Roaming through the Dry River Wilderness

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Sep 3, 2003
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Gorham NH
It has been literally decades since I have been in the Dry River drainage and my last visit to Mt Isolation's summit was over 10 years ago. I have been trying to stay away from the major trailheads and figured an east to west hike from RT 16 to RT 302 might be a good option with a chance to see the post Huricane Irene damage in the Dry River valley. We met at DRT trailhead on RT 302, dropped off his truck and then drove to the northern Rocky Branch parking lot. I brought my Unimog to allow "soclal distancing" in the cab. No doubt some of the hikers were wondering what a German military vehicle was doing in the parking lot. There were a lot more cars than expected in the lot. It was not full but getting there. The trail was not that busy but as we got closer to the first crossing it was getting busier. The stretch of Davis Path between Davis Path and the Mt Isolation summit was definitely quite busy with two way traffic. The summit was not that busy so we picked a spot and took a break. The Gray Jays were around but expect they were worn out from the traffic. We had a lot more miles to go so we headed north on the Davis Path to the Mt Isolation West trail. We got to the junction and headed into what we hoped was a far less popular trail.

When I last visited the Mt Isolation western section 40 plus years ago, it was quite a nice trail with reasonable trail bed. At some point it had a nasty reputation of of a blowdown infested route. Later various reports indicated it had been cleared and was in good shape. I had not heard much of late post Hurricane Irene but had not heard any really bad reports. I did remember that it was a well graded trail heading down a long ridge. For the first 2/3rds it was great shape, a few older step over and duck under older blowdowns that the trail runners may not appreciate but nice going. As we headed down into the valley, the trail slowly drops of the ridge into a drainage that starts out wide but quickly gets steep, That is where it got interesting. The trail at one time is dug into steep slopes dropping down to the stream and in many places there were recent slides which required some maneuvering down the side of the slide, crossing the other side and then climbing back up to the trail. It was not particularly difficult but got tedious and slowed down our pace. One slide culminated in a large boulder that looks like it had slid several hundred yards down the steep slope from above. Eventually we got to a very confusing area that looked like there had been a lot of traffic and ended up popping out on the Dry River trail a short distance up from the Isolation trail west junction.

Long ago when I had camped in that area the DRT had been relocated to avoid a beat up trampled up area around the site of a former shelter. I think that was "party central" back in the boom times of the early eighties. The trail is still quite obvious to the former shelter but is brushed in. We headed south on the relo and slowly approached the river channel. I had seen descriptions of the Irene washouts but was somewhat confused of the damage. I thought the temporary relos involved river crossings. In actuality the washouts are where the trail formerly was sidehilled on top of and cut into the side of steep banks, There are impressive slides and bank washouts from Irene and the relos inevitably involve climbing steeply upslope and following a rough track through the woods to other other side. Footing can be tenuous in spots and someone hauling a large large pack probably do not appreciate these frequent diversions. I was starting to run out of motivation at this point and the sun was starting to get low on west side of the valley. We got the intersection of the Mt Clinton trail which is considerably different than what I remembered long ago. The woods are quite trampled and there are numerous campsites many far closer to the trail then wilderness regs require. The river is quite wide. We wanted to make out by dark so we didnt spend a lot of time at the junction. As we went along, the trailbed was in better shape by even in the past there are a lot of steep ups and downs off the former railbed to avoid steep banks. We finally came out the the suspension bridge. It reportedly had been signed as unsafe at one point but it was in fine shape. The only "unsafe" part now is the lack of step down to ground level on the west end. Nice to see that the sole remaining suspension bridge in a wilderness area is in good shape with no excuse to tear it down ;) My memory was a bit faulty as I remembered the bridge being higher. I did remember a steep climb up the slope to a great high point back up the valley. It avoids a bend in the river and then drops back down to large wide spot in the river loaded with debris. Luckily the trail avoids it and from there it follows the former rail bed until it splits off when the former rail bed heading to the campground with the Saco RIver trail coming in from the right.

It was still light out when we hit RT 302. My friend I hiked with has some high risk for Covid so I rode back to RT 302 in the back of his small pickup truck. It was decidedly a cool ride. After a quick stop for munchies in Bartlett it was dark and the final ride up to my truck at the trailhead on RT 16 was definitely cold. I appreciated the heat in my truck on the ride home. I was quite surprised at the number of cars parked at Pinkham and the overflow lot south of the Pinkham. Given the lack of legal camping options in the Cutler River My best guess was lot of folks had misplanned and walking out with the aid of improvised lighting.

Overall it was a great hike through territory I had not been for quite awhile. I saw zero trash on the trails and most folks were quite courteous. There were far fewer folks camped out in the DRT. In the long past trips, the woods along the sides of the trail were populated with tents even on non holiday weekend. We saw a few tents and several folks with backpacks but no where near the use of the days of old. It pretty well confirmed to me that the big crush in traffic is mostly confined to the easiest routes to the 4Ks and the "best" hikes that pop up on social media.
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I hiked up to the Dry River Falls area on a Friday in late July and found quite a few people camping. Just north of the Isolation Trail there is a designated backcountry campsite which was full. The areas at both the base and top of the falls were full, as was the shelter and the area around the shelter.
Was the impacted area at the Mt Clinton jct in addition to the designated site that is right on the trail there?

Don't forget about the Madison Gulf suspension bridge.
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Yup you are right, the Madison Gulf bridge is still there, although its decidedly a shorter span bridge.

I was a bit beat at the end of the day so I didnt spend a lot of time looking around the Mt Clinton trail junction. I think I saw a designated campsite sign heading left. I saw some tents up off to the left up high on a shelf somewhat out of site. Down below there where they were camped were some very large beat down areas immediately to the left of the trail.