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Backpacking North Isolation Mountain

North Isolation, Monroe, Washington, and Boot Spur
North Isolation, Monroe, Washington, and Boot Spur

I did a short 22 mile backpack over the weekend into the Dry River Wilderness, south of Mount Washington. My main goal on this hike was to climb and bushwhack North Isolation Mountain, a 4293′ peak situated below Boot Spur Mountain in the Montablan Range. The weather was absolutely fantastic both days, with crystal clear skies and cool evening temperatures in the 50’s.

The White Mountains were very crowded this weekend, just one week before the labor day weekend, but that wasn’t an issue in the area I was hiking in. Although North Isolation is just a few miles south of Mount Washington, which is overrun on popular weekends, I didn’t see more than a dozen people the entire 2 days I was out. That’s because North Isolation and its better known neighbor, Mount Isolation, are two of the most remote peaks in the Whites, and close to 7 miles from the nearest road.

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Blowdowns from Hurrican Irene
Blow downs from Hurricane Irene

The hiking here is also fairly arduous. Large parts of the Montablan Range are dry, so you need to carry extra water. There are many stream crossings and the trails are choked with boulders and roots. Hurricane Irene also caused major damage to the trail system washing away an entire 4 mile section of the Rocky Branch Trail and blasting huge swaths of trees to smithereens.  This being a Wilderness area, reconstruction and trail cleanup efforts are doubly difficult because power tools and motorized vehicles are forbidden.

North Isolation from Rt 16
North Isolation from Rt 16

The Route

I parked at the Rocky Branch Trailhead and hiked up the Rocky Branch Trail to the site of the removed shelter. There’s a pretty nice campsite there, at the base of Engine Hill next to the Ellis River. From there I headed north along the Isolation Trail, crossing back and forth over the river several times. At  the last river crossing, I loaded up with 5.5 liters of water because I planned to dry camp later that evening, and continued north until I came to the Davis Path trail junction. I’d hiked 6.3 miles to this point.

Davis Path, Isolation Trail Junction
Davis Path, Isolation Trail Junction

From here, I continued north in the direction of Slide Peak, passing the now closed Isolation Path, another Irene casualty, arriving at North Isolation after 0.5 miles of climbing.

North Isolation is one of the bushwhack peaks on the Trailwrights 72 list, which I am now close to finishing. When I arrived, I was on the lookup for a herd path to the summit area. The summit is quite round, so it’s difficult to tell exactly where the high point is. Not seeing a path, I put on my bushwhacking gloves and picked a part of the forest that was fairly open to make my first foray. I also wanted to see if  could get some photos of Mt Monroe or Mt Washington from the wooded west side of North Isolation which has a million dollar view of the Oakes Gulf head wall.

Mt Washington and the Oakes Gulf Headwall
Mt Washington and the Oakes Gulf Headwall from North Isolation Mountain

Photos taken, I turned my attention to finding the summit and a canister if there was one. The trees got very thick and my pace slowed way down.

Bashing through the Trees on North Isolation
Bashing through the Trees on North Isolation

I kept circling around on what I thought was the high point on the peak for 45 minutes and then gave up. I was ready to declare the peak summited. So I whacked back east and reacquired the trail and then started walking slowly south, while scanning the sides of a trail looking for some evidence of a path to the summit. I found a cairn that had been knocked over between two root balls on the side of the trail. There is evidence of a faint path behind it, which I followed to a high point which I believe was the official North Isolation summit. There wasn’t a canister, although I hadn’t really expected one. I’d made it!

S. Engine Hill (Right)
S. Engine Hill (Right)

I backtracked down the Davis Path to the trail junction I’d passed earlier, and continued south on the Davis Path to Mount Isolation, which I quickly climbed. The views were fantastic and I could pick out Carter Dome and Mt Hight, the Southern Presidentails, Carrigan, and even the Baldfaces in the distance. But I was also interested in getting a clear look at S. Engine Hill, a 3000 footer that I plan to bushwhack in the not too distant future. In addition to climbing North Isolation, I used this trip to scout a S. Engine Hill route.

Mt Washington and Boot Spur from Mt Davis
Mt Washington and Boot Spur from Mt Davis

From Mt Isolation, I continued along the dry Davis Path and ascended Mt Davis about 1 mile further south. It’s been a few years since I last climbed Mt Davis, but I soon recalled the view when I found the summit cairn.

The evening was getting on so I descended below treeline and continued hiking south looking for a good stealth site to spend the night. It was slim pickings for another mile, until I came across an impacted site just off the trail. Rather than continue on, I decided to make camp here, rather than hike farther away from water. This was the dry camp I’d planned.

Adirondack Wind Shed
Adirondack Wind Shed

I knew that the weather was going to be cold and dry that night, so I set up one of my favorite tarp pitches, the Adirondack wind shed, so I could see the forest at night.

Cooking Dinner
Cooking Dinner

I cooked up a nice dinner with Polenta, sun-dried tomatoes, and Parmesan cheese and relaxed in the very quite woods. It was almost eerily quiet. I couldn’t hear any motorcycles in the distance, no planes, no people, and not even any animals. But I was too tired to care and soon fell deeply asleep under my quilt until morning.

Moose Antlers
Moose Antlers

The next morning I cooked breakfast with my remaining water and hiked back the way I’d come in. I spent a little time scouting a possible route up S. Engine Hill on my way out and came across these moose antlers. I didn’t have enough time to bushwhack the peak, so I made note of my findings and hiked back to Rt 16 and my car, intent on stopping for the first ice cream sandwich that crossed my path. Nice hike, nice weekend.


  1. Good trip!
    Funny you finding moose antlers in the woods. Usually the small critters eat them for the calcium.

  2. That’s quite the flame from the stove! Is it woodburning? I’ve only used white gas and isobutane/propane.

    Also, those trees look dense on the way up!

    • Wood stove. I was testing out some 1-pot recipes for my series on backpacking recipes. Cooking on a wood stove is fantastic for these meals. Very good simmer control (more or less wood). Lots of trees in the White Mountain National Forest. Lots.

      • Yup, I recognized the ingredients from your recipe. Makes me want to eat something besides store bought dehydrated. I never make time for anything else. I need to start factoring in more time for food prep (shopping, packing, etc.)

        Thanks for sharing, as always.

  3. I have some more recipes coming out in the comping weeks. Using a wood stove is remarkably quick to cook with, when your wood is dry…. Good entertainment and comfort after a hard day hiking too.

    • This season would not have been a good time for me to have tried a wood stove. It rained all summer; 51″ for the year recorded at the end of July. We’re 20 or 30″ over our average.

      Looking forward to the forthcoming recipes.

  4. Are those actually blow-downs from Irene in your second photo? I seem to recall that those trees were well and standing last summer when I did Isolation, and then was surprised to see them all fallen over when I hiked it this June. I think they might be damage from this winter, perhaps? (But maybe I’m mis-remembering….)

    • Hard to tell actually. The wood chips from trail maintainers cutting down trees looked pretty old. Although not uniform, most of the downed trees didn’t have green leaves growing on their branches, which would be a sign of more recent fellage. Although the blow downs could also be from Hurricane Sandy. I was on the Osgood Trail a few weeks ago and the destruction there was incredible, and I’d been there the previous summer and the forest was fine.

      Is it the winter? I doubt it, given the extent of the destruction and the fact that it is uniform over such a large region. With winter damage, it would likely be one or two trees down, not 50, side by side That’s more of microburst-style impact. But who really knows. :-)

      • Someone on that hike told me that it may just be that the soil is weak and if one or two trees topples it starts a chain reaction. In any case, that’s a whole lotta trees that are falling over!

  5. Nice report, this section is on the list for us and I enjoyed reading about it! A tibia fracture took backpacking off the list this summer :( going to try some easy fall hikes before attempting anything in the whites!

    • I think I read about your cast. All that home construction you guys have been doing is just exhausting to read about! So I’m sharing a shuttle with a guy you met at Madison Hut from WhiteBlaze. I’m doing my last section of the Maine AT in a few weeks. Did you guys ever start section hiking up north?

  6. Very nice Philip! I did a dedicated solo overnight hike to get North Isolation at the end of last November when there was snow on the ground. I’ll admit I didn’t do as much wandering and looking for a summit something, but I couldn’t even locate evidence of a herd path. I knew what side of the trail it would be on, but I’ll agree its so rounded and thick, it was tough to tell for sure. I gained myself a few more feet of elevation through the trees off to the side of the trail and that was sufficient for me. I see that you have organized an AMC trip for your 2nd attempt at Southwest Twin. I’m definitely interested in that one keep me posted, we were so close, and I feel like it will be second nature this time.

    • I’ll send you the poop sheet Dan. We’re going to hike in from Zealand Hut this time. Same gang plus 1 or 2 more insane people. :-) We’ll get it this time. We’ know exactly where not to go!

  7. Sometimes the best views and best trips are not on the biggest summits. That was a good trip you had and nice weather.

  8. I did a Washington-Isolation traverse last Saturday-Sunday. I heard you were on the mountain but you were on the flip side. I Overnighted a mile north of the main peak(at the ‘official’ campsite) was surprised that there were 4 other people there, and another overnighting near the summit. Counting you that makes 8 people camping in that area.

    As a side note I loved the stark contrast in the type of people I encountered. On Washington it 80% people who were out for the first time or only get out once a year and were wearing cotton clothing. Once you pass glen boulder though, only ~3mi away, I only encountered people who are very avid and using high end gear.

    You mention the Oaks Headwall, I was staring at that for a long time too while laying down on the summit. Do you know if there are any unofficial routes up that?

    • There a section of the Dry River Trail that runs from the Dry River shelter up to Lakes, but it’s probably closed because of the Irene damage to the Dry River Trail which is officially closed. The problem with going down there is that Fish and Game will charge you for a rescue. I read about them doing that to a guy who got stuck on the section of Rocky Branch that was closed by hurricane damage. That’s ultimately why I didn’t do the loop around the Stairs Mountain/Resolution I’d originally hoped to do on this trip. I still had a nice night out and got a bit of excercise. You must have had great weather on your hike too.

      What’s the water source at the shelter you camped at? Is it down the hill, below the tent site? I walked over there to check it out.

      • Speaking with other people at the tent site there is a source about a mile down the trail below the tent site. I ascended Washington with some empty bag-style water bottles and filled them on the Summit. I made due with 4liters of water and finished the hike comfortably with a bit left over.

  9. Madison huh? Remember his trail name? We haven’t started hiking ME yet between the injury and our crazy deep energy retrofit we haven’t done any hiking this year! First backpack will be Oct. and the last bit of NY

    Its why I love reading your reports :)

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