Thinking back over the past few years, I realized it’s actually been a while since I last went backpacking. I’ve become a lousy peak bagging day hiker who would rather camp next to (or in) his car than in the glorious back country. Overwhelmed by the burning shame of it, I decided it was time to at least spend a night out in the woods.Fortunately I found a willing accomplice in Dave. He’s a med student and is busy a lot of times, but when the opportunity opens up he likes to get outdoors for some fun. This weekend he had to be back by Saturday afternoon, so we hatched a plan to leave Friday afternoon, pack in to a campsite, and then cruise out the next morning.
The Dry River forms the broad valley on the south side of the southern Presidential Range. While there are a bunch of trails that offer access to the peaks, the approach is much longer and thus almost all of the traffic to these peaks come from the north side. Consequently the Dry River Trail actually feels like a wilderness trail. The further up the trail you go the less evidence there is of human travel. In some sections on the upper end the moss has actually grown completely over the trail and offers a soft and squishy blanket to walk on.
We started at the Webster Cliff trail and made our way over to the Dry River trail. At first inspection the Dry River valley appears to be a broad and gentle valley that is common here in New Hampshire. However, closer inspection shows that the Dry River cuts a deep ravine into the base of the valley. As the trail attempts to follow along the river, it is often forced to climb up the side of the ravine for a brief while before dropping back down to the river. Nothing too difficult but it does make the trek up the valley more tiring than you might expect.
After seven or eight miles of trail we arrived at the Dry River Shelter #3, a rather nice and clean leanto. We had seen only 3 people, the last of which was camped over a mile downstream from us. It’s nice to find that kind of quiet even in the busy White Mountains. We set about gathering some wood to make a fire. I had decided to just skip the cook stove and instead we would chow down on a pound of Polish kielbasa cooked over the fire. This was the first of several mistakes on this trip. As we worked on lighting the fire, my cheap Bic lighter broke apart. We reassembled it only to find that the flint had fallen out and was nowhere to be found. I went to look through my emergency kit and found a couple all weather matches….but no striker. Oops. No fire tonight. So there we were, sitting next to an empty fire ring eating some cheese and crackers and cold kielbasa when Dave looks at our food supply and says we might run out of food. I’m confused because I had packed quite a bit more than I would need. Well, it turns out there had been some poor communication. I had showed up at Dave’s with a box of food with the idea that he could take whatever he wanted for the weekend. I had thought he was going to grab food for himself, he thought I had packed enough for both of us. Oops. Food was going to be a little on the lighter side the next day.
As the light disappeared from the sky we crawled into our sleeping bags for the night. Despite it being a pleasant night for sleeping (it was comfortably cool and entirely bug free) I didn’t do a whole lot of sleeping. I spent the whole night waking up, rolling over, and trying to drift off to sleep again. A bit before 5 AM I rolled over, noticed a little light in the sky, and heard Dave roll over, so we decided to get started on the day. We packed up and continued up the Dry River trail into Oakes Gulf which is formed by the shoulders of Mt Monroe and Boott Spur. This is a rather untouched corner of New Hampshire – even the trail through it is barely there. As we proceeded up the gulf we got a full body workout, ducking under or climbing over blowdown regularly. As the trail climbs above treeline you catch views down the long valley of the Dry River without any man made structures in sight. This section was particularly pleasant; the air was comfortably cool with a soft breeze and we were just climbing up into the gentle warmth of the morning sun. Strolling along the lightly trodden trail meandering through alpine country was the perfect way to spend a morning.
Up on the ridge at last, the trail takes you directly to the Lake of the Clouds hut. It’s always a strange feeling to go from the high, lonely alpine country to the bustling business of the huts. We arrived to find the hut packed full of guests eating their breakfast. We braved the noise long enough to refill our water bottles. A hundred yards away from the hut it was back to the quiet of the mountains.
The rest of the day was spent bumping down the Presidential range. This section starts with a few miles of above treeline walking. Then it ducks into the woods but keeps offering up nice views as you trek over Jackson, Webster, and on down the Webster cliff trail. Our early start meant the section from Monroe to Eisenhower was pretty quiet. It’s a fantastic section of alpine trail that tends to get busy on a nice Saturday, but we had it mostly to ourselves. Beyond Eisenhower we started running into bunches and soon hordes of day hikers. Jackson probably had 50 people on it when we got there. It was easily the most terrifying part of the day!
We descended the Webster Cliff trail which follows the top of a nice ridge. The ridge has numerous outcroppings with great views down into Crawford Notch. Unfortunately, we had misjudged our water supply. Back at the Mizpah hut, with about 6 miles of trail left, I had filled a 1 liter bottle which normally would be plenty of water for the distance remaining. However, the day had grown hot and we were exposed to the sun quite a bit so we found ourselves on nearly empty water bottles by the time we hit Webster. Between the limited water and the rationing of food, the last few miles out were less pleasant than they should have been. Morale returned at the trail head though – a woman was handing out treats to thru hikers (and figured we were close enough) so we each got a nice cold Gatorade to finish off the hike!
Despite a few flaws in execution, it really was a great trip. The Dry River Wilderness is an excellent place and the Presidential range is always fun.