Wednesday, March 16, 2011


The forecast was late winter perfection: sunny, lower 40s in the valleys, light winds. Better yet, the night before was cold, setting up firm conditions for snowshoe bushwhacking. The time was ripe for exploring the gorgeous birch forest and a pair of open ledges on Rocky Branch Ridge, the least known and least visited of the three great southern ridges of Mt. Washington.

This heavily wooded crest rises between the remote valley of the Rocky Branch on the west and the Ellis River valley and NH Rt. 16 on the east. It has just a couple of named peaks along its five-mile length. The only path on it is the Rocky Branch Trail, which crosses a col in the ridge and forms the first leg in the most popular route to Mt. Isolation, the 4000-footer atop Montalban Ridge on the west side of the Rocky Branch valley.

(Rocky Branch Ridge from Mt. Parker)

For a few years in the 1930s and 1940s there was a trail along the southern half of Rocky Branch Ridge, but it was soon abandoned. In the late 1970s, the Forest Service considered reopening this trail and extending it northward all the way to the Glen Boulder Trail, but the proposal never came to fruition. Thus the interesting views found on the various ledges along this ridgecrest are rarely seen.

Chris "NeoAkela" Whiton and I rendezvoused at the Rocky Branch trailhead on Route 16 at 9:30 am. We had hoped that John "1HappyHiker" Compton would be able to join us, but a morning obligation kept him off the trails til noon, though he did get a hike in to Mt. Pierce.

There was a rock-solid snowshoe track, choppy and uneven, on the Rocky Branch Trail, with some deep bareboot postholes mixed in for the first 3/4 mile. It would have been uncomfortable for snowshoeing, so we strapped our shoes on our packs and put on our Microspikes.

The first 1.9 mi. of the Rocky Branch Trail is a steady, moderate climb up the slope of Rocky Branch Ridge, through a vast hardwood forest.

A moose had postholed its way across the trail.

At the top of the big climb, where the trail abruptly levels and turns left onto an old logging road, we put on our snowshoes. There was a good snowpack up here, at 2800 ft.

Parts of this trail section led us through sunny open glades.

After a gradually descending section, we entered the Wilderness area and began the final climb to the col on the ridge.

Up here there were numerous trees bent over from a recent ice storm.

From the small, scrubby bog in the pass, we had a slight glimpse up to the first ledgy area we planned to visit, located on a SW shoulder of the 3633-ft. peak of Rocky Branch Ridge to the north. Here we left the trail and struck off into the woods. As we had hoped, the snow was pretty solid off-trail. Our only concern was that it might get too warm in the sun and weaken the crust.

I'd been to these ledges before, and knew there were fabulous birch glades to its west. But first we had to push through an area of fairly dense conifers.

We climbed into the first birch glade of the day.

Then we ascended back into a band of conifers that ring the ledges, getting our first partial views to the south.

We did some zigging and zagging to get through thick stuff, and emerged on some lower ledges. On one steep pitch the sun had softened the top layer of snow into slush, and I slid a few feet backwards on the hard crust beneath - one of the quirks of spring-like snowshoeing. Soon we emerged on the open upper ledges, where we paused to admire a broadside view of Mts. Davis and Isolation.

A short distance farther, we came to the large open ledge at the top of this shoulder. Looking SW, we saw the mighty Mt. Carrigain rising over the saddle between Stairs Mountain and the south end of Mt. Davis.

Resolution and Stairs, an impressive duo at the south end of Montalban Ridge.

Chris takes it all in; view towards North Conway in the background.

With his new camera (boasting a 35X zoom!), Chris scopes out the many interesting spots on the elongated crest of Mt. Davis.

A spacious ledge, unlimited sun, no wind, the only sound a croaking raven. Our 45-minute stay here passed all too quickly.

From the ledge, we descended through a belt of close-grown conifers and emerged in this glade of twisted birches.

Birches, birches and more birches - endless ranks of them cascading down this gentle slope. All the result of the great Rocky Branch fires of 1912-1914. These were ignited in the slash left from large-scale clearcutting by the Conway Lumber Company, who hauled their bounty out on the twelve-mile Rocky Branch Railroad.

Some hikers see part of this wonder-forest when using what has become known as the "Engine Hill bushwhack" en route to Mt. Isolation; this route avoids several difficult crossings of the Rocky Branch along the trails. We were a little higher up than the route generally taken by peakbaggers. The name "Engine Hill" apparently references a locomotive derailment along the railroad in March, 1913. On the USGS map, the name appears down near Rocky Branch Shelter #2, and it is often applied to the 3244-ft. peak on Rocky Branch Ridge to the south of the Rocky Branch Trail.

One area was so open we even had a view to the SW.

A lovely birch-clad drainage.

These glades are a natural intoxicant on a sunny March day. The snowpack was concrete-hard under a top layer of a few inches of soft snow.

After nearly a half-mile of birch wandering, we came to the abrupt transition to conifer forest, which we would pass through the rest of the way to our second ledge objective of the day.

We headed north, ascending along the flank of the 3633-ft. peak, pushing through conifers with many long, clinging branches.

We slabbed up to the north end of the peak, then descended to a long, flat col where the woods were thicker than I remembered from a previous trip fifteen years ago. It took quite a while to get across this area, then finally we started climbing towards the next peak on the ridge, which tops out at 3921 ft. Here the woods opened up and we enjoyed pretty good going until the woods closed in again on the final steep pitch up to our ledge, located on a southern shoulder.

We received a fair reward for our effort. The gentle slopes of the Rocky Branch valley stretch endlessly away to the south.

The Sandwich Range spreads wide beyond Resolution and Stairs.

From here, Mt. Isolation looks like a real mountain. The summit is on the right.

Mt. Davis takes up a lot of backcountry real estate.

Chris snaps away. That cairn was there in 1996, too.

Looking across at the Carters and Wildcats.

A unique peek at Speckled Mountain through the broad swath of Perkins Notch.

The lensman at work. Chris has a real gift for the photographic art. His uncle, Clyde H. Smith, was an award-winning photographer who published numerous books. (And Chris's grandfather, Clyde F. Smith, was a firewarden on Cardigan and Cannon, and also laid out the Falling Waters and Hi-Cannon Trails).

An interesting cliff on a spur of Isolation; Mt. Pierce in the back.

After an hour, we had to leave this fabulous spot as the afternoon was waning. We took a more open route through the conifers at a lower elevation, and once again emerged in the birches, now flooded with late afternoon sun.

The road goes ever on...

Numerous stops were made along the way.

The moon rising over the treetops.

Could snowshoeing get any better than this?

Back on the trail, the snowshoe track had crusted up again and was rough and a bit uncomfortable. So we made several off-trail shortcuts on the descent through the hardwoods. Conditions were ideal for swooping down through the trees. A great way to end a memorable day.


  1. Nice account and photographs. I was very interested to learn of Chris's Clyde Smith connection, although I always thought it was Clyde H.'s father, Clyde F. Smith, who laid out the Hi-Cannon and Falling Waters Trails. The elder Smith was a summer fire warden on Cannon Mountain.

    Clyde F. was also the best sign maker on the entire AT. I used to maintain a section of the trail on Big Bald in NC and an old, rotted trademark Smith sign was still present until a few years ago. Those signs were works of art and were all over NC and NH until the early 80's.

    It sounds like photographer Clyde H. is no longer living. That's a shame. His work played a major role in getting me interested in hiking the Whites back in the early 70's.

  2. Marvelous March weather and a marvelous report to boot!

    Sorry I was unable to join you guys. When I was standing on the summit of Pierce around 2:30-ish PM, I did briefly wave a few times in the general direction where I thought you guys might be. There was that ever so slim chance that you might see some motion through your binoculars, or Chris might pick me up with his new high-power camera lens. :)

    Oh! And that was an interesting tidbit you added about how Engine Hill got its name!


  3. Thanks, John - we did miss you and even called out your name a couple of times in case you were coming up below us under the first ledge. We did see a group of hikers atop Eisenhower (amazing shot Chris got of that) - should have looked more closely on Pierce, too! Glad you were able to get out.


  4. Thank you, Mark. Chris also clarified that there were two Clyde Smiths, his uncle being the photographer and his grandfather the trail-builder. I must have had a brain cramp on that one. Neat to hear about your connection with both of them. Wonder if any of Clyde F.'s signs are still around anywhere in the Whites.


    1. Hi Steve, I still miss Clyde F. We use to visit him all the time at the flume when I was young. My sister always got a Christmas card from him every year. He also built the Pemi Trail with my uncle Fred Claus and dad Eugene Baer. They named it the Pemi path though. I can remember them sitting around the campfire talking about how there should be a path from Lafayette campground to the Basin and next morning setting out and doing it. Took a few summers though. But my main reason for reply is to let you know I still have one of his signs that he carved for our cottage Hibernaculum

  5. Hi Steve!

    Am a regular Mountain Wandering 'blog' reader and always look forward to your latest report - this one was really terrific!

    Most text books say birch is a pioneering species, growing aggressively after a forest canopy opening, then, after 40 to 80 years giving away to other shade tolerant tress such as spruce/fir, when above 2500'.

    Do you know why these birch glades have persisted for a hundred years (or more, in the case of Moriah Brook Basin which you wrote about in your February visit)?

    I have enlarged your photos and the balsam fir/spruce populations, where they occasionally appear, seem to be in poor health.

    All the best,

    Cliff Daly
    Ottawa, Can.

  6. Hi Cliff,

    Thanks for reading! Chris and I were talking about this during our hike. A couple of years ago I asked a friend, Dave Govatski (recently retired from the Forest Service and the most knowledegable person I know concerning the natural and human history of the Whites), about similar open, undergrowth-free glades on Terrace Mountain in the Kilkenny area. His answer was that a carpet of ferns - which I suspect would be found in the Rocky Branch glades in summer - inhibits other plant growth because the ferns have "aleopathic qualities"; they produce an herbicide-like chemical that prevents other plants from competing. Certainly a plausible explanation for the openness of those glades.

    Overall, many of the paper birches across the Whites have been dying off in recent years; Dave notes that they do not have a lifespan much over 100-120 years, and there have been additional stresses with several significant ice storms.


  7. Hi Steve,

    Awesome report and photos as always! That was certainly a trip to remember - those birch glades were beautiful, and the snow conditions were just perfect.

    I see the part about the moose we found ended up on the cutting room floor - probably a good thing; he was a bit gruesome!

    I can't wait to get out in this area again to explore some of those other ledges. My list of places to go has expanded again!

  8. Thanks Chris! It was a great day. The birches alone were worth the price of admission, then we had those great views and fine snow conditions too.

    I figured the moose should RIP.

    Lots of interesting spots over there on Montalban Ridge!