Mt. Isolation is the second shortest mountain on the 4ker list, but also one of the most remote. Because of this, it tends to be a less popular hike in the winter, and trails can sometimes take weeks to get broken out after a snowfall. While it is only located about 2 miles southeast of Mt. Eisenhower, there is no easy approach. Isolation essentially stands on its own, making any summit bid a long day’s hike.
Visiting from Colorado, my friend Leah decided to join Fred, Fred’s dog Porter, and me on our Saturday hike. I checked the weather report on Friday and it showed nothing but clear blue skies; Isolation and its magnificent views would be the target for the weekend.
There are two commonly trekked ways to the summit. The first is via the Rocky Branch Trail and the Isolation Trail, a fairly direct route that involves many water crossings. New Hampshire had seen a lot of rain in the week leading up to our hike, so we opted for the second option: a route that ascends to approximately 5000’ at the top of the Gulf of Slides before turning and heading down the ridge towards Isolation.
We pulled into the icy Glen Ellis parking lot at 9:00am and started gearing up. The warm days, rain, and cold nights had created some treacherous conditions all over the White Mountains. It was definitely going to be a microspikes day from the very first step.
We started off on the Glen Boulder Trail and immediately began ascending. Passing multiple ice waterfalls, the Glen Boulder trail wrapped upwards, through the woods, and over a couple small water crossings. Porter had no concerns running back and forth across the ice while she was impatiently waiting for us to make our way to the other bank.
Winding our way through the trees, we popped out above tree-line with the Glen Boulder in sight. The rocks above tree-line were mostly snowless but coated with a thin layer of ice at times. With careful footing we were able to keep the slipping to a minimum, and we were soon standing in the shade of the Glen Boulder.
Continuing upwards after a short photo shoot, we ducked back into the trees once again and started encountering deeper snow. We had opted to leave the snowshoes in the car, thinking there was no way we would encounter deep snow after the inches of rain that flooded many rivers around the area. The snow on the Glen Boulder trail was still intact, and very deep.
We struggled forward through the drifted snow, and after sweating and panting for a half-hour, we popped out of the trees at Gulf Peak. Looking down into the Gulf of Slides on our right, we continued upwards.
After a bit of route-finding in the snowy and blustery conditions, we arrived at the Davis Path, our highest point on the route. We took a sharp left and headed down the ridge, straight into the wind.
As we ducked back into tree cover, we hit encountered more snow drifts. As I struggled forward, sinking step after step, I arrived at the conclusion that while the rest of New Hampshire had gotten rain, at 4500’, this area must have been dealt some serious snow. I’ll never know if my theory was actually correct, but nonetheless we continued to suffer forwards.
We took turns breaking trail, but the work was demoralizing. The leader would walk along without issue for upwards of 30 seconds, then suddenly sink waist deep in powder. They would pull themselves out and continue onwards, only to repeat the same process time and time again. Sometimes we made it 100 steps before stopping, sometimes 1. I cringed while thinking about the people hiking the Davis Path in the weeks after our adventure. If you’re reading this, I’m so sorry.
Eventually the Davis Path intersected the well-traveled and packed down Isolation Trail, and we sped up.
We ran into a couple other hikers, the first ones we had seen all day. We traded information about our respective routes and discovered that while the Rocky Branch Trail river crossings were high, there was no post-holing on that route. We bid the hikers farewell, and headed on to the summit. We made quick work of the final mile, and after turning right on the Isolation Spur and heading straight up a steep incline, we popped our heads out to a blue sky and a fantastic view of the Presidential Range.
After admiring the sights for a while, we sat down and enjoyed our lunch as Porter chased the gray jays that had come to investigate our food.
Discussing our descent options, we decided that braving the water crossings was preferable to another 1-2 miles of post-holing back up to the Gulf of Slides, so we settled on using the Rocky Branch Trail to descend. The only downside was that by doing so, we wouldn’t end at the car. We would need to hitch-hike or call a cab when we got to the parking lot. We would figure that out when we got down.
Porter had finally scared away any other living creature in the vicinity, so we packed up our bags and headed downwards. As soon as we turned onto the Isolation Trail towards Rocky Branch, we knew we had made the right choice. The snow was firm and easy to walk on.
After descending through the trees for a while, we reached the first water crossing. We saw where others had broken through the ice and plunged boots straight into the icy water, so we did our best to avoid the thin sections. Nonetheless, as Leah took her last step towards shore, her back foot crunched through and sunk straight to the bottom. She immediately yanked it out, and by doing so was able to keep it from getting entirely soaked.
We continued onwards, encountering a couple more river crossings. With deliberate foot placements, we slowly made our way across them and avoided more wet boots. As usual, Porter ran back and forth across the ice as we took our time. Crossing the river for the last time, we turned onto the Rocky Branch Trail and headed up a slight incline, crested Engine Hill, then began descending towards Rt 16 and Pinkham Notch.
The final section of Rocky Branch was sparsely covered in snow and ice. It was hard to believe that just a few hours prior we had been up to our waists in soft snow. We motored downhill, with Porter sprinting into the woods every couple minutes only to come tearing back out of the woods at full speed to rejoin us on the trail.
As we neared the parking lot, we came upon the two hikers we had talked to on the ridge. Chatting with them as we passed, they kindly offered to give us a ride back to our cars at the Glen Ellis parking lot.
About 20 minutes later we spotted the Rocky Branch trailhead and cheered once again. Another 4ker was in the books, and a long 13-mile day was complete. Leah and I popped off our traction and packed our bags up as our hiking friends gave Fred a ride back to his car, saving us a whole lot of time and energy. 15 minutes later, Fred pulled into the parking lot. We loaded the car up, hopped in, and headed home.