The Wildcats and Carter Dome: My First Non-Winter Hike in the Carter Range
Boy have things changed since last time I hiked Carter Dome and the Wildcats for my NH48 finish! The three of these peaks hold a special place in my heart (as all of them do if we’re being honest). Carter Dome was my first “winter” hike and although it wasn’t technically winter yet it definitely felt like it with a few feet of fresh powder at the time. The Wildcats were my final two peaks on the list and they were so much fun! I’ve been missing winter hiking a lot lately, and this hike definitely brought back lots of snowy memories for me.
A few weeks ago I started a local hiking Facebook group called JP Hikers because I realized there were many people from Jamaica Plain, the Boston neighborhood I currently reside in, that hiked in the White Mountains. Today’s hike was the first hike with a new hiking buddy Adam that I met from the group, and it was great! Adam is helping me moderate the group and make hikes and events for it since I’m going back to graduate school in a few short days. He’s finishing up his single season summer NH48, so he’s probably way more qualified to run this group than I am if we’re being honest!
We decided on the Wildcats and all three of the Carters a few weeks ago, but with my ankle being a bit fragile from my past couple hikes I told him I would instead bail down 19 Mile Brook Trail from Carter Notch Hut after the Wildcats. After spotting a car we were on our way up the steep Wildcat Ridge Trail around 7:45am.
Oh boy was this trail a doozy! From the beginning it was extremely steep gaining almost 2,200 ft in 1.9 miles. When I talk about many trails in the Whites I describe them as steady and steep gradually gaining elevation. This trail was not like those at all. From the very beginning it got my blood pumping, and I was glad to get it out of the way early with fresh legs.
There were a few scrambly chimneys near the top and we seemed to be moving slowly, but we made it to the top of Wildcat ski area’s quad chair before 9:00am. I was pleasantly surprised that we had ascended in what seemed like no time at all for such a difficult trail. I actually had anticipated it being much more challenging than it was I looked for the Wildcat Mtn sign that I had forgotten to take a picture with, but to my disappointment it was not up in the summer. I guess this is just one more reason to hike it in the winter again!
After taking in some views from the summit deck, we continued across the ridge over C and B peaks to Wildcat A peak. This was a gorgeous stretch of trail, soft on the feet with beautiful bog bridges over muddy spots. I don’t know why I have such an affinity for bog bridges but I really love the nice ones! Just hiking trail bridges in general make me happy! We both commented on how we appreciated a gentle but high up traverse to break up all of the climbing of the day. There were a few ups and downs, but they were all fairly small so we kept a great pace over to A peak.
Looking down at Carter Notch Hut from Wildcat A was a bit dizzying. We were so high and the hut seemed really far down in a short distance. I thought the descent would be steep and tough on the knees, but it was surprisingly less steep than I anticipated. I wouldn’t use the word gentle, but it definitely went by quickly and relatively painlessly.
As we passed by the lake it felt so serene. There had only been a few other hikers passing by, and the lake was calm and still. We took a second to appreciate how far we had come from Wildcat A and the lake below before going to the hut for a quick snack. The AMC huts are just amazing. They always have yummy baked goods and the croo is so nice! As I snacked on a big piece of homemade chocolate cake, we took a look at the map. My original plan had been to split from Adam at this point and take 19 Mile Brook Tr back out to Rt 16. At that point it was only 11:00am and I was feeling good, so I decided to join Adam up to Carter Dome and Mt. Hight before descending via Carter Dome Trail.
After our snack we packed up and prepared for the climb we were about to conquer. Going up to Carter Dome was almost as steep as Wildcat Ridge without the scrambles. It was great to get our blood pumping again, but the chocolate cake felt like a rock in my stomach. I pushed through the cramps convincing myself that I had to work off the chocolate cake, but it was pretty brutal. We kept moving until we were at the rocky outcrops looking over the valley. It had been just mere minutes since we were at the hut and now suddenly we were towering over it. That feeling of accomplishment is one of my favorite parts about hiking.
It was not long before we reached the wooded summit of Carter Dome. I remember this vividly after breaking trail all the way up Carter Dome Trail, over Mt. Hight, and up to here. It was a meadow of fluffy powder back then, but now it was filled with rocky cairns and what looked like the remains of an old fire tower. I really preferred being chilly in a winter wonderland to being a puddle of sweat tripping over every rock and root imaginable.
From there we detoured to Mt. Hight to take in some of the best views in the Whites. Unfortunately the Presidentials were mostly socked in, but the views to the north, south, and east were gorgeous. We could see far and wide, making the extra elevation gain totally worth it. The descent from Hight wasn’t terrible but it was steep and rocky making it pretty slow going. I was relieved when I saw the sign to Zeta Pass. I’ve always loved Zeta Pass and I’m not really sure why. Maybe it’s the cool name or the way the trees bend over sheltering you from the elements and creating a beautiful arch to walk through.
After letting Adam go on his way to the rest of the Carters, I closed my eyes for a few seconds just to try to remember why I had such an affinity to this junction. I could feel the frigid air around me silent because the snowy trees blocked the breeze from passing through. I could see the sign only inches above the ground because of the high snowpack. I could feel the padding of snow crunching beneath my feet. I loved going back to that happy place, but it made me long for winter.
Snapping out of my snowy fantasy, I started my final descent down Carter Dome trail. This one is gradual with many switchbacks making the elevation loss much less dramatic. I popped in my headphones and jogged down most of this trail until I came to the tough crossing I had battled so many times throughout the winter. This one had been tricky because the snow bridges never really formed and the water levels were pretty high so if you weren’t careful you’d slip right into the deadly cold water. Now the stream was not more than a trickle, making hopping from rock to rock over it so easy.
At the Nineteen Mile Brook trail junction I came across a group of adults with many young children heading to the hut. The kids all looked like they were having a blast! I kept on the final leg of my journey, and just a few yards into the trail my foot caught a root and I went down so hard I didn’t have time to try to catch myself. If a tree falls in the forest does it make a sound? I don’t know, but a Lexi that falls in the forest is sure to have a string of profanities blurted from her mouth. There’s nothing to do after a big fall like that but get up, spit the dirt from your mouth, brush yourself off, and keep on moving. I had been so excited that I made it all the way down Carter Dome trail without rolling an ankle, I somehow forgot that I was still in the woods. Silly me.
The rest of the way out was very enjoyable aside from the skinned knees. I have always been fond of Nineteen Mile Brook, and although it was less magical in the summer it was still a great trail. I found the grade and terrain perfect for trail running, it being mostly flat with a slight downward slant and not too many rocks or roots. At this point I was itching to get home to Lucy who had been in her crate all day. I crossed my favorite bridge quickly and jogged back to the parking lot. After a bit of a road walk I was back at my car and ready to get home to see my puppy.
It was such a great day in the Whites and I had lots of fun chatting with Adam about all things hiking. We discussed gear, routes, lists, backpacking, international hikes, and local meetups for our new group. For me hiking is an endless topic that I can talk about for hours, so it was great to be in the company of someone who felt the same way. I also loved that I got a tiny bit of a solo hike in to round out the day. This was really ideal, and I hope to do more hikes like this in the future! Not to mention that I bagged three peaks in a day to add to my second round of the NH 4,000 footers!
Wildcat Mtn D Peak (4,070 ft), Wildcat Mtn A Peak (4,422 ft), Carter Dome Mtn (4,832 ft), and Mt. Hight via Wildcat Ridge Tr, Carter-Moriah Tr, Zeta Pass, Carter Dome Tr, and Nineteen Mile Brook Tr [12.64 mi, 4925 ft, 7:00].
Follow me on Instagram @lexi.brocoum for more pictures!