Thursday, July 21, 2011


On a fine sunny day I took a long hike into the Dry River valley, to visit Dry River Falls and check out the western section of the Isolation Trail, which I hadn't been on in 32 (!) years. This huge basin on the south side of Mt. Washington, between the Southern Presidentials and Montalban Ridge, has an aura of remoteness, mystery and even spookiness, perhaps harking back to Nathaniel Hawthorne's story, "The Great Carbuncle."

I started off on the Dry River Trail from Route 302 around 7:30 and before long I was entering the Presidential Range-Dry River Wilderness.

Where the trail turns L away from the Dry River for a short climb, I followed a short side path R for the first of many looks at this big backcountry stream. The water was very low this day, but in high water this is a dangerous stream, and two hikers drowned trying to cross it in the early 1970s. After those tragedies, the suspension bridge was built over the first crossing and most of the other numerous crossings were bypassed with new sections of often rough, up-and-down trail. This L turn is the first of those.

A second L turn away from the river leads to a short, steep climb.

At the top there's a neat window view up the valley to Mt. Washington, still partly shrouded in morning fog.

At 1.7 mi. the trail crosses the suspension bridge, which was rebuilt in 2009 after the previous bridge was irreparably damaged by the river.

A nice spot on the river just past the bridge.

Over the next couple of miles, the Dry River Trail mixes rough, up-and-down, beat-you-up sections with smooth railroad grade walking, as shown here.

The Mount Clinton Trail - overgrown and a challenge to follow in recent years - splits left at 2.9 mi.

Glimpse of a ridge across the valley.

More railroad grade strolling. I didn't take pictures of the ups-and-downs.

I took a break on a riverside rock with an upstream view.

In the next mile the trail climbed away from the river and traversed on a higher slope, eventually reaching Isolation Brook.

I continued up the main valley past the Isolation Trail junction on the Dry River Trail, soon passing the Mount Eisenhower Trail, 5.2 mi. in from the road.

In another quarter-mile I followed an unmarked spur path, extremely muddy in its first pitch, down to beautiful Dry River Falls - one of the most remote cascades in the mountains.

The path dropped steeply to the pool at the base of the falls. A group of about eight young guys who had passed me earlier were hanging out here fishing, so I didn't stay long. This guy caught a small trout and released him back into the pool.

I climbed back up to the Dry River Trail, went a little farther upstream, and followed overgrown paths out to the spectacular pothole pool and cascade above the falls. It was an idyllic spot for a long lunch break in the high, early summer noontime sun. I didn't go for a dip, but did give my feet a welcome dunking in the chilly water.

From the ledges by the pothole I could see down over the falls.

What a great setting, deep in the Dry River valley.

Looking down at the pothole from a smaller pool above.

I then backtracked on the Dry River Trail to the Isolation Trail.

This "Isolation West"section of trail has a reputation for roughness and obscurity, but parts of it - especially in the lower and upper sections - were quite pleasant for walking, and the grades were rarely steep.

A nice little pool along Isolation Brook.

The only problem with the trail was blowdown - lots of them. This was probably the single worst spot. Most were not really difficult, just time-consuming.

The trail traverses the bases of several old mudslides, now grown back to greenery.

This washout/blowdown spot was a bit tricky to maneuver around. As I ascended along the brook, I kept looking for a relocation that led across the brook and back, which I had seen in several trip reports from the early 2000s. I never saw the relo, and the well-beaten footway stayed on the NW side of the brook the whole way until it started climbing the side of the ridge. Either I completely missed it, or the relo is no longer used.

Up around 3400 ft. the trail led through some nice ferny fir woods.

On a shoulder at about 3500 ft., I bushwhacked out into a fir wave for some views, this one to Mt. Pierce.

An interesting angle on Mts. Franklin and Monroe.

A closer look at Monroe, and the glacial cirque carved into its flank.

In the other direction I could see wide-spreading Mt. Jackson, with Mt. Field and South Twin in the distance on the R and the north ridge of Hancock on the L.

More nice woods above the fir wave - a surprisingly nice trail, this was.

Up above 4000 ft. there was a neat peek at Mt. Isolation from a scrubby spot along the trail.

Here also was a long view to the distinctive silhouette of the Sandwich Range.

As I approached the Davis Path, there was a vista up to Boott Spur.

At 2.4 mi. from the Dry River Trail, the Isolation Trail met the Davis Path. Having come this far, I had a hankering to climb a peak. Mt. Isolation was too far away, with too much down and up in both directions, for the time and energy at my disposal. Instead, I settled on North Isolation (4293 ft.), an obscure peak on the Trailwrights 72 list that is just off trail a short distance to the north. I had been there before, but not for a long time.

The Davis Path was trimmed wide, quite a contrast with the at times closed-in Isolation Trail. It brought back memories of many rather long and grueling trail maintenance trips back in the 1990s, when several of us maintained this section of Davis Path for the Four Thousand Footer Committee.

From the wooded summit of North Isolation, the summit of Mt. Washington was visible through the trees.

On the way back down the Isolation Trail, I made a short side excursion to look at this beautiful fern glade.

Back down on the Dry River Trail, this little cascade is just below the crossing of Isolation Brook.

Then it was time for the 4.9-mi. slog back down the valley, during which I concluded that the Dry River Trail is among the White Mountain "league leaders" in PUDs. It can hold its own in step-over blowdowns, as well.

I stopped at the Mt. Washington view spot for the last photo of the day, and made it out, just barely, without resorting to a headlamp. All in all, a great day in the intriguing Dry River valley.


  1. Steve, indeed "a great day indeed in the intriguing Dry River valley"!!

    Dry River Falls is such a gem! It's a bit of trek to get to it, but it's well worth the effort. Of course, your travels took you even further beyond that lovely spot! Have you had time to guesstimate your total mileage and elevation gain for the day?

    Terrific report, as always, Steve!


  2. Sweet report. I need to check out the Dry River this year. That picture of blowdowns looks tempting! How long a trip?

  3. Thanks, Chris. There is plenty of work for your axe out there! It's 4.9 miles to the start of the Isolation Trail, a longer 4.9 than you would think due to the ups and downs. The majority of the blowdowns are in the middle of the western Isolation Trail section.


  4. Thanks, John - I figured it at 16.2 miles with about 3800 ft. of elevation gain - will be adding another 100-150 feet of reverse elevation gain to the data for the first 4.9 miles of the Dry River Trail.


  5. Wow, what a unique angle of the Monroe cirque! Here's an theory for ya on the "Carbuncle". Almost all legend is based on even a sliver of truth. If I recall correctly, it was told that the Great Carbuncle emitted both light and a measure of sound. Sounds like the aurora borealis a bit doesn't it? You never, ever know.

  6. Hmmm..interesting theory, Scott - wish there was a way to find out!


  7. I think your assessment of West Isolation is balanced - the trail itself is not too bad to follow and is not steep either up or down, but the blowdowns and the overgrowth make it difficult. If it has rained recently then there will certainly be enough mud for those who like that sort of thing.

    I think "balance" is the key here - we sometimes forget that there are a lot of elements that make up a trail description and concentrating on one difficult aspect (ie, blowdowns) does not make a trail "bad". Thanks for your perpective.

  8. Good analysis, Summerset! Blowdowns and overgrowth can come and go. I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable this trail section was overall.


  9. Hi Steve,

    Heard from the Saco District crew that a group is going to be working in that whole area clearing out Isolation, Dry River and Clinton. They may be there already. I'm heading over to McCrillis Trail with the Saco "crew" next week.

  10. Hi Chris,

    That's excellent news! They will have their work cut out for them on the Clinton Trail.


  11. Excellent trail review and great pix. Know anything about the hut mentioned here?

  12. Thanks, David. The hut mentioned here is the AMC's Mizpah Spring Hut, located on the Webster Cliff Trail on the ridge west of the Dry River valley. Unfortunately the trails in the Dry River valley are all still closed due to catastrophic damage from Tropical Storm Irene. Entire sections of riverbank were washed away, leaving dangerous dropoffs on the trails.