Wild River Wilderness: Where Beauty is Pain

21 miles is easy. Easy when you are hiking on perfectly compacted, rock-free, root-free trails of Yosemite, Glacier, or Olympic national parks. When it comes to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, 21 miles is a grueling marathon, an improbable, if not impossible ordeal even for seasoned hikers.

I took a bit of a hiatus from backpacking last summer so hiking the Wild River wilderness was my first backpacking trip since Glacier National Park two years ago.

The Wild River Wilderness is located at the northeast corner of the White Mountain National Forest, on the border between Maine and New Hampshire. It is very remote and rugged with but a few trails segmenting the wooded landscape. There are not a lot of campsites in the entire Wild River Basin, and only one on the Carter Range - Imp Campsite. 

While there are many options for peak bagging the Carter Range, most involve a multi-night stay or a car drop. Neither option worked for Natalie and I at the time.

The only way to hike the Carter Range as a loop hike overnight is to start at Wild River Road, hike up the Moriah Brook Trail, stay at Imp Campsite, and take on the grueling Carter traverse the next day, finishing back at Wild River Road. That is roughly 7 miles for the first day and 14 for the second.

Located at the end of a long dirt road, the Wild River Campground is the trailhead for the Moriah Brook Trail. A couple years back, a storm destroyed the bridge across the Wild River, so we had to ford the river to get to the other side where Moriah Brook Trail starts. September is generally a dry month in the Whites and the water level was low so we were in luck. Someone hiking in May might not have been so lucky. 

Because the bridge was destroyed, the Forest Service and AMC have not really maintained the Moriah Brook Trail. The blue blazes are few and far in between and thick brush has started to take over the trail in some spots making navigation challenging in some places. The ruggedness of the trail also brings solitude. On the entire hike up we only came across one other hiker. Passing through the Moriah Gorge and trailing Moriah Brook most of the way up, the trail has A+ scenery. 

Most of the way up is actually rather gentle, however the last mile is steep, rocky, and muddy.

The backcountry campsites in the Whites typically involve platforms upon which backpackers can pitch their tents. Each campsite usually has enough platform space for 5-7 tents. The platforms are available on a first-come first-serve basis. This uncertainty makes any hike out rather stressful since there’s no guarantee that you will get a platform after a grueling 7 mile hike. The time was nearing noon and we were about half a mile from the campsite. From prior experiences I knew that if we arrived at Imp campsite after 1, we would be risking having to stay somewhere in the woods, no platform. I ran ahead with my 40 pound backpack to ensure we got a site. Sweat was running down every part of my body and my heart was racing faster than I could run. 

As this was Natalie’s first backpacking trip and my comeback hike, we were not fully prepared to carry heavy gear up a trail that rugged and steep. By the time we arrived at Imp campsite, we were covered in sweat and mud, we were fainting. Completely exhausted. 

After a nap and a quick lunch, we contemplated on whether to lounge for the rest of the day or do some more hiking. We decided to hike up Moriah. Even though Moriah was a 2 mile hike from Imp, without heavy backpacks the hike felt much easier. The hike would have been perfect if we brought some snacks, but we forgot and ran out of energy by the time we reached the top. 

The scenery on the summit is to die for. Sweeping views of the roadless Wild River wilderness, Carter Range, Presidentials. 

As we were contemplating the view, some animal altercation happened in the trees just a couple hundred feet away. A Marten was hunting a squirrel. Martens are generally found in boreal forests farther up north - Alaska, Canada, northern Maine, but they are also seen in the Whites. 

American Marten Hunting

The cute little critter was chasing a squirrel for a good twenty minutes, paying little attention to us as I was taking ample shots. Thank goodness for that zoom lens. 

After staying at Imp for the night we had to decide whether to complete the loop hike through the Carter traverse or go down the way we came up. Hiking the carter traverse would have involved going up five and going down four summits, only to be left with a 7 mile hike through the woods. We estimated that we would not have finished until 9 or 10 PM and would have been beyond exhausted to drive back home. 

We came down Moriah Brook Trail, the way we came up. The total for the weekend was 18 miles. We did not complete the hike we originally planned, but we did something just as grueling, just as scenic and rewarding. Sometimes it is ok to change your plan to keep your sanity and actually enjoy your time out in the wild. 


Trail Tips




  • Start early, around 6-7 AM to make sure you arrive at Imp campsite by 12 or 1. 
  • Imp campsite is a popular destination and fills up quickly. Charge is $10/person/night. 
  • If you're planning on hiking the entire Carter Range, I would recommend staying at Imp campsite for two nights and tackling the Carter Traverse as a day side-hike.