This week brought us an opportunity to incorporate a hike into our family vacation. We had spent the prior day at the adventure park at Attitash and thought today would be the perfect day to hike the Wildcats. Perfect because it’s a solid 3+ hour drive from our home south of Boston and why not tackle it when you are staying just 30 minutes away. The hike had both Geoffrey and Caitlin in the hiking crew with Mom tagging along for the first time!
The plan was an out and back hike up the Polecat Ski Trail up to Wildcat D and over the Wildcat Ridge trail to Wildcat A and back for a total of 9.2 miles and a AMC WMG book time of…. who knows as they don’t give a book time for the ski trail. From D to A and back is 2:10 of book time plus I figured a solid 2+ hours up and 1+ down for the ski trail for a 6+ish hour hike? We planned this as to not scare Mom off with the ascent of Wildcat E from Pinkham Notch which is apparently not for the faint of heart. This also gave us a bailout for Mom at any point of the ski trail or from the top of D via the ski gondola that runs all day for sightseeing.
So we were off just after 7:45 to beat what was supposed to be a hot and humid day. The forecasters weren’t wrong and the humidity was kicking as we started out. Layers were shed within 10 minutes of the ascent. Bugs of the very small gnat persuasion were out immediately. On the plus side they did not seem to bother Geoffrey, Caitlin or me, but they were swarming poor Mom despite several rounds of Deep Woods Off.
In the trail map above, we arrived at the left-most (Northern) section of the ski trail when Mom tapped out (this was exactly 1 mile from the lodge). I looked over as she said she was done and there was a giant cloud of bugs circling her. The sun was out and it was heating up fast as we had all worked up a sweat before 8AM. None of us argued with her and she took this picture before heading back down.
I felt bad as the kids & I had really looked forward to hiking with her, but if it isn’t fun for someone you can’t really force it. I asked if any of the them wanted to go with her and they both wanted to bag the peaks so upward we moved. Later after the hike she told me she ran into another group of hikers who congratulated her on getting up to the peak so early!! Ha!
We continued our trek up the 2.6 mile climb and we ran across several different interesting finds. The first two finds were animal tracks in the mud. We first encountered a fairly fresh moose track and then an even fresher wildcat (catamount?) track. Catie quickly remarked how that is why they must call this place Wildcat.
I made note of this and kept a closer eye on the waist high grass that covered the trail. I thought to myself that it would be a nice place for a Catamount to be hanging out to get a Geoffrey sized snack. We continued up and Geoffrey the rock hound found a very gem like smoky quartz and topaz matrix in the middle of the ski trail. He was super proud of his find and spent the rest of the day looking for “gems” (a lot of times at the expense of movement).
The ski trail provides many fine outlooks onto almost all of the Presidentials at different points. The kids stopped to enjoy the view several times. All the Presis were mostly clear except for Mt. Washington which was in a perpetual cloud all day! One note here is that there is a mostly gravel road the ski resort uses for upper access through the non-ski season runs with the Polecat Trail and then diverges twice before finally returning to Polecat to the summit. Technically they ask you to use the Polecat trail exclusively, but using the access road may shave off a few 10ths of a mile as this seems to be the most direct route and leads to the same place.
As we continued climbing we finally started to hear the squeak of the ski lift getting closer and closer. We turned a corner and the top of the lift was in sight. We had finally made it to the top to find the Wildcat Ridge Trail, which is also the AT, directly behind the ski lift. Hour and 40 minutes to trek from the base lodge to the top which was well below budgeted time! Funny I hadn’t noticed the sign in the several times Catie and I had skied here. Funny, I also hadn’t noticed the length of the damn trail when you are downhill skiing either!
So at the left you take a left and scramble up a few rock where a minute later you find the observation deck which happens to be the summit of Wildcat D! Summit snacks were had and a search party was formed to find the USGS button.
After a few minutes enjoying the view we headed off for Wildcat C, B & A via the Wildcat Ridge Trail. It was at this point that we started to experience some trail traffic, the vast majority of which were AT thru hikers. They all asked the same question to the kids about how they had gotten up from Pinkham Notch and were all a little less impressed when they told them that we used the ski trail. I made a note to come back and hike the Wildcat Ridge Trail from Pinkham Notch without the kids at some point!
The trail across the ridge affords occasional view both east (Black Mountain and the Wild River Wilderness) and west (Presidential Range). It’s a nice trail that is mostly well marked through low bogs in the cols and tight spruce elsewhere. To be honest I had no idea when we hit the C and B peaks. There is a lot of up and downs over the 2 miles from D to A and my Garmin running watch only shows elevation when you plug it into the computer, so no help there. I took a couple of shots from what I thought was the peaks but who knows. I do know we crossed them though!
We finally made it over to Wildcat A after many ups,downs and another hour and 45 minutes. At the top there is a sign to a vista (but no USGS summit button that we could find). This is not to be missed. This spot has spectacular views of Cater Notch, Carter Dome, South Carter and the Carter Notch Hut with the surrounding Carter Lakes. We stopped here for snacks as this was our turn around point. We encountered several more AT thru hikers here on their way to Maine. They are very friendly and they loved interacting with the kids. The kids had a ball interacting with them as well with the kids trying to give each other trail names in honor of the AT hikers!
When I looked down from the outlook to the Carter Notch Hut, it dawned on me that we could save ourselves trudging back the way we came and visiting an AMC hut by hiking down to the notch and out the 19 Mile Brook Trail. It turns out to be a very similar distance if you visit the hut. I called Kelly and arranged for her to pick us up at the 19 Mile trail head. The kids were super fired up as that meant another AMC hut visit and brownies! The complete change of plans left me a little in the dark as I usually research the heck out of the trails we are going to use via the AMC WMG and the New England Trail Conditions website. I didn’t even have the WMG on me today, but I had the maps and we started our descent down into the notch.
This trail is super steep with multiple switchbacks most of the way down. I don’t think I’d enjoy the climb on this one from the notch to Wildcat A as this look relentless. The kids and I were happy to be going down. Just before the junction with the 19 Mile Brook Trail you run into a slide path with a spring coming out of it. That nicely opens a view out to the valley below.
Shortly after the slide we ended up at the intersection with the 19 Mile Brook Trail.
At the intersection we took a right towards the Carter Notch Hut. This takes you along the first of the two Cater Lakes. The grades are fairly flat and the scenery is spectacular. I’ll let the pictures do the talking here.
I’d suggest spending the time exploring this area (we totally missed the Rampart due to this being an unplanned route). It was one of the most beautiful areas we’ve hiked all summer. It’s this little hidden paradise at 3300 feet. The lakes are spectacular and the mountains just loom over each side of the notch. So 15 minutes after turning right from the Wildcat Ridge Trail we were at the Carter Notch Hut, and that was stopping quite a bit to take it all in and snap pics. As usual, the AMC Huts and croo do not disappoint. Unlike the Greenleaf Hut, the Carter Notch Hut are several huts with the main hut housing the dining room and then several bunkhouses scattered around the area. We entered the main hut and were greeted by many of the same AT hikers we had met earlier in the day. It still amazes me to think these folks have been hiking here from Georgia and still have 100’s of miles to go!
It was just after noon by the time we got here and we stopped for lunch adding some type of coconut bread and lemonade purchased from the hut’s kitchen. Also a bonus was being able to borrow the hut’s copy of the AMC WMG! I read up as the kids were eating. We convened a quick conference about the possibility of adding the Carter Dome to today’s peaks. It was only 1.2 miles, 1500 feet of elevation and about a 90 minute addition to the day. The kids wanted to get back and we were heading to Maine to stay with our friends later that day so we opted to head to the trail head. The kids run the show but it seemed to me that the extra 90 minutes would have saved us the ~2000′ elevation rise from the trail head to here later down the line, but I didn’t want to push our luck.
We headed out of the hut after the kids got their hut patches (thanks AMC member discount). I did have an interesting conversation with one of the croo who was telling me they were running out of propane at the hut. I inquired how they get that to the hut and she replied that it gets helicoptered in! They were going to run out before the chopper was scheduled to resupply the hut, so they were facing the possibility of having to hike some bottles in. It makes you appreciate the sweet treats a bit more.
At ~1:00 we started to backtrack on the 19 Mile Brook Trail to the intersection of the Wildcat Ridge Trail and then further down 19 Mile. The grades were relatively easy and all downhill. We made some great time and about an hour later were at the intersection where the Carter Dome Trail splits off. This is the exact middle of the trail between the hut and route 16.
There was some nice cascades and a dam of the 19 Mile Brook along the trail. If the wife was not waiting at the trail head, we might have had a swim here. I looks like the perfect place!
Soon after the dam, the trail goes over a relocated section with a completely new bridge and then away from the brook. According to the AMC WMG, this was due to damage from Hurricane Irene in 2011. Excellent job AMC trail crews!
Within .5 miles of the trail head, we encountered a familiar hiker. Mom was hiking up from route 16 to meet us. We hiked the last 15 minutes with her to the car and the end of our hiking day!
Total distance 9.3ish miles in 8 hours including 3 long stops at A, D and the hut! The kids rocked it! We traded the the hiking boots for flip flops and headed to the AMC’s Joe Dodge Lodge in Pinkham Notch. Once there I got the kids their 4000 footer passbooks to track their progress. I also got both the kids the 4000 footer table of elements poster. While inside, outside it was pouring rain! Good thing we opted to hike out instead of up to the Carter Dome!
We were headed to Bridgeton Maine to stay with friends for a couple of days there, but on the way we hit a family favorite in North Conway, Tukerman’s Tavern, for dinner. As always, an excellent meal! We spent the next day canoeing the Sacco River with the kids and sitting on and in a lake for a well deserved rest!
Dad’s Trip Tips:
Trails and Planning: Well, this was planned as an out and back hike and ended up being a point to point hike. For the out and back I’d likely try the Wildcat Ridge Trail from the Glenn Ellis lot if it was just me or with C, but the way it is portrayed in the WMG and in online blogs, I’m reluctant to take G (or maybe even C) up there without having been there myself. The Polecat Ski Trail is excellent for families and all hikers just for the views it affords alone. Ideally I’d go up the ridge trail and come back down the ski trail to avoid as much traveling on the same trail as possible. The ski trail also affords you the opportunity for help or a bailout if needed via the top of the ski lift (in the summer or winter).
Had I known I was going point to point, I would have started a bit earlier and included the Carter Dome after the hut. It saves the ~2000′ of elevation gain up the 19 Mile Brook Trail at another time. If I had planned ahead of time to be in Carter Notch I would have also gone up the couple hundred yards from the hut on the Wildcat River Trail to see the Ramparts (large boulders in a boulder field). I only read about this after returning from the hike and wished I had known before!
New section of the 19 Mile Brook Trail was excellent. All trails well marked with the exception of a herd path from the top of D’s observation tower that you could confuse for the ridge trail. Well maintained trails throughout and nothing stood out as needing work!
Kid Factor: The kids enjoyed the ski trail up and the views from the top of A & D. They were disappointed by not being able to recognize B & C as we hiked the ridge and that they were view less. To do it over again, I’d set expectations for B & C low. The trails were all appropriate for both of my kids and while the hike down from A to the notch is steep, there isn’t anything overtly sketchy or close to dangerous.
Again, the AMC’s Carter Notch Hut (along with all the huts we have visited), do not disappoint with their tasty treats and friendly croo. They play right up to the kids and are quite informative! The hut ended up being the perfect distance away from the start for a lunch break even though it wasn’t planned!
Gems? I was shocked by G picking up a pretty nice quartz matrix from the middle of the ski trail. That really motivated him and he spent the rest of the day looking for more “gems.” If that’s your thing, the Whites certainly have enough geology to keep a rock hound going. I’m going to have to learn a bit more about this to help G out! The AMC needs a “Rocks of the Whites Hike” for adults and kids!
The 19 Mile Brook offered a nice respite to the heat several times on the way down. I would recommend the area at the dam as a swimming hole. If you do the out and back hike, there really isn’t an opportunity unless you park at Glenn Ellis lot and dunk or cool off in the Ellis River, so keep that in mind if using the ski slope. Summer operations at the Wildcat ski lodge includes the cafe for refreshments if needed (it wasn’t open at 7:30 AM though). The ski area also has disc golf and zip rides if that’s of interest to your children (or yourself). See “Other Tips” for the family friendly attractions in the area!
Equipment: I didn’t carry anything more than a long sleeve shirt for all of us due to the weather forecast calling for heat and humidity. I did carry full rain gear and the assortment of emergency equipment (yes I put a med kit together since ours is at the bottom of a ravine just below the summit of the Middle Tripyramid). Remember there is 2 miles of hiking across a ridge right next to Mt. Washington. Anything can happen so be prepared.
Water wasn’t a huge issue even on a hot day since we hiked point to point and included the hut. We topped off there, but if you are going in and out via the ski trail and ridge to A, there isn’t a lot of water opportunities that I could see so carry plenty.
Other Tips: The gift shop at Joe Dodge Lodge is excellent for all your AMC and 4000 footer gift needs, maps and guides. The staff there is also excellent about helping you plan a hike or to give current conditions. There is lodging and a cafeteria there as well, so this could be a base camp for several day hikes. The kids loved the posters and passports so this was a fantastic stop!
Tuckerman’s Tavern on 16A in North Conway (just after the Bartlett line) is not to be missed. Excellent menu and local beer selection as well as a nice kids menu. We hit this on the way to Maine after hiking. A Two Hikers Approved establishment indeed! Options abound in the area for meals. The Two Hikers also highly recommend the Red Parka Inn, Moat Mountain Smokehouse and Brewery & the Lobster Trap in various areas throughout the Mt. Washington Valley.
The Adventure Park at Attitash ski area is excellent and well worth the admission if you have time in the area. Cranmore isn’t bad either but there is a bit less to do there. They have summer tubing while Attitash has the Alpine “have amazing fun while losing skin layers” Slide which the whole family loves (until you need the first aid lodge). Attitash also has water slides which makes it a better call on a hot summer day!
Up Next: Kinsmans, Hancocks or the Crawford Notch peaks?
4000′ Footers Completed to Date:
Caitlin/Dad: Liberty, Flume, Tecumseh, Lincoln,* Lafayette,* Osceola, East Osceola, North Tripyramid, Middle Tripyramid, Wildcat A & Wildcat D (11)
Geoffrey: Tecumseh, Osceola, East Osceola, Lincoln, Lafayette, Wildcat A & Wildcat D (7)
* 2x for Dad