This trip has it all: great views, an epic ridge walk, a fire tower, two alpine lakes, moose habitat, waterfalls, and cascades. Mt Carrigain is at the geographic center of the White Mountains and on a clear day you can see over 30 of the other 4000 footers from its summit fire tower. From Carrigain, you’ll journey deep into the heart of Pemigewasset Wilderness before visiting two high elevation ponds at the foot of Mt Nancy. The site of the Nancy Brook Research Natural Area, the area surrounding the ponds is prime moose habitat and one of the largest tracts of virgin forest in New England. From there you have the option to climb Mt Nancy (3926′), a New England Hundred Highest Peak which has a fantastic view of Mt Washington and the Dry River Valley, before passing Nancy Cascades, a 300 waterfall which drops into a shallow pool where you can soak your feet on a hot day.
****/5 out of 5
16 miles w/5300′ of cumulative elevation gain
White Mountain 4000 Footers
June thru October
Backcountry Camping Regulations for the White Mountain National Forest.
No Fires in Nancy Brook Research Natural Area
- Signal Ridge Trail Head, Sawyer Pond Rd – Sawyer River Road is a gravel forest service road, located 1.4 miles south of the Nancy Pond Trail head (directions below) on Rt 302. Drive up it 2 miles to the Signal Ridge Trail Head parking lot.
- Nancy Pond Trail Head Parking, Rt 302
8-21-18: Sawyer River Road is currently closed due to road construction, but should open again quite soon. You can still reach the Signal Ridge Trailhead by parking at the bottom of the road and walking 2 miles up the road to the beginning of the trail. I did it a few weeks ago and it’s an easy walk. You can also turn this entire route into a loop hike by walking from the Nancy Pond Trail Head to the Signal Ridge Trail.
The route follows the following trails in sequence. Refer to the AMC White Mountains Trail Maps 2: Franconia-Pemigewasset (2017 ed), although I’d recommend buying the complete AMC White Mountain Waterproof Map Set (2017 ed) rather than one map at a time, because it’s less expensive that way. Detailed trail descriptions can also be found in the AMC White Mountain Guide (2017 ed), which is considered the hiking bible for the region. Take photos of the relevant pages using your phone for easy reference, instead of carrying the entire book with you on hikes.
- Signal Ridge Trail – 5.3 miles
- Desolation Trail – 1.9 miles
- Carrigain Notch Trail 0.8 miles
- Nancy Pond Trail – 7.1 miles
- Mt Nancy Herd Path – 1.2 miles (roundtrip)
The following list provides cumulative distances on the route to each view or landmark.
- Signal Ridge – 4.8 miles
- Carrigain Summit and Fire Tower – 5.2 miles
- Carrigain Brook – 7.1 miles
- Norcross Pond – 12.7 miles
- Mt Nancy Summit – 13.3 miles
- Nancy Pond – 14.5 miles
- Nancy Cascades – 15.6 miles
Camping and Shelter Options
There aren’t any designated campsites on this route, so it’s all wild backcountry camping. Please observe the White Mountains Backcountry Camping Regulations and leave no trace. See How to Find a Dispersed Campsites for Backpacking for some tips on how to go about this.
Natural water sources are plentiful in the White Mountains although you may need to descend to them from ridgelines along side trails if you run short. In any case, carry a detailed topographic map with you and don’t rely on the overview map provided with this trip description to find water sources.
I also recommend purchasing the WMNF Pemigewasset Wilderness Map in Guthook Guide’s New England Hiker Smartphone App (IOS, Android) which is a GPS guide to all of the trails, trailhead, shelters, campsites, views, and water sources in the White Mountains National Forest. I use it all the time and it is much more complete and current than using the maps bundled with the Gaia Smartphone App.
While the open ridge (Signal Ridge) below the Mt Carrigain fire tower is well-marked by rock cairns, it is highly exposed to bad weather and is best hiked on a clear day, when cloud cover does not obscure the view. I’d recommending postponing your hike if rain is in the forecast, and because the subsequent descent of the Desolation Trail becomes considerably more difficult when the rocks are wet. Snow also lingers in the Norcross and Nancy Pond areas well into spring, so I would not advise hiking this route until June, to avoid deep postholing and spruce traps.
On the Trail
The start of the trail climbs parallels Whiteface Brook, providing access to many fine swimming holes and cascades. The trail has been rerouted in recent years and is well blazed, making it easy to follow.
At 1.7 miles, you’ll come to a wide, but shallow stream crossing with Carrigain Brook, which is the last place to top of your water bottles until you reach the other side of Mt Carrigain, about 6 miles distant. While the brook is often rock-hoppable in low water, there’s a good chance that your shoes will get wet at other times of year.
The next 3.5 miles of trail leading to the summit of Carrigain are quite rocky and steep, so give yourself plenty of time to climb it. As you ascend, you will be able to catch glimpses of the avalanche-scarred face of Mt Lowell on the other side of Carrigan Notch to the east. At 4.8 miles, you’ll pop above treeline on Signal Ridge for a short stretch. There are a few good rocks to sit on here, so rest your legs, and admire the view.
Looking ahead, you’ll just be able to make out the first tower on the actual summit. Re-enter a short stretch of trees, and climb 200′ higher to the base of the fire tower. It’s accessed by a sturdy set of stairs and provides 360 degree views of the Whites. The views are really incredible from this point and you can easily spend an hour or more soaking them in. Hint: Bring a camera that shoots panorama photos.
Leave the tower via the Desolation Trail which begins at the base of the fire tower and enters the Pemigewasset Wilderness. The first 1000 feet of the descent are quite steep and rocky, but the trail levels out nicely after than and becomes quite pleasant to hike. Take your time scrambling down the top of the trail though, sit on your butt to slide down when it’s warranted, and you’ll get down it without much trouble.
The Desolation Trail ends when it reaches Carrigain Brook and the well-signed Carrigan Notch Trail trail junction. Water is plentiful from this point forward on the route. Turn right onto the Carrigain Notch Trail for 0.8 miles, traveling towards the Nancy Brook Trail. This is a pretty stretch of trail that follows the old logging roads and skid ways that were used to harvest timber before the creation of the White Mountain National Forest.
Turn left onto the Nancy Pond Trail when you reach the trail junction, crossing three streams in quick succession. The surrounding area is the best place on this route in which to find a nice campsite. My advice would be to walk up one of these streams a few hundred yards and find yourself an open, secluded area to pitch your tent or shelter. This area is quite rich in wildlife, especially moose, so I’d avoid making camp directly adjacent to the streams where the animals cross them at night. This is easy to determine by examining the ground and surrounding vegetation and avoiding highly trafficked areas.
Continue along the Nancy Pond Trail, which climbs gradually to Norcross Pond at the foot of Mts Nancy and Anderson. The west end of the pond has some nice rocks to sit on and admire the view. If you look to the west, you’ll be able to see Franconia Ridge and the eastern face of Bondcliff and Mt Bond.
If you opt to climb Mt Nancy, it’s accessed by an unmarked and un-maintained side trail that’s easy to follow to the summit (it’s now a decommissioned hiking trail, but still used quite frequently.)
If you’re facing Norcross Pond, turn left and cross to the shore. From where you’re standing, you should see three paths. The rightmost one, closest to the shore, is the Nancy Pond Trail. To reach the Mt Nancy herd path, follow the leftmost path. You’ll know you’re on the correct path when you see a bare wooden board at head height near the bottom. The Forest Service posts a sign here warning people about the fines associated with illegal trail maintenance, but it’s frequently missing. The path is also encoded on the GeoPDF map and GPX file included above for this hike, which you can import into a GPS device or phone app like Gaia GPS.
The Mt Nancy herd path is a calf burner, climbing 850′ in 0.6 of a mile. But it’s easy to follow as it runs through forest, before climbing steeply next to (but not on) an avalanche slide, and then climbing again through spruce to a signed summit view. When you reach the summit, there’s great view of Mt Washington, the Oakes Gulf headwall, and the Dry River Valley which leads up to it.
To descend Mt Nancy, retrace your steps back to the beginning of the herd path and turn left onto the Nancy Pond Trail, which heads east along the shore of Norcross Pond. This section of trail travels over many bog bridges as it leaves Norcross Pond and passes smaller Nancy Pond, also on your right.
By this point, the trail runs along a stream on your left, colored a deep tannic red by decomposing leaves and vegetation. As the stream grows in size, it becomes a series of cascades culminating in a tall 300 foot waterfall named the Nancy Cascades. The trail turns right at the top of the waterfall and descends steeply along a series of switchbacks to the bottom of the falls, where you can leave the trail and scramble over rocks to a shallow pool at its base. Use caution here, because the water is falling from a great height and cause injury.
The Nancy Pond Trail continues on the right hand side of Nancy Brook for a short distance before a stream crossing, which may become difficult in high water. The trail climbs ascends after the crossing around an obstruction, passing the remains of an old mill building, before recrossing Nancy Brook in 0.6 of a mile.
The trail continues for another 1.6 miles through open forest over a series of gravel logging roads, until it ends at the Nancy Pond Trail head on Rt 302.
About Philip Werner: Philip is the 36th person to finish hiking and backpacking all of the trails in the White Mountain Guide (1440 miles). He’s also finished hiking many of the region’s peakbagging lists including the White Mountain 4000 footers, the 4000 footers in Winter, the Terrifying 25, the RMC 100, and the Trailwrights 72. Philip is a 4 season backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a member of the executive committee for the Random Hikers, a Long Trail Mentor for Vermont’s Green Mountain Club, and a Leave No Trace Master Educator. He also teaches several compass, GPS, and off-trail navigation courses each year, listed on Outdoors.org.
This trip plan can not alert you to every hazard, anticipate your experience, or limitations. Therefore, the descriptions of roads, trails, routes, shelters, tent sites, and natural features in this trip plan are not representations that a particular place or excursion will be safe for you or members of your party. When you follow any of the routes described on SectionHiker.com, you assume responsibility for your own safety. Under normal conditions, such excursions require the usual attention to traffic, road and trail conditions, weather, terrain, the capabilities of your party, and other factors. Always check for current conditions, obey posted signs, and Backcountry Camping and Wilderness Area Regulations. Hike Safe and follow the Hiker responsibility code.
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