Trail Running New Hampshire's Kilkenny Ridge Trail
The Kilkenny Ridge Trail runs north to south from South Pond Recreation Area in Stark to Jefferson. The ridge is in northern New Hampshire with almost the entire route many miles from civilization. Both Stark and Jefferson are small mountain towns with basic services. Along the 25 miles of the Kilkenny Ridge Trail, you'll find nothing but barely tamed wilderness with a few intersecting trails, some tent sites, and the lightly maintained trail itself to remind you people have been around. If this scenario appeals to you, read on!
Let's start with a few comments about the Kilkenny Ridge Trail that might be interesting to trail runners.
If you've heard how difficult trail running is in the White Mountains, don't put the Kilkenny Ridge Trail in that same box. Compared to a Pemi Loop or a Presi traverse, a Kilkenny Ridge traverse is gentler on your feet with fewer rocks & roots, less overall vert, and shorter climbs and descents with gentler inclines overall. That's not to say the route is easy, but you'll feel less "chewed up and spit out" after a Kilkenny Ridge Trail traverse when compared to a Pemi or a Presi.
The Kilkenny is a remote route. You're not close to anything civilized except on either end. If you want a trail running experience where you'll see few people (if any), put the Kilkenny high on your list. Most people backpack this trail over 2-4 days. You're unlikely to meet another trail runner, although we're out there. You'll mostly see folks with heavy packs moving at a hiking pace through the terrain.
Water can be a little hard to come by. The entire route is ~24 miles if you hit the summit spurs for The Horn and South Terrace, and more like ~23 miles if you skip the spurs. The mileages below are approximate and assume you skipped those two summit spurs. Where you can find water if you're headed SOBO.
- South Pond 0.0 miles.
- Kilback Pond 5.0 miles.
- Unknown Pond 6.5 miles.
- If you know where to find the steep spur trail, you can get water from a spring near the summit of Mt. Cabot 8.8 miles.
- A potential flow running down the trail below Cabot Cabin 9.2 miles.
- Rumor has it there's water in Bunnell Notch 10.5 miles.
- The same for Willard Notch 13.0 miles.
- A potential flow on the south face of North Weeks 14.5 miles.
- Then you've got a long stretch to get to a reliable spring on the right side of the trail as you descend Starr King towards Jefferson somewhere around 20.5 miles.
You don't have good options if you want to bail partway through the route. The Kilkenny is way out there, so get to know the trail map and have available someone you can count on and doesn't mind driving around if you decide you can't complete the entire traverse. This is especially true as not all the roads on the map are open all the time. York Pond Road has a gate partway down that's only open certain hours of the day. So does the road to South Pond Rec Area. Bailing on this route is not going to be easy, so have a strong plan. That plan is not your cell phone. You won't have service for almost the entire route. You'll need a satellite communicator like a Garmin InReach.
Do whatever is convenient for you, but I recommend you run the route southbound. Park your car at Starr King trailhead, and have someone drive you around to South Pond Rec Area to start your run. When you complete the route and get to Jefferson, the Old Corner Store is close to the trailhead and can make you a sub or a pizza, plus has all the other food sorta stuff you could want from a roadside convenience store.
The Kilkenny Ridge Trail In Sections
South Pond (Stark) to Roger's Ledge. You'll rise mostly gently from South Pond Rec Area. It's a good section to get your legs warmed up and ready for the rest of the route. There's plenty of mud here, but most of it is avoidable if you don't mind dancing. There are views at Roger's Ledge. See if you can find the brass plaque. From Roger's Ledge, the trail continues hard left down a steep incline.
Roger's Ledge to Unknown Pond. This section rolls along through mostly gentle terrain. You'll cross the edge of Kilback Pond with its bog. Count on wet feet here. Some of the trail is likely to be submerged, and the only way out is through. March across the top of that beaver dam with a smile on your face and kick up the mud with joy. Once past Kilback Pond, you'll eventually hit a steep climb up to the plateau that holds Unknown Pond. You might run into people here, as there is an established backcountry camp site at Unknown Pond.
Unknown Pond to Bunnell Notch (The Horn, The Bulge, Mt. Cabot). From Unknown Pond, you'll eventually start climbing the northwest face of The Horn. This is mostly sidehill, and never gets too steep. In the saddle between The Horn and The Bulge, an optional spur trail heads off to The Horn summit. As you continue along Kilkenny Ridge, you'll climb The Bulge, the trail taking you over the summit marked with a small cairn. You'll descend the south face of The Bulge into a col, and ascend the north face of Mt. Cabot, one of the NH 4,000 footers. Follow a short spur trail off to the Cabot summit if tagging it is important to you, and then you'll continue along the southeast shoulder of Cabot to Cabot Cabin. Cabot Cabin is a first come, first served, fully enclosed shelter with several bunks. It's not especially pleasant, but if the weather if bad, you could do worse. There is a nearby privy. From Cabot Cabin, the trail drops at first steeply and then more gently, rolling into Bunnell Notch.
Bunnell Notch to Willard Notch (The Terraces). Watch the trail signage carefully to make sure you don't follow Bunnell Notch Trail east when you come to the split. You want to stay on Kilkenny Ridge Trail that heads more southerly and begins climbing North Terrace not long after the split. Ascend North Terrace and then Middle Terrace. From Middle Terrace, you'll climb most of South Terrace, with an option to hit the spur trail to the South Terrace summit if you want. The descent off of South Terrace into Willard Notch is steep, rough, and one of the longest of the traverse. It's a challenge to move fast on this descent due to increased technicality.
Willard Notch to Waumbek (The Weeks). From Willard Notch, the longest climb of the traverse is next, as you ascend North Weeks. Be patient. You'll get there. Once you summit North Weeks, the hardest part of your run is behind you, and you can focus on steady progress. From North Weeks, you'll continue south to Middle Weeks and then South Weeks. There are many runnable segments in the Weeks, with gentle ascents and descents through fern jungle. Runnable bits are mixed in with rough, overgrown segments, so it's hard to get a good rhythm going. Take what you can get. There's lots of pace to be had in here. From South Weeks, you'll descend and then climb onto a long shoulder of Waumbek. Don't get frustrated on that Waumbek shoulder. A lot of it is runnable, but it will take longer than you want to get to the Waumbek summit. In addition, this area is wildly overgrown with ferns, raspberry cane, and so on. You often won't be able to see your feet, and this will slow you down as you'll be tripping on rocks and roots you didn't know were there.
Waumbek to Jefferson. Mt. Waumbek is your second official NH 4,000 footer of the day. Once you pass the large cairn marking the summit, the character of the trail changes radically. The trail becomes wider, rockier, and muddier, as it's heavily used by peakbaggers adding Waumbek to their 4K collection. It's also used by local trail runners like myself needing a quick training run, as an out-n-back of Waumbek is easily completed in 2-3 hours from Jefferson for those moving light and fast. Once past the Waumbek summit, you'll drop into a shallow col with lots of mud pits and then climb up to an open ledge very near the Starr King summit. From the Starr King summit, the trail drops mostly steadily all the way to Jefferson, with runnable stretches depending on what you've got left in your legs. Near the bottom, there's a large cistern on your left, marking about 0.25 miles to the Starr King trailhead. Even if you're dead tired, the trail will permit a lazy jog from the cistern to the car, and a flat out run if you've left something in the tank.
And that's it! Congratulations!! You've completed a SOBO traverse of the Kilkenny Ridge Trail.