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Backpacking a Boott Spur Loop

Boott Spur is a 5492′ sub-peak of Mt Washington and forms the southern headwall of Tuckerman Ravine. While it lacks the glamour and popularity of its massive neighbor it’s also a formidable rock pile and major alpine zone crossroads. Boott Spur is also the highest mountain along the Montalban Ridge leading up to Washington and provides a great jumping-off point for access to the Rocky Branch and Dry River watersheds, two of the least hiked and most rugged wilderness regions in the White Mountains. Their proximity to Mt Washington makes them ground zero for flash floods, deep snow, and avalanches which constantly transform the landscape and wreak havoc on the trails below. Hikers and backpackers who venture into this area require good route-finding skills and a healthy sense of humor to deal with the mud, numerous stream crossings, and blow-downs which make trips into this “lost world” so unpredictable.

Here’s a map of the route. This is a georeferenced PDF created using Caltopo. You can navigate with it using an app like Avenza (directions here) or just print it out. Boott Spur Loop GeoPDF Map

For this hike, my plan was to climb Boott Spur from Pinkham Notch before looping around on some trails on the Mt Washington “lawn”, before descending the Oakes Gulf Headwall into the Dry River Watershed where I planned to spend a night camping at a primitive forest service site that I’ve camped at previously. On the second day, I planned to hike up to the Montalban Range near Mount Isolation, before climbing back up the ridge to Boott Spur, and then backtracking 0.5 miles and descending back to Pinkham Notch by the Glen Boulder Trail. This was a scenic route, 17 miles in length, with 7,500 feet of elevation gain and 6.5 miles of above-treeline hiking. I’ve been wanting to hike these trails again for some time and this was my window of opportunity.

Hike Planning

The key to climbing Boott Spur, Mt Washington, or really any of the major above-treeline peaks in the Northern Presidential Range, including Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Clay is to watch for a good weather window and grab it, even if it means taking a few vacation days off from work. Three weather systems converge at the summit of Mt Washington, which is at the midpoint of the range, resulting in what many argue is the worst weather in the world. The best time to grab a good weather window is when a bad weather system (rain, snow, fog, high winds) has begun exiting the area and a new weather system with more sunshine, milder winds, and no precipitation is replacing it. It takes some patience to wait for a window like this, but the reward is more temperate hiking weather and clear views.

Historically, August is the best time to watch for good weather on or near Mt Washington because it has the most favorable wind speed, temperature, and precipitation averages of any calendar month (see Mt Washington Normal, Means, and Extremes). I’ve been caught above-treeline in thunderstorms three times in my hiking career and have never been so scared of dying in my life. It’s why I’m extra cautious about weather forecasts when hiking in the vicinity of Mt Washington and keep a careful lookout on cloud formations to see if a thunderstorm is developing when I’m hiking above-treeline (see How to Avoid Thunderstorms for Hiking and Backpacking).

On the Trail

The Boott Spur Trail

The Boott Spur Trail begins close to the Appalachian Mountain Clubs Pinkham Notch Center. To reach the trailhead, you to hike 0.3 miles up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, which is easy to find. Just look for the big avalanche forecast sign and follow the wide gravel path to its left, which begins climbing steeply uphill.

The Tuckerman Ravine Trail leads to the Boot Spur Trail in 0.3 miles

The Boott Spur Trail is much less developed than the Tuckerman Ravine Trail with just enough room for one person to clamber up the numerous rock scrambles that punctuate the trail. It’s a pretty climb through lush forest with several side trails to viewpoints and a brook where you can resupply water if needed. When hiking above-treeline on a sunny day, it’s important to pack extra water because the trail consists of broken boulders which heat up and will radiate heat back at you. You might not feel yourself sweating, but you are getting dehydrated and it’s important to compensate by drinking more water.

The Boott Spur Trail climbs to elevation over a series of false summits, which you don’t realize until you crest them. As you approach treeline there are some viewpoints to your right which are worth checking out. The most notable is a straight shot view into Tuckerman Ravine at 4037′, one of the huge glacial cirques that surround Mt Washington. It’s hard to appreciate the scale of this giant valley, even when you’re so close on Boott Spur, which forms Tuckerman’s southwestern headwall.

Try this: look at the heart of the ravine’s headwall cliffs. Now let your eye trace down the forest-filled base to two small buildings (you can only see their roofs poking up through the trees.) Those tiny rectangles are the avalanche ranger’s hut and the Hermit Lake Shelter, the only human structures (other than recuse caches and the avalanche forecast sign) in the ravine. That will help you appreciate the scale of the Ravine, which dwarfs anything manmade.

Tuckerman Ravine lies between Mt Washington and Boott Spur. Viewpoint at 4037′.

Treeline occurs at 4200′ on Boott Spur, at which point you are fully exposed to the wind and weather. I took a rest when I reached that point and watched the clouds above warily. While the weather forecasters at the observatory on top of Washington are usually right, it pays to keep track of what the weather is doing when you’re unprotected by vegetation and fully exposed. What I saw was unsettling. One set of clouds was blowing from the northwest over Washington and another lower altitude group was blowing in from the east, so they were crossing each other from different directions and at different altitudes, right on top of my location.

Line of cairns winds its way on the Boott Spur Trail

The prevailing wind direction over Mt Washington is from the northwest. But winds blowing in from the east are usually a sign of heavy precipitation coming in from the Gulf of Maine. These weren’t scattered clouds either but formed a long squall line that was dropping down over the tops of the Wildcats on the other side of Pinkham Notch. I had no idea what that meant, but the clouds were not towering in a way that is indicative of thunderstorms. I resolved to watch them carefully as the day heated up, but also to drop below treeline again before 2:00 pm when diurnal heating can activate thunderstorm activity.

I layered up with a wind shirt on the Boott Spur summit

When you’re below the summit of Boott Spur, you are in its “lee”, which provides protection from the wind. But once you summit the peak at 5492′, you might consider layering up. I frequently put on a wind shirt here if it’s cool to stay warmer. On the day I climbed Boott Spur, the temperature on Mt Washington which is 800′ higher in elevation, was forecast at 49 degrees with 24 mph winds, which is mild, but I layered up nonetheless. The valley temperature was in the high 70’s.

Wide expanse of cairned trails on the Bigelow Lawn leading to Mt Washington’s summit cone

The Camel Trail

The Boott Spur Trail leads to the Davis Trail Junction and an area called the Bigelow Lawn, an expanse of grassland that runs between the base of Mt Washington’s summit cone and Oakes Gulf, another major ravine to the south. There are a bunch of rocky, cairn marked trails that criss-cross this area so I did a small loop over a few, hiking the end of of the Davis Path, followed by the Southside Trail and the Lawn Cutoff, which runs above the Tuckerman Ravine headwall. Returning to Boott Spur, I got back onto the Davis Path for 0.1 miles and then onto the Camel Trail, which I followed to the Lakes of the Clouds Hut below Mt Monroe.

The Camel Trail leads to the AMC’s Lakes of the Clouds Hut below Mt Monroe

The Dry River Trail

I popped into the hut to buy some pumpkin bread ($2/slice) and refill my water bottles, before heading past the tarns out front and descending the Dry River Trail into Oakes Gulf and the Dry River Valley. The Dry River Trail is kind of notorious because the upper section is often full of debris and hard to follow. It runs up the Oakes Gulf Headwall and is subject to many of the same natural forces that ravage Tuckerman Ravine each winter. It’s far less popular though because it’s much longer than the Tuckerman Ravine Trail and doesn’t climb Mt Washington. If you want solitude and a hiking challenge, the Dry River is the place to go.

A view of Boott Spur and the Oakes Gulf headwall from the Dry River Trail

The Dry River Trail has recently been adopted by my fellow Redliner Bill Robichaud who’s done a terrific job clearing out the debris in the upper part of the trail, down to about 4200′ so it can be followed more easily. It’s still terribly steep, rocky, wet, and slippery, but at least you won’t get lost. The Dry River Trail is in a wilderness area and the trail isn’t blazed so you have to be on your game to stay on it between 4200′ and the Dry River Shelter at 3125′. If you hear shouting during this stretch, it’s probably from someone cursing the knee-deep mud pits that still remain. This is where a sense of humor is the most important piece of gear in your backpack.

The Dry River Shelter #3 is still in remarkably good shape given its remoteness and age.

The good news is that you’ll get to wash off all that mud at the stream crossing below the Dry River Shelter #3, which has actually gotten a lot easier to cross since the last time I passed this way. It’s much shallower and much narrower, due to a huge avalanche near its base, where the north side of the Dry River riverbank caved off and fell. I was a little disappointed by this because I like playing in the frigid water. From there, it was a short hike to my campsite for the night, which is a USFS designated campsite, just north of the Dry River / Isolation Trail trail junction.

The highest Dry River Ford to get to the shelter

The Isolation Trail (West)

The next morning I headed up the Isolation Trail towards Mt Isolation and the Davis Path. I’ve climbed Mt Isolation a half dozen times already, so I didn’t have any plans to revisit the peak despite my proximity. This section of the Isolation Trail has taken a terrible beating from flooding in recent years and was even closed at one point, although most of it has been mitigated by trail maintenance work.

The Isolation Trail, West Branch

There are a few spots on the Isolation Trail that are still damaged although it’s not clear when the damage occurred. There are five small slides that have obliterated sections of trail but they’re easy to cross to the other side. But there’s one tricky spot at 44.21769, -71.32558 where the trail is largely underwater and the tread is very hard to discern. Stay next to the watercourse marked on the map and you’ll reacquire the trail, although a blaze or a cairn here would really help to mark the route.

The Davis Path runs back up to Boott Spur, popping above treeline at 4600′

The Davis Path

The Isolation Trail (West) leads to the Davis Path, which is one of the oldest paths in the White Mountains and was originally a bridle path for climbing Mt Washington from Crawford Notch. It runs along the top of the Montalban Ridge for 14.4 miles over Mts Parker, Resolution, Stairs, Davis, Isolation, North Isolation and finally Boott Spur before ending just below the Mt Washington summit cone.

I headed up the Davis Path, climbing back up to Boott Spur to close my loop, and admire the view the Southern Presidential Range including Mt’s Jackson, Pierce, Eisenhower, and Monroe. The Davis Path pops above treeline at 4600′ and passes the Glen Boulder Trail at 5000′. I passed that trail junction, although I planned to hike down the Glen Boulder Trail on my way out (always climb down a different trail when redlining) after I tagged the Boott Spur summit. I was also running low on water and there’s a spring along the Glen Boulder Trail where I hoped to resupply for the hike back to Pinkham Notch.

Here’s a video of this same portion of trail when I hiked it 7 years ago. It was a windier day then, but just as glorious.

Glen Boulder Trail

I tagged the Boott Spur Trail junction and backtracked the 0.5 miles down to the Glen Boulder Trail junction before heading down. The Glen Boulder Trail is best known for a giant boulder precariously perched on the flank of Slide Mountain at 3729′.

The Glen Boulder

My quads were tired and the going got kind of slow. I’ve hiked a lot of really rough trails this year, but going down the Glen Boulder Trail was really painful. Even more than the Osgood Trail I climbed down last month. The trail is quite steep, narrow, and boulder-filled and I slipped a number of times going down, even breaking one of my Pacerpoles in the process. That’s the last time I’ll ever down-climb that trail.

When I finally made it to the bottom, I just hoofed it up Rt 16 back to my car at Pinkham Notch which was only about a half-mile away. I was bummed about my Pacerpole but the hike had been a smashing success and actually a little easier than I expected. I’d finished (section) hiking the entire Davis Path and the hardest portion of the Dry River Trail, thanks in part to Bill’s trail maintenance efforts. This had been a successful redlining hike and I’m already planning the followup trips needed to polish off the other trails I “need” to hike in the Southern Presidentials for my second redlining round.

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About the Author

About Philip Werner: Philip is the 36th person to finish hiking all of the trails in the White Mountain Guide (630 trails/1440 miles) and the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook that anyone can access. Philip has also finished hiking many of the region's peakbagging lists including the White Mountain 4000 footers, the 4000 footers in Winter, the Terrifying 25, the RMC 100, and the Trailwrights 72 (but still needs 24 hours of trail work for the patch). Philip is a 4 season backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a member of the executive committee for the Random Hikers, a Long Trail Mentor for Vermont's Green Mountain Club, and a Leave No Trace Master Educator. He usually teaches several compass, GPS, and off-trail navigation courses each year.

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4 comments

  1. So much fun following along with your trip! We took the Boott Spur down from our first summit of Washington because it seemed like the gentler alternative for our dog. We had climbed Tuckerman Ravine with him, but were pretty sure he would not have made it down that trail! The following morning he refused to leave the tent. I miss the beautiful Presidentials, and my lovely pup who passed away four years ago.

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