Full Dry River Trail + 1/3 Presidential Traverse + Mt. Clinton Trail | 6/14/22
Updated: Nov 6, 2022
From the moment I started marking up my map of the White Mountains, there had been a handful of trails whose length and ruggedness frightened me. While I had covered long distances before, like the Carter Traverse, Bonds, and Owl’s Head, the Dry River trail was different for a lot of reasons. It doesn’t automatically hit a four-thousand-footer, it’s difficult to make a day loop out of, it was sure to be rowdy, and I knew it wouldn’t be easy to find a partner for something so unusual.
Enter Ryan DeLena. A couple of months ago, on our first date, Ryan and I pulled out our highlighted White Mountain maps at Sushi Yoshi and compared what we’d completed so far. He had a lot in Wild River, and I had a lot in the Pemigewasset, but neither of us had much in the Dry River Wilderness. Shortly thereafter, we began scheming a Dry River Loop.
On June 14th, 2022, I got to do the biggest single-day trek of my life so far. But for the first time in a while, I wasn’t going in feeling fresh. I’d done a mighty Chocorua loop two days earlier and a blister-gifting loop on Speckled Mountain the day before. I was already at 20 miles and 5,000 feet of gain in the two days prior and this loop alone required roughly those same numbers. Nonetheless, I wanted this day for us so I did everything in my power to prepare. Heavy hydration, good fuel, Aquaphor-prepped feet, and turmeric to bust inflammation.
After a sort of late start, Ryan and I began on the Dry River Trail from 302 all shiny-eyed and smiley. The trail was extremely pleasant and nontechnical until the junction with Mount Clinton Trail. From there, we began to understand why this trail was closed for so many years after Hurricane Irene. In many of the spots where the trail runs (elevated) by the river, there were rock slides, erosion beyond belief, and sections of dirt that looked like a handful more steps would wash them out. I would estimate there were around 6 tricky sections like this. They weren’t difficult, but they did require a lot of caution.
To distract ourselves along the way, we entertained ourselves with a four-mile conversation that I would recommend to any forty-eight hiker. I’d commented how I tended to find a way I was scared I’d die on every 4K and Ryan was in disbelief. So, we went through every way you could die on a four-thousand-footer but did so as creatively as possible. Like an STD epidemic on North Hancock (for the obvious joke) or trying to baby bird a Gray Jay on Field & Tom (gone wrong).
Soon, we entered my favorite section of trail- the 3-mile section that the Mill Brook Trailhead is in the center of. In addition to the smooth footing and beauty of the lightly traveled wilderness, we also got to drop down to the magnificent Dry River Falls. I was blown away by the shape and tranquility of the falls, I’ve seen a lot of them lately, but none quite like this.
After we got out of the wonderland, we splashed through the stream-trail crossover that surrounds Dry River Shelter #3 before taking a snack break here. I looked down at my watch, it was 12:25 and we’d only gone 6.6 miles. It’s not like our pace had been bad, but I started to realize we should’ve had an earlier start. From here, we made a conscious effort to snack on the go and only stop at the huts.
The trail continued to be pretty rough, wet, and full of blowdowns but I was enjoying the trek a lot more than I did the last time I was in Dry River exploring Mt. Eisenhower Trail & Dry River Cut-Off. Still, the trail felt like a carwash as we got whacked with branches and blowdowns along the way. Once we got views of the ridge & Oakes Gulf I was even more stunned by the beauty of the Presidentials, for I’d never seen it from this perspective.
None of the inclines were too strenuous and there were a handful of sections that required care and attention but nothing that had me feared for life by any means. Once we got above the treeline, it was starting to register how much we’d covered. As Ryan had promised, the view from the top of the Gulf would be the most important- as we would be able to see the entire valley we’d just walked nine miles over in full. He couldn’t have been more right.
Along the way, Ryan was sure to point out a variety of ski lines he’d done in the area and left me even more baffled by his skill and high-volume coverage of the Whites. A multi-sport understanding of the range made for a pretty epic hiking partner.
After we got over the ridge, we made a quick journey to the Lake of the Clouds hut where we reorganized and bummed a carrot off of a cool group of hikers we met there. The next section of the trail was my favorite, despite the massive gusts of winds. We quickly covered Monroe, Little Monroe, Franklin, Eisenhower, and Pierce before rolling into Mitzpah around five. After another quick reorganization, we started towards the trailhead but were stopped by the Hut Croo.
The (super cool) Croo member looked at us, astonished, and asked if we were “heading for the dry.” Ryan smiled and said, “Yeah, of course.” She said it was disgusting and Ryan countered her in disagreement to say how awesome it was, to which she jokingly responded “You disgust me.” With her good wishes, all jokes aside, we headed on and left our last signs of civilization for the evening.
Having recently hiked the area that Mt. Clinton Trail covers, I didn’t have high hopes that morning. But, with how pleasant a lot of Dry River Trail was, I was hoping it was more walkable than the Cut-Off or Mt. Eisenhower Trail. These hopes were wrong. Mt. Clinton Trail is just as disastrous as Steve Smith accounts for it in the White Mountain Guide. It is lightly traveled, littered with blowdowns, and met with crossing after crossing… all with little payout. I was growing nervous as night was falling. My face was hot with my body cold, my breathing was shallow, and somewhere along the trail, I experienced the brain-body disconnect.
I can’t recall exactly where it happened, but at some point, it felt like my brain stopped telling my legs to move. They were going but I only knew that because I was watching them move beneath me. Suddenly, I couldn’t feel the pain of the blister eating my right heel or the 8-hour wet sock bunching up underneath the ball of my left foot. Thankfully, we crossed the infamous Dry River crossing that takes you from Mt. Clinton Trail back to Dry River Trail in daylight. Now, our dark hours would occur on the trail we had already covered.
After a brief refuel, we threw on the headlamps and waited for darkness. Though Ryan’s AllTrails had said we had a mile and a half left, my Gaia said we had another two-point three, but my memory of the laminated paper sign on 302 said we had another three miles to go. Those last three miles could have been so miserable if we had chosen to make them miserable.
After we crossed the river, I asked Ryan to tell me a story. He delivered and told me a mile-long story in his beautiful storytelling fashion. One of the cool things about Ryan is that he’ll tell a story about being a dumb high school junior just as vividly as he tells a story about traveling to Antarctica. Certainly, the person you want to have with you when you stay out later than expected for comfort and conversation's sake.
Eventually, as the trail retreated to the chill miles we only experienced for the first point-nine or so, I told Ryan stories instead since he had given me so much comfort through his on the sections I was too hyper-focused on my steps to retrieve memories. In these sections, I recalled deep childhood stories as my brain worked completely oblivious to the stride of my legs, which slightly mirrored that of a dog in shoes since I was walking so as to not impact my blisters.
In that final moment, when my headlamp met the reflectors on Ryan’s Wrangler, I felt the biggest wave of relief. We fist-bumped pretty good, thanked the Dry River Wilderness for keeping us safe and entertained, and then got in the car where I had him take a picture of my bleeding leg from when I got a birch tree stuck on it.
It was nearly ten in the evening when we finished that night. We were exhausted but felt accomplished and I was so thankful to have had such a positive experience through what wasn’t always ideal conditions.
As we drove down 302 back towards North Conway, I thought back to that night at Sushi Yoshi again. This time not because of our maps, but of the fortune cookie I cracked open that said, “happiness is activity.”
I guess that was pretty telling of our next dozens of hiking dates and us as a whole, but towards this hike especially.
Final Stats: 20.77 Miles | 4,995 Gain | 6 Big Frogs