store-made meals and have instead opted to make our own, typically out of different blends of Cous Cous, Dehydrated Veggies, and Spices. These meals can be made simply be boiling water and putting it in a freezer bag with all of the ingredients. A homemade cozy bag keeps it warm while it cooks and the veggies rehydrate.

Day 2: Shoal Pond to The Kancamagus Highway

In the morning we woke up before dawn to a wonderfully still day. We packed up our campsite as the sun rose behind us and made our way down to Shoal Pond to enjoy breakfast. Unlike the night before, Mount Carrigain and Zeacliff were out in full force, and we enjoyed the silence and the mist of the lake.

Mt. Carrigain from Shoal Pond in the early morning.

After finishing breakfast we started back towards Mt. Carrigain, where we would take the long way around passing through Carrigain Notch between Vose Spure and Mt. Lowell. Avoiding all the major peaks in the area, this trip had a much different feel than our typical summit adventures. The trail leaving Shoal Pond was thin and overgrown, with many trees across the trail and sections of decaying bog bridges. The trails leading around Carrigain were also maintained, but had a thicker and wilder feel than often found on the main paths to the 4000 footers. We surprised three Spruce Grouse on the way back to the intersection with the Desolation Trail, and there was a copious amount of Moose and Bear Scat lining the trails.

We made it back to the main trails around Carrigain without much else happening, discovering a few questionably legal campsites along the way. Going through Carrigain Notch we met our first other hiker of the day, a runner going up The Desolation Trail to the summit of Mt. Carrigain. Sometime I’ll have to come back and give that trail a try. We ate lunch where the trail intersected the main Carrigain throughway, excited to soak our feet in the cold stream that runs beside the trail. Unfortunately this also meant a return to the crowds, ending the solitude of the previous night.

We were moving relatively slow, and with the long drive back to Boston we opted to cut the last four miles of the trip and instead take a detour to the Kancamagus Highway and attempt to hitchhike back to our car at the Hancock Notch Trailhead. The Kanc is a notoriously hard hitch, and we hoped to not wait too long. After approximately 15 minutes of trying, a small caravan of cars decided to stop. The driver of the first car didn’t speak any English, but with the help of the second driver translating they indeed offered us a ride to our cars. The caravan was a family from Guatemala visiting and traveling through The White Mountains, which we learned from their son Romeo who spoke enough English to give us their names and where they were from. You never know who is going to be the one to help you!