What better way to visit a mountain named Isolation than solo in the winter?
In October 2012 I completed my AMC NH 4000 footers on Isolation, and I hadn’t been back since. The forecast looked good, and the trip reports on NETC indicated that several people had done it the day before, so I wouldn’t be breaking trail for 14.6 miles.
I had taken the Glen Boulder Trail to the Davis Path to reach Isolation in 2012, so I was looking forward to taking the “classic route” – Rocky Branch Trail to Isolation Trail to Davis Path. If the bushwhacks were broken out, I’d consider them when the time came.
As advertised, Rocky Branch Trail was very well broken out. I had planned on starting in snowshoes, but went with my Hillsound Trail Crampons after getting a look at the trail. I actually ended up staying in these all day, as I wasn’t postholing or chewing up the trail for others.
Just after entering the Presidential Range Dry River Wilderness, I took my first break. After settling down on my pack, I realized I was experiencing complete silence. No wind, no people or animals, nothing. Every once in a while some pine needles would hit the ground, but that was it. Perfection.
It’s a long way to Isolation and back, so when I saw that the first bushwhack was relatively broken out, I went for it. It’s obvious in the snow – the tracks show Rocky Branch continuing straight and the bushwhack takes a hard right.
When a well broken trail through snow isn’t around to make it so obvious, look for the “T” in the tree on the right side of the path.
The bushwhack is hardly a bushwhack as far as the White Mountains go. The woods are pretty open here, it’s not like getting to Scar or heading down the east side of Owl’s Head. But it was wet under all that snow, so postholing would be worse than usual. High stakes postholing. Luckily this wasn’t happening, I was just able to see where it had happened to others.
And all the water made for some nice ice formations.
I told myself I’d put my snowshoes on the first time I went in, but it didn’t happen.
This bushwhack isn’t just popular because it avoids some potentially tricky crossings of Rocky Branch and shaves miles from the long hike. It leads through a large series of birch glades that aren’t seen often on the trails to the NH 4000 footers and they’re truly beautiful. Even though it would be a long day, I took my time here for sure.
Eventually I popped out onto Isolation Trail. This was also very well broken. I had saved some crossings of Rocky Branch, but it did appear to be quite well frozen over whenever I got a peek at it or when I crossed it here and there.
I saw the snowshoe tracks to the second bushwhack head across Rocky Branch soon after I got on the Isolation Trail, but I stayed the course. I thought maybe I’d take that way down.
Like Rocky Branch Trail after the initial climb, Isolation Trail is mellow. It’s just a nice, easy walk in the woods – at least on a day like this. There are about 10 blowdowns at very annoying angles all in a row just before it reaches Davis Path. It looks like someone came and leaned all the trees at the same angle. This was interesting, and it made crawling under them fun instead of annoying.
On my way up, I didn’t even notice the Davis Path come in from the right, so I was starting to wonder how I had misjudged my pace so badly to still be on Isolation Trail at this point. Just as I realized that if I was still on Isolation Trail, it would have been leading me in the wrong direction, I saw this sign.
I was there. The short steep path to the summit appeared to have offered many a hiker from the previous day a ride down on their ass. I kicked hard into the smooth surface to make steps.
I had been hiking under high clouds all day, but the sun came out just as I set my pack down on the summit, and the clouds started burning away. There was no wind and no people. I stayed half an hour, wandering around taking photos and pushing through trees checking out the peaks to the south.
It was a completely different experience than the one I had on Madison a few days earlier.
The southern Presidential Range and Mt. Washington are at their best from this viewpoint. I’ve been on a little black and white photography kick lately, and I tried to make some portraits, not landscapes, of some of these beauties.
Mt. Washington was in hi-def in the cold dry air.
I had visited Monroe and Eisenhower recently, and had picked out the summit of Isolation from them, so it was cool to stand on the third point in the triangle.
There’s also the interesting angle to the Wildcats and a bit of the Carter Range.
I would have stayed on this summit all day if it weren’t for so many miles between me and the car.
Just back on the Davis path I saw Mark and Jerry, who I had met in the lot that morning. They seemed like cool guys. Jerry was working on his WINTER New England Hundred Highest. Damn!
Soon after, I started passing more people on their way up. Congrats to all of us for picking Isolation on this day and timing the summit with the clearing skies.
After 3 or 4 quick chats with people on Davis Path, I got back on Isolation Trail and that was the end of seeing people on the trails. I had decided not to take the second bushwhack down. It was too nice out to be cutting miles. As long as I was making any sort of progress toward the car, I was happy to let this hike take as long as it could.
That being said, I wasn’t exactly moving slowly – I was above 3 mph the majority of the time on the way down. I skipped the first bushwhack and stayed on Isolation Trail to where it actually connects with Rocky Branch Trail. More time in the woods, and sections of trail I hadn’t been on before.
The crossing of Rocky Branch where the trails meet was easy. Nice and solid.
I saw some interesting tracks just on the inside of the Presidential Range Dry River Wilderness boundary. I’m not skilled at identifying tracks yet, but they really looked like they were from a cat. They were just to the right of some tracks from a hare (which I can identify), and appeared to be left at about the same time. They went from nice and crisp like this to being chunked up like they were running.
Until I gain some skill or I’m corrected, I will assume these were left by a tiger cub.
The sun had loosened up the snow on the trail just a little bit by the time I was in the final 2 miles, but it didn’t make much of a difference. Soon I could hear cars, I passed the ski trail intersections at .7 and .5 miles in from the trailhead, and then the lot appeared.
I started this hike at 8:15, and got to the car at 3:30. I’m not sure how many miles I knocked off with my one bushwhack… I’m going to scientifically call this a 13 point something mile day.
And what a great one it was.