Hiking a Wildcats Carters Traverse in Winter
Hike Date: March 16, 2021
On our winter traverse of the Wildcats and Carters, we were treated with low winds, a bluebird day, and views for miles of the Presidential Range across Pinkham Notch.
|0 mi||0 mi||Start at Wildcat Mountain Ski Area|
|2.5 mi||2.5 mi||Wildcat Ski Trails (Stray Cat to Middle Polecat to Catnap to Upper Polecat) to summit of Wildcat Mountain D Peak|
|2 mi||4.5 mi||Wildcat Ridge Trail to the summit of Wildcat Mountain A Peak|
|0.7 mi||5.2 mi||Wildcat Ridge Trail to Carter Notch|
|1.2 mi||6.4 mi||Carter-Moriah Trail to summit of Carter Dome|
|1 mi||7.4 mi||Carter-Moriah and Carter Dome Trails (bypass Mt. Height) to Zeta Pass|
|0.8 mi||8.2 mi||Carter-Moriah Trail to summit of South Carter Mountain|
|1.3 mi||9.5 mi||Carter-Moriah Trail to summit of Middle Carter Mountain|
|0.6 mi||10.1 mi||Carter-Moriah Trail to North Carter Trail|
|1.2 mi||11.3 mi||North Carter Trail to IMP Trail|
|2 mi||13.3 mi||IMP Trail to Camp Dodge Cutoff|
|0.4 mi||13.7 mi||Camp Dodge Cutoff out to Great Gulf Wilderness Trailhead (across Rt. 16)|
Being a traverse, this hike required a car spot so that we could hike one way. If your hiking group has 2 cars, then you can easily park 1 at either end. If, like us, you only have 1 car, consider hiring a hiker shuttle. They aren’t particularly cheap, but it’s not like a city taxi – you pay for the time it takes the driver to get to and return from remote mountain locations. We used Fast Taxi, based in North Conway and they were super professional and made it easy to arrange a ride. Be sure to call at least a day ahead of time to reserve your shuttle.
We parked our car at Great Gulf Wilderness Trailhead on Rt. 16, where we planned to end the traverse. The Forest Service charges a small fee, $5 per day, for parking at this trailhead. You could also buy an annual White Mountain National Forest recreation pass or an America the Beautiful pass (covers all federal lands including National Parks) if you regularly visit locations that charge fees. Here are the other White Mountain National Forest fee areas.
Then, Fast Taxi picked us up and shuttled us to Wildcat Mountain Ski Area to start our hike. A little before 7am in single digit temps, we began walking up the ski slopes with snowshoes on. The mountain’s uphill policy and route info can be found on their Mountain Info Page. The preferred route, highlighted on this map, is Stray Cat to Middle Polecat to Catnap to Upper Polecat. Basically, stay on the far left of the mountain the whole way up. This keeps you on green rated ski trails which are not as steep and much easier to climb. Even so, televators, the heel lift bar on climbing snowshoes, were a lifesaver on this one and we highly recommend making sure your snowshoes have this feature. We also recommend hiking the ski slopes before the lifts open. It was really pleasant having them to ourselves and not contending with skiers whizzing by.
One of the best parts of starting this traverse on the Wildcat Mountain ski slopes were the immediate views of Mt. Washington and the Presidential Range behind us, even from the base. We found ourselves constantly turning around to admire the spectacle of those formidable peaks basking in the glowing morning sun during golden hour. The orange glow soon turned to bright white light as we climbed higher up the slopes and the sun rose in the sky.
At the top of the highest ski lift, we took a few pictures of the Wildcat Mountain sign with the snow capped Presis shining brightly in the background. From there, we headed directly uphill behind the lift to join Wildcat Ridge Trail, part of the Appalachian Trail, for the super short bit to a small lookout tower on the actual summit of Wildcat D Peak. We admired the views some more and fueled up with a quick snack before continuing across the Wildcat range.
From Wildcat D, the trail passes over C Peak and B Peak on the way to the other 4,000 footer of the Wildcat Range, A peak. The path was windswept and mostly unbroken. We could see tracks from previous days in a few spots, but largely made our own way through the fluffy layer atop the packed down trail. The beauty of fresh snow and dusted trees combined with continued views of the Presis from rises atop the snowpack made the morning an absolute joy!
We made quick time to Wildcat A, where there is a viewpoint from a ledge looking down into Carter Notch and across to the Carter Range, our next destination. This spot provides a clear view of just how steep the descent into and ascent out of Carter Notch really is. On the elevation profile, it looks like a deep V and the sight in person is no different. Mentally and physically prepared for the strain, we headed toward the steepest parts of the day.
At the steepest section of the descent, we were exceptionally careful, knowing that a mistake on such terrain would not end well for us. I carried an ice axe, expecting to use it for added security, but the snow conditions were just right and it wasn’t necessary. With a few inches of soft powder to slow down any slide and hard pack underneath to dig into, snowshoes and poles did the trick. I did descend backwards, though, kicking in steps for the snowshoe crampons and slowly lowering myself bit by bit. After the steeps, the trail skirted the side of the slope as it dropped further into the notch, which made for some precarious steps on the uneven terrain. Once down to Carter Notch, we rested and refueled by the larger of Carter Lakes in the bright sun. On cold winter days in the mountains, bright sun provides just a little precious warmth and really lifts the spirits.
Next, we began the climb up Carter-Moriah Trail toward Carter Dome. We knew this had the steepest sections of the entire traverse as it ascends over 1,500 feet in 1.2 miles. To add to the difficulty, those steepest sections of trail also had some of the deepest snowdrifts of the day. I literally took 1 step forward and slid 2 steps back many times on this climb! Once again, the conditions were great so I didn’t need to use my ice axe, but I was still glad I carried it. One would certainly be required to do this safely in winter if it were a little icier.
After making it up the steeps, which are close to the bottom of Carter Notch, we broke trail on some gorgeously untouched sections under the bright sun and azure skies. We eventually emerged into the clearing atop Carter Dome where the large cairn that marks the summit was completely buried under the snow. We took in more of the stunning views from an outlook on the edge of the summit clearing. Here, we encountered the first other hikers we saw during the day and chatted a bit before continuing on to traverse the rest of the Carter Range.
We followed those hikers’ tracks along the trail and bypassed the parallel trail that runs over Mt. Height. While Mt. Height provides a great view, we didn’t need the extra elevation gain on an already big day and we’d already gotten plenty of views to fill us up. The reprieve from breaking trail ended quickly at Zeta Pass and the juncture with Carter Dome Trail. We continued on the unbroken Carter-Moriah Trail toward South Carter. Along this stretch I often felt like I couldn’t actually see the trail, but I could “feel” it. We were only breaking a few inches of powder atop hard pack which offered clear reassurance through that ground feel. I would also look forward and think, “Which way looks more ‘traily’ to me?” This sense has grown with experience as I’ve hiked more and more trails, especially in winter, and it has really helped with route finding.
At South Carter, we took a short break in the viewless area of the summit cairn, buried by snow in winter. We were joined by a pesky Gray Jay who clearly associates hikers with easy food – a common sight in the Whites.
“Feeling” the trail as we continued finding our way across the fresh blanket of snow, we were treated to view after view of Mt. Washington and the Presidential Range across the valley. It was a truly magical winter hiking day under bluebird skies with little to no wind. We know from experience that these are all too rare and meant to be cherished! We took our time to enjoy these spectacular moments that are always so fleeting and short-lived, yet deeply meaningful and lasting in our memories and the impressions they make on us.
Once we crossed over the summit of Middle Carter Mountain, an unremarkable spot along the ridgeline trail, we came to the clearest viewpoint of the Presis. This day truly offered us everything we could as for and more!
Already spiritually filled to overflowing, we bounded onward to the juncture with North Carter Trail. From there, it was all downhill. We connected with IMP Trail for the rest of the descent. At lower elevations, the trail was a postholed mess from hikers without snowshoes days earlier when the snow was soft. Now frozen solid, this made for treacherous stepping, absorbing the jarring vibrations from the uneven hard surface and trying not to twist a knee or ankle. To finish the hike we took the Dodge Cutoff, a short trail connecting to Camp Dodge. This brought us out to Rt. 16 just across from Great Gulf Trailhead where we left our car.
This traverse was a perfect end to our winter hiking season! We couldn’t have asked for better weather conditions and were immensely grateful for the beauty that nature showed us today.