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Backpacking a Mt Isolation Loop

Backpacking a Mt Isolation Loop

Mt Isolation is a remote 4000 footer located south of Mt Washington with impressive views of the Southern Presidentials and the “rock pile”, as Washington is often referred to locally. This 2-3 day route follows trails seldom hiked by day hikers and is ideal for backpackers who want to experience the wilder side of the White Mountain National Forest. It visits several open summits and viewpoints en route, including Mt Crawford, Mt Resolution, Mt Davis, and the Giant Stairs, which have equally impressive views. Small stream fishermen will also appreciate hiking along the avalanche-scarred Rocky Branch River, a steep-gradient mountain stream with excellent trout habitat.

Isolation Loop

Download PDF Map


D4 - Toggle Open for Key


A: Less than 15 miles in distance

B: 15-20 miles

C: 20-25 miles

D: 25-30 miles or less

E: more than 30 miles

Elevation Gain

1: 3000 ft or less

2: 4000 ft or less

3: 5000 ft or less

4: 6000 ft or less

5: over 6000 ft

Distance/Elevation Gain

25.5 miles w/6000′ of cumulative elevation gain

White Mountain 4000 Footers

  • Isolation

Recommended Duration

2-3 days


June thru October

Permits Required



Backcountry Camping Regulations for the White Mountain National Forest.

Most this route passes through the Presidential-Dry River Wilderness Area. Please observe all wilderness area restrictions. 

New to the White Mountains? Read this Quick and Dirty Guide to Backpacking in the White Mountains for information about camping regulations, road access, trail shuttles, lodging, dangerous wildlife, weather, etc.

Trailhead Directions

Davis Path Trailhead


The Appalachian Mountain Club publishes the best maps for the White Mountains and I’d recommend buying the complete AMC White Mountain Waterproof Map Set. It contains three waterproof maps (2 regions per map) although you only need carry one or two on any trip. I also use GPS apps for navigating, but these maps contain relevant trail, shelter and topographic information that is often not included in electronic maps. More detailed trail descriptions can also be found in the AMC White Mountain Guide, which is considered the hiking bible for the region. It includes detailed driving directions to remote trailheads and is indipensible for navigating to them, especially when you're out of cell tower range. Take photos of the pages you need using your phone for easy reference, instead of carrying the entire book with you on hikes.

Navigation Apps

I also recommend purchasing a GPS Phone App such as Far Out's White Mountain National Forest Guide, which lists most of the trails, trailheads, shelters, campsites, views, and water sources in the White Mountains National Forest. GaiaGPS is another GPS Phone App, which is stronger in terms of topographic map coverage for the White Mountains but does not have as much information about trailheads, shelters, campsites, views, and water sources. I use both frequently.

Trail Sequence

The route follows the following trails in sequence.

  • Davis Path – 2.2 miles
  • Mt Crawford Spur – 0.6 miles (in and out)
  • Davis Path – 1.5 miles
  • Mt Parker Trail – 1.0 miles (in and out)
  • Davis Path 0.3 miles
  • Stairs Col Trail – 1.8 miles
  • Rocky Branch Trail – 4.1 miles
  • Isolation Trail – 2.6 miles
  • Davis Path (South) – 2.1 miles
  • Mt Davis Spur – 0.4 miles (in and out)
  • Davis Path (South) – 4.1 miles
  • Giant Stairs Spur – 0.4 miles (in and out)
  • Davis Path – 4.4 miles

Scenic Highlights

The following list provides cumulate distances on the route to each view or landmark

  • Mt Crawford Summit – 2.5 miles
  • Mt Resolution Summit – 4.8 miles
  • Stairs Col – 5.5 miles
  • Rocky Branch Shelter – 7.3 miles
  • Rocky Branch River – Next 4.1 miles
  • Mt Isolation Summit – 14 miles
  • Mt Davis Summit – 15.4 miles
  • Giant Stairs Cliff, Viewpoint, Campsite – 19.7 miles

Camping Shelter Options


Natural water sources are plentiful in the White Mountains although you may need to descend to them from ridgelines along side trails if you run short. In any case, carry a detailed topographic map with you and don’t rely on the overview map provided with this trip description to find water sources.

The Appalachian Mountain Clubs Huts are taking reservation in 2023. Contact the AMC for reservations and information at (Note: You don't have to stay in their facilities when hiking in the White Mountains.) All Randolph Mountain Club Cabins have reopened for 2023 on a first-come-first-serve basis.

There is one stretch along this route where it may be prudent to carry extra water.

  • One mile east of the Isolation Trail/Davis Path Trail junction to a stream just north of Giant Stairs Spur Path

Weather Cautions

This route is sensitive to seasonal and weather conditions which can make it hazardous. There are four water crossings of the Rocky Branch River on this route which may become difficult to cross in high water. The best way to avoid high water levels is to check the weather and postpone your hike if heavy precipitation is forecast during or a few days before your hike.  Be sure to check the and Mt Washington Observatory Higher Summits forecasts before your hike.

On the Trail

The Davis Path Sign

After parking in the large Davis Path Trailhead, cross the Saco River over a wide suspension bridge, passing several private residences on your right, before arriving at the Davis Path sign. Built in 1845, the Davis Path is one of the oldest trails in the White Mountains, originally cut as a bridle path  to bring sightseers to Mt Washington by horse.

Climb steeply to Mt Crawford
Climb steeply to Mt Crawford

After passing this sign, the trail begins a steep 2100′ climb up a rocky trail to Mt Crawford, passing a wilderness campsite on the right, signed with a wooden post that has a small carved tent on it. There are several such sites along this route (see overview map for locations), but they can be easy to walk past because the wooden posts indicating their presence are below knee height and colored to blend into the forest.

While the climb to Mt Crawford is admittedly steep, 1000′ per mile elevation gains are not unusual in the White Mountains trail system. Switchbacks, on the other hand are rare, so gird yourself for climbing straight uphill. When climbing, take your time and stop to rest when you need to catch your breath. Stop at level spots, as this will reduce the strain on your calf muscles. Using the rest step (read about the rest step), can also reduce leg fatigue by transferring load onto your skeletal structure and off your musculature.

Faint painted blazes and tiny cairns called ducks mark the trail
Faint painted blazes and tiny cairns called ducks mark the trail

As you approach the top of the climb, the trail breaks out over open rock ledge, marked by faint painted blazes and rock cairns. Most of the cairns are quite small, just a few rocks stacked one on top of the other. These are called “ducks”. It’s worth lingering on the ledges which have many fine views and provide a nice place to sit on a warm day. Follow the indicated path to the Mt Crawford Spur Trail and hike out to the summit viewpoint, which has fantastic 360 views. This is one of the best peaks to climb in autumn when Crawford Notch is ablaze in autumn color.

Autumn views of Crawford Notch from Mt Crawford
Autumn views of Crawford Notch from Mt Crawford

Return to the Davis Path (turning left) and continue toward Stairs Col until you reach the Mt Parker Trail on your right. Follow it for 0.5 miles over more open ledge to the summit area of Mt Resolution. While there is a summit cairn on Resolution (there are actually several), it can be hard to locate since the mountain summit is covered with short trees and shrubbery. Don’t worry about it too much. If you made the effort to get here, it still counts. :-)

Reverse your route, hiking north along the Mt Parker Trail, to return to the Davis Path. Turn right and continue to Stairs Col. A col is a small mountain pass in the local vernacular, and Stairs is a wild one, with moss-covered trees and thick shrubbery. Hike east along the col to the top of the Stairs Col Trail, continuing straight, and descending down to its junction with the Rocky Branch Trail. There’s a lean-to and campsite on the river here, if you want to call it a day.

The Rocky Branch is a high gradient mountain stream with many pools and cascades
The Rocky Branch is a high gradient mountain stream with many pools and cascades.

Turn left onto the Rocky Branch Trail which follows the river north, crossing back and forth, several times. Most of these stream crossings are quite easy in normal conditions, provided you don’t mind getting your shoes and socks wet. The river is fairly wide though, and rock hopping is often not an option. Bring a pair of crocs or water shoes if you want to keep your shoes and socks dry.

Heavy rains and flooding caused avalanches after Hurricane Irene
Heavy rains and flooding caused avalanches after Hurricane Irene

The Rocky Branch Trail was closed for several years after Hurricane Irene due to avalanches along the river bank which wiped out large sections of trail. The trail has since been repaired and in some cases rerouted. Following the trail north can still be challenging at points because this trail is in a lightly blazed Wilderness Area. The trail tread is usually easy to find and you’ll always be headed in the right direction if you remember that the trail follows the river upstream.

Rocky Branch Trout
Rocky Branch Trout

If you’re a fisherman, especially a Tenkara fisherman, you’ll find that the Rocky Branch is a fun river to fish for trout. Being a mountain stream, the fish aren’t big, but they are feisty! Be sure to purchase a New Hampshire fishing license if you don’t already have one.

The Rocky Branch Trail meets the Isolation Trail 4.1 miles north of the Rocky Branch Shelter #1. The trail junction is on the same side of the river. and loops around the north side Mt Isolation before joining the Davis Path, which leads you to the summit. There are several additional stream crossings north of this trail junction, as well. When the trail begins heading northwest, you’ll pass by two designated campsites. The first of these has easy access to water, while the second is northwest of a fairly reliable stream that crosses the trail. There are also numerous bootleg campsites along this stretch, although the two designated sites are much nicer, drier, and worth camping at if there’s space.

The Isolation-Rocky Branch Trail Junction is on the west side of the Rocky Branch River.
The Isolation-Rocky Branch Trail Junction is on the west side of the Rocky Branch River.

Just before you reach the Isolation/Davis Trail junction you’ll pass through an area with many downed trees, probably caused by a microburst. The trail can be tricky to follow here, so use care. When you reach the Davis Path junction turn left (south) and follow the trail to the Mt Isolation spur trail, which climbs a short distance to an open summit.

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

The summit of Mt Isolation is open rock ledge with wide-ranging views. The biggest mountain on the horizon is the rocky cone of Mt Washington and below it, the yawning chasm of Oakes Gulf, a deep glacial valley at the head of the Dry River. Mt Monroe is visible to Washington’s immediate left. Boott Spur is to its right, a 5000+ foot subsidiary summit of Washington, located atop the southern wall of Tuckerman Ravine. North Isolation, which is a very short bushwhack, is just a short distance away, also off the Davis Path

Mt Davis Summit Cairn
Mt Davis Summit Cairn

Descend Isolation back to the Davis Path and continue south through lush forest and prime moose habitat. The next few miles of trail are seldom travelled by day hikers and quite remote. Continue south until you reach a short spur trail to Mt Davis on your left. Scramble up this trail a short distance to the summit cairn on Mt Davis. This peak, like Isolation, is an above-treeline and covered by low shrubbery called krummholz, german for twisted tree, to describe the short and gnarled trees.

Giant Stairs Cliff
Giant Stairs Cliff

Reverse your route down from Mt Davis and turn left when you reach the Davis Path. Hike south for another 4.1 miles until you reach the Giant Stair Spur Path on your left. Follow it for 0.2 miles, past another designated campsite, to a cliff face with an imposing view. Don’t get too close to the edge: it really is a very steep drop!

The Giant Stairs seen from Mt Crawford with Mt Washington in the distance
The Giant Stairs seen from Mt Crawford with Mt Washington in the distance

The campsite here is a very popular spot to spend the night and view the stars. Water is very limited however, so be sure to carry in what you need.

Backtrack to the Davis Path and continue through Stairs Col toward Mt Crawford and eventually Rt 302 through Crawford Notch. This portion of the hike is identical to the beginning of the route, just in reverse. I’d still recommend hiking out to the Mt Crawford summit again. That view can’t be beat.

About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 10,000 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 3000 articles as the founder of, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip has hiked all 650+ trails in the White Mountains twice and has completed 12 rounds of the 48 peaks on the White Mountains 4000 footer list with over 576 summits in all four seasons. He is also the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He lives in New Hampshire. Click here to subscribe to the SectionHiker newsletter.

Safety Disclaimer

This trip plan can not alert you to every hazard, anticipate your experience, or limitations. Therefore, the descriptions of roads, trails, routes, shelters, tent sites, and natural features in this trip plan are not representations that a particular place or excursion will be safe for you or members of your party. When you follow any of the routes described on, you assume responsibility for your own safety. Under normal conditions, such excursions require the usual attention to traffic, road and trail conditions, weather, terrain, the capabilities of your party, and other factors. Always check for current conditions, obey posted signs, and Backcountry Camping and Wilderness Area Regulations. Hike Safe and follow the Hiker responsibility code. 

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  1. Very glad to hear that you had a good trip.

    But what destruction of the trail? I know about the trailhead bridge that was washed out this spring (south on this route though), but I hadn’t heard about any further destruction higher north. Are you sure the landslips are from this past winter? That trail always looks like titanic forces have been at play along it. It’s part of the allure.

  2. not really. the forest is pretty dense.

  3. i was looking forward to doing mt isolation but would you recommend as a first backpack

    • As you’re very first backpack? Probably not. I’d recommend the Cannonball loop actually. It’s challenging but shorter. There’s plenty of water and other people around. But backpacking after the end of October in the Whites is winter backpacking, for all practical purposes, with a more technical skillset. I’d wait until next spring if you’ve never backpacked before. There’s snow on the high peaks now and it’s below freezing every night.

  4. i did Webster to oxford on Madison the day before it snowed hell on Washington this year and rely liked it but it was a little scary that it was that close. i forgot to mention that i do have regular backpacking gear as well as crampons, ice axes, micospikes, backpacking jet stove (not jetboil), and some lightgear

  5. osgood, sorry im an idiot, and thanks for the advise

  6. Thanks for this trip report. I was thinking of doing this loop this summer with my brother-in-law. Would you say that the sites are hammock friendly?

    • This is actually a guidebook trip plan…but yes the last time I hiked this route, I used a hammock to camp. It’s all woods…for miles.

      • Thanks so much for the quick reply and sorry about the mix up in my verbiage. I really enjoy all of your work; very useful, practical information. Be well.

  7. Philip,

    Two of us did this loop hike last week clockwise on a 1 night BP. Never hiked the Davis Path from Stairs mtn to Isolation nor the southern portion of the Rocky Branch trail from the Isolation split off and the Stairs Col trl. Was amazed at the amount of destruction from the river flooding in this southern section and river diversion. I saw one of your river pics that matched one I had taken. We must been in the same spot when we took it. It is your first river pic in this article (looking north). Not sure when you took it though is is amazing that some of the huge river boulders in your pic are no longer in my pic, apparently moved along by the water. If you are interested in the comparison send me an email and I will send you my pic.

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