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Friday, July 28, 2017

Franconia Ridge Loop Hike - The Whites, New Hampshire

Let me start by saying one thing: this was my first real hike of the 2017 summer season, and my most favorite New England Hike yet.  I know, I know it's already the end of July and this is my first time in the mountains (shamefully sinks in her chair).  But in my defense, New England (hiking) is a little tricky in the summer.  If the black flies and mosquitos don't get you, then the humidity surely will.  I have never experienced it but from what I hear, hiking from June to early July in biting fly season is no joke.

Well, turns out, I looked at my calendar and realized I had a free weekend with NOTHING planned.  The past few weekends have been insanity with Bachelorette parties and weekends away.  I also had a dog who had been sitting around for a few weeks with nothing more than a 3 mile run or a walk around the borough. Crazy dog and stressed out Katie from a few crazy weeks and weekends meant it was time to head to the mountains to do something I genuinely love, one of the best ways I know to destress.  

Head to the woods, hike, read, relax, and camp.  

Driving into Franconia Notch State Park

Views from the ridge line- on one of New England's "Best Day Hikes"

In New England, hiking and camping can be far different from some of the experiences I had living in Utah. However, don't let the wonderful West take all the credit as New England has some amazing mountains with their own flare of hiking and camping. We have the Berkshires of Massachusetts, the Green Mountains of Vermont, and the White Mountains of New Hampshire to name a few. With a free weekend to hike, I thought about my New England bucket list and of my last New England summit to conquer, famous Katahdin in northern Maine. I figured now was a good time (if not a little late...) to start getting in shape and training for that last New England Summit. I had also heard from several sources and several times that Franconia Ridge is an amazing hike I had to put on my bucket list. I had even heard from a few sources that it was one of the best day hikes in New England. In 2015, the Boston Globe named this the #1 Hike in the White Mountains (read more on why it's so popular here, and keep reading this post to see for yourself!)  So on a Thursday during lunch while sitting in the company work truck, I frantically started googling and a weekend in the Whites was born.

Because I was looking for a camping option the DAY before my departure (and I was bringing Olive), options were limited. Campsites at Franconia Notch State Park were NOT dog friendly, and all the bookable sites were taken. Surrounding campgrounds and areas were also booked out and truth be told, this was way too last minute to do any backcountry/hike in camping. After several phone calls I finally found a KOA (that big name family campground- not my first choice) about 25 minutes away with availability. Needless to say its a HUGE family campground with zero zen, no privacy, and about every amenity known to man from bathrooms and showers to mini golf, pools, a dog park, and afternoon rides in the fire truck. Let's just say it was a cheap place to stay ($35 a night) when all other campgrounds were booked, and likely all the hotels were booked up and were largely overpriced and out of the way. With nightly arrangements taken care of (two nights, I would drive up Friday, camp Friday night, hike all day Saturday, camp Saturday night, do something fun and head back Sunday) it was time to plan the hike.

Everything I read about this hike agreed on two things:

1.  It was one of the most beautiful hikes New England has to offer.  It has been mentioned as the Best Day Hike in New England, and even as one of the best in the country. 

2. I also read it was a tough hike and not to be taken lightly.  I couldn't agree more on points 1 and 2.  A beautiful hike - and a butt kicker. 

Hiking up out of the tree line and following the ridge

I did my research and understood that the hike was between 8 and 10 miles, gained 4,000', had a lot of boulders/rocks, climbed along a ridge with insane views, and was rated as a difficult hike.  I have done hikes like this (or worst) many times and wasn't really intimidated.  However, for my first hike of the season, I knew I was going a little aggressive with this one.  But, when I read 700 people do this hike on any given busy day, I knew I was more than capable and while I would be a little sore the next day, I could likely do this hike faster than most.  So, on a Friday after work I packed up the car, unpacked camp at the KOA and early Saturday morning, headed to the trailhead.  

Sattelite Image of the Loop Hike- Photo from Image from Fred Naddaff from Groundswell

First Impressions
One of the most beautiful New England hikes I have ever been on.  You follow the Falling Waters trail up past several gorgeous waterfalls until you hit a ridge line with 360 views.  The views among the ridge-line were absolutely amazing.  You get to cross three peaks Little Haystack (4,760'), Mount Lincoln (5,089'), and Mount Lafayette (5,260'), two being +5,000' footers.  You get to follow the legendary Appalachian Trail across the ridge-line to the highest point, Mount Lafayette (one of the most popular peaks of the Whites).  The trail is busy so solitude isn't really a thing on this hike.  After leaving the crowded peak, you may your way down the steep trail and in about a mile, make it to the Greenleaf Hut.  Here, you can stock up on water, get some soup or snacks, or even get a bunk for the night.  From here, its just 3 more miles to the base where you park your car.  We passed several hikers carrying supplies on their back up to the lodge and were completely amazed. Overall, a long but tough hike over a lot of boulders, across a beautiful ridge, atop a +5,000' summit, to the quaintest cabin, and back to the bottom in time for a beer at a local brewery.  A perfect weekend in the Whites. 

Start of the trail- following the old Bridle Path for 0.25 miles before hiking up Falling Waters. 

Mount Lafayette & Franconia Ridge Trail Loop - Trail Stats 
Distance:  ~9 miles 
Elevation (Gain):  3,937’ High:  5,227’  Low:  1,802’ 
Trailhead: Lafayette Place Trailhead 

Image from Fred Naddaff from Groundswell

Trail:  Leaving the trailhead, you will follow a teeny portion of the Old Bridle Path (0.2 miles) to the Falling Waters (3.2 miles) to Franconia Ridge Trail (1.7 miles) across the summits, leaving Lafayette follow the Greenleaf Trail (1.1 miles) down off the summit, past the cabin to the Old Bridle path (2.9 miles).  Make sure you do this loop UP falling waters and DOWN the Old Bridle Path.  

Notes:  This is the highest peak outside the Presidential Range.  Voted as one of the best New England hikes from several sources.  This is a fantastic loop trail/hike passing over three peaks:  Little Haystack (4,760'), Mount Lincoln (5,089'), and Mount Lafayette (5,260'). Leaving the summit you will pass the AMC Greenleaf cabin about 1 mile after leaving the summit where you crab supplies and food (cash only!).  Pack a warmer layer for the ridge portion of the hike and while we were lucky, the hike tends to be buggy so pack plenty of bug spray (and sunscreen!). The trail is very crowded due to it's popularity and can be very narrow in parts. 

Peak Info: Lafayette Peak (the highest point/summit on this trail) appears on the New England Fifty Finest list of the most topographically prominent peaks in New England.  It is the sixth highest peak in New Hampshire and the highest outside of the Presidential Range. It is the second most prominent peak in the state. 

Busy parking lot on a Saturday morning

Falling Waters Trail 

Bridge crossing on the Falling Waters Trail

The parking lot was very (Very) busy at 8:30 on a beautiful Saturday morning in mid-July.  I had read that parking can be an issue and was glad to get there early enough where there were a few spots left in the main lot.  After packing my bag with enough food, snacks and water for the journey, we were walking across the parking lot where we said hello to a ranger, stopped at the bathrooms, and headed up the trail.  The trail starts on the Falling Waters trail which was absolutely beautiful and perfect for the dog.  The trail climbs the mountain while following and crossing various streams and waterfalls.  The rock can be wet and slippery so this trail is best for ASCENDING instead of descending (make sure you hike the loop in this direction to make it a little easier on yourself). Beware, this is a very popular trail and the trail can be a little crowded in spots.  You continue to follow the stream, cross over waterfalls, and climb until you finally poke out above the tree line and hit the famous Franconia Ridge. 

Waterfall on the Falling Waters Trail

Waterfall on the Falling Waters Trail

Waterfall on the Falling Waters Trail 

Waterfall on the Falling Waters Trail

Your first views of the ridge as you poke your head above the tree line are stunning.  360 views in every direction, rolling green peaks, rock faces, and hopefully, blue sunny skies.  At this point in the hike, I was drenched head to toe from the humidity and was really thankful for the cool breeze at the top of the mountain.  After a quick photo opportunity, we headed across the ridge to throw on a layer and find a spot for lunch. The good news is that the crowds really thin out along the ridge.  You can space yourself out a little better and enjoy the beautiful views of New Hampshire.

First views above the tree line

The ridge we were about to hike across 

Posing along the ridge 

Break along the ridge

Franconia Ridge (Appalachian Trail Segment) trail sign

You will follow the Franconia Ridge Trail (which is shared with a portion of the famous Appalachian Trail), traveling 1.7 miles along the ridge passing over three peaks Little Haystack (4,760'), Mount Lincoln (5,089'), and Mount Lafayette (5,260')., with the highest being Mt. Lafayette.  At Mt. Lafayette, you will see all the crowds again as everyone takes in the views, enjoys some lunch and takes a few photos.  

Taking in the views of The Whites

Taking in the views of The Whites

Wearing my Pacific Mountain boots on this trail - sturdy hiking boots needed

Following the ridge to the summits

The trail along the ridge

One of the three summits

Olive posing on a summit

The highest point of the hike, Mount Lafayette (5,260')

The highest point of the hike, Mount Lafayette (5,260')

At the summit, you have a few options.  You want to take a left, leaving the AT and follow the Green Leaf Trail down and off the mountain.  The trail will descend sharply down a boulder field where you will hike for 1.1 miles before you reach the AMC Greenleaf Cabin.  The Greenleaf Cabin is run by the AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club, founded 1876) and was built in 1930 and sits at 4,200' (read more about this cool cabin here). This is one of 8 high huts in the White Mountains.  This not-so-little cabin in nestled in the woods, 3 miles from the trailhead at the end of the Old Bridle Path Trail.  Supplies are helicoptered to the cabin or more commonly, hauled up by hikers.  We passed several hikers carrying these strange contractions PILED HIGH with supplies for the cabin.  At that point, I could no longer complain about the boulder fields, my heavy pack, and aching feet. 

AMC Greenleaf Hut - view coming down off the summit 

AMC Greenleaf Hut - built 1930 at 4,200'  

At the cabin, we chatted with the woman behind the desk, grabbed a bowl of split pea soup, unlaced the hiking boots and soaked up the sun for about 15 minutes before continuing down the mountain. The store is stocked with swag and basic supplies and the cabin offers lodging (book in advance) and a small menu of food. 

Store at the cabin

Eating area at the cabin

Back deck of the cabin

Leaving the cabin- signage for the Old Bridle Path, just 2.9 miles back to the base/trailhead

Back at the bottom of the trail, I was AMAZED to see how many cars had parked wherever they could, and how far some of these cars had to park to use the trail.  I brought my sore body back to the car before googling the best places to grab a cold beer and a good pizza.   I loved this hike and it left me sore and smiling for days to come.  Thanks for the hike New Hampshire, this isn't the last you see of us. 

Side Notes  You can pair this hike with a trip to the Famous Flume Gorge (something I did not do because it is not dog-friendly).  Check back in next week to read about the local breweries visited, food eaten, and other things to do in the area.  

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