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Hiking Mt Isolation in April

Hiking Mt Isolation in April

Mt Isolation is one of the most remote White Mountains 4000-footers and can make for a long day in any conditions. Being April, you might think that spring has arrived in New Hampshire, but it’s nowhere close. We’re still contending with full-on winter conditions in the Whites, carrying snowshoes and spikes, lots of layers, food, and hot water. Given the amount of snow we received in March, I expect the higher peaks will be snowcapped through April and possibly into early May.

When hiking to Isolation in winter conditions, the only feasible route starts from the Rocky Branch Trailhead off Rt 16 south of Pinkham Notch but still requires several stream crossings. Most of these can be avoided by bushwhacking around them, something that’s perfectly acceptable by Leave No Trace Doctrine when the ground is covered by several feet of snow, as long as you don’t mark the route with flagging, blazing, or by cutting branches.

If you don’t know how to navigate off-trail, I’d advise going with someone who does, especially in winter when the consequences of getting lost are extremely high. We’ve had at least one rescue near Isolation this winter by someone who got lost even though they had a GPS. In addition, it’s all too easy to fall into a spruce trap, a hidden void in the snow from which escape is impossible without assistance, or to get caught in a terrain trap that you can’t get out of because deep powder provides no purchase for snowshoes.

Bushwhacking through the Engine Hill Birch glades
Bushwhacking through the Engine Hill Birch glades

The hardest part of this hike for me is always the initial climb from the trailhead up to height-of-land on the Rocky Branch Trail. It’s a relentless climb or in this case snowshoe, up 1950′ of elevation in 2.8 miles with no chance for a warm-up after leaving the trailhead. The rest of the hike is much more gradual and easy.

I was joined on this hike by two old friends, Karen and Hilde, who I’ve hiked out to Isolation multiple times in the past. We’re all “gridding” the 4000 footers which means hiking all 48 in each calendar month of the year (across multiple years) for a total of 576 summits. This was my 518th, so I’m getting there, but it’s still going to take a while to finish all of the climbs on the list, after which I’ll probably help Karen and Hilde finish theirs.

After the initial climb, we planned to hike the Engine Hill Bushwhack which is a popular off-trail route that people hike to avoid several stream crossings along the Isolation Trail which are often not bridged in winter. There isn’t one well-defined path through the forest and over the boggy/wet terrain though, which is why you want to have some kind of directional aid to find your way. I always carry a map, compass, and phone GPS.

We still have a long way to get to the summit
We still have a long way to get to the summit

On this hike, someone had already broken out the Engine Hill Bushwhack but had taken a much lower line than usual through the birch glades than on my previous winter hikes.  These are large open birch groves that look quite splendid when the sun is shining and the sky is azure blue.

This led to a second bushwhack route, called the Iso Express, which bypasses several more stream crossings and takes a more direct route to the summit spur trail. It’s not worth taking during the warmer months when it’s slower than following the regular trails to Isolation, but it does make a difference both in time and distance in winter.

Following the Iso Express bushwhack
Following the Iso Express bushwhack

The Iso Express ends just below the isolation summit along the Davis Path. We followed that to the summit spur trail and climbed up to the open summit, with its breathtaking views of Mt Washington and the southern Presidential range. That is a view I never tire of seeing. We climbed up to the summit cairn, took a few photos, and then got off the summit quickly because the winds were gusting to 65 mph.

View from Isolation: Mt Washington and the Southern Presidentials
View from Isolation: Mt Washington and the Southern Presidentials

From then on, we retraced our steps all the way back to the trailhead, something that’s pretty easy to do when snowshoeing a well-defined snowshoe track. I’ll just add that the second hardest portion of this hike is the final 2.8 miles when you descend the Rocky Branch Trail from height-of-land back down to the trailhead. You really begin to appreciate what a long and arduous segment of trail that is when you descend its steep slopes at the end of the day.

Total distance: 12 miles w/3400′ of elevation gain.

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