Isolation: An Unexpectedly Difficult but Breathtaking Hike
Updated: Dec 29, 2019
Looking back on all of the 4,000 footers I’ve done, a few stand out as being incredibly challenging. The Presidential Traverse was hands down the most difficult day, but a few others were really hard as well. Backpacking the Pemi Loop and Owl’s Head to the Bonds were up there but other than that many of the other 4Ks were not crazy difficult. All of them had their own challenges, but most had a good amount of flat sections or were not very long mileage wise. Full disclosure I’ve chosen the easiest trails up most of these mountains so they get much harder than what I’ve experienced, but I definitely didn’t expect Mt. Isolation to be as difficult as it was since the mileage didn’t seem to be too significant.
Going into Isolation yesterday I had thirty-eight out of forty-eight mountains completed, so I figured I was pretty prepared for the hike. I usually read over the AMC White Mountain Guide before any hike to prepare myself, but with grad school kicking my butt and the three hour drive up from Boston I just didn’t have time. I glanced over my map before bed but didn’t study it carefully enough apparently because I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into. I expected a long day, it is called Mt. Isolation after all, but I figured it would just be a long walk in the woods to the second shortest summit on the list at a measly 4,004 ft. That’s only 1 ft taller than Mt. Tecumseh, the easiest 4,000 footer (in my opinion).
The morning started out late with an 7:45 departure from my parent’s ski house in Sugar Hill. Another misstep in planning was that I didn’t see how far it would be to the trailhead from the house. I always figure everything is about 45 minutes from Sugar Hill (this is the case for pretty much every trailhead on the Kanc or on 302 around the Highland Center), but when I turned on the GPS it said an hour and fifteen minutes! Luckily there was little traffic and I ended up getting on the trail by 9:10.
I decided to take Glen Boulder Trail up to Davis Path and over to Isolation. This was one of the two most common routes, the other being Rocky Branch Trail. I heard that Glen Boulder had better views and Rocky Branch was usually pretty wet and muddy, so that sold me on it. The initial 0.3 miles to the first trail crossing gained a considerable amount of elevation quickly. It was pretty steep and just kept going up from there. The weather was beautiful but a little chilly at 50 degrees in the parking lot, but with this climb I shed layers down to just a T-shirt because I was getting so hot.
At about ¾ of a mile in, I noticed that there were no more birch trees and the evergreens were getting shorter. I knew that the steep trail had gained a good amount of elevation, but I was surprised when at about a mile in I hit the alpine zone. I knew this was an 11 mile hike, so I was baffled that I was already above tree-line only 45 minutes in. As soon as I got onto the rock slabs the wind started to pick up, so I picked up the pace as well to keep warm. It was really steep but the footing was pretty good and the cairns were clearly marking the way.
Soon I saw the iconic Glen Boulder on the side of the cliff. I had seen pictures of it from the hiking group I’m in on Facebook but it’s so much bigger and more precarious looking in person! I stopped here to wait for a couple that was about a quarter mile behind so that they could take a picture for me. I had tried the whole take-a-video-and-screenshot-pictures-from-it thing but it didn’t come out well and I wanted a break anyway to put back on some layers since it was getting colder and more windy.
After getting my picture I continued on up the steep, exposed ridge of the mountain. The rocks were rough and sharp, eerily reminiscent to those of the northern Presidentials. The wind was whipping around at this point and a quick search on my phone yielded the info that the gusts on the neighboring Mt. Washington were at 42 mph with a temperature of 34 degrees and windchill of 15 degrees. Chillier than expected! I knew I was going partially up Mt. Boott Spur, a subpeak of Washington, but I didn’t know what altitude I would reach. At the junction of Davis Path, my altimeter read 5,172 ft and I couldn’t believe it! I guess this was what I deserved after not paying attention to my topo map! Note to self – read the maps and the book more carefully next time.
It was all downhill on Davis Path as I made the descent to Isolation. All I kept think was there must be a more efficient way to get to this short mountain than climbing up the side of the highest mountain on the east coast. That being said, the views were amazing! On my way down the southern ridge of Boott Spur the wind was gusting so hard that it knocked me over at one point. I ended up jogging most of the way down to treeline just to try to keep warm. I didn’t bring my puffy down jacket, just a sweater and my windbreaker because it felt too early in the season for that. I still stand by that decision because I always end up getting hot and working up a sweat even if it’s cold, but it’s getting to be that time of year!
Once I got back below treeline it was pretty straightforward to Mt. Isolation. There were many pointless ups and downs along the way and the trail was very muddy in some sections. There was also a section with lots of blowdowns that had been cleared. It was a nice departure from the rocky terrain I had just endured, and I reached the summit at 12:45. I had made spaghetti the night before so I brought some in a ziplock bag for lunch since I’m getting sick of sandwiches. It was the best meal I’ve had while hiking so far! While I was eating I looked at my GPS app and realized I had been practically moseying this whole time, going at a pace much slower than usual. I knew I needed to pick up the pace and get home to study for a big pharmacology exam on Monday. One thing I love about hiking is that I forget about everything that stresses me out, but that can be a disadvantage when I forget that I have to get home to be productive.
After the quick break at the summit of Isolation, I started back the exact same way I came. It was getting more and more beautiful outside as the clouds burned off and by the time I made it back to the Glen Boulder junction the sun was beaming down. For half a second I pondered whether or not I could make it over to Washington and down before dark, but realized that there was no way I was prepared for that today. Not the type of thing you do on a whim I guess. As I descended the rock face, Mt. Washington and the northern Presidentials came into clear view on my left. It didn’t seem that far away but these things can be deceiving.
The descent was long and slow because I was making an effort to carefully place my feet and not injure myself so close to my NH48 finish! This being said the last mile to the car was basically me tripping and falling over myself the whole way down the mountain. Luckily I had my trekking poles to catch me every time I fell! Did I mention I’m really clumsy? That last mile was deceptively long because you could hear the roar of motorcycles on Rt 16 from afar. I kept thinking I was almost there when really I still had a little ways to go. Needless to say I was happy when I finally reached the parking lot.
All in all this was another great hike (aren’t they all?) although much more difficult than I expected. It wasn’t super long at just over 11 miles, but it was really difficult with the large portion above treeline and steep rocky sections. When you think about some of the really difficult 4,000 footers there are usually two factors that play into the difficulty. The length of the hike (the Bonds are really long around 19 miles any way you cut it) and the terrain (the northern Presidentials are very challenging in this aspect). Isolation had both length and difficult terrain, making it really hard but a great hike overall. The views were spectacular, and it was a beautiful day for hiking! I even caught a nice sunset on the drive back home!
#39 – Mt. Isolation (4,004 ft) via Glen Boulder Tr and Davis Path [11.2 mi, 4900 ft, 8:10].
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