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Backpacking in the Dry River Valley

The Dry River from above the suspension bridge

The Dry River Valley runs through the heart of the Presidential Range-Dry River Wilderness from Mt Washington to Crawford Notch. It is a wild place and one of the toughest regions of the White Mountains to hike and backpack in. It’s also my favorite place to backpack in the White Mountains, both for the challenge and to witness the titanic land-shaping forces that constantly transform the river valley and the region’s trails.

Avalanches scar the sides of the Dry River, necessitating frequent trail reroutes.
Avalanches scar the sides of the Dry River, necessitating frequent trail reroutes.

Temperatures have finally started to cool in the White Mountains after a terribly hot and humid summer that made hiking and backpacking most unpleasant. With the onset of winter conditions just a month or two away, I wanted to take advantage of the cool autumn weather and to hike a few remote trails that will be unreachable once the snow begins to fall. I’m on a quest to hike all the trails in the AMC’s White Mountain Guide (650 trails requiring about 2500 miles of hiking) and I’ve been picking off some of the tough ones this year, although many remain.

  • The Mount Clinton Trail
  • Dry River Cutoff
  • Isolation West Tr

My objective on this trip was to hike these three trails, which are off the beaten path and only reachable with long approach hikes. They’re more convenient to hike though if you backpack into them. All three are also somewhat notorious because they’re difficult to follow or in disrepair, mainly from serious flooding, avalanches, or dense blow-downs.

The Mt Clinton Trail

The Mountain Clinton Trail climbs from the Dry River to the AMC’s Mizpah Hut. In the past, it was very difficult to follow due to poor maintenance, although it’s somewhat easier now. It requires many small stream crossings, many of which are knee-deep.

Dry River Cutoff

The Dry River Cutoff Trail forks off the Mount Clinton Trail near its top and runs back down to the Dry River. It’s very muddy near the top and can also be difficult to follow because it’s quite overgrown in places, in addition to being unblazed.

Isolation Trail

Finally, the Isolation Trail (West branch) runs from the Dry River Trail to the Davis Path. The bottom part is in serious disrepair from erosion, probably the result of the heavy rain we experienced over the summer.

The Trip

I started this trip on Rt 302 at the Dry River Trailhead, before hiking in for 3 miles near the Mt Clinton Trail junction. From there, I scouted the ford across the river to get onto the Mt Clinton Trail. I’ve forded this section of the river previously, but this time, the water was running higher than I remembered and what was once an ankle-high ford, became a thigh-high one. I still managed, but it was a little disconcerting.

There are numerous stream crossings on the Mt Clinton Trail. I stopped counting after 6.
There are numerous stream crossings on the Mt Clinton Trail. I stopped counting after 6.

Additionally, in the past, you only had to ford the Dry River once to get to the base of the Mt Clinton Trail. This time, there is a second ford required since a second new channel has opened up on the river. That one was easier – only knee-deep.

Once across, I had to look for the start of the Mt Clinton Trail which is north of the stream crossing. There isn’t a sign or anything, except for small cairns that mark the path at key decision points. I started climbing the trail which is actually fairly gradual, following the tread, and looking for those small cairns when the way forward wasn’t obvious.

Mizpah Hut was socked in
Mizpah Hut was socked in

While the Mt Clinton Trail was much easier to follow compared to my previous climbs, tt was very wet, with cold water flowing down the trail for much of the 3-mile climb to the Mizpah hut at about 3800′. While the weatherman had forecast a bright sunny day, it never arrived, and my feet got progressively colder as I climbed. When I reached the hut, it was socked in fog, so there was no point in climbing nearby Mt Pierce. I drank some water, ate a snack, and turned down toward the Dry River Cutoff trail.

The top of the Dry River Cutoff Trail is very boggy and wet. Like the Mt Clinton Trail, it is also very wet and requires its own fair share of water crossings. At one point on the descent, I completely lost the trail and had to backtrack several times before I found its continuation. The next section was heavily overgrown and needed a good brushing. But the trail moderates when it approaches the Dry River again, although another big ford is required.

That ford scared me a little. It was waist-deep and very cold. That’s probably the deepest ford I’ve ever done and not something I want to do again. But once in, I was committed and pushed to the other side. Luckily, I was very close to my intended tent site and could change and warm up quickly, though my clothes were still cold and wet the next morning.

Camping at a designated campsite alomg the Dry River Trail
Camping at a designated campsite along the Dry River Trail

The next morning, I got an early start and headed up the Isolation Trail (West) which began quite close to my previous night’s tent site. The bottom third of the Isolation Trail had been heavily eroded by the large amount of rain we experienced over the summer as well as several past hurricanes. It gets better after a mile though as it ascends to the Davis Path, near Mt Isolation.

Backpacking in the Dry River
Backpacking in the Dry River

That trail finished, I backtracked back to the Dry River Trail and headed back to Crawford Notch for the drive home. This was a short, but strenuous trip in the Dry River-Presidential Range, but one that I won’t forget soon.

Total distance: 19 miles with 5300′ of elevation gain.

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4 comments

  1. Thanks for posting these reports on your travels through the White Mountains, Philip. I currently live in the Midwest and only get out there 1-2x per year, but I’m hiking the Whites vicariously through you, so thank you for sharing.your experiences with us.

    You mention in this report that the trails will be unreachable once the snow begins to fall. What is it that makes them impassable? Avalanche danger?

    • They are technically reachable but the snow depth will make them impossible to hike without about 20 other people in snowshoes breaking trail. I wouldn’t go in there myself because the difficulty of a potential rescue, if required, would be immense.

  2. My dog wanted nothing to do with that waist deep ford. Took me about 30 minutes to cross with him. He went completely under and started down stream. Fortunately I had him on leash.

  3. I enjoyed reading your trip report, and would echo your description of hiking and backpacking in the Dry River Wilderness – it is very cool to witness the land-shaping forces in the region. I did a similar two-night trip in late July of ’22, though I took the Mount Eisenhower Trail rather than the Mount Clinton Trail. I found the crossings and washouts difficult to navigate then, so I’m sure they were much more challenging after this rainiest of summers. A waist-deep ford would likely have turned me around…

    I’m not sure if using it is discouraged, but there is a wonderful “unofficial” tent site right next to Dry River Falls – perhaps my all-time favorite backcountry tent site.

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