Mt Pierce is the second four thousand footer you encounter when hiking north in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains. My buddy Ken and I climbed to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Mizpah Hut located just below the summit, hiking up the Mt Clinton Trail, instead of the Crawford Path which most people follow. We knew the Mount Clinton Trail is poorly maintained and notoriously hard to follow, so we knew this hike would be a challenge, in addition to the 2000 foot climb from the Dry River valley below.
Ken is one of the best off-trail navigators I know and one of my favorite hiking partners. We haven’t seen much of each other this year because I’ve been off hiking remote White Mountain trails all year, but we make a point to backpack together every Columbus Day weekend or hike something interesting and challenging. The Mt Clinton Trail would prove to be both.
We got an early start, leaving from the Dry River Trail trailhead on Rt 302 in Crawford Notch. Ken had never hiked up the Dry River, but I knew he’d enjoy seeing the massive riverbed boulders, the giant log jams along the sides of the river, and the impressive landslides that still scar the banks from Hurricane Irene. Mt Washington is at the north end of the Dry River Valley, so the river still had some flow despite this year’s drought conditions.
We crossed the Dry River about 2.5 miles upriver, easily rock hopping it thanks to the low water level. I’d been worried about getting wet feet if we’d had to ford the river; it was a chilly autumn day despite an optimistic forecast.
Once across, we searched up and down the river bank looking for the Mt Clinton Trail junction. I found a cairn, then another. I knew the trail ran next to a side stream, so we’d looked for that land feature as we searched the river bank. Once you cross the river, hike north about 100 yards along the bank and you’ll see cairns on the river rocks. The trail itself is unsigned.
We left the river and started climbing, keeping the stream bed in sight. The trail appears to climb west at about 2380′ and we followed what looked like the trail in that direction until it petered out. We searched around at that elevation for a while looking for evidence of a trail before deciding to backtrack lower and climb back up to see if we’d missed it.
Ken saw a stream crossing we’d missed and we were back on the trail, which was to cross this same stream bed many more times, back and forth, as we climbed. I lost count.
The trail was pretty straightforward from that point on. The stream eventually peters out and we hiked across a moss-covered alpine plateau for a bit before reaching the Dry-River Cutoff Trail Junction 0.5 miles below the hut.
We’d hiked a bit past this point when we ran into three hikers descending the trail. We asked where they were headed and they responded “Mt Jackson,” which is in a completely different direction. Ken got them headed back uphill with us and headed south along the Webster Cliff Trail to Mt Jackson. If they hadn’t run into us and continued descending, they would have probably ended up about 3 to 5 miles from a road in the dark on a very cold night.
When we arrived at the hut there was hoarfrost in the trees on Mt Pierce. Instead of climbing the extra 300′ to the summit (Ken and I have climbed it countless times already) we headed inside and had some cake and coffee. I ate a lot of cake and drank several cups of coffee.
Well fed, we headed back down to the river on a trail called the Dry River Cutoff Trail, which crosses the river 2 miles further upstream from where we’d crossed that morning. From there, it was a long but easy walk down the river and out of the Wilderness Area.
The Dry River Cutoff Trail is much clearer and easier to follow than the Mt Clinton Trail if you want an easier route from the river to the hut or vice versa.
- Dry River Trail – 2.9 miles
- Mt Clinton Trail – 3.0 miles
- Dry River Cut-Off – 2.5 miles
- Dry River Trail – 5.2 miles
Total Distance: 13.6 miles, 3000 feet of elevation gain. Hike time: 9 hours.
Historical note: Mt Pierce used to be called Mt Clinton after DeWitt Clinton, a former governor of the state of New York. It was renamed after President Franklin Pierce in 1913, although the newer name is not universally accepted.