Mt. Isolation: A Winter Whack Living Up to its Name
Mt. Isolation is one of those peaks that many hikers drag their feet on when trying to finish their New Hampshire 4,000 footers. It's as remote as the name suggests, tucked deep in the Dry River Wilderness south of Mt. Washington, standing at a measly 4,003 feet. There's no easy way to get there from really anywhere, with the two most common routes being long and strenuous.
First there's Glen Boulder trail to Davis Path, a very difficult hike gaining 4,900 feet to make it to the second shorterst 4,000 footer on the list. Most of that hike is above treeline making Mt. Washington's unpredictable weather one of the most challenging aspects of the hike. Then there's Rocky Branch to Isolation trail, a thirteen mile slog up muddy drainage patterns with lots of river crossings. This is most challenging in high water conditions after rain or snow melt. In the winter, the Engine Hill bushwhack is the preferred route in order to detour around a few of the crossings and make life a little bit easier. But with a bushwhack comes navigational challenges as well.
Yesterday I hiked Mt. Isolation with two new hiking buddies, one of whom finished her NH48 at the summit. It was a great day, and although I was prepared for a long, arduous day in the wilderness I was happily surprised by how pleasant this hike was. It began with a little confusion surrounding the trailhead location, but luckily we all made it to the northern Rocky Branch trailhead to start the hike around 8am. I knew it was going to be a long day, so I was glad to start early to avoid hiking out in the dark.
Rocky Branch wasted no time as we gained elevation quickly. I was out of breath quickly, still recovering from last week's bout of pneumonia. We pushed on getting our hiking legs under us and settled into a nice brisk pace after about a half hour. It usually takes me about a mile to get warmed up, but after that it was pretty smooth sailing. We ascended quickly on the beautifully packed trail with microspikes under our feet and snowshoes on our backs just in case of an unbroken section of trail.
As we climbed I noticed the warm pink and orange clouds in the distance and the strong breeze that picked up as we got higher. It was a beautiful morning, but I couldn't help but think of my friends just a few peaks away attempting to summit Mt. Adams. There were 90 mph wind gusts in the forecast with a cold front coming in before a heavy winter storm early next week. I thought about the conditions they would face on the second highest summit in New England and hoped that they would be careful up there.
We ascended for what felt like a long time and started looking for where the bushwhack broke off from the trail on the right. I had read a few trip reports and looked at GPS tracks, but I wasn't totally sure where we would leave the trail. We had reached the wet, marshy section of Rocky Branch and had some annoying encounters with the mud. At one point my friend's boot got sucked in ankle deep, but luckily her footwear was waterproof. I had hoped that all of the mud would have been frozen by now, but no such luck. When we found the start of the bushwhack marked by a distinct "T" carved into a tree, we were relieved to know we were in the right place and thankful for all of the hikers ahead of us that had left a distinct trail to follow.
Engine Hill was gorgeous, snaking through open fields and thick brush. There was a large part of the trail where a moose had post holed on top of the packed snow leaving deep tracks on top of the monorail. The tracks looked fresh probably mere hours old, so we kept an eye out for the huge animals as we walked. This bushwhack was less of a whack and more of a heard path because it was so easy to follow. I suspect after the snow coming Monday it will be slightly more challenging, but we were all glad to have a clear route while we were off trail.
When we met back with Isolation trail, the trail was more of the same. It had pretty much leveled out to the point where there wasn't too much elevation gain or loss as we continued. The sun had come out to play, shining down on us under the ice covered trees. When we got to the Mt. Isolation spur we were all excited to be so close to the summit. After a quick scramble, we were met with gorgeous views to the east and Mt. Washington hidden in the clouds just in front of us. It was an interesting view with the rock pile hidden while all of the other northern Presidentials were clear and sunny.
The wind was gusting around us, so after a few quick summit pictures we descended. We were all so excited for Julia who had just finished her NH 4,000 footers! She's a member of the JP Hikers group, so we were all eager to post about her huge accomplishment. I remember the excitement and relief of finishing my 4,000 footers, so I was so humbled that she had chosen us to share her big moment with!
There was another man finishing his 48 on Isolation that day, so we congratulated him as well. He was with a few friends, one of whom was a 12 year old boy who was summiting Isolation for his second time. He zipped along the trail with such enthusiasm talking about all of his 4,000 footer conquests as he went. I admired his dedication, as I wouldn't have been able to do the NH48 at that age.
We backtracked the same way we came to finish the hike and by the time we got to the car we were all definitely ready to be done. It was a great hike but the descent was a bit tedious. I'm definitely glad that everything was broken out and packed down because we could cruise and not worry about route finding. It was a fun hike and I'm definitely glad that I had a few buddies because it would have been long and tedious without them. Another great winter hike in the books!
Mt. Isolation (4,003 ft) via Rocky Branch Tr, Engine Hill Bushwhack, Isolation Tr, and Davis Path [12.88 mi, 3520 ft, 7:30].
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