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Backpacking Mt Isolation and the Davis Path

North Isolation, Monroe, Washington, and Boot Spur
The View from Mt Isolation to North Isolation, Monroe, Washington, and Boot Spur

Mt Isolation is one of the more remote White Mountain 4000 footers, requiring a fairly long hike in from the nearest road. While you can climb the peak in a single day, my preference is to backpack to the summit on a one night trip, visiting other points of interest along the way.

On this trip, I hiked a big lollipop route up the Davis Path to Stairs Col before looping up around the Rocky Branch River to the Isolation summit. I took advantage of my hike up the Rocky Branch Trail to do a little fly fishing and caught some brookies and brown trout as I worked my way upriver to the area where I planned to camp. I climbed Isolation the following morning, and then hiked back down the Davis Path, climbing Mt Davis and Stairs Mountain on my return to the trailhead in Crawford Notch.

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Honestly, I was a lot more interested in hiking the Davis Path again and climbing Mt Crawford and Mt Davis on this trip than I was climbing Mt Isolation. Don’t get me wrong, Isolation has great views of Mt Washington and the Southern Presidential Range, but it’s not that challenging of a climb and I think the scenery en route is a lot more interesting. Still, it was an excuse to take a mid-week hike and camp in the wilderness with a little solitude. While I like the exercise, solo backpacking gives me a chance to relax and empty my mind, something that I like to do weekly to maintain an even keel.

The Davis Path crosses over the Saco River before climbing Mt Crawford
The Davis Path crosses over the Saco River before climbing Mt Crawford

I got an early start climbing steeply up the Davis Path to Mt Crawford, which has one of the best views in the White Mountains even though it’s not a 4000 footer. I enjoy climbing it because it has an open summit and lots of open ledges to sit and take in the views. To climb Crawford, you cross the Saco River over a suspension bridge and start hiking up the Davis Path which was first opened in 1845 and was one of the first trails cut in the White Mountains. The trail climbs very steeply during those first two miles to the open ledges below Crawford, where you pick up a spur trail to Crawford’s summit.

Mt Crawford has an open summit with fine views
Mt Crawford has an open summit with fine views

I backtracked to the Davis Path from Mt Crawford and continued north, passing the site of the old Mt Resolution Shelter (removed many years ago), before following the Stairs Col Path down to the Rocky Branch River. From there, I fished my way up the river, stopping at many pools and drops as I worked my way higher up the river valley toward Mt Washington. The trout weren’t huge, but they were plentiful and easy to catch (and release).

Rocky Branch Trout
Rocky Branch Trout

The Rocky Branch River is a fairly large stream without much side vegetation so I fished it with my 11′ Tenkara Iwana Rod and a Stewart Spider pattern, which is my most productive fly, by far, this summer. It’s a classic Scottish trout pattern that resembles a non-representational Tenkara Kebari. The Stewart is very simple and easy to tie, making it a great fly to use if you find yourself fishing on a lot of smaller streams that are filled with (fly trapping) sticks and wood.

The Rocky Branch has miles and miles of excellent trout habitat
The Rocky Branch has miles and miles of excellent trout habitat and ice cold water.

I could have fished the Rocky Branch for days, but wanted to camp as close to Mt Isolation as possible before nightfall, about 6-7 miles farther north. I wasn’t exactly sure where the last stream would be, so I wanted to have a little slack time so I could backtrack back to water if needed. There are a few streams beyond Isolation along the Davis Path, but they are running very low this time of year.

I got as close to Isolation as I could and set up camp, hanging my hammock near a small stream that had enough flow for my needs. It was a quiet night and I slept well, as I do when I sleep in my Warbonnet.

Stealthy hammock camping in the Presidential Range
Stealthy hammock camping in the Presidential Range

The next morning I climbed to the summit of Isolation to enjoy the views before anyone else arrived. The 4000 footers have become increasingly popular with day hikers over the past few years, but you can still have a summit to your own if you get there early on a weekday, even during the height of the summer hiking season.

Cicero and Cesar admiring the view from Mt Isolation
Cicero and Cesar admiring the view from Mt Isolation

I admired the view from Isolation, taking in the Southern Presidentials which run parallel to the ridge linking Isolation, Mt Davis, and Stairs Mountain. Called the Montablan Range, it’s seldom visited but wild as can be. To the north, I admired Boot Spur, a 5000 ft sub-peak of Washington and the headwall of Oakes Gulf below the tarns at Lakes of the Clouds.

The day was heating up rapidly, so I headed back into the forest bordering the Davis Path for the long walk down the ridge and back to the Saco. Built in 1845, the Davis Path was one of the main routes to Mt Washington but sees comparatively little traffic today. Sheltered by trees, it runs through numerous birch glades that are prime moose habitat.

Cliff-side view at Stairs Col Mountain Campsite
Cliff-side view at Stairs Col Mountain Campsite.

I was running low on water and filled up at a small stream about 3 miles south, before arriving at the short spur trail to Mt Davis. I climbed the rocky spur and popped out above treeline, taking in the view of Isolation to the north. I was alone.

Then back on the Davis Path to the Stair Col Campsite spur, where I sat on an open cliff and admired another fine view reaching into the distance towards Maine. I was content, soaking in the sun and heat, wanting to linger still longer, but knowing I had to push on.

When I reached Stairs Col, I retraced my steps from the previous day, past Mt Crawford and back down to the Saco. This was a short backpack, but I felt restored nonetheless. I’d topped off my tank and was ready to face the “world” once again.

Total Distance: 25 miles with 6500 feet of elevation gain.

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  1. I’ve done that loop many times over the years, both as a two day and three day trip. My friends and I camped on top of Isolation nearly 45 years ago when the summit was much more open than currently. Looking up at dawn from one of the smallest 4000’s to the tallest was an awesome experience.

    I’ll be heading into Isolation later this fall with a peak-bagging friend. Just an out and back via Rocky Branch with an over-night at either the site of the removed RB#2 shelter or the site indicated on the map you posted.

    Happy Trails

  2. Did this lollipop from Jericho last weekend and midweek is definitely the way to go. I yard-saled the old Iso shelter site and was still joined by 8 other people for the evening. I’ve had people literally set up on top of me, even using the same tree as me, every night this summer that I’ve stayed at a designated Wilderness site.

  3. Nice report! It’s been some years since i’ve done that loop. Might be time to re-visit. Too many trails, too little time!

    (Editing note: Dr. Francis Boott [RIP] might be upset with a couple of citations of his namesake spur.)

  4. I really like doing Mt. Crawford and Stairs Mountain as a nice overnight backpack. There are some nice backcountry camping sites on Stairs Mountain as well as Crawford and the views are amazing. I recently introduced a friend to backpacking and we did this as a nice 10 mile out and back, now he is hooked! Not too crowded and very interesting trail.

  5. I noticed that you were using a tarp with integral doors as part of your hammock setup. Was this choice made due to inclement weather conditions in the mountains and have you ever tried using a more minimalist tarp, such as Warbonnet’s Edge tarp?

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