On our 2016 summer tour of upstate New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire, one of my goals was to hike the Franconia Ridge Loop in the White Mountains. It was a little too strenuous and ambitious for Linda, so I went solo. The weather wasn't ideal for photos and I wasn't carrying my usual DSLR camera, opting instead for a lighter-weight point-and-shoot, but it was an amazing, challenging hike, and I hope to do it again someday as part of a longer multi-day trek.
This morning, I headed out around 7:00 a.m. for a classic White Mountains day-hike - the 8.9-mile Franconia Ridge Loop. It's not an official loop hike, but rather a common hike done by combining a few trails and ending up at the same starting point. And it's one of the few hikes that I would be doing solo.
It was still a little overcast, and I wanted to let the skies clear a bit, so I stopped at Munroe's Family Restaurant just down the street from the Twin Mountain Motor Court & RV Park. A big breakfast was the ticket for today's hike classified as "strenuous".
Moving on to Franconia Notch, some of the exits are a little strange. For example, the trailhead for today is located at LaFayette Place off of the Franconia Notch Parkway (aka I-93). Going southbound there is an exit and parking lot and going northbound there is an exit and parking lot for the trailhead, but the two parking areas are not connected by a road. You can access either side by a walkway under the interstate.
I wanted to be able to get back on the parkway heading north toward Twin Mountain when I finished, so I passed the southbound parking lot and drove until I could exit and turn around and get back on going north. It will just save me time at the end of the day when I'll be tired (and it saves about a tenth of a mile each way getting to and from the trailhead which is located on the right or east of the northbound parking lot).
I got started around 8:30 a.m. The hike begins on the Old Bridle Path Trail, .....
and then (after 2 tenths of a mile) most people doing the loop take the Falling Waters Trail 3 miles up to the ridge line where it joins the Franconia Ridge Trail. Then it is a 1.7-mile hike from Little Haystack Mountain up and over Mount Lincoln and then up to the summit of Mount Lafayette. That part of the hike coincides with a section of the Appalachian Trail. At the summit of LaFayette, it's a 1.1-mile descent on the Greanleaf Trail to the Greanleaf Hut where you then pick up the Old Bridle Path Trail for the remaining 2.9 miles back down to the parking lot.
The loop can certainly be done in the opposite direction, but the Falling Waters Trail is steeper and wetter and most prefer to do it on the ascent rather than the descent.
After two tenths of a mile, the Old Bridle Path goes left while the Falling Waters Trail heads off to the right over a bridge ....
across a pretty stream.
That begins a 3-mile, 3,000-foot climb that is fairly gentle for the first 1.3 miles. Crystal clear mountain streams with cascades highlighted the first part of the journey.
There were several stream crossings requiring some careful steps across the rocks.
With all the water features, the trail was certainly named well.
The trail got increasingly rockier ....
as it led to the base of Cloudland Falls (80 feet) at 1.3 miles in.
It's a steeper climb up along Cloudland Falls, and there are two waterfalls from different streams facing each other at the top
The blue-blazed trail crossed the stream in front of more waterfalls.
and then soon crossed back again.
Then there was some rock scrambling ....
and then another crossing.
The fairly moderate hike up to Cloudland Falls and back would be a nice day-hike in itself, or you could go another third of a mile on rougher terrain and see more falls before making the trip back down for a great three-mile roundtrip.
At about a mile and a half in, the trail goes up above a stream to the right and then makes a sharp turn to the left and gets much steeper. Some hikers that had done the loop before said that the last mile to the top of the ridge is the hardest part of the whole hike.
For the next mile, there were no more water features and the trail basically looked like this.
I could just cut and paste that photo over and over making it go right sometimes and left sometimes, and that would pretty much be the trail for that next mile.
I caught up to the threesome that had passed me. They were taking a little rest, and I said "Are you guys waiting to see if this old guy was okay?" They laughed and said "Yeah, that's it. We were concerned about you. We weren't taking a break or having a mild coronary or anything like that."
That part of the trail was a trudge and there wasn't really anything to distract from the difficulty. Fortunately, I was only carrying about 15 pounds - a couple of liters of water, some food, and layers of clothing for the ridge line and mountain summits. Eventually, at 2.8 miles in, I came to the Shining Rock Spur.
It was a tenth of a mile to the right to Shining Rock. What the heck, I wasn't dying yet, so I took the steep downhill spur trail. Shining Rock is a big, exposed rock with water running down the face. When the sun shines on it, it looks like a mirror from a distance.
I was too close to the rock to get a good look at it although the view beyond was nice. Still, it wasn't worth the hike down and back up again, even if it was only an extra two tenths of a mile add-on to the loop.
Back up at the intersection, the trail got rockier and even steeper. This photo is basically what it was like the last four tenths of a mile to the tree line.
After one last scramble up some rocks, I finally came to a spot where there was a view.
That's Cannon Mountain to the west across the parkway.
The noise from the parkway is drowned out by the water features on the first half of the Falling Waters Trail, and then it is blocked by the forest on the last half. In less than ideal weather, the Falling Waters Trail is great for an ascent because it is sheltered all the way to the tree line and alpine zone.
There was a little bit of rain and it was much windier and colder up there, so I took the opportunity to put on my rain jacket.
It was a very short walk from there out on the exposed rocks ....
to the summit of Little Haystack (4,765 feet).
Looking south, .....
and north to Mount Lincoln.
Once we decided to visit New Hampshire this summer, my research led me to information and photos of this ridge. I had been hoping to hike it for the last few months.
I didn't have the bright sunshine I had hoped for, but at least the visibility was good along the ridge. This part of the loop is also part of the Appalachian Trail. The photo below shows a white blaze on the rocks as I started out onto the ridge.
It doesn't look like much in the photos, but there is a 300-foot elevation gain to the summit of Mount Lincoln ....
and a fairly significant hump along the way.
Looking back along the ridge line to Little Haystack from the hump.
And this shot is looking forward to the remaining climb up Mount Lincoln.
Approaching the final ascent.
Once on the ridge, the number of hikers increased significantly. It's a very popular route for folks willing to make the steep climb from the various trailheads.
Though there was still some steepness and rock scrambling, it just didn't seem bad at all due to the visual stimulation everywhere I looked.
View from the summit of Mount Lincoln (5,089 feet) back to Little Haystack (seven tenths of a mile in between).
On top of Mount Lincoln, I took a little video. It has commentary, but most of it is drowned out by the wind.
Looking down the ridge to the north toward Mount Lafayette.
The summit of Lafayette was shrouded in clouds the whole day. Clouds were moving and the wind was blowing, so it looked like it might clear, but it never did. After a break behind some rocks on top of Lincoln, I continued on north along the Franconia Ridge Trail. It's another mile to the summit of Lafayette.
The trail descends quite a bit from Lincoln ....
before leveling off a little (still looking behind).
And then it takes another dip down into the trees ....
before going back up. Looking back again, some folks were much more comfortable on ledges than I am.
On the final push, going up through the trees, the Lafayette summit was finally in view.
And I could see the Greenleaf Hut to my left (west) a mile down from Lafayette.
Looking back once again toward Lincoln.
Watching others making the final climb up to Lafayette.
There is no sign at any of the three peaks telling what mountain you are on or the elevation, so there aren't any good photo ops with the signs. Since the directional sign for trails was about all I could see on the top of Lafayette, I took a picture of those.
Mount Lafayette is 5,260 feet and is the tallest mountain in the White Mountains outside the Presidential Range. Since there wasn't much visibility on Lafayette and it was quite crowded, I didn't stay there long. I headed down the Greenleaf Trail next to the large cairns which are spaced pretty close together for when visibility is even worse.
I loved hiking the ridge, and it's certainly easy to see why it is so popular. In the future, when we come back to the area and give ourselves more time, I hope to hike the 30-mile Pemi Loop (again a combination of several trails) which includes more of the Franconia Ridge plus similar outstanding (and less crowded views) along other parts of the loop.
Going down, it didn't take long to get below the clouds and see the steep, rocky descent down to the Greenleaf Hut with (Cannon Mountain behind) and Franconia Notch.
I went quite slow on the descent watching my footing while taking in the views.
It certainly seems like a long 1.1 miles down to the Greenleaf Hut due to the slow going and the fact that the hut is in view most of the way.
There were more people on that section of trail (between the Lafayette summit and the Greenleaf Hut) than anywhere else today.
I reached the hut and several hikers were there taking a break.
View from the hut looking out over a pond below Lafayette and up to the ridge I was just on.
A little about these "huts". The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) operates eight huts in the White Mountains. These huts are in very scenic locations and offer hikers a bunk, hot meals, drinking water, and toilets. The huts are nicer than what you might think of as a "hut", but they are way more expensive than what you think you might get for the per person nightly rate to sleep in a bunk bed next to strangers ($100-plus depending on the day of the week, which hut you choose, and whether you are an AMC member). During the "full service season" (June to mid-Sept or mid-Oct depending on the hut) the rate includes a bunk ....
plus a home-cooked dinner and breakfast.
As a day-hiker, you can take a break at the huts, purchase drinks, snacks, and other items and take on drinking water.
The AMC huts appear to be much nicer than other "lodges" and backcountry places we've stayed at in a few of the National Parks for similar and higher prices.
Thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail may be able to stay for free under their "work-for-stay" program. Each hut will allow a few hikers per day to perform some menial tasks around the hut in exchange for sleeping on the floor and eating leftovers after all the paid guests have been served their dinners and breakfasts at the designated times.
At Greenleaf, I filled up my water bottles, had a snack, and headed on down the Old Bridle Path Trail at 2:00 p.m.
One last photo of the Greenleaf Hut.
It was a 1,000-foot descent to the Greenleaf Hut from the Lafayette summit, and now I had about three miles and another 2,500 feet down to go.
For the first mile and half, the Old Bridle Path Trail was steep and rocky, and I'm not so sure it was a better option going down than the Falling Waters Trail.
And there were a couple of places where the brown rocks had been worn down and were extremely slick. My personal opinion was that they were more dangerous than any place on the Falling Waters Trail.
But for the most part, my boots gripped well on the rocks and perhaps it wasn't as steep for as long as the other descent option. One thing is for sure and that is the views from the upper part of the Old Bridle Path were much better than the views from the upper part of the Falling Waters Trail. I believe that may be Shining Rock on the upper right of the photo below.
There were several spots to take a break and enjoy the scenery.
It was hard to believe I had just been up on that ridge a couple hours ago.
After the last viewpoint, the trail headed into the trees and the terrain changed a bit although it was still quite rocky.
Nearer the bottom, there was more foot-and-ankle-friendly dirt and less rocks.
I finally reached the brook where the Falling Waters Trail splits off in the other direction.
Soon, the hike was complete and I was back at the Jeep for the ride home. It was about 4:15, so the total hike including breaks and lots of photos was a little under eight hours. The White Mountain Guide: AMC's Comprehensive Guide To Hiking Trails In The White Mountain National Forest (Appalachian Mountain Club White Mountain Guide) estimates 6 hours, 25 minutes for this loop, and most other sources I checked showed six to eight hours.
The Franconia Ridge Loop is certainly a fantastic hike if you have the capability. In peak season during the summer, you will see lots of people on the ridge and around Mount Lafayette, but it's worth it.
The first half of the Falling Waters Trail is beautiful while the second half is sheltered with few people on it. The Old Bridle Path Trail has much better views from half way, but you can hear traffic noise almost the whole length of the trail. I'm glad I did the loop in the recommended direction, but don't get lulled into thinking the descent on Old Bridle Path is "easy" - it's not.
Having completed a few difficult (for me) hikes this summer, this one was strenuous as advertised and I was glad to be done, but I didn't feel as worn out at the end as some of those others. Of course, I'm in better shape now, so I guess it's all relative.
Besides hiking up to New Hampshire's highest peak, Mt. Washington, I'd say that the Franconia Ridge Loop is the most classic all-day hike in the White Mountains, and now I know why. Thanks for coming along.