The mountain weather forecast was looking pretty good (although cold) until about Thursday or Friday. Our original plan had been to traverse the Wildcat ridge beginning at the Glen Ellis Falls trailhead, continuing over the ridge and descending via the 19 Mile Brook trail. But due to the weather, we decided to avoid the ledges between the trailhead and Wildcat E and D peaks, and instead hiked from the north end, ascending via 19 Mile Brook trail, traversing the ridge over peaks A, B, and C to peak D, then descending the trail from the observation deck to the Wildcat gondola and following the Polecat ski trail down to the ski area parking lot, where we had spotted one of our cars before beginning our hike.
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19 Mile Brook is a beautiful trail, following a stream for much of the beginning. It’s a good climb, but not overly steep, with a mix of soft pine needles and some rocks and roots on the footbed. Rocks and roots are more abundant the higher you go.
Eventually, we reached the Wildcat Ridge trail. From here, it’s a steep climb with a little over 1000 feet of elevation gain over just 7/10 of a mile to reach the main (A) summit of Wildcat mountain, at the eastern end of the ridge. We found nothing marking the summit; we only knew we had arrived there by the description in the 4000-footers guidebook, which mentioned a path to an eastward overlook. From here, there is normally a view toward Carter Dome, Mt. Hight, and South and Middle Carter mountains. We briefly spotted some peaks as the clouds passed over them. But we did have a clear view of the valley below, including the AMC Carter Hut and the nearby pond/lake. As soon as we arrived at this overlook, it had begun sleeting a little bit.
Heading back onto the Wildcat Ridge trail and into the shelter of the trees, we donned some extra layers, including rain jackets, and put the raincovers on our packs that had started getting wet. We also grabbed some snacks out of our packs and ate as we began traversing the ridge to peak B. Again, we only knew we had passed over peak B by the description in the guidebook. And we figured we had reached peak C when we had gone up for a bit, then started descending again.
After crossing peak C, it got a little confusing since it seemed we just kept going down, down, down. Then we started going up! But just for a short bit. Then there was more down, down, down. It really seemed we were going down much more than we were going up. But just before peak D, there are several more steep sections. A pair of hikers we met on the trail long after we crossed peak C estimated that we were about 1/4 to 1/2 mile from the D peak. Just as we were going up a seemingly endless steep section with rocky steps, I proclaimed we must be close, since I could see sky, and it didn’t look like it could go up any more. Then the trail took a bend to the right – still going up. And just as I was in the middle of saying, “We must be close, but I don’t see the observ… OH! THERE IT IS!” The observation deck suddenly appeared right in front of us.
As expected, we couldn’t see squat from the deck, since the summit was completely socked in the clouds, as was the rest of the ridgeline. We didn’t stay up there for long, just enough to take a couple of summit selfies and shots of the non-existent view.
Descending the stairs of the deck, the Wildcat Ridge trail continues straight ahead. Instead, we descended the stairs and walked around to the opposite end of the deck, where another trail heads down to the Wildcat Ski Area gondola. We continued down the short, rocky trail to the gondola and headed to the right to descend via the Polecat ski trail. From everything I’ve read, this is the recommended trail when descending to the ski area parking lot. I assume it’s because it’s one of the easier trails, meandering down the mountain via gentler slopes on the northeastern end, and there is an access road to follow. It seems like quite a long slog down the mountain, which took us a little over an hour, but with today’s weather it was a much safer choice than the steep ledges. The descent down the ski slope also offers excellent views of Pinkham Notch, which was in full fall color for this peak leaf-peeping weekend.
Even with the questionable weather, this was still a good hike. Beautiful views as long as we were below the clouds, and a gorgeous trail along the ridgeline.