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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Franconia Ridge Loop, New Hampshire (Fall 2020)

When we were planning out hikes for the weekend, I had a list in my head of some good options.  There is the 48 4,000 footer list (of which I had only conquered 14), there was the 52 with a view list, and a bunch of other hikes that looked like great options for this ragtag group. 

What I didn't plan was to repeat any of the hikes I had done before - definitely not one of the really hard ones.  Of course, this is exactly what I ended up doing.  Adam mentioned a few times that he had always wanted to hike the ridge, Franconia Ridge that is.  I told him I really REALLY didn't want to repeat a hike, that I would do it if he really wanted to, but it was like last resort bottom of my list.  I told him "I'm sure you could find a friend to come up and do it with you" and listed about 4 more excuses.  I could tell he really, really wanted to do this hike I would be a trooper and drag myself up, across, and down this ridge for a second time.  And so, this is how I ended up hiking Franconia Ridge for the second time, again with very little hiking conditioning. 

I hiked the ridge for the first time back in July of 2017.  I remember this hike very, very clearly.  I remember it being very hot, very long, pretty hard, really busy and I definitely remembered it offered some of the best New England views.  Franconia Ridge is rated as one of the best day hikes in New England and a trip along this route will make you a believer. 

I went back to my post to read through the notes (travel blogger perk) and  I kept reading how much of an ass-kicker this hike really was (and just how quickly the parking lot filled up).  It was gorgeous and iconic, but it was not for the faint of heart as you ascent nearly 4,000 feet, traversing a bouldery path up a mountain, across the ridge where you will go up and down two more peaks, and then down a steep bouldery path.  I made the challenge of this hike to an unconditioned hiker pretty darn clear.

I reminded myself that yes, I would be repeating the same hike and three of the 48ers I already had.  I also understood that it meant a lot to my new husband and put my own needs aside, reminding myself that any day hiking was a good day.  

We were up at 6am to pack our hiking bag, make sandwiches, and clever me had already made breakfast burritos the day before so we could bring breakfast to go - a smart strategy for an early trailhead arrival and guaranteed parking spot.  We filled up four liters of water (three in our bladder and one for the dogs in their bottles), knowing we would have a chance to fill up on water at the Greenleaf Hut at Mile 6.  

Before you mark me as wife of the year for letting Adam pick our hike and for repeating this challenging loop, let me be clear - I had one stipulation.  If he wanted to hike the ridge so bad, he was going to be our pack mule - even Olive was exempt from her bag duties (at nearly 10, it only felt fair).  And so, Adam carried my bag with our lunch, our snacks, a first aid kid, extra layers, and four heavy liters of water.  

We arrived at the trailhead at 7am on a Saturday on the last weekend in September and we were amazed to see we scored one of the last spots in the lower parking lot.  There are two large lots at Lafeyette Campground but this is a popular hike and during a weekend in leaf-peeping season, early bird gets the spot.  There is an overflow lot down the road but the only issue is that with the virus, there is no shuttle to bring you from this overflow lot to the trailhead - you are adding some mileage to your hike if you don't get there early enough. Let this be a warning that if you want to get a parking spot without having to walk the extra distance, you should get to the trailhead before 7am. There are port-o-potties and pit toilets at the second parking lot should you need to go.

We were on the trail shortly after seven, making our way up and across the upper parking lot and onto the Falling Water Trail.  The Falling Waters Trail is a beautiful uphill slog that follows Dry Brook up and past a waterfall on your way above the treeline to your first summit, Little Haystack Mountain (1,440 meters, 4,724 feet).  We were in a serious drought and the waterfall and brook were not as impressive as they are in the spring.  The trail was narrow and extremely busy which made passing difficult, especially in the time of COVID-19.  We left our masks around our necks and were sure to pull them up whenever we passed other hikers.  After a brutal climb up steep portions of trail, the view above the treeline is an amazing reward.  There was a large group of hikers taking in the view on Little Haystack and we decided to get ahead and start traversing our way along the ridgeline. 

We were lucky to have such amazing weather, perfectly sunny and just a light breeze even along the exposed ridgeline.  The foliage was amazing and we took in the views of orange, yellow, red and green in the valley below.  Adam was in hiker heaven as he finally had the chance to see the views for himself. You make your way across the generally flat ridgeline, climbing up and down the last two peaks.  We traversed the second summit, Mt. Lincoln (1,551 meters 5,088 feet) and finally reached the third and final summit Mount Lafayette (1,600 meters, 5,249 feet).  From there, we followed the Bridle Path down the mountain where it stops at the Greenleaf Hut, one of the AMC's famous huts.  With the virus, the hut was closed for lodging and offered basic services (bathrooms and freshwater).  We did a quick water check and realized Adam and I were down 2 out of 3 liters and the dogs had drank their liter.  We filled up their water bottle and enjoyed our lunch here on the porch before finishing the last three-mile trek down the mountain from the hut and back to the parking lot.  

The trail down the Bridle Path offered more expansive views than Falling Waters and we stopped to enjoy the views and give our legs quick breaks over the constant boulder hopping down the trail.  We rejoiced at any of the flat sections, which generally lasted a brief minute or two. I was insanely grateful to have my hiking boots for the boulder and rocky path that was the hiking trail.  

We made it back to our car approximately six hours and 40 minutes later, less 5 liters of water, with 9 miles traversed, two sandwiches and several snacks consumed, and 3,930 feet of elevation gained.  We were happy and tired and genuinely aware of just how sore we would be the next day.  While we hike in Connecticut, there is nothing like the Whites of New Hampshire to remind you just how difficult 4,000 feet of elevation can make a journey up or down the stairs the next day.  

Trail Stats / Need To Know 

Distance: 9 miles

Elevation: 3,930 feet of elevation gained

Trailhead: Lafayette Place Campground

Trails: Falling Waters to the Appalachian Trail (ridge) to the Bridle Path

Time: 5 hours moving time, 7 hours total 

Water Consumption: 75-degree day in September we consumed three liters of water, the dogs consumed 2 liters of water (we ran out around the last mile, and another liter/refilling our bladder at the hut would have been perfect). 

Dogs/Kids: Dog-friendly yes, on a leash.  I don't care how good your dog is, this is a really really busy trail to have your dog off-leash and there is a fragile ecosystem along the ridgeline.  We kept our dogs onleash for the entire hike except for short sections where I felt it was safer to let her traverse a steep path on her own.  

Don't Forget: Sunscreen, an extra layer (weather changes on the exposed ridge), bug spray (especially if you are hiking in the earlier summer months), enough water (at least 2 liters per person), snacks/lunch/fuel, and a small emergency kit. We also found trekking poles to be VERY helpful and I highly recommend investing in a good hiking boot.  While I like to hike in my trail runners, a sturdy boot with ankle support and a steel shank will protect your feet and ankles as you traverse rocks and boulders.   

48ers Summited: Little Haystack Mountain (1,440 meters, 4,724 feet), Mt. Lincoln (1,551 meters 5,088 feet), and Mount Lafayette (1,600 meters, 5,249 feet)

Red Tape: Get to the trailhead well before 7am on the weekends to get a spot at the trailhead.  The trail is very very busy so this is not a place where you can find solitude.  In the era of COVID-19, don't forget a mask when passing people on the busy trails.  Lastly - do not underestimate this trail.  While the mileage stays in the single digits, the elevation is unrelenting.  Be prepared to take your time UP and DOWN the mountain.  Do not attempt this hike if you do not have any conditioning and are not prepared to tackle this type of elevation 


To the ridge: 3 miles / 2:25 

To the last peak/start of descent: 4.7 miles / 3:47 

To the Green Leaf Hut: 5.9 miles / 4:39 

Finished/Back at our car:  8.9 miles / 6:43 

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