Elleing and Shawn on the summit of Isolation

Isolation (4004')

2005 October 03


That's a number I've been waiting to write about since we hiked Cannon in May 2003. It's just one of many numbers that describe our journey. My best estimates suggest:

We had considered backpacking Isolation, so that we could enjoy our time on the summit longer. But, time was running short in more ways than one. Certainly, the colder weather was approaching which would complicate things for us, but Elleing was also 6 weeks pregnant on this day. Putting it off much longer may have meant putting it off indefinitely. So we watched the weather for one of those perfect October days and when it came, we took the day out of work to bag the last summit on our 4000 footer list.

We stayed the night before the hike at the Swiss Chalet in Intervale, NH. The room was exactly what we needed, just the simplest, clean, and inexpensive one-night lodging available. After checking in, we went to Bellini's for dinner. It was one of those popular restaurants that's best avoided. The restaurant is attractive enough but it didn't score very well otherwise. Disappointed, we stopped at D'Angelo for a couple sandwiches for the next day's hike and went back to the room.

We got up reasonably early and had breakfast when we checked out. We made complimentary waffles to go with the cereal and juice. Nothing fancy, but still better than dinner. After throwing our stuff in the car, we made it to the Rocky Branch trailhead and started hiking at 8:52a.

The route we would attempt is 14.6 miles, round trip, but only gains 3400 feet. Nonetheless, it would be a long day and we planned on using the weather to our advantage. Cold weather gear wouldn't be needed and we could treat water at Dry River. We emptied our packs of anything else that wasn't really neccesary. Without the excess baggage, we hoped to compensate for the extra time on trail.

It got warm quickly and temps began to approach the high 70's. Most of the climbing and all of the steepest terrain occurs in the first 2.8 miles while ascending the Rocky Branch Ridge. Stopping periodically to shed layers, it helped keep us from wearing ourselves out too soon. The trail has good grades and footing, but with temps climbing quickly, I was soon wearing nothing but hiking shorts to try and stay cool on this part of the hike. Before we reached the Dry River Wilderness at 10:51a, we had already passed the only 3 hikers we would see all day. The ascent to the ridge flattened out about two-thirds up, giving us a nice rest before it rose one last time.

The trail then descends gradually to the Dry River. The trail was very wet there, but the grade was so mild it didn't really slow us down. During the short descent, we caught some glimpses of Mount Isolation. It looked deceptively close but we were well aware that the trail loops around to the North before climbing to the Montalban Ridge. By 11:25a, we were resting on sun baked rocks along the edge of the Dry River. We ate some food and investigated a mysterious flourescent red 'fish' that turned out to only be a leaf. We snapped some pictures (with the camera that replaced the one that died on the Carters hike) to try and capture just how pleasant the stop was, but of course, they didn't come close. I tried purifying water but the iodine tablets looked "rusty." I treated the water anyway but planned to drink it only if really necessary. With our break (that tempted us to stay longer) finished, we crossed the river and turned onto Isolation Trail at 11:47a.

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The remaining climb to the 4004 foot summit is very gradual. The trail crossed the dry river about 4 more times but only one of the additional crossings was really significant. We enjoyed the leisurely angle of the climb, first along the river as the trail meandered in and out of the forest, then through a twisty scenic path that appeared manicured for our enjoyment. When we reached Davis Path, we knew we didn't have much farther to go. We would just follow Montalban ridge south until we neared the summit. Then, we would keep an eye open for the spur path which we had heard wasn't clearly marked.


When Davis Path opened up to views of Mount Washington we stopped for some quick energy. Elleing ate plums while I snapped some shot of Mount Washington, visible through the trees. After our snack, we continued along and the trail started a steeper climb, suggesting the the spur path would be close. Nonetheless, we did almost walked by it. The spur is slightly above trail level which made it less obvious. Happy that we didn't miss the spur and add any unnecessary mileage, we finished the trip to the summit, arriving at 2:04p, about 5 hours after we started.

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We couldn't have asked for a better day to sit on an open summit in the middle of the Dry River Wilderness. There we were on the last of the forty-eight four thousand footers in New Hampshire on the third day of October and we were wearing shorts and tee shirts. We had the summit to ourselves, preserving the isolation after which the mountain was named, and we could see to the horizon. The entire Southern Presidential range was a perfect backdrop as we recalled the three different outings it took to complete them. Mizpah Springs hut was visible in the trees below the sharp rise to Pierce as were the summit structures on Mount Washington. Boott Spur and Washington obstructed the view of the Northern Presidentials but the Wildcats and Carter Dome were visible in the distance.

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I began to realize why they call it Mount Isolation. There's really no easy way in or out. To the north is the imposing presence of Mount Washington. West is the Southern Presidentials and east is the Rocky Branch Ridge. Or, one can follow the ridge ten miles south to reach Route 302. Either way, there's no shortcut to civilization. With that in mind, we packed up our stuff and started to head back. We reached the Isolation Trail at 2:54p knowing that another four hours of trail had to be traveled before we had truly completed the trip.


I was running low on water, but decided to avoid the treated water. The climb up the west side of the Rocky Branch Ridge wasn't bad and we found the edge of the Dry River Wilderness at 5:24p. We only had another 1.5 hours and it was all downhill. The sun had fallen behind the mountains, leaving us to walk the last mile on a darkened trail, although the headlamps never needed to come out. At 6:54p, we reached the parking lot, officially completing our 4000 footer list. The conditions and pace helped make it a great hike to finish the forty-eight and we ended the day with another stop at Gordi's for some much needed food.

I think I'll retire my shoes. They're the same pair that caused me so much pain on our first 4000 footer four years earlier, but they wound up working so well for me once they broke in, I just kept using them. Although I change the insoles, I wouldn't recommend going so long without new shoes.

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Next adventure . . . parenthood.