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Backpacking a Southern Presidential – Dry River Loop

Presidential Range- Dry River Wilderness

The Dry River Valley in New Hampshire’s White Mountains can be challenging to access because the trails leading into it and through it are remote, rough, and difficult to follow. Scarred by avalanches, washed out by floods, or ravaged by hurricanes, the trails are largely unblazed which can be intimidating if you’re used to following white blazes on heavily traveled trails. But that’s to be expected when you hike in the Presidential Range/Dry River Wilderness Area which is arguably the wildest of the six designated wilderness areas in the Whites. Of course, that’s the kind of thing that I find appealing which is why the Dry River Valley is my favorite place to backpack in the White Mountain National Forest. 

Unfortunately, the weather this summer has been more atrocious than normal in the Whites with heavy rainfall, unpleasantly high humidity and temperatures, and smokey haze from the Canadian forest fires. Water levels throughout the National Forest were so high that it was impossible to hike many trails, especially Wilderness Trails with stream crossings until it stopped raining and water levels dropped. Things have improved this August with less rainfall and cooler temperatures, so I’m making up for lost time by getting ou ton as many overnight trips as I can.

The Edmand’s Path
The Edmand’s Path

So when a decent weather window presented itself, I jumped at a chance for a quick backpacking loop along the Southern Presidential Range and then down into the Dry River Valley. I couldn’t have picked a better two days for my trip, with cool dry air and clear sunny weather.

S. Pres- Dry Riber Loop
S. Pres- Dry River Loop

For this trip, I hiked up to the Southern Presidentials below Mt Washington along the Edmands Path, a rocky trail that reaches treeline just north of Mt Eisenhower where it meets the Crawford Path, the oldest continuously maintained hiking trail in the United States.  From there it continues north, passing Mt Monroe and the Lakes of the Clouds Hut, before climbing to the summit of Mt Washington.

Alpine Zone Warning
Alpine Zone Warning

I hoofed it up Edmand’s and continued onto the Crawford Path, heading north toward Mt Franklin and Mt Monroe. This is a very picturesque segment of the Southern Presidential Range, that’s all above treeline and highly exposed to the weather, with just a rocky trail snaking through the sedge grass marked by scree walls and cairns.

Mt Eisenhower and the Crawford Path
Mt Eisenhower and the Crawford Path

As I approached Franklin, I saw a new spur trail leading from the Crawford Path to the summit that wasn’t there the last time I climbed the peak, a few years ago, so I went out to investigate it. Trails change surprisingly frequently in the Whites, although admittedly, the changes are usually on a smaller scale. I was joined by a couple that had hiked up the Edmands Path at the same time as me and we had a bite to eat and a companionable chat.

En route to Mt Monroe on the Crawford Path
En route to Mt Monroe on the Crawford Path

From Franklin, I continued to little Monroe and then finally the Mt Monoe summit before dropping down to the Lakes of the Clouds hut at the foot of the peak. I refilled my water bottles, ate some food, and had a short rest because I knew the next segment of my route would be challenging. I planned to descend to the Dry River Valley by dropping over the headwall of the Oakes Gulf Trail and following the Dry River Trail, which is notoriously hard to follow.

The Top of the Dry River Trail
The Top of the Dry River Trail

From the hut, the trail runs alongside an alpine tarn (one of the lakes) before dropping over the headwall and snaking its way through a boulder field and knee-high vegetation. It takes some concentration to follow the cairns marking the trail but you also need to be on your toes for areas where the trail runs but is unmarked. Having been down this trail twice before, I had the advantage of remembering most of these decision points. But there were still a few new spots that required judgment calls about which way the trail ran, particularly in those spots covered with running water!

Let's play “find the trail” (Dry River Trail)
Let’s play “find the trail” (Dry River Trail)

My standard advice for anyone hiking the Dry River Trail is to start at the top and hike down to the Dry River Valley, rather than going up. The route finding going down is much easier because you’re looking down at the alternatives and can see more than if you’re looking up. Believe it or not, the trail has gotten a LOT easier to follow since I first hiked it, due in large part to the former Trail Adopter, Bill Robichaud, who’s now maintaining the Moriah Brook Trail another notorious and muddy trail in the Wild River Wilderness.

Another section of the Dry River Trail - (we don’t need not stinking white blazes)
Another section of the Dry River Trail – (we don’t need no stinking white blazes)

After carefully picking my way down to the valley floor, I emerged in the clearing where the Dry River lean-to is located, way upstream. It’s in pretty good shape and there are some halfway decent tent pitches surrounding it if you want to use a tent.

The Dry River Shelter
The Dry River Shelter

I intended to camp a little further downstream at a designated campsite along the river near the Dry River Cutoff junction instead, so I continued down the trail toward it. I tried to at least, because the trail appeared to have been washed away, judging by the sediment on the ground and up into the trees. It really looked like the entire area had been under the water at some point due to all the rain we’ve gotten this summer. Nevertheless, I knew where the trail was supposed to be and bushwhacked down to the river crossing by following the river.

Dinner preparations
Dinner preparations

The first crossing was an easy rock hop, but it often isn’t, while the second crossing a bit farther downstream required a knee-deep ford. But I was steps away from my intended campsite and got myself organized, pitching my tent, filtering water, and cooking up some dinner. Then I was out like a light, fast asleep until the morning. I never have any issues falling asleep outdoors.

I immediately fell asleep.
I immediately fell asleep.

As I was packing up the next morning, a couple that had camped nearby stopped to say hello. We chatted for a few minutes before they recognized me from my newsletter photo. They were spending their vacation hiking all of the trails in the Presidential Range/Dry River Valley Wilderness, part of their quest to hike all of the trails in all of the Wilderness Areas in the White Mountain National Forest. They’d written to me for advice about backpacking in the Whites previously, but I guess I didn’t manage to scare them away.

Mt Eisenhower looms over the horizon at the junction of the Crawford Path and the Eisenhower Trail.
Mt Eisenhower looms over the horizon at the junction of the Crawford Path and the Eisenhower Trail.

I finished packing my things and was off, climbing up the Eisenhower Trail back to the Crawford Path, taking the Edmands Path off the ridge and back down to the trailhead lot. While this was a short trip, I’d had magnificent weather above treeline and along some very difficult trails. In other words, I’d had a blast!

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  1. Thanks for this trip report! Hope to get out there in a couple of weeks for a night or two and I’ve been curious about whether to tackle the headwall going up or down. Parts of it look on the steep(er) side which I usually like to tackle going up but not an unreasonable incline to descend. Also glad to hear there’s an ability to pitch a tent – my preference – at/near the shelter.

  2. I was in there late July and my short little legs could not rock hop either of the crossings, but I was prepared with my water shoes and just rolled up my shorts. :) Dry River Cut off kicked my butt with all the mud.

  3. Thanks, Phil, My daughter has been after me for this for a few years. I was avoiding it until we have a drought; I’m 4’9″ and don’t want to be the Fish and Game story of the week (or less than a week, it’s been that kind of year). This sounds like a good loop. Got me out of thinking out and back on the Dry River Trail.

  4. I found the sign that stated, “worst weather in America” rather amusing.

    Clearly the author of the sign has not been to North Dakota or northern Minnesota:

    -60°F air temp (with an unofficial -73°F reading!) in 1996 at Tower MN. Pounding in nails with a banana!

    Before the official wind chill chart changed, one day in Fargo, ND in 1996 (I believe) I remember -92° to -95°F windchills. That’d be -40°F air temp plus a 20mph wind. With the new wind chill chart that’d be about -74°F.

    New vs old wind chill chart

    I also remember a 100mph straight line wind that tore through Fargo. And that’s darn near sea-level density air, not the much less dense Mt. Washington summit wind. That was the wind that knocked down huge swaths of the trees in the BWCA.

    During the Blizzard of 1966 there were 30-40ft drifts in the east part of the state. Look at the pics.

    There’s many, many more crazy blizzards that happen in ND. People die in their cars.

    Also lived through 105°F summers, one of which in the 80’s drought included an actual 1930’s dust storm! Looked just like some sand storm in the movies rolling in and it deposited 4” of dirt on our lawn in Fargo.

    It’s incredibly windy, virtually all of the time. The Red River floods every spring as it flows north, into ice. And because it’s flat as a pancake, it tends to flood bad.

    Anyway, I’m sure there are some extreme weather conditions in the mountains in NH, but ND’s weather hits you like a hammer like you wouldn’t believe.

    The best part of growing up there is virtually Every. Single. Place. in the world is nicer (except Siberia and Antarctica).

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