Recently, my partner Erich and I spent an unforgettable weekend hiking and camping in one of New England’s most remote wildernesses—a place so wild and inaccessible there is only one road in or out and most of it can only be reached on foot. The Wild River Wilderness.
What is the Wild River Wilderness
One of 6 officially designated Wilderness Areas in the White Mountain National Forest of New Hampshire, the Wild River Wilderness is a 23,700-acre area comprised of steep mountainous walls surrounding a wide, deep valley with the capricious Wild River cutting through its center. Located at the far north of the White Mountains, this valley is only accessible via a single dirt road or by hiking. It is also the newest of the Wilderness Areas in the Whites—designated in 2006.
This is the kind of place where you can spend a day in the woods and never see another soul. Right now, the Wild River Wilderness feels like a secret held close to my heart. If I write this, am I contributing to the over-trafficking and abuse that our wilderness areas are facing? Perhaps so. And yet I feel compelled to share it. For those who favor adventure, who aren’t afraid to explore the deep woods, who don’t fear the things that go bump in the night, the Wild River Wilderness presents a chance for adventure still within a days drive of Boston.
Where to Stay in the Wild River Wilderness
There is one car camping ground within the Wilderness area: the Wild River Campground. This is a primitive campsite for tent camping, accessible via a 5-mile dirt road. There are 12 sites available, one of which includes a log shelter—a primitive 3 sided lean-to. All sites are first-come, first-served.
The campground is hosted. Camping is $20 per day, inclusive of one vehicle. There is a $5 additional fee for a second vehicle. Firewood can be purchased on-site.
There are also several backcountry tent sites accessible via hiking. When I visited one of these, the Spruce Brook tent site, in October of 2014, it was unhosted with no tent platforms or bear boxes. Be prepared to hang your food or store food safely in a bear canister or ursack. Tent sites are free, no reservations required. Follow leave no trace principles and be keep the wilderness wild for future hikers.
The floor of the Wild River Valley is wide and relatively flat, so backcountry camping options are plentiful on the Wild River Trail, Highwater Trail, and on all the other trails that cross the valley floor. Follow Wilderness Area rules for choosing a campsite.
What to do in the Wild River Wilderness
This vast wilderness area is a playground for the adventurous. The Wild River is long and deep in places, with crystal clear water flowing over massive boulders, swirling in and out of deep pools and shimmering over the riverbed. Swimming is possible in places, as is a simple soak or sunbathing. I’m not into fishing but I hear people come here to fish as well.
Hiking trails criss-cross the area, some following the length of the valley, others climbing steeply up to the mountain ridges that line either side. Some of my favorite trails that I’ve hiked here are the Black Angel trail down from Carter Dome and all the way up to the Basin Rim Trail (7.7 miles in total). The Basin Trail, 2.2 miles from the valley floor to the Basin Rim trail, was exceptionally beautiful.
For those looking for a less strenuous but no less wild and riveting hiking experience, the Wild River trail and Highwater Trail each parallel the river up the valley, offering glimpses of its waters as they make their way down from their source at No Ketchum Pond. The two trails form a nice 5-mile loop starting from the Wild River Campground, though you will need to cross the river without a bridge at one end.
In truth, you can’t go wrong hiking in the Wild River Wilderness. All the trails have their own points of interest, the sheer vastness of the valley floor makes every trail up to the ridge an adventure, and the diversity of life and ecosystems within this forest make each hike a fresh experience.
How to get to the Wild River Wilderness
If you plan to camp at the Wild River Campground or to access any of the hiking trails from the trailheads in the valley, you’ll need to find the 5-mile Wild River Road.
From Boston: Take 93 N through Franconia Notch. Exit to Route 3 North, then take Route 115 to Route 2. Follow Route 2 until you enter Maine (Yep, crossing state lines!) then take Route 113 south for just a few miles, past the gate you’ll see a sign for the Wild River Wilderness and the turn for Wild River Road is just beyond here. The Wild River Campground is 5 miles down Wild River Road, but there are several trailheads with small parking areas located along the road as well.
Route 113 is not maintained in Winter so this area is only accessible by vehicle from May to October.
Hiking into the Wild River is also possible from the Pinkham Notch area on Route 16 in New Hampshire, and from Route 113 in Maine/New Hampshire.
Now that you’ve got all the facts, if I still have your attention, let me tell you a story about the magnificent, unforgettable weekend I had with my boyfriend Erich in the Wild River Wilderness.
Our Weekend in the Wild River Wilderness
All week eagerness coursed through my veins like fire. After five years of dreaming about it, I was finally returning to the Wild River Wilderness.
Five years ago, in October of 2014, I planned a haphazard backpacking loop that took me in and out of a valley called the Wild River Wilderness. At that point in my life, I’d only done one other backpacking loop around the Pemigewasset Wilderness in early August. The Pemi, as it is affectionately called by locals, is a 40 mile, well-trafficked loop that follows the Appalachian Trail for at least half of its path. In early August, I was sharing the trail with day hikers, fellow Pemi loopers, and AT thru-hikers. Every night I camped at a hosted tent site where bear boxes were provided, a host assigned me a platform, and the company was plentiful in the cooking areas. Although it was a solo trek, I was hardly ever alone at all.
I expected my loop through the Wild River Wilderness, in early October, to be the same.
Instead, I spent a grueling four days in the backcountry completely and utterly alone. I lost the trail at one point, walked myself to the point of exhaustion, realized on day three I didn’t have nearly enough food, and in four days of hiking I only saw three other human beings. By the time I made it back to my car I was grateful just to be alive. But somewhere in that mess of agony and strife, I’d fallen in love. The Wild River Wilderness held a special place in my heart. Its vast expanse, its poorly maintained trails, its air of pure, unadulterated wilderness wiggled itself into my heart and didn’t let go.
In the 5 years since that misbegotten backpacking trip, I’ve dreamed of the Wild River valley often. Every time I returned to New England from my life in Peru or Cambodia, I’d stare at my map of the White Mountains and try to find a chance to get back there but I could never quite make it work.
That is until I rolled onto my side earlier this Spring and popped my kneecap out of place. Injured and unable to take on serious backpacking trips, I started looking for car camping options. It was then that I realized: the Wild River Campground. The moment I thought of it, my heart bloomed with hope. All I had to do was find the perfect weekend and I could finally get back to the landscape that enchanted my dreams.
For weeks this summer I stared at my worn-out map of the White Mountains, tracing my finger over the little red “Wild River Campground” label. I watched the weather, peeked through my calendar, and finally, in mid-July, the perfect weekend opened up. I finished work at 1pm on Friday, shut my laptop with a snap, and loaded my gear into the car. Erich rolled up and we were on our way. We tore out of my driveway, rumbled down the poorly paved streets of Medford, and merged onto the highway ready to fly—or crawl north, rather. We sat in traffic from Medford to Concord, inching our way north with the throngs of others who, I hoped, were headed to the Lakes region and not to the Whites.
Just before 7pm, after 5 hours of highways, country roads, and mountain views, we made the turn onto Wild River Road, a long dirt road that follows the Wild River and feels like it has seen its fair share of tough winters. By the time we pulled into the campground, it was after 7pm. We drove the small loop around the 12 sites to look for an opening. Site after site had cars in front of them, tents set up, people sitting in chairs around a fire. As we drove, my spirits sank lower and lower and despair started to sink in. We’d driven all this way, no reservations, what if we didn’t get a spot? I looked at Erich, trying to keep the panic out of my eyes. He reached over and held my hand.
But I wasn’t ready to hear him say, “I’m sorry, babe.” Not just yet. I drove back down the hill, there were a few more spots near the gate of the campground we hadn’t checked. That’s when I saw him, an old man, still surprisingly tall, standing by the side of the road in a plaid shirt with a big welcoming smile on his face and his hand in the air waving us over. I drove up next to him and rolled down the window.
“You looking for a campsite?”
“Well, I’ve only got two left. One up there on the hill, or down here at the shelter. The one up there is still open but the people next door have one of those yappy little dogs so I don’t know if you want that. If you take the shelter you don’t need to sleep in it, there is still room for a tent on the ground.”
I could see the shelter just in front of me, the only campground wide open to the road. I pointed uphill, where a set of stairs were built into the landscape.
“The other open campground up there?”
“Yep, just up those stairs.”
“Ok, we’ll take it.”
He nodded, I backed the car in and looked over at Erich with tears in my eyes. Maybe I was being overly emotional, but I’d dreamed about visiting this campground and this valley for years, the idea of having to turn around, to camp somewhere else, was too painful to consider. But it didn’t matter, we got an open spot and it was perfect. Carrying our stuff up the small stairs, we found an open area cut into a grove of beech and pine. The site had enough space for several tents, plus it included a surprisingly stable picnic table and a fire pit with cooking grate.
That night we built a fire, cooked veggie fajitas in a cast iron pan over an open flame, and indulged in a few Birds of a Feather IPAs from my favorite Boston area brewery, Lamplighter.
The next morning dawned bright and beautiful. I’d originally planned for us to hike up to Mount Moriah, one of the 48 4000 footers that I haven’t bagged yet, but our morning got off to a slow start. By the time I’d made coffee, eaten breakfast, and gotten dressed it was already past 10am. Not an ideal time to set off on a 12-mile hike. So we reassessed, scoured the map, and devised a plan to follow the Basin Trail up to the eastern rim of the Wild River Valley and hike up to Mount Meader. It’s not a 4000 footer, but it would still be a beautiful day in the mountains and by the end, a 10-mile hike.
The Basin Trail was enchanting. From the campground, it wound along the valley floor through a hardwood forest where the sunlight filtered through the trees to dapple the ground in soft green light. After winding around the trees like a ribbon, the trail worked its way gently uphill following a small creek. After a slightly steep section, we came to a beautiful pool of copper-colored water. At first, I was so taken with the pool flowing through shapely rocks that I failed to look up. I walked to the water’s edge and dipped my hand in, testing the temperature—cold, even in mid-July. It was only when I looked up at Erich to share in this beauty that I saw it.
Through the trees on the other side of the pool rose a sheer exposed cliff face completely devoid of trees or plants. It looked almost fresh like the rock had just fallen away yesterday. I could just make out a few groups of rock climbers working their way toward the top. It was massive, impressive, looming over me like some gray giant. For a moment I could have believed I’d been transported out west where the mountains are bigger and the cliffs more dramatic. I said as much to Erich as we continued up the trail.
Soon enough, we reached Rim Junction, where we headed south on the Rim Trail toward Mount Meader. The trail crossed an open granite slab and we had our first view out toward Maine. Mount Meader rose above us, huge and rounded, crowned in pines. It looked absolutely massive from where we were standing and I knew that even though it was less than 3000 feet tall, we still had quite a strenuous climb ahead of us. We pushed on and the trail took on that relentless character of all White Mountain trails. Granite stairs led ever upwards and we stopped often to catch our breath. Hardwood gave way to pine as we pushed ever up, scrambling over rocks. Finally, we broke free of the trees and found ourselves near Meader’s peak. Just before the peak, there is an area that grants a commanding view of the ridgeline and Caribou Wilderness to the east. It was breathtaking. Rolling, pine-covered mountains stretched in all directions. Here and there, the pop of a granite cliff face shone through the hazy air. It had been a grueling climb, but the view made it all worth it.
We took a seat in a sliver of shade and munched on our banana and peanut butter sandwiches, relishing in our sense of achievement sitting up here on the summit. It was a warm day and we stretched out, taking a moment to rest.
The way back down to Rim Junction was slow. Erich had managed to hurt his leg somehow and climbing down the steep granite trail only exacerbated the pain. I was worried about him and halfway back, resolved that we’d shorten our hike by taking the Basin Trail back down, foregoing our planned loop for an out-and-back. But Erich insisted he still wanted to do the loop, so we headed down the Black Angel Trail—a straight shot down to the valley floor, or so I thought.
I was so excited to reach the river down below us, and couldn’t stop chatting about it to Erich. We were going to soak our feet in the cold water, lay out on the round boulders, it was going to be great. I thought the whole way down would be a fairly easy walk. It had looked that way when I glanced at the topo this morning and at first, the trail seemed to do exactly what I expected. It meandered down until we reached the Blue Brook Tent site, then dropped somewhat steeply down to a creek. Just as we were peering about to find where the trail reappeared on the other side, a woman popped out of the trees. She was kitted out for a camping trip with a full pack and a sunny disposition. We made small talk, shared insights on the trail, and as we headed in our separate directions, she left us with a final comment.
“You’ll love the Wild River when you get down there but you’ve got some serious climbing to do first.”
Climbing? The Black Angel Trail is supposed to just go down to the valley floor. I pulled out my topographical map and quickly realized my mistake. Very clearly the contour lines showed that we would need to cross a kind of pass between two hills before heading down to the river. I looked apologetically at Erich. I really hadn’t read the map closely enough this morning. He shrugged and we stepped out. What else could we do?
The climb was fast and steep, with the final pitch so sheer I found myself using tree roots and trunks to stop me from sliding back down the hill. Thankfully, it was also fairly short and before long we were starting the descent. The trail hugged the higher side of a hill, looking down on a creek far below. It would have been prime moose spotting territory, I assume, though the only thing we saw was pile after pile of deer poop. Meandering slowly back down to the valley floor, we eventually made it to the intersection with the Wild River Trail and the much-anticipated Wild River itself.
Eagerly, we cut through the trees and clambered over the giant boulders that formed the riverbed until we found an area to dip our feet. The water felt so good and we were standing right by a nice, deep pool with a little waterfall pouring into it. I looked around, didn’t see any people, figured I’d be hidden once in the water, and I made a decision to do something I’d never done before.
I got totally naked and slipped into the river.
The water felt so good on my sore muscles and if I stood under the waterfall just so it gave me the most wonderful massage. Erich joined me and we leaned against the rocks, floating our legs in the cold water, dunking our heads, and just reveling in the feeling of being alive. It was a magical afternoon.
But all good things come to an end. The water was cold and when I started shivering, I climbed back onto a dry rock in the sun, dried off, and got dressed. The walk back to the campsite was fairly uneventful. The trail had been washed out in places, the riverbank torn away by the river in some of its wilder moments, but there were clear herd paths showing where to go.
Overhead, clouds began to gather and we heard the distant rumble of thunder. At one point, less than a mile from the campground, I saw a bolt of lightning strike down at the far end of the valley. We hustled and made it back to camp just in time to slip into our tent. Then the skies opened and the rain pounded down. Safe and warm and relatively dry in the tent, we listened to the sound of the rain in the afternoon light. After about an hour or so the skies finished their temper tantrum and the rain cleared. Starting a fire that night with wet wood was a particular challenge and I may have had a temper tantrum of my own but eventually, we got it started. A well-earned box of Annie’s mac n cheese each and we were happy campers.
The final morning we took it slow, lazily making breakfast and packing up camp. By the time we drove away, it was already 11:30am. We made our way over to Pinkham’s notch to take a small stroll up the Square Ledge Trail and ogle Mount Washington, then drove down to Ossipee to get a well-earned lunch and a beer at Hobb’s Tavern.
All in all, the weekend lived up to my expectations, and the Wild River Wilderness remains one of my favorite spots in all of the White Mountains. Hopefully, it won’t take me another 5 years to make it back.
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