Date Hiked: July 02, 2016
Trails Taken: Glen Boulder Trail to Davis Path to the Isolation spur trail and back the same way.
Weather: Early morning sun, mid morning rain, WINDY, partly cloudy/sunny the rest of the day
Total Miles: 12
Total Time: 10 hours and 10 minutes.
If I had one word to describe Mt. Isolation, that would be it. Distance-wise, this 12-mile hike is substantially shorter than the last two I have done. The Bond/West Bond hike was 17.6 miles and the Owl’s Head hike was 18.4 miles. But Mt. Isolation was the most difficult for many reasons. I intentionally chose the more challenging route, opting for the more direct ascent of the Glen Boulder Trail over the longer – but easier grades – of the Rocky Branch Trail. Since it was my last 4,000-footer – it should be challenging.
I had been watching the weather for Mt. Isolation for over a week with optimism, hoping that a nice clear, sunny day would fall into the beginning of my 4-day July 4th weekend. I am familiar with the weather in the Mt. Washington area and I know it changes very quickly, and can be quite unpredictable. Still, the weather report offers the most updated forecast and it slightly better than nothing. For nearly a week, the weather had been alternating from clear to rainy each time I checked. The night before the hike showed partly cloudy so I decided that Saturday, July 2, 2013 would be the day I would hike Mt. Isolation. I wanted to hike Mt. Davis as well, as it is only 1.4 miles away from Mt. Isolation, but I would make that call once I got to the summit of Mt. Isolation.
Saturday morning, the weather report predicted a cloudy morning with afternoon showers. I arrived at the Glen Ellis Falls Trail at 7:30am as I was hoping to be through the worst of the hike before the rain started. When I reached the sign for the Glen Ellis Falls/Wildcat Ridge Trails I briefly looked towards the underpass and remembered hiking the Wildcat Ridge Trail back in August of 2007 – and then coming back with Kathy in September of that same year to see Glen Ellis Falls. Could it really have been that long ago? And then I was there. I was standing in front of the Glen Boulder Trail. The trail that would lead me to my final 4,000-footer. I felt sad that this particular journey would be over after today, yet I was eager to get started and finish the 4,000-footer list. So I got started.
The Glen Boulder trail almost immediately starts gaining elevation. The trail is mostly rocky as I forged through the woods, and there are plenty of roots to trip over. Twenty minutes into the hike, I passed The Direttissima on the right. (Direttissima is Italian for “shortest link”.) After another 0.4 miles I passed two ski trails – first on the right and then about 100 feet later, on the left. After only an hour on the trail I was getting teasing glimpses of mountains behind me. What I immediately noticed was how dark it was across Route 16, even though I was currently hiking in sunshine as it filtered through the trees.
Soon, the trees thinned as I approach a path of boulders that I could tell led to an exposed area. I quickly climbed the rocks and realized that I was correct – the area is very exposed. I also realized that it was really windy. In fact, the wind was howling and I later learned that the average wind speed on neighboring Mt. Washington was 55.5 mph for that day with gusts reaching 94 mph. After some fairly difficult rock scrambles (made even more difficult by the heavy, gusting winds) I approached Glen Boulder which was sheltered from the winds a bit. This gave me a chance to stop and take a few images. As much as I wanted to hang out there for a little while, I continued on. It was 9:10 am and reaching Glen Boulder meant that I was about 1/8th of the way through the hike. I made a mental note, that coming back would be very difficult because I’d have to climb down the rocks when I was exhausted from the hike.
At this point I looked over to the other side of Route 16 and could see that although I was still in the sun, it was clearly raining just a few hundred feet away, but the wind gusting down the Gulf of Slides on my right seemed to be keeping it at bay for now. The trail from Glen Boulder to the junction of the Davis Path is 1.6 miles long and I was about halfway there when the rain finally broke through. Combined with the high gusts of wind, the rain stung my face and the visibility got worse. Thankfully, after a length of time being exposed, I came to a section of trail that was back in the trees and that offered some shelter. A little later, the rain subsided a bit, and I came out of the treeline and started the final section of the Glen Boulder Trail to Davis Path.
The wind was constantly blowing at this point, with tremendous gusts that threatened to knock me over. At times it seems the wind was blowing past me so hard that I could barely pull air into my lungs. The gusts seemed to be timed to occur each time I lifted one leg and was off balance. I struggled through it but I was starting to get cold. It was not bad when I was moving quickly and working up a sweat, but this slow walking was not generating any heat. I put on my jacket and gloves and pushed forward until I made the Davis Path/Boott Spur junction, somehow thinking that when the name of the trail changed, the weather would get better. That does not happen too often and today was no different.
I reached the Davis Path and took a left heading south toward Mt. Isolation. At 3.2 miles from the trailhead and 2.8 miles to go, this trail junction is a little more than half way to the summit of Mt. Isolation. The first part of the Davis Path leading to Mt. Isolation continues to be completely exposed but has plenty of cairns to mark the trail. At the beginning of this hike description, I called Mt. Isolation an anomaly. It is a long rocky hike, it has water crossings, rock scrambles and has boardwalks. The weather got cold and rainy and the wind was nearly unbearable at times. I have faced all of these conditions before. I call Mt. Isolation an anomaly because it is the only mountain I have hiked where I had to descend over 1,600 feet to get to the summit.
My map shows the junction of Davis Path/Boott Spur and Glen Boulder Trail to be about 5,177 feet. Coming up the Glen Boulder Trail, you earn every one of those feet. But once you reach the Davis Path toward Mt. Isolation the trail is almost always descending. There are a few times near the Mt. Isolation end where you gain some elevation, but then just as quickly, you lose it again. It is only once you pass the east branch of the Isolation Trail that you gain some elevation and keep it. But I am getting ahead of myself…
The steady howling wind on the Davis Path made walking laborious. The gusts were nearly constant now and the misty rain felt like needles piercing my skin. This was the most difficult part of the hike. Every few steps, I had to stop walking and lean heavily into the wind to keep from being blown over. My backpack was not helping as it was catching the wind. I may as well have strapped a kite to my back. At this point it was almost exactly 11:00 am. It took me 3 1/2 hours to get to the half-way point to Mt. Isolation. If something did not change, I would be looking at a 14-hour hike and that would mean hiking in the dark. Before that would happen, I would of course turn back.
Looking at the topographical map, the grades were a lot easier along the Davis Path. My goal was to dip back into the treeline as quickly as possible and get some relief from the wind which was now burning my face. Sometimes I could make it from one cairn to the other before I had to stop and brace myself to the wind. Other times I was stopping every few steps. The wind was whipping at me from the west – my right side – so I tried to leave a little stumble room on the trail to account for some missteps. Fortunately, the rain stopped and the wind dissipated as I descended the trail into the tree cover. The next mile or so was fairly uneventful as it was downhill nearly every step of the way, so I was able to pick up some speed. In the back of my mind, I knew I would have to gain all of this elevation back on the return trip, and possibly face the challenging winds of the exposed section of the Davis Path again, so making the Mt. Isolation summit before 1:00 pm became a priority. I officially made the decision not to hike to Mt. Davis today.
I reached the Isolation Trail/Dry River junction at 11:45am and 15 minutes later covered the 0.3 miles to the Isolation/Rocky Branch Trail. That means I am 0.9 miles away from the Mt. Isolation summit. This section of the trail is very easy with flat grades. There are some (deteriorated) boardwalks that cross the more prohibitive sections but today these areas were not difficult to get past without the boardwalks. There are reports that there are no signs for Mt. Isolation and that you have to carefully look for the spur trail that enters on the right side to get to the summit. Today, there was a fairly new sign marking the Mt. Isolation spur trail. That is fortunate for me, because if I missed the spur path, this trip would have ended poorly. Once on the spur path, a short scramble brought me to the summit of my final 4,000-footer. Actually, at 4,003 feet, Mt. Isolation just barely makes it to the list. I arrived at Mt. Isolation at 12:35pm. I am officially “Isolated”.
Because the summit is exposed, the heavy winds were back. I had planned on eating something once I reached the cairn and had taken some images, but today’s winds made it an unappealing idea. I propped my backpack up against some bushes and set up my camera. The timer is only 10 seconds, but trying to get 10 seconds in a row without the wind blowing the camera or my backpack over was challenging and I have several very odd images as a result. I took a few manual pictures trying to capture Mt. Washington (just over my left shoulder in the image), but the clouds over Mt. Washington would not cooperate. After about 10 minutes on the summit, I began my trip back to the trail head the same way I came.
Regaining the elevation toward the Davis Path/Boott Spur junction was not nearly as difficult as I had expected. The sun was shining now and my energy had returned now that I reached Mt. Isolation and knew what to expect on the way back. It was not long before I heard the howling winds of the final approach of the Davis Path toward the Glen Boulder Trail. This time, the winds were stronger, but the sun was shining. Somehow, it felt exhilarating this time. Most of the clouds were gone and I stopped frequently to take some pictures that somehow can never capture the beauty of the reality.
By the time I neared the Glen Boulder Trail, every step was picturesque. Everywhere I looked was amazing and it was hard to believe that this was the same trail I took on the way up. This time, the clouds were white and fluffy and it was interesting to see how they cast their shadows on the mountains below. A few times I saw some hikers in the distance, but I do not know where they came from or where they were going. I know that they did not come from the same direction I had just hiked as the trails were barren of hikers for the most part. At one point during at the junction of the Davis Path and the Glen Boulder Trail, I met up with a young man who had just hiked the Glen Boulder Trail on the way to Boott Spur and he told me he was “tapping out” due to the high winds. He only had 0.5 miles to go to reach his destination. I respect his decision as everyone has different tolerances, but for me this wind was a walk in the park compared to the windy, rainy wet conditions I endured on the way up.
I reached Glen Boulder about 3:10 pm and as I knew, the next half hour or so was difficult rock scrambles. Once below the treeline, the trail was all downhill on rocks and roots. At another time and place this descent could have been fairly quick, but at this point my legs felt like they were made of rubber and I just wanted to get back to the trail head and call it a day. It was not the most ceremonious ending to attaining my goal of hiking each of the 4,000-footers.
I got back to the trailhead at 5:40pm. This time the same parking lot that was virtually empty at 7:30am was packed full with people excitedly chattering away about hiking the 0.3 miles to Glen Ellis Falls. I have been there and it is stunning in its own way, but somehow I felt bad that these people would not get to experience the majesty of White Mountains from the vantage points I had only a few short hours ago. My quest is over and the 4,000-footer list is complete. Although the Appalachian Mountain Club recognizes other lists, I am not starting another. I will continue to hike as I see fit and maybe I will see you on the trails.
The trip back was a lot sunnier: