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Backpacking in the Dry River Valley

 

The Dry River Valley runs from Mt Washington down to Crawford Notch about 2000 feet below the Crawford Path, the oldest continuously maintained hiking trail in the United States. While it’s within spitting distance of the most popular peaks in the White Mountains, it’s an isolated and seldom-hiked area because the trails are constantly in flux. Trail sections are regularly wiped out by landslides and floods, only to be rebuilt by trail crews, and then wiped out again the next year during major rain events.

Dry River Trailhead Warning Sign

For those brave enough (or ill-informed) to venture into this lost world, the Dry River Valley is the ideal place to observe the titanic forces that shape the landscape of the White Mountains. It’s also an ideal place to get away from the crowds of tourists that flock to the 4000 footers each summer and test your self-sufficiency in an area that’s completely off the grid, with few trail blazes, potentially difficult river crossings, and few visitors. I’ve done many backpacking trips into this valley, and couldn’t think of a better place to go backpacking and fly fishing during the recent Labor Day weekend.

Redlining the Dry River Valley

Trip Length: 19 miles with 5500′ of elevation gain.

I’ve been systematically hiking many of the trails in the Dy River Valley and the surrounding area this year as part of my second Redlining round. This is a crazy game where you hike all 635 trails listed in the local hiker’s bible called The White Mountain Guide (30th edition) which takes approximately 2500 miles of hiking to complete. I like to backpack as many of the trails as possible, creating multi-day loops and lollipops, so I can minimize the number of miles I need to hike all the trails. It still adds up to a lot of miles.

The Dry River is constantly rerouted by massive floods that scour the river bed and move giant boulders downstream.

It’s easy to write people who hike lists off as OCD crackpots, but I enjoy belonging to the community of hikers pursuing the same goal and in having an excuse to travel all over New Hampshire and Maine to hike trails on the list. The physical exertion of hiking, the planning and decision making, and the adventure of my solo trips is both invigorating and calming for me.  I view it as a type of section hiking, although the trails aren’t contiguous like they are with a long trail.

On this particular trip, I wanted to finish hiking a five-mile section of the Dry River Trail, climb three trails that link the Dry River valley floor to the Crawford Path 2000′ up on the ridge, and a trail I missed last winter on the north side of the ridge, that was buried under 4 feet of snow when I tried to hike it. Time permitting, I also want to do some Tenkara fly fishing and try some new dry flies that I’d tied. I’ve always been skunked when fishing the Dry River in the past and I wanted to break that trout drought, so to speak.

The Dry River suspension bridge

I parked my car at the trailhead and hiked up the Dry River Trail past the Wilderness Boundary to the suspension bridge at the bottom of the Dry River Valley, about 2 miles up from Crawford Notch. I’ve never really figured out why they built this bridge here since all of the upstream crossings require fording the river on foot. The bridge also gets wiped out or severely damaged every few years. They replace or repair it, which is strange, because the Forest Service has a local policy of removing bridges in designated Wilderness Areas that have been damaged or destroyed. I can’t figure out why they keep this one around. It wouldn’t be a difficult crossing on foot, except in high water.

Signs in Wilderness Areas don’t have mileages listed to help promote a wilder experience requiring more self-sufficiency

I hiked up the Dry River Trail which seemed different since the last time I visited. There were some more sections that has been rerouted around new landslides and old rerouted sections that were rerouted some more. Its the same story in different areas all over the Whites. Many of the older trails were built along the shores of rivers, like the Wild River Trail, the Highwater Trail, the Rocky Branch Trail, and the Lincoln Woods Trail. When there’s a major rain event, the sides of the rivers erode causing landslides, which and wipe out sections of the adjacent trails. But the damage to the Dry River Trail is far more severe and more frequent than anywhere else in the National Forest.

Mt Clinton Trail ford across the Dry River

I hiked to the Mt Clinton Trail Junction, forded the river, and searched around for the trail on the opposite bank. This trail takes you up to the AMC’s Mizpah Hut on Mt Pierce. The Mt Clinton Trail used to be a Redliner rite of passage because it was so poorly maintained and very difficult to follow. It has a new volunteer trail maintainer named Rob Blaisdell, who’s done of a great job of cleaning it up while preserving its wildness. He was up for the challenge and has done a marvelous job

The Mt Clinton Trail feeds into the Dry River Cutoff Trail near the top, which runs 0.5 miles to Mizpah Hut. The top of that trail has experienced a microburst which knocked down well over 50 trees. A path has been cut through the carnage, but there are a few scoot-overs and crawl-unders left which make it slow going.

Mt Eisenhower from the Crawford Path

I popped into the hut at the top and grabbed a piece of gingerbread cake that was for sale, wolfing it down while chatting with some thru-hikers who were passing through since the Crawford Path is part of the Appalachian Trail. The only trail name I can remember was Twelve, given to a young lady because she has the sense of humor of a twelve-year-old.

I left the hut and hiked down the Mizpah Cuttoff trail down to the Crawford Path on the north side of the ridge (I’d climbed the south side). This is a trail that I’d wanted to hike last winter, but couldn’t because it was buried in snow. Redliners call trails that you’ve missed or that you’ve only partially completed “chads” or “hanging chads”. This was one of those. It was only 0.7 miles long, so I hiked down it and back up again quickly. It was steeper and rockier than I remembered.

Old logging artifact (bucket) on the trail junction signpost

I returned the Dry River Cutoff trail and passed through the blowdown section gain, staying it at the Dry River Cutt-Off/Mt Clinton Trail junction to hike back down to the Dry River for some fishing and camping. Unlike the Mt Clinton Trail, the Cut-off Trail is in really bad shape and needs some looking after. I’m tempted to see if it needs trail adopter, myself because I love this area so much and it would give me an excuse to come back a few times each year. There are blowdowns blocking the trail, intruding vegetation, and deep mud. It’s not quite a bushwhack but definitely trending in that direction.

I flew down the next 1.7 miles pretty fast because gravity is my friend, continuing past the Mt Eisenhower trail junction to the river. There’s a little known designated tent site at the bottom where I planned to camp for the night and good Tenkara fishing along the river. I set up camp and caught 8 wild brookies (trout) in the space of an hour before dinner.

There was mud and there was blood, like many White Mountain hikes

The next morning, I hiked up the Mt Eisenhower Trail, which is in very good shape. Yep, back up another 2000′ to the Crawford Path for a snack, and then back down to the Dry River. This was followed by was a five-mile hike out, broken up with more good fishing. Let’s just say that my Dry River “trout drought” is over. The Elk Hair Caddis dry flies I was using were trout crack. They just couldn’t get enough. I guess I’ll be tying a lot more dry flies this winter.

This was a moderate and quite pleasant Dry River redlining trip. It was quite crowded, however, for the Dry River at least, and I saw 20 people on the trails over a labor day weekend. Usually, I see none.

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About the author

Philip Werner is the 36th person to finish hiking all of 630 trails in the White Mountain Guide, a distance of over 1440 miles. He is also 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.

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7 comments

  1. Nice writeup!

    I chuckled when I read, “Signs in Wilderness Areas don’t have mileages listed to help promote a wilder experience requiring more self-sufficiency.”

    In 1940 a controversy was started when the Appalachian Mountain Club was accused of omitting mileages from its trail signs so that hikers would be forced to buy AMC-produced guidebooks and maps.

    Perhaps that issue has been finally put to bed!

  2. We did this hike in a counterclockwise direction in June. The Dry River Cutoff was in very poor shape, lots of blowdowns, mud, and very brushed in. It needs some help soon or I think it may disappear.

  3. Just moved down to Portland Maine from Bar Harbor. I’m ready to start exploring the whites and this looks like the kind of place for me! Thanks for the write up.

  4. Funny thing…my son and I were one of those 20 people you saw. We were not planning on seeing anybody in this wilderness area at all and were surprised to see you. Later it occurred to me that I have seen you before in photos from your SectionHiker posts and whished I had made the connection sooner. Thanks for sharing your experiences…perhaps our paths will cross again.

    (BTW…ironically we had hiked across the alpine meadow on Davis Path the day before and saw no one)

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