Monday, July 18, 2022

White Mountains One Night Backpack: Mount Isolation

Want to check off another 4,000 footer while spending the night in the Presidentials?  So did I!  Tackling Mt. Isolation as an over-nighter turned out to be the perfect one night backpack in the White Mountains.  

Here's how to recreate this adventure...


One night backpacking trip on Mt. Isolation in the White Mountains

Getting there

This hike starts from the Rocky Branch Trailhead on Route 16 in Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire.  To get there, take Route 16/White Mountain Highway north through North Conway.  Where 302 and 16 split, take a right and continue on NH-16 into Pinkham Notch.  After about 8 miles, turn left onto Popple Mount Trail.  The parking lot is a good size and is free to park.  It is possible that it will fill on busy summer weekends so plan accordingly.  

Many river crossings on Isolation Trail


The total mileage for this backpack is 13.3 miles and 3,503 ft of elevation gain.  It is an out and back hike that includes three different trails to summit. Overall, this hike is moderate difficulty. Terrain is not technical.  Although there are many river crossings, in July of 2022 when I did it, water was generally low and it was easy to rock hop across. It is possible to do a similar hike by making it an *almost* loop.  See below under recommendations for this alternate.

Part 1 - Rocky Branch Trail

The first part of this backpack is a stead climb up the Rocky Branch Trail.  The trail is well marked (yellow blazes) and climbs through deciduous hardwood forest.  We saw moose scat and even saw a moose!  I startled it by accident about 20 yards away and never got another look. There is no real water access along this portion of the trail.  At 3.7 miles from the trailhead, Rocky Branch reaches a junction with Isolation Trail.

Part 2 - Isolation Trail

Rocky Branch trail crosses the Rocky Branch River at 3.7 miles.  Immediately after, there is a well marked trail junction sign.  To continue to Mt. Isolation, turn right.  Over the next 2.6 miles of trail, hikers parallel the Rocky Branch River and cross it many times. The trail is well marked and easy to follow will only slight elevation gain.  It is this section of trail that is best for dispersed camping. I noticed many impacted dispersed sites along this section of the trail as well as trodden spur trails that led to other sites.  One of the largest was just after the second river crossing on the opposite side of the river.  Further on, there was an official sign indicating a spot to disperse camp on the west side of the river.  My friend Kelsey and I scoped multiple sites along the way, planning on picking one that would best fit our needs on our descent. 

Part 3 - Davis Path

After 2.6 miles on the Isolation Trail (6.3 total), the trail reaches an intersection with the Davis Path.  From here, take a left and climb the moderate climb 0.9 miles to the summit of Mt. Isolation. The spur trail to the summit is on the right and not marked so don't miss it!  Climb the sport spur and enjoy expansive views of the Presidentials including Mt. Washington.  

Water break on Isolation Trail

Part 4 - Descend and Find Camp

As we descended, we discussed our favorite places we had scoped to disperse camp.  We ended up deciding on a small plateau about 300 feet off the final river crossing of the Rocky Branch river on the Isolation Trail.  This spot was chosen due to it's proximity to a deep "swimming hole" next to a massive boulder.  My hiking companion, Kelsey, loves to swim when hiking and she was excited to chill out here.  We found an already impacted site and evidence of an old fire ring off trail and a flat spot just big enough for our tent.  We set up camp and did our cooking (using a backcountry stove) down by the river to keep food smells away from where we slept.  At night, we put all food, smelly toiletries like toothpaste, and trash in my Ursack Bear-proof bag and hung it down by the river away from our tent.  In the morning, we had breakfast, packed up and hiked out.

Dispersed campsite on Isolation Trail

Rules and Regulations

Disperse Camping

You do not need a permit to hike and camp in this region. Disperse camping is camping outside a designated campground or tentsite.  It is not allowed everywhere so make sure you know the rules and regulations of the area you are planning to camp.  The section of trail we camped (Isolation Trail) is in the Dry River Wilderness that is part of the White Mountain National Forest.  Rules for this area are:

  • Limit group size to 10 people
  • Camp at designated sites OR at least 200 feet away from trail, water source, or campground.
  • No mechanized equipment is allowed
You can learn more about these rules on the US Forest Service Website.

In addition, it's important to practice Leave No Trace including the proper disposal of human waste and removal of all toilet paper and trash.

Water was easily accessible from the river, but it is important to treat water since it can harbor pathogens and bacteria - even in the wilderness.  I used the Sawyer Squeeze as my main form of water treatment.  

Lastly, I recommend purchasing and carrying a New Hampshire Hike Safe Card.  For $25 a year, you are covered financially if you need to be rescued.
Swimming hole near camp * It was very cold*

Gear and Apparel

For a summer one night backpack in the White Mountains I brought the following:

For questions about gear, DM on my instagram and I'm happy to provide guidance!

Summit of Mt. Isolation

Final Recommendations/Things to Consider

  • This was a great one night backpack for someone who wants a quick escape.  Although I list this as a moderate climb, it is still a 4,000 footer in the White Mountains and challenging compared to flatland hiking.  Be prepared and turn around if you are above your ability level.
  • Always tell someone your plan.  For safety, carry the 10 essentials.  You will not have cell service for most of this hike although I did have 2 bars on the summit of Mt. Isolation.
  • To make this a sort of loop, hikers can ascend via the Glen Boulder Trail and descend on Rocky Branch.  This would mean either having two cars or having a couple mile road walk up NH-16 back to your car.
  • In order to reduce weight while summiting, you can set up your camp and then ascend with a "slack pack".  We originally planned to do this but then changed our minds in case we found a better campsite on the Davis Path.  Now we know that all the good camp spots are along the Isolation Trail near the brook.
  • Be aware of wildlife.  We startled a moose!

You might also like these adventures:

- One night on Mt Liberty
- Carter Notch One Nighter in Winter
- Mt Garfield One Night Backpack