The Rocky Branch Ramble Trip Plan: Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers Guidebook

Mt Isolation Rocky Branch Ramble

Mt Isolation is a remote 4000-footer located in the Presidential Range-Dry River Wilderness south of Mt Washington, with outstanding views of Washington, the Southern Presidential Range, the Oakes Gulf Headwall, and the Dry River Valley. Moderate in both length and difficulty, this is a good trip to cut your teeth on backpacking in the White Mountains with free pre-established US Forest Service campsites, easy access to water, and numerous opportunities to swim in the Rocky Branch River. There are five stream crossings along this route but they’re usually easy rock hops in summer, so you can keep your shoes dry.

While the distance of this route may appear short, you shouldn’t underestimate the challenge of hiking the rocky trails leading out to Mt Isolation. While experienced White Mountain hikers do hike the entire round trip distance in one day, it is a very long and strenuous day, that would be better broken up with at least one overnight to relax and enjoy some excellent stargazing.

Mt Isolation Out and Back

Rating/Difficulty

*****/3 out of 5

Distance/Elevation Gain

14.6 miles w/3350′ of cumulative elevation gain

White Mountain 4000 Footers

Recommended Duration

1-2 nights

Season

June thru October

Permits Required

None.

Regulations

Backcountry Camping Regulations for the White Mountain National Forest.

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

Trailhead Directions

The northern Rocky Branch Trail Trailhead (not to be confused with the southern trailhead at the end of Jericho Rd) is a parking lot with space for about 25 cars on the west side of Rt 16, about 5.5 miles north of Jackson NH, just past the highway bridge over the Ellis River. This is a no-fee lot.

Maps

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.

I also recommend purchasing a GPS Phone App such as Far Out’s White Mountain National Forest Guide, which lists most of the trails, trailheads, shelters, campsites, views, and water sources in the White Mountains National Forest. GaiaGPS is another GPS Phone App, which is stronger in terms of topographic map coverage for the White Mountains but does not have as much information about trailheads, shelters, campsites, views, and water sources. I use both frequently.

Trail Sequence

The route follows the following trails in sequence.

  • Rocky Branch Trail (West) – 3.7 miles
  • Isolation Trail (North) – 2.6 miles
  • Davis Path (South) – 0.9
  • Davis Path (North) – 0.9
  • Isolation Trail (South) – 2.6 miles
  • Rocky Branch Trail (East) – 3.7 miles

Scenic Highlights

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

  • Rocky Branch River  – 3.7 miles
  • Mt Isolation – 7.2 miles

Camping Shelter Options

There are three designated USFS tent sites along the route, as marked on the attached map above. All are free. None of them have bear boxes, so you should be prepared to hang a bear bag, use an Ursack, or carry a bear canister to store your food and smellables at night.

There are also numerous pre-existing campsites along this route if the designated camping areas are full. Try to camp out of sight of the trail and be sure to leave no trace. This entire area is ideal for hammock camping as an alternative to carrying a tent.

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 taking reservation in 2022. Contact the AMC for reservations and information at outdoors.org. (Note: You don’t have to stay in their facilities when hiking in the White Mountains.) All Randolph Mountain Club Cabins have reopened for 2022 on a first-come-first-serve basis.

Weather Cautions

This route is sensitive to seasonal and weather conditions which can make it hazardous. There are five water crossings of the Rocky Branch River on this route 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

The trail leaves the north end of the parking lot.
The trail leaves the north end of the parking lot.

After parking at the trailhead, begin hiking up the Rocky Branch Trail, which leaves from the north end of the lot, passing the trailhead kiosk. This trail climbs 1950 feet of elevation in the next 2.8 miles, which is pretty tame by White Mountain standards but can be challenging if you have a heavy pack. It is the only significant climb on this route, as the rest of the route is quite gradual.

There are two cross-country ski trails, blazed with blue diamonds that intersect the trail at 0.5 miles (on the left) and 0.7 miles (on the right) from the trailhead. Pass by them both and continue straight up the Rocky Branch Trail through a lush open forest.

Pass the Wilderness Area Boundary at mile 2.3.
Pass the Wilderness Area Boundary at mile 2.3.

At mile 2.3, you’ll pass a sign marking the Presidential Range-Dry River Wilderness boundary, finally reaching the top of the initial climb at mile 2.8. The trail continues on a level grade through a muddy area, before descending gradually to the Rocky Branch River at mile 3.7. The lower section of this descent is often wet and some rock hopping may be required to avoid water flowing between the rocks underfoot. It’s called the Rocky Branch Trail for a reason!

The first stream crossing.
The first stream crossing.

There is a short path on trail-left leading to a tent site just before the first stream crossing, which is marked as the Rocky Branch Shelter #2 on old maps. The shelter has been removed. Cross the stream and climb up the far bank (the stream is only about 30 feet wide) and look for the sign below, turning right to follow the Isolation trail.

Turn right onto the Isolation Trail
Turn right onto the Isolation Trail

The trail follows an old logging road, coming to a second stream crossing in 0.4 miles which is much easier than the previous one. Cross the stream and turn left on the other bank. The trail runs alongside the Rocky River which narrows to a tiny stream, proving plenty of opportunities for a quick soak, as you continue north.

USFS Campsite Sign
USFS Campsite Sign

When the trail begins heading northwest, you’ll pass by two designated campsites. The first of these has easy access to water, while the second is northwest of a reliable stream that crosses the trail. There are also numerous pre-existing (bootleg) campsites along this stretch, although the two designated sites are much nicer, drier, and worth camping at if there’s space.

The stream crossings are quite shallow, but you can usually step from one rock to the next to keep your shoes dry.
The stream crossings are quite shallow, but you can usually step from one rock to the next to keep your shoes dry.

The trail becomes increasingly wet and rocky as it continues north, traveling through a stand of fallen timber through which a path has been cut. This entire area has experienced significant damage from multiple hurricanes and microbursts in the past decade, making the route all that more interesting to hike through.

Turn left and follow the Davis Path to the Mt isolation summit spur trail in 0.9 miles.
Turn left and follow the Davis Path to the Mt isolation summit spur trail in 0.9 miles.

When you reach the Davis Path junction turn left (south) and follow the trail 0.9 miles to the Mt Isolation spur trail, which is clearly signed and climbs a short distance to the open summit.

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

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, is the yawning chasm of Oakes Gulf, a deep glacial valley at the head of the Dry River. Mt Monroe is visible to Washington’s immediate left. Boott Spur is to its right, a 5000+ foot subsidiary summit of Washington, located atop the southern wall of Tuckerman Ravine. North Isolation, is just a short distance away, also off the Davis Path. Camping on open summits or above treeline is not permitted in the White Mountain National Forest in order to preserve the fragile alpine vegetation that lives in these alpine areas.

To return the way you came, descend the spur path that climbs to the Isolation and turn left when you reach the Davis Path, retracing your route back along the Isolation Trail and the Rocky Branch Trail to the trailhead on Rt 16.

About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 8500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 2500 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. 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 lives in New Hampshire. Click here to subscribe to the SectionHiker newsletter.

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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