Franconia Ridge Trail Loop - a challenging all day hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire
After almost three hours of ascending up the Falling Waters Trail – stepping onto and over the trail’s boulders, tip-toeing across the rocks in the streambeds trying not to get wet and stopping at times to catch our breath – we crested the first peak on this 9-mile trail loop – Little Haystack Mountain. This was our first glimpse, from above the tree line, of the White Mountains and the surrounding forest. We reveled in the view, which was quite stunning in all directions. It helped that it was such a clear day.
Our day started shortly after 7 am when Erin, Shannon, Lola (our Labradoodle hiker) and I departed Boston. It was cloudy and a little drizzly. After a two-hour plus drive north to the White Mountains, in New Hampshire, we knew we had arrived at our destination when we saw the line of parked cars along Interstate 93. We just followed the cars ahead of us parking one behind the other. The trail reviews indicated that vehicles park along the highway after the parking lot fills up. It was almost half past nine in the morning. The clouds were just burning off and it looked like the beginning of what would be incredible weather on a mid-September Saturday.
We walked the short distance to the trailhead at Lafayette Place. The Franconia Ridge Trail Loop (which National Geographic includes in their best hikes blog) is actually comprised of four trails:
Falling Waters Trail (3.2 miles) – from Lafayette Place to Little Haystack Mountain – a 3,000-foot gain in altitude. After a general incline the first half mile, it begins to climb at a steep ascent requiring frequent stops to catch your breath.
Franconia Ridge Trail (1.7 miles) – just the portion that connects the three peaks of Little Haystack Mountain (4,780 feet), Mount Lincoln (5,089 feet) and Mount Lafayette (5,260 feet). The portion between each peak initially goes down and then back up so the uphill portion of each is more than the difference in elevation.
Greenleaf Trail (1.1 miles) - Mount Lafayette to the Greenleaf Hut where hikers can overnight in a small lodge. This trail is very rocky and requires patience to navigate over and around all of the rocks.
Old Bridle Path (2.9 miles) – the Greenleaf Hut back to Lafayette Place; the upper portion is fairly steep with a number of slippery rocks to navigate; the lower portion is more of a typical trail with some rocks.
The reviews indicate it’s a good six to nine-hour hike. It was about 9:45 am and sunset was at 6:53 pm so we had to keep an eye on our time.
From Lafayette Place, hikers can begin the loop on either Falling Waters Trail or Old Bridle Path. We chose to start on Falling Waters, which appeared to be the most popular with the day’s hikers. It’s a little shorter and steeper, which is probably easier to navigate uphill rather than down.
The name of the trail, Falling Waters, comes from the creek that the trail meanders along and over. Several waterfalls provide a nice place to catch your breath and get some great photos especially with the sunlight filtering through the trees.
After the falls, the trail steepens and the real work begins. There were a lot of hikers on the loop today. Going up the mountain is not too bad – the pace is slower and people periodically step to the edge of the trail to briefly rest. Going down is another story, which I’ll get to in a bit.
Almost three hours into the hike, we reached the tree line and the top of Little Haystack Mountain. I could sense the relief and accomplishment coming from the other hikers. I was a little tired but overall was feeling pretty good. I felt on top of the world. The views were gorgeous in all directions. Hikers were sitting, eating their lunch or a snack, one was even preparing hot food over a tiny portable stove. After a bite to eat and some water, we took off for the next two peaks – Lincoln and Lafayette.
At this point, we were on the Franconia Ridge Trail - the spine of the mountain range. There’s no trees. It’s totally exposed; however, there was no wind today which made for an easier time. The views were expansive from here and stunning - especially with the fall colors showing on the sea of trees below. The combo dirt/rock trail between the peaks was downhill and then uphill. The top of Mount Lafayette was covered with hikers – taking photos, relaxing, eating/drinking. We were at the top of the trail – the highest point. It was all downhill from here.
After relaxing for a bit, we started onto the Greenleaf Trail heading for the Greenleaf Hut – a little over a mile downhill. This was the most technical part of the day - a lot of rocks, of various sizes, littered the trail. It was like taking dance lessons on a crowded dance floor. There were many hikers trying to get down and there’s not much room for passing – unless you want to go off-trail. There’s room; however, signs request you stay on the trail so you don’t destroy the plants just outside the rock-lined pathway. This was the hardest section for me. I was somewhat tired so my balance (stepping from rock to rock) was suffering plus I was trying to keep a consistent pace due to the number of hikers behind me.
Soon, we reached the hut where many hikers were milling around. I couldn’t tell who was taking a brief rest and who was overnighting - probably those with flip flops were overnighting. Haha. There were light snacks available at a self-service table inside the main room of the hut. The rooms were small and had about 6 bunk beds each. Nearby Eagle Lake made for a great photo.
After a brief rest, we headed down Old Bridle Path – the last of the four trails. We had about three miles to the finish. The upper portion of this trail, in places, cut across large rock faces (some that you had to navigate on all fours). In a couple of sections, the rock face was fairly steep and polished – almost like a glacial polish. I was thinking it would be tough to climb these few sections if we were heading in the opposite direction. It’s amazing how easily Lola navigates the rocky sections. We were thinking she might be part mountain goat. She was making us look like rookies.
After getting past the steeper rock sections, the trail widened a little as it moved along a cliff face – nothing difficult to maneuver since there were high shrubs between the trail and the edge where it dropped off. Shortly, we were on the lower section of Old Bridle Path where the trail had less rocks, more dirt and was much easier (and faster) to navigate.
It was just about 8 hours, since the start of the hike, when we reached our car. We had about an hour til the 7 pm sunset so we had a little bit of daylight left to work with if we had needed it. It’s definitely something we were cognizant of throughout the hike.
We were happy and tired, including Lola; however, most of all, we felt a sense of accomplishment. This was a challenging hike and we had conquered it!