Dry River Trail – From Crawford Notch to Lake of the Clouds
When we hike we discuss places we would like to go and during one outing this summer Becca suggested that we should check out the Dry River Trail. We agreed it would be interesting to see the changes in the trail. The Dry River Trail was closed in August of 2011 because it was severely ravaged by Tropical Storm Irene. Sections of the trail were washed away by the swollen river and the suspension bridge was damaged. The trail was closed for three years and was re-opened just a year ago.
At the bottom of Crawford Notch the trailhead looks the same, but a new sign warns hikers to expect rough primitive trails that may require navigation skills. The 9.6 mile trail is remote and is almost entirely located in the Presidential Range-Dry River Wilderness. The absence of blazes and rock cairns and limited trail maintenance is to be expected in a government designated wilderness area.
Becca and I spotted my car at the hiker parking area at the Cog Railway (no one collected the hiker-parking fee that day). Becca drove us to meet Bryan at the trailhead at the bottom of Crawford Notch on NH Route 302. We picked a perfect sunny warm day!
The three of us headed up the trail, an old woods road and then an old railroad bed up along the river. There are ups and downs over some high river bluffs when the trail leaves the eroded railroad grade and our reward was a nice view all the way up the valley to Mount Washington. We crossed some stabilized land slides and this is certainly one of those places that are tricky and it would be scary if one of those trees tilting above decided to flip down upon us.
We smelled wood smoke from a campfire and saw a man below by the river standing next to the source of the smell. To put the fire out he had just poured water on it and he produced a large steaming gray plume of smoke.
About a couple miles along the trail we crossed the Dry River on the repaired suspension bridge. Thankfully, the powers that be realize that some bridges do belong on trails in the wilderness areas.
We hiked along and we were continually awe struck by the power of water. The wide river’s great water eroded the bank and created landslides and left behind steep banks. There is a trail sign pointing across the river for the Clinton Trail at a point where the bank is not steep. The water in the river was low, very low; we have had a dry summer. Crossing the river is not much of a challenge on this day but finding where the Clinton Trail leaves the river bed on the other side still would be tough. We spied a few small rock cairns left behind by other hikers that led up stream and then we spied some orange flagging marking the trail. If the water was running at regular level this would be a difficult crossing and in high water an impossible task.
The trail was primitive as promised. Where the trail once followed the bank of the river it abruptly stopped many times where the water had scooped the earth away. The new sections of trail turned and traveled high away from the river. In these places it reminded us of the rough herd paths that naturally form to go around an obstacle not offering good footing or an easy to follow route.
The major stream crossings trickled water and a few were dry and luckily for us no wet feet. Interestingly enough, here in the wilderness the trail re-routers built small pyramid shaped rock cairns to mark each side of the stream beds. There are also little triangle tent signs pointing to designated camping areas.
The further we hiked, the river slowly narrowed. The Eisenhower trail crosses the river on our left and climbs all the way up to the Crawford Path below Eisenhower’s summit. We continued on and we looked for a spur path to the Dry River Falls, if it still exists we didn’t find it and with all the blow downs we didn’t bushwhack.
When we reached the Dry River Shelter #3 we ate lunch and poked around the area. The natural log shelter has a metal roof that is in remarkably good condition. We could see that the flood waters went around its location and spared the shelter an early destruction date. Shelters #1 and #2 were removed when they were deemed unsafe. Here its roof cap should be replaced and some of the pieces of roofing should be re-nailed but the timbers seem free from rot. The AMC White Mountain Guide Book warns that whenever major maintenance is required that Shelter #3 will be removed. Well, if they don’t repair the roof it is going to be destroyed much sooner than later.
A number of herd paths to the river and a large dead spruce tree lying lengthwise obscured the trail above the shelter. Saw cut marks from old blow down removal are the best thing to follow since there are no painted blazes.
When the trail starts to rise into Oakes Gulf, the trail crosses through a tangle of blow downs in a fir wave that provides a wide open view of the steep walls around us and of Mount Washington’s summit cone. The trail crew certainly had to work hard to cut through this mess.
Our eyes were filled with beauty all day. Our ears filled with only the sounds of water running between the rocks in the river bed, a few bird songs and now and then a squirrel rustling the leaves along the trail. No moose poop on the trail but there were a good number of moose tracks in the muddy spots along the way. Andm except for the man we saw early onm we didn’t see another soul until we reached the top of Oakes Gulf.
The climb up the headwall of Oakes Gulf was fun and above treeline we could see what felt like forever down into the valley and to all the mountains very far into southern New Hampshire.
As we descended to the Lake of the Clouds we could see dozens of people up on top of Mount Monroe and dozens more on the other trails that connect here. The hut was boarded up for the winter and dozens more people were sitting around it enjoying the sunshine.
Bryan, Becca and I didn’t linger at the lake or the hut and we continued straight up to Monroe’s summit. We made our way through other hikers gathered on the top and we marched over its high point before settling to find our own little piece of paradise.
We too enjoyed the sunshine and the mountaintop panorama. We took the long way to get there but that was the point of the day.
Down the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail we descended along the headwaters of the Ammonoosuc River. The trail is steep and rough but since it goes directly to the Lake of the Clouds and it is part of one of the shorter routes to the summit of Mount Washington and Mount Monroe it is heavily used.
We passed a lot of people going down and even a few on their way up in the late afternoon. The ledges from the hut to the pretty Gem Pool were just as steep and tricky as ever. Bryan commented on the difference between the Ammo and the Dry River Trails’ tread way over the rock and ledges—the Ammo was worn and slick and the infrequently used Dry River Trail on the other side was rough and grippy.
When we reached the Cog Station we watched passengers load. No more black coal smoke blows from its stack; its bio-diesel powered now.
We picked a pretty day to go to the mountains. Have fun.
Amy Patenaude is an avid skier/outdoor enthusiast from Henniker, N.H. Readers are welcome to send comments or suggestions to her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.