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Dry River Trail Backpack and Oakes Gulf (Attempt)

The floodwaters from Hurricane Irene completely reshaped the Dry River causing huge landslides and wiping out the old Dry River Trail
The floodwaters from Hurricane Irene completely reshaped the Dry River causing huge landslides that wiped out the old Dry River Trail

The Dry River Trail runs 9.6 miles from Crawford Notch, near Frankenstein Cliffs to the Lakes of the Clouds, a set of alpine tarns about 1100 feet below the summit of Mt Washington. I attempted to hike it end-to-end but had to turn back about a mile short when I encountered deep snow at 4300 feet of elevation. There I was, deep in Oakes Gulf, one of the glacial cirques that surround Mt Washington, postholing up to my waist alone in wet snow. It was prudent to turn around and leave the Oakes Gulf headwall for another day.

Even more so because the Dry River is one of the most remote trails in the White Mountains and I didn’t see anyone during the two days I spent hiking along it. Two days of complete solitude is a relatively rare phenomenon in the White Mountains these days, since the National Forest receives over 6 million visitors a year, more than Yosemite and Yellowstone National Park combined.

Occasional Navigational Challenges - Understatement of the Day
Occasional Navigational Challenges – Understatement of the Day

Set in the Presidential-Dry River Wilderness, the Dry River Trail is a very remote and isolated trail to hike, one that can pose “navigational challenges” since the route is entirely unmarked except for a few scattered cairns along its 9.6 mile length. When I last hiked the trail in 2010, it had been easy to follow, but the following year, the heavy rain and landslides caused by Hurricane Irene devastated the Dry River Valley and wiped out huge sections of the river and the adjacent trail, much of which followed old logging grades. The Dry River Trail was subsequently closed until late 2014 when it was reopened as a primitive wilderness trail.

Oakes Gulf, below Mt Washington
Oakes Gulf, below Mt Washington

While I’m exceptionally good at following hard to follow trails, I found the Dry River Trail hard to follow, especially north of the Isolation Trail Junction, in the section that includes the Dry River Shelter #3 and Oakes Gulf. In the absence of any trail markings, I had to rely on evidence of trail maintenance – crosscut sawed or hand chopped logs, and clipped tree stumps that had been brushed out in past years, as reassurance markers that I was still on a trail, which worked after a fashion until I ran into deep snow. After that, I couldn’t see any evidence of a trail under the snow and amidst the sea of blowdowns near treeline.

Dry River Shelter #3 is still in good shape.
Dry River Shelter #3 is still in good shape.

Turning around wasn’t such a hardship on this trip because I’d planned to spend the night out and loop back to the Dry River by the Mt Eisenhower Trail to do a little trout fishing the next day. I’d come equipped with a fishing net, Tenkara rod, and flies and had been scoping out the best potential trout habitat in the river where the trail runs adjacent to it. This proved to be an excellent diversion and while I didn’t catch any fish, I had a fine time scrambling along the rocky river banks and casting in many fine pools and riffles. (I suspect the best fishing is in the downstream portion below the suspension bridge, which is an easy 2.5 mile hike in from the trailhead along Rt 302.)

The rain from Irene caused many landslides along the streams that feed the Dry River in addition to the damage done along the river banks.
The rain from Irene caused many landslides along the streams that feed the Dry River in addition to the damage done along the river banks.

If you’re interested in hiking the Dry River Trail, here is some intel that will help you prepare for the journey. First, contrary to its name, the Dry River and the Dry River Trail are anything but dry. The Dry River drainage is a rainforest full of side streams and mud. Expect to get wet feet, wet socks, and muddy clothes when you slip and fall. Don’t worry about washing your clothes though, because they’ll come clean when you ford the Dry River, twice, if you hike beyond the Dry River Shelter #3 into Oakes Gulf.

If you haven’t hiked the Dry River Trail since Hurricane Irene, the biggest noticeable change will be the reroutes around landslides that wiped out large portions of the old trail along the riverbank. The new trail climbs steeply up, over, and around these landslide zones, occasionally passing straight through them if the slope is stable (the best trout habitat is below the landslides and virtually inaccessible.) While the trail crew did a heroic job in surveying and cutting these new trails, they didn’t have time to build rock stairs and many are already eroding and deteriorating.

Landslide above the river. The Dry River Trail is route over these zones of instability making for some steep climbs.
Landslide above the river. The Dry River Trail is routed over these zones of instability making for some steep climbs.

When it comes to fording the streams, the beginning and end of the fords are marked with signs or rocks cairns. But don’t be fooled into thinking that they mark the best crossing points on the river. They don’t. Your best bet is to scout out a nearby route across that’s safer depending on the water level. When I was there last week (end of May), the levels were running slightly high, at knee height, but the water was very cold, probably from the lingering snow at higher elevations. Once across, you can re-acquire the trail at the signs or cairns by returning to them.

Rock cairn along the river bank which does NOT mark a river crossing
Rock cairn along the river bank which does NOT mark a river crossing

As you walk up the trail, you will see cairns by the side of the river that are not on the trail itself but adjacent, and look like they mark river crossings. They are actually trail reassurance markers. You can tell this if you have a properly adjusted altimeter and a good map that marks the elevations of all trail junctions and major features like the Exploring New Hampshire Map from the Wilderness Map Company. This is a great map of the entire White Mountains and is invaluable when knowing precise elevations is important. All of the major stream crossing across the Dry River are signed, although the ones across larger tributaries aren’t, and a few are quite easy to walk past.

Presidential-Dry River Wilderness Boundary
Presidential Range-Dry River Wilderness Boundary

As in any White Mountain Wilderness Area, the WMNF Backcountry Regulations stipulate where you can camp. There are also four signed and designated campsites along the trail  which are just off the trail and close to the river. There are others near the junction of the Isolation Trail and the Mt Clinton Trail which are not marked on any maps.

A designated campsite at 4160' on the Dry River Trail. I was very surprised to see this in Oakes Gulf so close to Mt Washington.
A designated campsite at 4160′ on the Dry River Trail. I was very surprised to see this in Oakes Gulf so close to Mt Washington.

While hiking or backpacking the Dry River is not for the faint-hearted, the evidence of Hurricane Irene’s impact on the landscape is sublime. The Dry River looks likes it’s been dredged by massive earth moving equipment and you can imagine the massive flash flood that must have rushed down the Dry River Valley careening off the riverbanks, moving giant boulders downstream with its force, and piling huge mounds of dead trees in its wake. The power of nature is awesome and you’ve probably never seen anything like this so close.

Dry River - Mt Eisenhower Loop Attempted Route (click for interactive map on Caltopo.com)
Dry River – Mt Eisenhower Loop Attempted Route (click for interactive map on Caltopo.com)

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14 comments

  1. No Fish? Ahh well, it happens. You did the right thing turning around. Without any trail markers or no evidence of a trail, you are bushwacking without knowing which side of the trail you are on. Always difficult. (And, I am not talking about the snow.)

    • I have a number of theories about why there were no fish, which I’m writing up. I am a Tenkara beginner still, teaching myself without a lot of mentoring, by experimentation, as it were (while reading up on trout fishing and habitat and Tenkara technique) and watching Youtube videos. There’s just a learning curve and I’m at the bottom of it.

      This river didn’t have any noticeable bug activity and the gradient on river adjacent to my hike was rather steep, so I was casting from the bank instead of wading mid-stream and walking up the river. I was also drifting my line more than nymphing, and I lost a lot of flies in between rocks. I have some new things I want to try on my next trip out.

      I did catch a nice rainbow on the Saco on the day before this trip, but that was a much more mellow river and I was wading in hatch infested waters.

      • Sounds like you were encountering late winter/early spring conditions. Few flies out, except tiny blue wing olives. This is impossible to fish with Tenkara gear. The flies are usually like a size 22-24 and I have fished them with 28’s. Another fisherman I met one year termed them Minnow Flies because I was using clear nylon thread (about 1/3-1/2pound test around a 12x size) leader. Anyway, Tenkara is not the place for midge fishing.

        Anyway, water conditions can vary with snow melt, as you found out. Switching between two streams usually means switching flies. Some natural flies key on daylight length, others key on temperature, a few key on food supplies for when they hatch. But, Brookies don’t really care.

        Anyway, Brookies like wets, mostly. Usually, Browns and Rainbows are more hatch driven and will take drys and nymphs in a more natural configuration. In a remote stream, often a size 12 red/white/silver or Claret/Yellow/Gold work pretty well for Brookies, if they are at all interested, or, even there. They often ignore the current hatch in favor of the bright colored tie.

      • That makes sense. They say water temperature is really important.

  2. Thank you for sharing! Sounds like a unique hike, and I am in awe of your navigational abilities. I’m heading up to the Whites in a few weeks for an AT section hike, really looking forward to it.

    • I’m teaching the compass and off-trail navigation class for the AMC on September 25-27 near Pinkham Notch if you’re interested in attending: $80 for three days including breakfast and dinners. Here’s a link to register:

      It’s a really great class and I teach it with a legendary guy named Joe Comuzzi.
      http://sectionhiker.com/guided-trips-and-instruction/

      The NH AT is really great. It got me hooked on New Hampshire hiking and section hiking the AT for that matter. Let me know how your hike goes.

  3. What a place! I went in there in October and also saw nobody for three days. I didn’t find the trail to be at all hard to follow, though. I wonder if early spring conditions after a big winter helped erase some signs of the trail. That wouldn’t surprise me much. Anyway, I’m glad you got some good solitude in there!

    The thing that surprised me the most was the condition of the Dry River Shelter #3. I almost didn’t believe it was as old as it was, since it’s in almost as good condition as many of the recently rebuilt shelters along the AT in the Whites.

    • That shelter is in amazingly good shape. I saw carvings from the 60’s in the wood, just to date it.

      The greatest navigational challenge was from the Shelter, north, starting with the continuation of the trail past the shelter. There are no trail markers or cairns that even indicate which stream you need to cross, and lots of false paths! Grrr.

      Then there’s the fact that much of the trail between 3100′ and 3500′ is heavily eroded and completely under water, I was having LT flashbacks.

      I also think that the treadway was still highly obscured with last falls leaf clutter and blowdowns from the winter. It was also clear that the high grass growing along the trail was covered with snow up until very recently (that pressed down look). i suspect the tread is much easier to follow in in the autumn after many people have hiked it than in the early spring when the trail has a very “unused” appearance.

      I had fun though.

  4. I’ve hiked the Dry River trail twice in summer – the first time when I was in my teens, hiking the entire stretch of the AT through the Whites (I’m 64) and the second time with my son and his friend back around 2005. Two things I remember: losing the trail about mid-way up and having my heart drop into my feet (I did the right thing, immediately backtracking and reconnecting with the trail); and near the top, having to traverse a particularly slippery solid rock face where we had to remove our backpacks, pass them with ropes across the face so that we wouldn’t be weighted down, and then carefully crossing, one by one. We survived. I always enjoy your comments, Phil. Thanks for refreshing my memories.

  5. After looking down into this area from Isolation I’ve always wanted to explore it. Sounds like it may be a contender for the least populated point in the whites too. That is for trailed territory.

  6. I remember hiking up the Dry River Trail in October 2007 only to find the suspension bridge had been out for two years! Still, I got a nice view of Mt Washington covered in snow (or rime anyway) on the hike to the bridge. Wish I could send you the photo with this reply.

  7. Great and unique post. I hiked the DRT with my two then teenage sons in July of 2001. We reached a particularly steep section well above the shelter, but by then we were pretty much whipped. We doubled back to the shelter, spent an eventful night, and then hiked out to our truck on Rt. 302. Since then I’ve been back to the Whites every year, but never to the DRT and I always have wanted to go back up it all the way to the top

  8. Doing a bit of research on something and found this post Phil. I had a very similar experience in the Dry River, late April 1996 I think… promised my Dad, brother, and two teenage girls I talked into joining us that we wouldn’t encounter snow… I don’t think those girls ever hiked again LOL… PM me if you are doing any Nav classes for AMC this year… I would love to sit in on one if that would be possible. I’ve got two scheduled with the AMC as well but would be happy to share some content if you were interested!

  9. I recently hiked up the Dry River Trail, but turned up Isolation West to Boott Spur instead of continuing up Dry River. I can speak to the difficulty in following both trails, which have lots of poorly marked reroutings from Irene damage, until Isolation Trail climbs away from the river and becomes a great trail. A few especially muddy sections have the potential to become washed away and impassable, requiring bushwacking around, until further trail maintenance/rerouting is done. I previously had an even harder experience with the Rocky Branch Trail, which required a lot of bushwacking to relocate the trail. These damaged riverside trails can be a pain to follow, but they sure do feel remote (I think only one person, and some moose, had hiked Dry River above the suspension bridge in the previous 7 days or so) and at the end of the day, you can take pleasure in having been really tested as opposed to just following an easily blazed trail.

    If you’re traversing from Crawford to Pinkham or reverse and bad weather or fatigue prevents you from going over the Presidentials, Dry River-Isolation-Davis-Glen Boulder is probably the fastest, safest route across, although you’re unlikely to see much if any other hikers. I found 2 great designated tent sites after the Dry River Trail-Mt. Clinton Trail junction – 1 just north of the junction and another just before the trail crosses a major tributary – and there may have been one just after the Isolation junction along Dry River. There are undesignated sites to be found along Isolation West and Davis Path on flat parts of the ridges where the trees are not too dense (although no water).

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