Wildcat Ski Area. Snow machines cranking out fresh powder!
On Sunday October, 18th I had plans to hike the Wildcats with a couple of friends. However, timing was bad for them and they couldn’t make it. The forecast looked “winter like” and exciting so I decided to keep the plan and head out solo.
The Wildcats are a cluster of mountains tied into the Carter-Moriah range of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. There are 5 Wildcat peaks with the super unoriginal names of A,B,C,D, and E. Only two of these peaks, A and D count as “4000 Footers” due to the low prominence differences between the others. Wildcat A stands 4,422 feet tall, and D just below that at 4,070 feet.
The forecast for the wildcats looked a lot like it would in the middle of February. A High of 18F on the summit with 15-20 MPH winds and off and on flurries. As I approached the town of Gorham, NH I noticed my cars thermometer plummeting to 19F. The wind was whipping pretty good when I finally got out of my car. A light flurry had started, it was a beautiful scene with the peak fall foliage in the background.
There are several trails that lead up the Wildcats. The “easier” route is in and out from the eastern side in Carter Notch from Nineteen Mile Brook trail head off of RT 16. Many opt to stay at the Carter Notch hut and make this a multi day trip. The “harder” approach is from the western end of the range from the Wildcat Ridge Trail that starts at the Glenn Ellis Falls parking lot on RT. 16.
I had read that the views from Wildcat Ridge trail were superior so I opted to go this route. I wanted to make this a traverse by descending into Carter Notch and hiking out Nineteen Mile Brook trail to Rt. 16. Unfortunately, by doing this solo I’d be leaving a 4.5 mile road walk back to my car after the hike. I figured I’d be able to find another hiker at the parking lot to give me a ride… It was a gamble, but if I kept a decent pace I’d have plenty of time left to walk back if need be. Total mileage up Wildcat Ridge and Down Nineteen Mile Brook trail would be around 7.4 miles with a little over 3000 feet in elevation gain (not including the potential road walk).
Wildcat Ridge Trail Head
The hike begins in the same parking lot as Glenn Ellis falls. Glenn Ellis falls is a very easy short 1/4 mile hike that leads to a really cool waterfall. If you haven’t seen it I suggest adding this to the trip for the heck of it.
To get to the Wildcat Ridge Trail head you first go under Rt. 16 using a man-made tunnel from the parking lot. Just on the opposite end of the tunnel you make a hard left by stepping over some boulders (it’s not very obvious). From here there’s a short trail about 50 feet long that leads to the edge of the Ellis River. This part is tricky… you need to cross the Ellis River by rock hopping (Or take the Lost Pond Trail to add .9 miles and skip the river crossing). This section of the river can be very active and deep at times. On this day… some of the rocks available for hopping were glazed over with ice. I made it across, but not without slipping and dipping my boot in the frigid river water! My choice to wear my high waterproof winter boots saved my ass today!
Woops… a nice invigorating boot dunk to start the day!
Once across the river the trail continues on fairly easy terrain for about 1/4 of a mile. After the easy section the trail steepens dramatically. Ascending several rock scrambles and chimney climbs you rapidly gain elevation.
The trail climbs over bald rock faces that can be wet and icy, along with sections of man made ladder steps. I wore bare boots up until the icy wet section, this is where I mounted my MicroSpikes to prevent a fall… falling here would suck!
After a few steep sections and about 3/10th’s of a mile I reached a rocky ledge outlook and was rewarded with an incredible view of the Presidential Range and Pinkham Notch! From here I could see my car wayyyy down in the parking lot below. The wind had picked up, and I decided to throw on my heavy shell gloves, and balaclava hood. I took a look at my pack thermometer and it read about 16F.
The trail weaves through some really cool ramparts and erratic boulders, I was tempted to stop and climb them but I didn’t.
The top of this climb in the winter definitely requires traction devices of some type. Without my MicroSpikes I’d have a very hard time getting over the icy bald featureless rock!
After climbing to the top of the initial steep section the trail flattened out and continued on. This section of the trail was really pleasant. I was walking through a winter wonderland in the middle of october… loving it!
A short walk later, I arrived at the summit of Wildcat E. From here I could hear the Snow Making machines of the Wildcat Ski slopes cranking out fresh powder. A few short steps later I came to a clearing. A ski lift machine, and summit building covered in ice came into view.
The snow machines had caused snow drifts from the wind howling, this created areas where I went knee deep in snow. I had to walk through a blustery cloud of wind blown snow to continue onto the next section of the Wildcat Ridge Trail. Finding the trail was a little tough here, it continues on from behind the summit building.
The section of trail that continues on over Wildcat D is pleasant and moderate. A short walk later you’ll arrive at the relatively new observation deck. From the observation deck I could see the socked in Presi’s and a number of ominous clouds. Within a few minutes I was on top of Wildcat D. My first official 4000 footer of the day.
Continuing on I dropped a little elevation and started climbing back up to Wildcat C and B, these peaks are so low in prominence that they’re hard to notice. The trail is very pleasant and walking through the snow, ice, bog bridges and occasional erratic boulder was very scenic. Up until this point I hadn’t seen a single other hiker the entire day! I could tell I was getting close to Carter Notch due to the foot traffic picking up.
I arrived at Wildcat A, the second 4000 footer of the day. There’s a FANTASTIC outlook here that allows you to look down from a ledge into Carter Notch. Carter Dome is in view and it’s rocky ramparts at the base. I hung around for quite a while here to take it all in.
From here the descent into carter notch is abrupt and steep. Dropping over 1000 feet in elevation in just 3/10th’s of a mile. The trail has plenty of footholds and isn’t terribly scary to descent. I moved quickly here to make up time… at this point I was already thinking about how I was going to get back to my car!
Nineteen Mile Brook Trail
Soon I arrived at the intersection of Nineteen Mile Brook trail. The Carter Notch hut was close by, but I had no reason to stop. I continued on to Nineteen Mile Brook trail.
Nineteen Mile Brook trail from here out was 3.5 miles of VERY easy hiking. A couple of wet sections had iced over so I threw on MicroSpikes to prevent taking an embarrassing fall. The trail crosses several brooks and rivers that all have sturdy man made bridges in place.
A short while later I crossed the final bridge. This bridge is new, it wasn’t here in June when I did a Carter traverse. The bridge appeared to be super strong and well built… however I can’t help but wonder why it was needed. This river crossing was extremely last time I was here. it definitely didn’t need a bridge as a safety factor… maybe it was an environmental impact reason?
Getting back to the car
Just a few minutes later I arrived at the Nineteen Mile Brook trail head on Rt. 16. I walked around the parking lot hoping to find another hiker packing their car so I could ask for a ride… No dice! I waited 5-10 minutes before I decided to start walking down Rt. 16. I stuck my thumb out a few times to passing vehicles hoping someone would offer a ride… no dice again!
After about a mile of road walking I noticed a hiker walking towards me. I had recognized him from the Wildcat Ridge trail earlier in the day. He had hiked down one of the ski trails and was heading back to his car at Nineteen Mile Brook trail head. I asked for a ride and he happily obliged. We walked back to his truck together, and he drove me back to Glenn Ellis Falls parking lot. Thanks hiker Al!
The Wildcats were a pleasant surprise. I didn’t expect to have so much fun going up Wildcat Ridge, and the views were awesome! All in all… it was a great day in the mountains. Glad I got to experience some real winter conditions. Can’t wait to come back for more!
Total Time and Distance
Total mileage up Wildcat Ridge and Down Nineteen Mile Brook trail was about 8.7 miles with a little over 3000 feet in elevation gain (not including the potential road walk). Book time for this trip is 6 hours. It took me a little under 5 hours including breaks from trail head to trail head at a leisurely pace. The road walk back from nineteen mile brook trail would be an additional 4.5 miles had I note found a ride!