Rip and Go: New Hampshire - White Mountain National Forest, Mt. Cabot Loop

Get a sneak peak of fall on this overnight in the northern Whites, where the leaves change early.
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Get a sneak peak of fall on this overnight in the northern Whites, where the leaves change early.

Do it Mt. Cabot, the 4,170-foot high point in New Hampshire’s emerald-ridged Pilot Range, barely registers on most hikers’ radars. The Presidentials and Mt.Lincoln draw away crowds, leaving the terrain on this 16.3-mile overnight a haven for moose, black bears, and solitude-seeking hikers. Park at the trout hatchery (1) and head uphill across a field. The hardwood forest closes around you as you hike alongside Cold Brook, which runs parallel to the trail for the first 2.1 miles. At mile 3.5, turn right onto the Kilkenny Ridge Trail (2) and climb .6 mile up a rock staircase to Rogers Ledge (3), a stone bluff with peekaboo views of Mt. Washington (17 miles southeast) and the barren ridges of the Presidential Range. Heading south on the main trail, retrace your steps and continue toward small, marshy Kilback Pond (4) (mile 5.3), keeping an eye out for grazing moose. In another 1.4 miles, reach lily-padded Unknown Pond (5) and pitch your tent in secluded campsite #5, 300 feet inland from the eastern bank. (Bring rope to hang a bear bag.) At dusk, head to the shoreline as the bullfrogs begin their nightly concert, and, if the wind is calm, take in the reflection of 3,905-foot The Horn (tomorrow’s headline destination) and its forested contours in the pond’s silvery waters. Next morning, continue up the Kilkenny Ridge Trail, clambering over increasingly loose, rocky, and eroded terrain the higher you trek.

At 8.1 miles, veer east and take the .2-mile side trail (6) to The Horn, a shed-size boulder that protrudes into the sky like a rhino’s spike. From the airy overlook, glimpse the first of the season’s reds, oranges, and yellows creeping into the foliage (usually beginning the second week in September). Scramble to the top (7) for a 360-degree view of the ridged horizon to the west and the Presidentials to the southwest. Return to the Kilkenny Ridge Trail and crest a 3,950-foot hill (8)—named The Bulge—at mile 8.8, en route to Mt. Cabot. Isolated Cabot (9) is the northernmost 4,000-footer in White Mountain National Forest, and you’ll find plenty of solitude on top, but no view (dense tree cover). Wind .1 mile southeast from the summit signpost through wind-stunted pines to the Mt. Cabot Lodge (10), a four-sided, two-door shelter that sleeps eight (no reservations, no cost, but camping at Unknown Pond is prettier). Best bet here: lunch with your feet hanging over the deck. From the cabin, coast 4.3 miles downhill on the forested tunnel of the Bunnel Notch Trail—snag one last open-mountain vista from the exposed rocks at 9.9 miles (11)—through stands of young beech trees to the trailhead (12). Turn left onto the dirt road and track .2 mile to close the loop.

GET THERE From Gorham, take NH 16 north 6.4 miles and turn right onto NH 110 west. After 6 miles, turn left onto York Pond Rd. Continue 5.1 miles and turn right at the fish hatchery. Park near the picnic shelter.
GEAR UP International Mountain Equipment; 2733 White Mountain Hwy., Conway; (603) 356-6316; ime-usa.com
SEASON Late September for peak foliage, winter for even deeper solitude, summer for swimming
CONTACT (603) 536-6100; bit.ly/MtCabot PERMIT None TRIP ID 2276016

Become a 48er Tag all 48 of the Whites’ 4,000-footers. do it north to south, starting with mt. Cabot. Learn more at amc4000footer.org.