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Hiking the Mt Clinton Trail Loop

My buddy Ken and I hikied up the Dry River Trail in peak foliage to get to the Mt Clinton Trail
My buddy Ken and I hiked up the Dry River Trail in peak foliage to get to the Mt Clinton Trail

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.

Ken crosses the first of two channels across the Dry River
Ken crosses the first of two channels across the Dry River

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.

The bottom half of the Mt Clinton Trail follows a large rock-filled stream.
The bottom half of the Mt Clinton Trail follows a large rock-filled stream.

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.

Coffee and Cake at Mizpah Hut
Coffee and Cake at Mizpah Hut

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.

Trails traveled:

  • 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. 

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  1. Wish I could have joined you! Looks like just my kind of trail.

  2. Aww man when I see pictures like this I wished I lived in the USA! Here in The Netherlands everything is flat flat flat… Sure we have some nice woods and grasslands, but most of the scenery is pretty much the same :/

    • I’m lucky to live close enough to the White Mountains that I can spend a few days a week there hiking, backpacking, fly fishing and skiing. They’re big enough that there always someplace new to discover. An outdoor paradise.

      Grasslands? Maybe you should try mixing up your hiking with another obsessive hobby like fishing or bird watching. Every ecosystem has its pleasures if you look for them…and hiking is usually a great foundation for exploration.

  3. Phillip
    I’m working toward overnight backpacking so I’m very interested in the “Desiganted USFS campsites”. What exactly are they and where can I locate more of them in the Whites? They are not listed on my map.

    • A designated campsite is usually a small area, sometimes just big enough for one tent, that’s been signed for camping use by the US Forest Service. They’re not listed on White Mountain National Forest Maps. I’ve never figured out why. They usually have water nearby. They’re indicated by small signs located about knee height that have triangles carved into them. You can only find them by walking past them. I’ve started marking them on my routes so I can find them again. If you backpack in the Whites you should also familiarize yourself with the White Mountains backcountry regulations, which regulate where you are legally allowed to camp if you don’t use a designated campsite or shelter. See:

      • Thank you. I have been doing my homework in that regard, this is something new. That’s why I read your blog/website, it’s been a great source of information. I often say to some of my friends who think I’m obsessed with hiking now…blame the picture I saw of Franconia Ridge and Philip Werner. :-)

      • I suspect that they are intentionally not listed so the USFS will have flexibility to move or remove them as desired. Marking them would also increase use of these locations. I know of a few of these in the Great Gulf Wilderness which are no longer designated. One edition of the AMC maps showed them, but later editions do not.

      • Figured that was the case. On the flip side, maybe they should make the locations more accessible to prevent overuse of unhardened/undesignated spots. There’s a case for that too.

  4. I did a three day adventure starting in the Dry River area earlier this fall. What a cool area, and so quiet and little traveled! Loved it.

  5. Reading your account brought back memories from our PT this Summer. I loved it, though the Webster Cliffs Trail was a killer. :) Like to meet up with you some day and hike in NH.

  6. I’d like to ask a quick gear question: when you know you’re going to hike on a lot of rock all day, do you switch out of your Sportivas?

    I was in Vermont last week hiking Camel’s Hump and found my trail runners making my feet less happy walking on s much hard rock on the trail, unlike where I hike here in the PNW.

    Second, have you ever camped at night in a bivouac bag? I’m reading Robert Macfarlane’s “The Wild Places” and he carries one with him to sleep out in bad weather.



  7. I tried the Mt Clinton trail from Dry River about 4 weeks ago and lost the trail at the last red surveyors tape is that where it cross the stream ?

    • Yeah – you need to head northeast across that small stream and stay on the main branch. Look for cairns in the stream bed – they’re used extensively to mark the trail and the crossings.

  8. Really? It’s pretty close to book time and includes the 45 minute food break we took at the hut. I take it, you don’t hike the White Mountains much. 3000 feet of elevation gain does tend to slow people down.

  9. Pulaski is a trail maintainer, if that’s not obvious. Taught me the right way to clear a water bar! Great to hear from you friend. I’m headed your way in the next week or so to finish up the Speckled Caribou Wilderness. We should camp out together one night when I’m up there – will contact you offline.

  10. hey wanted to chime in June of 2020. Hiked up this trail and high water levels due to the snowmelt. I absolutely do not recommend. Wading across the ‘dry’ river felt unsafe. Besides a few Cairns at the numerous river crossings the OP mentions there are no markings. At one point I realized I was on the wrong end and had to scramble up the side of the other bank to get back on track. Even the GPS was little help. Hiker beware. Extremely gnarly and confusing trail. Weirdly, there was a marked primative campsite after the millionth river crossing. It was an experience, but one I prefer not to repeat!!

    • Spring is about 1 month late this year in the Whites. River levels are running very high still from snowmelt. I’m still postholing on fairly low elevation trails in different parts of the National Forest.

      • coming back down to complete the loop down the ACT, i found the trail much drier and free of snow. also forgot to mention that i passed some hikers coming up the act towards dry river concerned about a bridge – if its the suspension bridge on dry river south of mount clinton, the bridge is up!

      • Hi Phillip, by ACT I meant the appalachian trail, sorry for the confusion :) . checking the trail name online that section is named Webster Cliff.

        had always referred to the Appalachian trail as the ACT. being from the northwest, we probably just substituted out the P in PCT for an “A”when talking about the Appalachian trail :)

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