The Dry River Trail runs 9.6 miles from Crawford Notch, near Frankenstein Cliffs to the Lakes of the Clouds, a set of alpine tarns about 1100 feet below the summit of Mt Washington. I attempted to hike it end-to-end but had to turn back about a mile short when I encountered deep snow at 4300 feet of elevation. There I was, deep in Oakes Gulf, one of the glacial cirques that surround Mt Washington, postholing up to my waist alone in wet snow. It was prudent to turn around and leave the Oakes Gulf headwall for another day.
Even more so because the Dry River is one of the most remote trails in the White Mountains and I didn’t see anyone during the two days I spent hiking along it. Two days of complete solitude is a relatively rare phenomenon in the White Mountains these days, since the National Forest receives over 6 million visitors a year, more than Yosemite and Yellowstone National Park combined.
Set in the Presidential-Dry River Wilderness, the Dry River Trail is a very remote and isolated trail to hike, one that can pose “navigational challenges” since the route is entirely unmarked except for a few scattered cairns along its 9.6 mile length. When I last hiked the trail in 2010, it had been easy to follow, but the following year, the heavy rain and landslides caused by Hurricane Irene devastated the Dry River Valley and wiped out huge sections of the river and the adjacent trail, much of which followed old logging grades. The Dry River Trail was subsequently closed until late 2014 when it was reopened as a primitive wilderness trail.
While I’m exceptionally good at following hard to follow trails, I found the Dry River Trail hard to follow, especially north of the Isolation Trail Junction, in the section that includes the Dry River Shelter #3 and Oakes Gulf. In the absence of any trail markings, I had to rely on evidence of trail maintenance – crosscut sawed or hand chopped logs, and clipped tree stumps that had been brushed out in past years, as reassurance markers that I was still on a trail, which worked after a fashion until I ran into deep snow. After that, I couldn’t see any evidence of a trail under the snow and amidst the sea of blowdowns near treeline.
Turning around wasn’t such a hardship on this trip because I’d planned to spend the night out and loop back to the Dry River by the Mt Eisenhower Trail to do a little trout fishing the next day. I’d come equipped with a fishing net, Tenkara rod, and flies and had been scoping out the best potential trout habitat in the river where the trail runs adjacent to it. This proved to be an excellent diversion and while I didn’t catch any fish, I had a fine time scrambling along the rocky river banks and casting in many fine pools and riffles. (I suspect the best fishing is in the downstream portion below the suspension bridge, which is an easy 2.5 mile hike in from the trailhead along Rt 302.)
If you’re interested in hiking the Dry River Trail, here is some intel that will help you prepare for the journey. First, contrary to its name, the Dry River and the Dry River Trail are anything but dry. The Dry River drainage is a rainforest full of side streams and mud. Expect to get wet feet, wet socks, and muddy clothes when you slip and fall. Don’t worry about washing your clothes though, because they’ll come clean when you ford the Dry River, twice, if you hike beyond the Dry River Shelter #3 into Oakes Gulf.
If you haven’t hiked the Dry River Trail since Hurricane Irene, the biggest noticeable change will be the reroutes around landslides that wiped out large portions of the old trail along the riverbank. The new trail climbs steeply up, over, and around these landslide zones, occasionally passing straight through them if the slope is stable (the best trout habitat is below the landslides and virtually inaccessible.) While the trail crew did a heroic job in surveying and cutting these new trails, they didn’t have time to build rock stairs and many are already eroding and deteriorating.
When it comes to fording the streams, the beginning and end of the fords are marked with signs or rocks cairns. But don’t be fooled into thinking that they mark the best crossing points on the river. They don’t. Your best bet is to scout out a nearby route across that’s safer depending on the water level. When I was there last week (end of May), the levels were running slightly high, at knee height, but the water was very cold, probably from the lingering snow at higher elevations. Once across, you can re-acquire the trail at the signs or cairns by returning to them.
As you walk up the trail, you will see cairns by the side of the river that are not on the trail itself but adjacent, and look like they mark river crossings. They are actually trail reassurance markers. You can tell this if you have a properly adjusted altimeter and a good map that marks the elevations of all trail junctions and major features like the Exploring New Hampshire Map from the Wilderness Map Company. This is a great map of the entire White Mountains and is invaluable when knowing precise elevations is important. All of the major stream crossing across the Dry River are signed, although the ones across larger tributaries aren’t, and a few are quite easy to walk past.
As in any White Mountain Wilderness Area, the WMNF Backcountry Regulations stipulate where you can camp. There are also four signed and designated campsites along the trail which are just off the trail and close to the river. There are others near the junction of the Isolation Trail and the Mt Clinton Trail which are not marked on any maps.
While hiking or backpacking the Dry River is not for the faint-hearted, the evidence of Hurricane Irene’s impact on the landscape is sublime. The Dry River looks likes it’s been dredged by massive earth moving equipment and you can imagine the massive flash flood that must have rushed down the Dry River Valley careening off the riverbanks, moving giant boulders downstream with its force, and piling huge mounds of dead trees in its wake. The power of nature is awesome and you’ve probably never seen anything like this so close.