Trip Report: Middle Carter Mountain via the Imp Trail

Middle Carter Mountain (4,610 ft) with Mt Lethe and Imp Face, via the Imp Trail loop.

Approx 55 dF at trailhead. Rain and approx 20 MPH wind. British.

Via Imp Trail, North Carter Trail, Carter-Moriah Trail. Approx 9.25 miles. Includes a short road walk.

Trailhead: 1300. Summit: 1600. Car: 1815.

The trail provides. (Also, never quit the trail on a rainy day.)

I need to stop hitting snooze. But then again, the timing today turned out to be massively fortuitous, so this time, I’m not complaining. A day that started out inauspiciously turned out to be an amazing outing.

The drive up was pleasant. Along the way, I was noticing that the trees on the roadside obviously had a lot of pent up energy. Leaves were being shoved out into the world with reckless abandon — various landmarks like the signs in the Campton area were obscured by greenery. I’m OK with that. I know Alpine Adventures exists. I don’t need reminding.

Sidebar: Passing through Franconia Notch, they’ve got the entire shoulder roped off for a very significant distance around the most popular trailheads. If you’re planning a trip in that area, plan ahead. They’re running a shuttle from off-site parking. Park at Cannon Mountain ski area (Exit 34-C) and bring a fiver for the round-trip.

Pulling up to the Imp Trail trailhead, the trail itself was obvious, almost without the sign. An inviting carpet of soft pine needles was a welcome change from the rocks I’ve been hiking on lately. The difference in how my feet feel as I write this report is readily apparent. And where I’d been missing the huge swaths of ferns on other trails, today, I saw them everywhere, which was its own comfort. Something about plants that were dinosaur food long ago is pretty neat. Living fossils, right there at arm’s reach. With such a nice trail, I made great time — just shy of 2 MPH, even accounting for looking around for photos. Downside was the sheer paucity of wildflowers on this trail. As in “there were nearly none.”

But it wasn’t all puppies and kittens. About a mile in, and all the way up to the summit, I kept seeing significant blow-downs, and they looked recent. I know we’ve been having some stiff winds, so I’m wondering if it’s all related. And maybe 1 1/2 miles in, the tree branches were encroaching on the trail to the point where I got really wet. But what else would I get, hiking on a rainy day? Can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

Probably around a mile or so in, I saw what appeared to be a moose with her calf. It was a super fast realization, then a brown flash, and then the sounds of them storming up the trail, getting away from the scary human. I hung back for a few, and made a bunch more noise to incentivize them to keep going for a spell. Oddly, while I followed their tracks for around half a mile more (and saw several hoof prints in various other places) I never once spied any moose exhaust the entire day. I saw tracks all the way to within feet and inches of Imp Face, so this really surprised me.

Grades were firm but not overly strenuous. Even in the steep bits, Imp Face trail never felt as hard as Carter Dome trail. I’m going to remember this one, because mud not withstanding (and in several places, the trail is indistinguishable from a drainage for quite long stretches) it’s a very pleasant way to go. And a nice add-on is that there were waterfalls in abundance. Wow, for a trail without crazy water-crossings, the drainages put on a fantastic show all over the place.

I arrived at the junction with the North Carter Trail, and turning upward, the trees really reached out to touch me. On a dry day, this wouldn’t have been a problem, but I was getting really wet, and the wind was becoming a factor. At the Carter-Moriah trail, I was outright cold, and my fingers were numb. It was past time to throw on some warmer clothes. I laugh, because almost exactly one year ago, as I was finishing my 48, I couldn’t get warm on North Kinsman, and so did that bit wearing fleece gloves and a vest. In June. I didn’t wear the vest today, but the fleece gloves came out, as did a fleece hat. And so I trundled off to find Middle Carter’s summit.

There was a lot of cloud obscuring any kind of view. I really had no idea where I was going, except the GPS said “onward.” I was feeling cold, wet, and miserable, and really questioning what I was doing and when I was going to pull the plug and go home. Somehow, I pressed on doggedly. Which was a good thing, as it turned out.

Mercifully, there was a lot of bog bridge on the col between Lethe and Middle Carter. I zoomed across, and then made my way up the summit on the other side. My apps said I actually passed the summit, so I turned around, and took the obligatory summit selfie for mom. Which kept me on the summit just long enough…

Voices nearby, and then three enthusiastic guys showed up out of the gloom. Their packs and dress suggested AT hikers, and indeed, they were. Wow, what luck. After introductions, we got going. Happy to hear I was planning on a 2020 NOBO hike, for the mile or so to the trail junction, they merrily stuffed my head with trail knowledge. So now, not just having bagged a peak, I’m smarter for having met these guys. We normally think of trail angels as those helping thru-hikers. Maybe we expand that definition to include future thru-hikers. Thanks, guys!

I made my way back to the Imp Trail, and briefly considered going back the way I came. But that would skip Imp Face. I’d bagged a 4,000 footer and met those wonderful hikers, so why not press onward and get a trifecta? To heck with the fact that there’d be no view. And so it came to pass that I stood on the ledge, gazing into pea-soup fog. I could see a decent hint of the trees below, and was wowed. Yet another reason to come back on a sunny day.

I made quick time from there on down. That’s not to say there wasn’t a shortage of ankle-deep mud, or blow-downs, or slippery rocks (indeed, I did slip on some leaf snot, and landed in an inglorious heap) but at the same time, one does make better time going downhill. Hiking with those thru-hikers did speed up my pace on the ridge, and that got me warmed up quick, but all the same, it was still sodden and cold, and I was ready to be done. I could have managed the rain if it were warm. Or the cold if it were dry. The two together were just a drag on the day and my mood, so I was rightfully done. Happily, I saw the trailhead signs before long.

In warmer, drier weather, this would be a fine early peak for those starting their 48 list. Imp Trail is relatively gentle, and although it’s nowhere near as blazed as the AT, the trail itself is pretty easy to find and follow for pretty much its entire length. And if you do the loop, you get the huge vistas from Imp Face as a fine consolation prize for Middle Carter’s lack of a view.

On each occasion when I’ve done the Carter Mountains, I’ve looked at Imp and wondered. Now I know: it’s a fine trail that deserves a bluebird day to achieve full effect. I saw that view in the wintertime, but a trail is different without the snow. I’ll be back, for sure, because despite the weather, I enjoyed myself a lot, especially in the second half. I saw moose, I saw waterfalls. I meet some really cool dudes and learned a lot. I bagged a peak, and I hiked a very lovely trail. About the only thing I missed was the wildflowers. But maybe summertime will have that in the bag. We’ll see soon, for sure.

Moose hoof print on a hiking trail in the White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire.
Moose Tracks!
Goldthread flower blossom found in the White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire.
Goldthread blossom. I saw a few of these and a few starflowers, but that was it.
Brook with water flowing off a mountain.
Brook draining the mountain.
Small waterfall on a brook on the Imp Trail, White Mountain National Forest.
Waterfall!
Mosses growing on a large rock. Imp Trail, Carter Range, White Mountain National Forest.
Abundant mosses soften the landscape and promote forest bathing.

Nuts and Bolts: Getting to the Imp Trail trailhead is simple. Take Route 16 south out of Gorham, and it’s about five miles down on your left. There are two trailheads, separated by about 1/4 mile, so if you miss one, slow down and you’ll see the other in a moment. If you get to Camp Dodge Road, you’ve gone too far. Parking is on the shoulder of the road, so plan ahead if you’re visiting on a sunny weekend day in the summertime.

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