An Oakes Gulf Loop Trip Plan: Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers Guidebook

Oakes Gulf Loop Backpacking Trip Plan

Oakes Gulf is a glacial cirque on the south side of Mt Washington, similar in size and scale to Tuckerman Ravine, but much harder to access because it’s so far from a paved road. Home to the avalanche-scarred Dry River, which isn’t dry at all, it’s located in the Presidential-Dry River Wilderness Area which is the wildest of the six designated wilderness areas in the White Mountain National Forest. This 2-3 day loop traces the perimeter of Oakes Gulf, climbing a 5492′ sub-peak of Mt Washington called Boott Spur, Mt Monroe, Mt Eisenhower, and Mt Isolation, before looping back to Pinkham Notch through another cirque called the Gulf of Slides. With nearly 7 miles of above-treeline hiking, this route is best hiked in good weather conditions to fully appreciate the grandeur of the surroundings.

Oakes Gulf Loop Trip Plan

Rating/Difficulty

*****/5 out of 5

Distance/Elevation Gain

21.2 miles w/8000′ of cumulative elevation gain

White Mountain 4000 Footers

  • Monroe
  • Eisenhower
  • Isolation

Recommended Duration

2-3 days

Season

July thru October

Permits Required

None.

Regulations

Backcountry Camping Regulations for the White Mountain National Forest.

Most of this route passes through the Presidential-Dry River Wilderness Area. Please observe all wilderness area restrictions.

New to the White Mountains? Read this Quick and Dirty Guide to Backpacking in the White Mountains for information about camping regulations, road access, trail shuttles, lodging, dangerous wildlife, weather, etc.

Trailhead Directions

Pinkham Notch Visitors Center

Trail Sequence

The route follows the following trails in sequence. Refer to the AMC White Mountain Trail Map 1 – Presidential Range (2017 ed), which is the best waterproof map available for this region, although I’d recommend buying the complete AMC White Mountain Waterproof Map Set (2017 ed) rather than one map at a time. More detailed trail descriptions can be found in the AMC White Mountain Guide (2017 ed), which is considered the hiking bible for the region. Take photos of the pages using your phone for easy reference, instead of carrying the entire book with you on hikes.

  • Tuckerman Ravine Trail – o.4 miles
  • Boott Spur Trail – 2.9 miles
  • Davis Path – 0.7 miles
  • Camel Trail – 0.7 miles
  • Crawford Path – 0.2 miles
  • Monroe Loop – 0.7 miles
  • Crawford Path – 1.2 miles
  • Mt Eisenhower Trail – 2.4 miles
  • Eisenhower Loop – 0.6 miles
  • Eisenhower Loop – 0.6 miles
  • Dry River Cutoff – 0.3
  • Dry River Trail – 0.3
  • Isolation Trail West – 2.4 miles
  • Davis Path – 1.2 miles
  • Davis Path – 2.8 miles
  • Glen Boulder Trail – 2.8 miles
  • Direttissima Trail – 1.0 miles

Scenic Highlights

The following list provides cumulate distances on the route to each view or landmark

  • Split Rock – 2.0 miles
  • Boot Spur Link Junction and stunning view into Tuckerman Ravine – 2.2 miles
  • Mt Boot Spur Summit – 3.3 miles
  • Lakes of the Clouds Alpine Tarns – 4.7 miles
  • AMC Lakes of the Clouds Hut – 4.8 miles
  • Mt Monroe Summit – 5.3 miles
  • Dry River River Crossing – 10.8 miles
  • Mt Isolation Summit – 14.7 miles
  • The Glen Boulder – 18.3 miles

Camping Shelter Options

  • AMC Lakes of the Clouds Hut ($$$)
  • Designated campsites along the Mt Eisenhower Trail, the Dry River Trail, and the Isolation Trail (East) indicated on the overview map provided above. While these are signed by the Forest Service, they are usually not listed on printed maps of the White Mountains so that the Forest Service can periodically relocate them to limit overuse.
    • Mt Eisenhower Trail – there are designated campsites along the river below the crossing
    • Dry River Trail – there is a designated campsite a short way north of the Isolation West Junction
    • Isolation Trail – there are designated campsites just east of the Davis Path trail junction
Look for this sign indicating a designated campsites
Look for this sign indicating a designated campsite

Water

Natural water sources are plentiful in the White Mountains although you may need to descend to them from ridgelines along side trails if you run short. In any case, carry a detailed topographic map with you and don’t rely on the overview map provided with this trip description to find water sources.

The Appalachian Mountain Clubs Huts are closed in 2020 due to CovId-19. Water is available outside however, by spigot, and some have restrooms available. Water is also reportedly available on Mt Washington. All Randolph Mountain Club Cabins and Tentsites are closed for 2020.

I also recommend purchasing the WMNF Presidential Range Map in Guthook Guide’s New England Hiker Smartphone App (IOS, Android) which is a GPS guide to all of the trails, trailheads, shelters, campsites, views, and water sources in the White Mountains National Forest. I use it all the time and it is much more complete and current than using the maps bundled with the Gaia Smartphone App.

Weather Cautions

This route is sensitive to seasonal and weather conditions which can make it hazardous. Much of the route is above treeline, so avoid hiking the route when there is a threat of thunderstorms or winds in excess of 45 mph. Historically, August is the best time to watch for good weather on or near Mt Washington because it has the most favorable wind speed, temperature, and precipitation averages of any calendar month (see Mt Washington Normal, Means, and Extremes).

There is also potentially difficult water crossing on the Dry River at the bottom of the Dry River Cutoff Trail which may become difficult to cross in high water. The best way to avoid high water levels is to check the weather and postpone your hike if heavy precipitation is forecast during or a few days before your hike. Be sure to check the Weather.gov and Mt Washington Observatory Higher Summits forecasts before your hike.

On the Trail

Leave the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and get on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, passing the Avalanche Forecast sign on your right. Continue for 0.4 miles, before turning onto the Boott Spur Trail.

The Tuckerman Ravine Trail leads to the Boot Spur Trail

The Boott Spur Trail is much smaller than the Tuckerman Ravine Trail with just enough room for one person to clamber up the rock scrambles. It’s a pretty climb through lush forest with several side trails to viewpoints. When backpacking above-treeline on a sunny day, it’s important to pack extra water because the trail is made of up rocks and boulders that heat up and radiate heat back at you. You might not feel yourself sweating, but you are getting dehydrated and it’s important to drink more water.

The trail climbs over several false summits and as you approach treeline and there are some viewpoints to your right which are worth checking out. The most notable is a straight shot view into Tuckerman Ravine at 4037′. It’s hard to appreciate the scale of this giant glacial cirque, even when you’re on Boott Spur, which forms Tuckerman’s southwestern headwall.

Tuckerman Ravine lies between Mt Washington and Boott Spur. Viewpoint at 4037′.

When you’re below the summit of Boott Spur, you are in its “lee”, which provides protection from the prevailing southeasterly wind. But once you summit the peak at 5492′, you might consider layering up. I frequently put on a wind shirt or rain jacket here if it’s cool. Don’t let the temperature down in Pinkham Notch fool you. Temperatures above treeline are always cooler.

Wide expanse of cairned trails on the Bigelow Lawn leading to Mt Washington.

The Davis Path

The Boott Spur Trail leads to the Davis Trail Junction and an area called the Bigelow Lawn, an expanse of alpine grassland that runs between the base of Mt Washington and Oakes Gulf. Mt Jefferson has a similar grassland area called the Monticello Lawn. The area to the left of the Davis Path is Oakes Gulf and the Dry River Valley, which you’ll descend into after climbing Mt Eisenhower.

Continue along the Davis Path for 0.1 miles, before following the Camel Trail which forks to the left.

The Camel Trail is named after a rock formation that looks like a kneeling camel.
The Camel Trail is named after a rock formation that looks like a kneeling camel.

The Camel Trail

The Camel Trail runs past the Lakes of the Clouds, two alpine tarns (ponds) that host an amazing variety of life in such a harsh landscape. Soon, the AMC Lakes of the Clouds Hut will come into view where passing hikers can stop to refill their water bottles or use the restroom. You don’t have to be an overnight guest or an AMC member to enter. It’s also a good place to check the weather forecast which is posted on the wall, the wind speed, and the hut barometer.

The Camel Trail leads to the AMC’s Lakes of the Clouds Hut below Mt Monroe

Crawford Path

When you exit the hut, turn right onto the Crawford Path for 0.2 miles until you reach the Monroe Loop Trail on your right. The Crawford Path continues around Mt Monroe, while the Monroe Loop climbs it and Mt Franklin, which is a subpeak of Monroe.

Monroe Loop

The Monroe Loop climbs steeply to the summit of Mt Monroe, where there is a fine view of Mt Washington. It’s only a 350′ climb from the hut and while it is steep, it’s really quite a short walk. From the summit, continue down the backside of Monroe, over Mt Franklin, and back down to rejoin the Crawford Path.

Mt Eisenhower
Mt Eisenhower

Crawford Path

Continue along the Crawford Path, which is the oldest continuously maintained hiking trail in the United States. This section of the trail coincides with the Appalachian Trail and is easy to follow. The trail continues for 1.2 miles, also above-treeline, until you come to the Mt Eisenhower Trail junction. Continue past this junction to the Eisenhower Loop Trail.

Eisenhower Loop

The Eisenhower Loop Trail leads to the large summit cairn on the top of Eisenhower. It’s 0.4 miles to the summit and you’ll do an out and back to bag this peak before backtracking to the Mt Eisenhower trail junction that you just passed.

While the summit is treeless, it’s important to stay near the cairn and within the screen walls that mark the trail to avoid trampling the fragile alpine vegetation on the rest of the peak. Eisenhower is covered with snow most of the year, so the tiny plants that grow on its summit have very little time to grow and reproduce. If you trample on them, they won’t have enough time to repair the damage and will die.

Scree-bordered path and summit cairn - Mt Eisenhower
Scree-bordered path and summit cairn – Mt Eisenhower

Mt Eisenhower Trail

Turn down (east) onto the Mt Eisenhower Trail passing a Presidential-Dry River Wilderness boundary sign. From here on, none of the trail signs in the Dry River Valley area will have mileages marked on them. This is done in order to heighten the wilderness experience. The top of the Mt Eisenhower Trail descends through scrub before gradually descending through forest to the Dry River Cuttoff Trail. It isn’t a heavily used trail but it very well maintained and easy to follow.

The Mt Eisenhower Trail passes the Dry River Cutoff Trail junction and continues for 0.3 miles to the river’s edge. There are a few campsites along the south side of the river here. Just look for the herd path leading to them. This is the first spot you can camp on this route and you’ll probably want to plan your hike so you reach it before sundown. There is also a designated campsite on the other side of the river, just north of the Isolation West Trail junction.

Dry River Crossing
Dry River Crossing

There are two ways you can do the Dry River crossing. You can choose to rock hop across if you don’t mind hopping over big rocks or you can wade the river. I’d recommend that latter and to find a shallower place to cross below the cairned crossing. That’s always been my preference. It will still be a high-calf ford, but I think it’s a lot lower consequence than falling off a big wet rock in the middle of a wilderness area. This crossing is also fairly high up on the river, where the flow is lower because the catchment area isn’t as large as it is downstream. You still want to avoid crossing the Dry River for a day or so after or during a heavy rainfall, which is another reason why I advocate doing this trip during a sunny dry spell rather than a wet one. Once across, you’ll hike to the Dry River Trail junction.

Dry River Trail

Turn right (south) onto the Dry River Trail and processed for 0.3 miles to the Isolation West Trail junction. There is a designated campsite on your right, down a short side trail that is easy to miss. The sign for it is at ankle height. The water source is a small stream just past the spur trail on your left.

Camping along the Dry River Trail
Camping at a designated campsite along the Dry River Trail.

Isolation West Trail

The Isolation Trail is definitely the wildest trail on this route. It links the Dry River Valley to the Montablin Ridge and can be a little tricky to follow in one or two spots where small avalanches have obscured the trail or uprooted trees. This trail was closed for several years after Hurricane Irene knocked down so many trees, that the trail became impassable. But the trail crews have been through to clear the blowdowns (using saws and axes only because it’s in a wilderness area) and the trail has an active volunteer trail maintainer.

I suggest topping your water along this trail before the final leg of the route. While there is water down the Isolation East Trail (requires a detour), there are few water sources between this point and well down the Glen Boulder Trail.

The Isolation West Trail is the wildest trail on the route
The Isolation West Trail is the wildest trail on the route

Davis Path

Just before you reach the Isolation/Davis Trail junction you’ll pass through an area with many downed trees, probably caused by a microburst. The trail can be tricky to follow here, so use care. When you reach the Davis Path junction turn left (south) and follow the trail for 1.2 miles to the Mt Isolation spur, which climbs a short distance to an open summit.

The Mt Isolation summit cairn.
The Mt Isolation summit cairn.

The summit of Mt Isolation is open rock ledge with wide-ranging views. The biggest mountain on the horizon is the rocky cone of Mt Washington and below it, the yawning chasm of Oakes Gulf. Mt Monroe is visible to Washington’s immediate left. Boott Spur is to its right. You’ll pass by North Isolation, a trailless summit, on the next leg of the hike below the Glen Boulder trail junction.

North Isolation, Monroe, Washington, and Boot Spur
North Isolation, Monroe, Washington, and Boot Spur

From Mt Isolation, head north, backtracking to the Isolation West Trail junction for 1.2 miles. Keep going straight for another 1.6 miles breaking above treeline again, to the Glen Boulder Trail junction.

Glen Boulder Trail

The Glen Boulder Trail runs down the south side of another glacial cirque called the Gulf of Slides which is popular with backcountry skiers in the winter. If you’re running low on water, there is a signed spring 0.8 miles from the Davis Trail junction where you can top of your tank.

The Glen Boulder
The Glen Boulder

The Glen Boulder is so-named for a large and picturesque boulder that overlooks Pinkham Notch. Time permitting, this is good spot to hang out, rest, rehydrate, and take in the view. The descent below the boulder is a steep and challenging, so go slow and watch your footing.

Direttissima Trail

Turn left onto the Direttissima Trail which runs for a 1.0 mile to the Pinkham Notch parking lot. It’s a pleasant and forested hike which avoids a one-mile road walk along Rt 16. A Direttissima in the White Mountains is a continuous hike over all 48 of the White Mountain 4000 footers. It’s a tough journey, but several hikers have completed it in recent years.

About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 7500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 2500 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its detailed gear reviews and educational content. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip is the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He also volunteers as a 4 season backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a Long Trail Mentor for Vermont’s Green Mountain Club, and a Leave No Trace Master Educator. He lives in New Hampshire.

Safety Disclaimer

This trip plan can not alert you to every hazard, anticipate your experience, or limitations. Therefore, the descriptions of roads, trails, routes, shelters, tent sites, and natural features in this trip plan are not representations that a particular place or excursion will be safe for you or members of your party. When you follow any of the routes described on SectionHiker.com, you assume responsibility for your own safety. Under normal conditions, such excursions require the usual attention to traffic, road and trail conditions, weather, terrain, the capabilities of your party, and other factors. Always check for current conditions, obey posted signs, and Backcountry Camping and Wilderness Area Regulations. Hike Safe and follow the Hiker responsibility code.

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