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The Desolation Loop is a Challenging Hike | Average Hiker

view from middle hancock

Desolation Loop Trail Summary

The Desolation Loop is located on the eastern side of the Pemigewasset Wilderness in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  This is a series of moderate to strenuous trails that include several 4,000 footers, river crossings, and rugged trail that is lightly maintained.  There are several options available on this loop, but regardless of the trails chosen, hikers should have good backpacking experience.

Desolation Trail Loop Highlights

Mount Hancock 4,406

Middle Hancock 4,278

South Hancock 4,318

Mount Carrigan 4,665

East Branch Pemigewasset River

North Fork River

Sawyer River

Thoreau Falls Shoal Pond

Desolation Loop Trails Followed (Sequential)

Hancock Notch Trail: 1.8 mile – Day 1

Cedar Brook Trail: 0.7 miles – Day 1

Hancock Loop: 4.8 miles – Day 1

Cedar Brook Trail: 4.8 miles – Day 1

Wilderness Trail: 1.5 miles – Day 2

Thoreau Falls Trail: 5.1 miles – Day 2

Ethan Pond Trail 0.5 miles – Day 2

Shoal Pond Trail 4.0 miles – Day 2

Carrigan Notch Trail 5.3 miles – Day 2

Signal Ridge Trail 5.0 miles – Day 3

Sawyer Pond Road 2 .0 miles – Day 3

Sawyer River Trail 1.2 miles – Day 3

Hancock Notch Trail 5.1 miles – Day 3

Hancock Notch Trail 1.8 miles – Day 3

Desolation Loop Planning & Logistics

A couple of initial notes on planning a backpacking trip for hiking the Desolation Loop.

  • SectionHiker has a good Trip Report for The Desolation Loop Hike.  I used his report to begin my initial planning for this backpacking trip.
  • Unfortunately, I did not have paper maps for this hike.  I like to carry them as back-ups and did not realize the USFS offices were closed due to Covid until arriving in New Hampshire.  I don’t like to rely on only electronics in the back country but did on this hike.

Maps, Apps & Guides

On this hike, as stated above, I did not have paper maps. If I had carried them, I would have used those below.  I also listed additional maps and guides if considering more hiking in the White Mountains. There are ** next to those for this hike.

Guthook did not have this particular region available to download, so I ended up laying out the Way-points on my GAIA GPS App.  All trails were listed on the App.


I started the trail on Monday @ 12:30 PM and finished on Wednesday at 12:37 PM.  Due to time limitations, I was not able to climb over Mount Carrigan.  Instead I hiked Carrigan Notch Trail which went over a lower pass next to Carrigan Mountain.  This added some mileage but allowed me to make up some time on easier trail.

Total Miles Backpacked = 43.6

First Day – 12.1

Day Two – 16.4

Day Three – 15.1


Coordinates: 44.04118, -71.52351

I parked my car @ Hancock Notch Trail-head.  This is a frequently used parking area, and a popular observation point along the Kancamagus Highway, so get there early. 

My car was fine when I returned, and this parking area is frequently used for overnight parking.  Like any parking area though, break-ins can occur, so don’t leave valuables in your car and make sure it is locked.

Regulations & Permits

There are no permit requirements for this hike.  Review the regulations for Backcountry camping below.

Backcountry Camping Rules – White Mountain National Forest

Camping & Water

There are plenty of wilderness camping locations for backpackers.  Organized camping locations can also be found at the locations below, but they are not directly on trail and vary in distance.  As with all camping, please practice LNT principles.

  • Ethan Pond Shelter and tent sites (Pay)
  • Sawyer Pond Shelter and tent sites (Free)

The USFS advises filtering or boiling all water sources.  I carry a Sawyer Squeeze Filter, and have a review of my filter.

Desolation Loop – Hiking

My decision to backpack the Desolation Loop this week was spontaneous.  Looking at the weather for New Hampshire last Friday there was a long column of bright sun emojis on my weather app.  Even better, temperatures were in the high 70’s during the day and the low 60’s and 50’s at night.  It was going to be GREAT backpacking weather!

The other reasons for my decision to backpack this week were twofold….

Test new gear

Test old Ellie

I’m still holding out hope that I will be able to hike the Colorado and Arizona trails at the end of this year, and I’ve been working to get in shape.

The Desolation Loop looked like the perfect test with it’s 5/5 difficulty rating. It would put my gear through it’s paces, and give me get a good gauge on my readiness to hike while taking a pounding!

Desolation Loop – Hancock Parking Area

The day was sunny and bright when I arrived at the Hancock Parking area around noon, and I was happy to note the parking lot was on a fairly busy road.  This made me feel better about leaving my car here for a couple of days. 

Traffic meant that eyes were always watching. The parking lot was also behind a stone wall, and far enough off the road that random vandalism was not so easy.

A few tourists stopping for a view came and went as I went through my pack and made sure everything was in order. I emptied the car and locked it, not leaving an itinerary in the car.

Letting people know how long my car is going to sit empty is not something I choose to do. A detailed itinerary is left at home, and I carry an InReach with my other heavy electronics.

Hancock Parking Area
Desolation Loop Trailhead on Hancock Parking Area

Desolation Loop – Day One

Hancock Notch Trail

The parking area is on a hairpin turn, so I was careful as I crossed the road to access Hancock Notch Trail.  Heading down the steps to the trail I noted how well used it was.  With a grin on my face I tilted my head back and breathed in deep gulps of the timberline pine and spruce I love so much.  It felt good to be back in the beautiful, rugged White Mountains.

The trail was well pounded dirt, and the first couple of miles were easy as I stepped around the classic White Mountain roots and rocks.  There really is not much better hiking on the east coast than the White Mountains.

Beginning of Hancock Notch Trail on Desolation Loop

Cedar Brook Trail

As I turned left onto the Cedar Brook trail, I glanced up the Hancock Notch trail to my right.  I would be finishing the Desolation Loop on that trail and remember thinking that it looked much more rugged than the hard-packed dirt I was currently hiking on. As a matter of fact, the dark firs leaning in over the narrow, shadowed trail looked a little ominous.

Cedar Brook was the same rocky, rooty trail and I moved quickly towards my first highlight of the Desolation Loop.  I was going to hike the Hancock Loop Trail, and was looking forward to climbing the three Hancock 4,000 footers.  It was a beautiful day with bright blue skies, white cloud puffs floating overhead, and low temperatures.  A perfect day for climbing.

End of Hancock Notch Trail
cedar brook trail junction sign

Hancock Loop Trail

I did not get to the Hancock Loop Trail until around 2 PM. Messing around with my new Arc Haul pack at the car had taken longer than I realized.  As I started up the Hancock Loop Trail I began running into all of the hikers coming down the mountain. Was I starting too late? The positive side of a late start would hopefully be no crowds at the top!

The climb up was rocky, and I lowered my head and settled into my stride, finding a regular rhythm as I climbed and pulled myself up the mountain.  I reached the junction for the actual loop at about 3,400 feet. Taking a left, I picked my way down a steep rocky descent before reaching the bottom and beginning the serious climb up to Mountain Hancock’s summit.

The climbing was steep, but I did not have to begin using my hands until around 3,600 feet and this involved grabbing a few roots, rocks and trees to pull myself up over large rocks on the steep ascent.  The last half mile was a good workout, and I smiled as my legs began to burn.

The alpine zone is a favorite of mine.  I love the pungent smell of spruce and pine, weaving my way through increasingly stunted trees as I make my way towards the sky above.  Views were not some of the best I’ve seen in New Hampshire, but that is relative to other views in the White Mountains.  Mt. Hancock was still a beautiful mountain and had wide vistas to admire.

Making my way over to Middle Hemlock, I arrived at an empty South Hancock Peak where I found a good flat topped sitting rock and settled down for a late lunch of tortillas and Honey Almond Butter.  A small AGGRESSIVE chipmunk demanded I share some mixed nuts with him, so I gave up a cashew.  It was a toll for traveling across his summit.

junction for hancock loop
junction for loop to hancock mountain
coming down south hancock
view from hancock loop
More views from Middle Hancock
Sign on South Hancock

Cedar Brook Trail

The descent back down to Cedar Brook Trail was the same as the ascent up to Hancock Mountain – STEEP!  The first half mile was slow and tedious as I picked my way down.  I can’t even imagine coming down that in inclement weather. There were sections that with just a small amount of rain would become treacherous mud slides!

This was also the location of bruise number one. I use Black Diamond hiking poles, but even these could not stop me from sliding as my feet shot out from under me on an especially steep and sandy piece of trail. Fortunately, there were large, HARD rocks to slam my arms into to stop the slide. Ugh…

Finally reaching the bottom of Hancock Loop Trail, I took a right and headed down Cedar Brook Trail. Glancing up I paused to consider the well worn and slightly crooked Cedar Brook Sign – hinting of the “wilder” trails to come. Most of the trails from here on out would be more rugged and less maintained.  This was the wilderness I loved, with less of man’s touch to impact and disrupt.

As I moved down Cedar Brook, it definitely became less maintained.  Like many of the trails I would hike over the next two days, the trail was brushy, with blow downs and boggy, wet areas.  In a few instances the trail had been completely washed away. Nature took back it’s own quickly, and this just meant I would need to stay focused and aware of my surroundings as I hiked.

old cedar brook sign
desolation loop cedar brook blow downs
bogs along cedar brook
desolation loop rocks

Wilderness Trail

It was almost dark before I stopped for the night just past the intersection of Cedar Brook Trail and the Wilderness Trail.  If you want to cut off over half a day, and leave out the loop to Thoreau Falls and Shoal Pond, then you can stay on the Wilderness Trail and hike straight over to Carrigan Mountain. One of the highlights for me was Thoreau Falls. I remembered it from my AT hike, and was looking forward to visiting again.

Finding camping was a little harder than I had expected. I like to stay out of sight of the trail I’m hiking on if possible. The Pemigewasset River on my left, and the mountains on my right, made for a narrow corridor.  Even when I moved away from the river, the woods were very dense with low lying wet ground.

There were not a lot of options, and it was getting dark, so about a quarter of mile up the Wilderness Trail I finally turned off into the woods and found a small, clear area to set up my Altaplex Tarp-tent. Clear is probably the wrong word – more like “open.”

The ground was covered in small saplings, rocks and debris, and I moved fast to try and clear some space as it grew darker. By the time I had begun to set up my shelter, everything was by feel and memory. Swarms of mosquitoes had descended upon me when I quit moving, and I did not want to stop to dig out my headlamp. Thankfully, I know my gear well enough to set up with my eyes closed.

Desolation Loop – End of Day

I was tired, and once I had settled in for the evening I ate a couple of bars and curled up under my Katabatic Flex quilt. The quilt was new, and temperatures were cooling off quickly. I was interested in seeing how the quilt performed in cooler temperatures. My Neoair pad made the rocks and debris non-existent, and I began drifting off quickly.

Nights in the forest are peaceful. I listened as small animals began to come alive around me. They had stayed hidden while I invaded their world, but now tiny, quick steps let me know they were beginning to venture out to investigate the intruder. While I slept their larger friends would probably also come to take a look.

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