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Backpacking the Oakes Gulf Headwall

Top of the Dry River Trail above Oakes Gulf. Mt Washington towers in the distance
Top of the Dry River Trail above Oakes Gulf. Mt Washington towers in the distance.

Oakes Gulf is the least known of Mt Washington’s great ravines and the most remote. You get to it by hiking up the Dry River Trail 9.6 miles from Rt 302, past the last remaining Dry River lean-to. It’s not an easy hike, particularly in spring when snow lingers below the headwall and the Dry River runs high with snowmelt.

I attempted this hike two years ago in late May and had to turn back due to deep snow at 4300 ft. It was disappointing but I felt the risk of continuing (alone) was too great and turned around. Falling into a crevasse or getting stuck in a spruce trap has a way of wrecking your day. Fast forward two years, to my second successful attempt to climb to the top of Oakes Gulf and complete the Dry River Trail.

Dry River - Mt Eisenhower Loop Attempted Route (click for interactive map on Caltopo.com)
Dry River – Mt Eisenhower Loop Attempted Route (2015)

Most people don’t realize that the Dry River Trail ends just outside the AMC Lakes of the Clouds Hut below Mt Washington. It runs between two of the alpine tarns (lakes) at the hut and drops steeply down into Oakes Gulf. Rather than hiking up the Dry River Trail to the hut like my previous attempt, I decided to hike down from the hut to 4300′. Turns out there was still snow down at 4300′, but not as impassable as two years prior. (I did this latest hike on June 8.)

This could have been a relatively easy hike if I’d climbed up to the Lakes Hut via the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail, but I wanted to hike the Eisenhower Cut-off Trail which runs from the Dry River Trail to the Crawford Path, so I hiked in from the direction instead.

The Eisenhower Cut-off Trail is easy to follow and well-maintainedJPG
The Eisenhower Cut-off Trail is easy to follow and well-maintained.

The Eisenhower Cut-off as it turns out is a marvelous trail, easy to follow, with a pretty mellow gradient up to the Crawford Path. It pops out on the ridgeline between Mt Eisenhower and Mt Franklin and is a viable escape route if you need to get off the Crawford Path in a hurry in a thunderstorm. (The Edmands Path down the north side of Eisenhower is still better because it leads to a road.)

Mt Eisenhower from the Crawford Path
Mt Eisenhower from the Crawford Path

From here it’s a quick 2 mile walk along the Crawford Path to the Lakes Hut and the top of the Dry River Trail. That is unless you’re mesmerized by the sight of Mt Eisenhower. It was a pretty sight. I bet Ike would smile if he could see it.

Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) Lakes of the Clouds Hut below Mt Washington
Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) Lakes of the Clouds Hut below Mt Washington

Once at the hut, I turned down the Dry River Trail which snakes around the lowest tarn (lake). I talked to a biologist in waders briefly, who said that the frogs and salamanders that live in the “lakes” are starting to emerge.

The Dry River Trail threads its way past the lower lake before dropping down the headwall
The Dry River Trail threads its way past the lower lake before dropping down the headwall.

The trail is very rocky here and there was some snow which I was able to squeeze past. Then up past a few cairns and down the headwall into the Gulf. Finding the trail was a bit difficult, since the cairns marking it blend into surrounding ledge. Cascades of water were also running beneath my feet and it was hard to tell if they were following the trail or some other path of least resistance into the valley below.

I kept looking at my altimeter to see how far I’d descended, since I was shooting for 4300′. It was slow going. I was close to the huge erratic where I’d stopped on my 2015 hike up the gulf, when two black labs bounded into view on top of a deep snow patch in front of me. I was flabbergasted because I hadn’t expected to see anyone on this trail. Just then, two guys in mountaineering boots came into view and we caught up on conditions. They’d brought crampons because they were worried about snow higher up the trail. The band of snow in question can be seen 10 miles away,  and I’ve been eyeing it warily myself for the past two weeks. Luckily it’s not on the trail but adjacent to it.

Oakes Gulf and the Dry River Trail
Oakes Gulf and the Dry River Trail

We parted and I dropped down still further until I saw that huge rock that’d stopped me in my tracks in 2015 at 4300′. It wasn’t actually the rock that stopped me, but a void under it that caused me to turn around. I’m glad I captured the elevation of this point back in 2015 because I’d now officially connected the dots and completed hiking the trail.

My original goal on this trip was to camp about 200 feet lower down on the trail at a designated campsite I’d noted on my last ascent attempt. I wanted to look at the stars on what I hoped would be an unobstructed view at the base of the headwall. But the sky was growing dark above me and I was becoming increasingly concerned about the heavy rain that was forecast for the next day. Not so much hiking in the rain, but in the Dry River crossing I’d have to do later the next day. I decided it would be best to get that out of the way on Day 1 of this trip, not Day 2, as originally planned.

That meant hiking back up the 700 feet of elevation I’d just dropped. But it seemed like a prudent choice and I started hiking back up the headwall. I quickly caught sight of the two hikers I’d met and was soon at the hut refilling my water bottles and having a well-earned snack.

Scouting the Dry River ford and resupplying my water
Scouting the Dry River ford and resupplying my water

So far, I’d hiked 11 miles with 5000 feet of elevation gain, but now needed to go another 5 miles, basically retracing my steps back down the Crawford Path, down the Eisenhower Cut-off Trail, across the river, and to a campsite I’ve stayed at before near the Isolation Trail-Dry River Trail Junction. Luckily most of this was downhill. If it did rain heavily the next morning, I’d be just 5 miles from the road (Rt 302), where my car was parked, a 2-3 hour hike, down a trail I know well.

I made it to the campsite by 6:00 pm but I was pretty zonked. I’d hiked 16 miles and 5000 feet of elevation gain with an overnight pack. That’s pretty high mileage for a White Mountain day above-treeline. I set up camp, made dinner, and fell asleep reading in my tent.

Dry River
Dry River

The next morning I woke early, ate a cold breakfast, and hiked out before the rain started falling. By 9:00 am, I was drinking coffee at my mountain digs and having a second breakfast. As for the rain, that never came.

Oakes Gulf 2017 (Click for map on Caltopo)
Oakes Gulf 2017 (Click for map on Caltopo)

Total Distance: 21 miles with 5500 feet of elevation gain.

7 comments

  1. Beautiful trip. Did you bring your Tenkara rod?

    • Though about it, but decided my main objective wasn’t fishing and left it at home. The Dry River is easy to access whenever I feel like it.

      • Looks like there would be a fish behind every boulder

      • You’d think so, but I’ve found that a lot depends on water speed (too fast because this river has a very steep gradient) and they find calmer water, and upstream breeding habitat. These photos show the river very close to it’s source and this particular area has a very narrow watershed without a lot of good wetlands for upstream breeding. I’ve found that rivers with much larger watersheds and upstream beaver/wetlands activity to be much more reliable trout producers in NH.

  2. Great article and inspiring trip. These trip reports keep me coming back to your site over and over again. Thanks for writing these!

  3. Hey Philip, I’m thinking about heading up to check this area out next weekend and I was wondering about the campsite you mentioned being at 4100′. Any info on mileage to that location? d m k e r r at d m k e r r dot c o m

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