The Franconia Ridge in New Hampshire’s White Mountains
By Andy Christian Castillo
Long hikes usually follow three progressions: one, “this isn’t that bad.” Two, “God, why did I try this?” Three, “I always forget why I love hiking.”
That second phase started for us an hour and a half up 4,760-foot tall Little Haystack Mountain, the first peak on the Franconia Ridge Trail Loop, following Falling Waters Trail from the Lafayette Place Campground Parking lot.
The entire trail covers 8.9 miles and climbs more than 3,900 feet — ascending two of the highest mountains in New Hampshire outside the Presidential Range.
An Off-Kilter Lasso
The trail is shaped like an off-kilter lasso laid onto a rugged landscape in the White Mountains, traversing Falling Waters Trail, Greenleaf Trail, and Old Bridle Path.
A section of the loop also coincides with the Appalachian Trail, over the Franconia Ridge connecting Little Haystack Mountain with 5,089 tall Mount Lincoln, and Mount Lafayette, at 5,260 feet.
The average hiking time for the loop is a little more than seven hours. Most choose to climb up Falling Waters Trail; the other way, Old Bridle Trail, is less crowded but descending down Falling Waters Trail is more difficult. Either way, it’s an ambitious trek, recommended for experienced hikers, most easily accessed by the campground that’s right off Interstate 93, which is the region’s hiking hub.
Except we didn’t park there because it was overflowing with Labor Day hikers (like us) escaping their day jobs. Instead, we idled a half-mile or so down I-93 looking for a break in bumper-to-bumper cars lining the road.
The weather couldn’t have been better, with a high of about 75 degrees Fahrenheit and a slight breeze. At the base, a frigid breeze whipped down the freeway, and a U.S. Forest Service ranger warned of high winds at the top.
We were prepared with about a gallon and a half of water, two meals, and snacks.
For gear: comfortable shoes, sweaters, winter hats, a headlamp, and poncho.
At first, it seemed like we’d have to tough it out. But a half-mile into our eight and a half hour hike it became a little warmer and the breeze died off almost completely. We took many breaks.
Falling Water Trail: Starting Out
Falling Waters Trail is an intense, hard climb over rocks, across rivers and above idyllic waterfalls. We left at about 11 a.m., hours later than intended, and reached the top of Little Haystack Mountain at 2 p.m., with a moderate amount of water breaks.
Around us, hundreds of other hikers climbed over the same rocks, many with dogs (one with a small yapping dog tucked into a backpack).
According to the Appalachian Mountain Club, at peak season, up to 700 hikers, a day trek the Franconia Ridge.
Our weary feet climbed above the alpine zone more than two hours after leaving, where trees can’t grow and were soon met by a festive atmosphere at the top.
Jubilant trekkers, going the opposite way around, climbing up Old Bridle Path, celebrated near-completion. And that’s relative. They still had to traverse the treacherous climb down Falling Waters Trail.
Brianna and I took lunch, vegetable wraps slathered in hummus, surrounded by blue mountains that stretched off into the horizon. In front of us, the trail stretched out across the ridge. In my opinion, climbing up Falling Waters Trail first is better because, first, it’s steeper than Old Bridle Path. And second, you can see the ridge beautifully laid out in front of you as you hike.
The Franconia Ridge: The Appalachian Trail
From Little Haystack Mountain, the trail leads onto a ridge, the Appalachian Trail. This is the most dangerous part of the hike because for miles it’s exposed directly to the elements. And weather changes incredibly fast, the ranger said.
It was recommended that we check the Mount Washington Observatory’s website (www.mountwashington.org) for weather updates frequently before setting out. The weather there is similar to that on Franconia Ridge.
Here, we struck our third progression and remembered our love for hiking. The views along the ridge are breathtaking. Pictures can’t do it justice: it’s a sight to behold in person. Mountains are everywhere. They roll off into the horizon like ripples on a choppy sea.
A slight breeze, fresh, crisp, quickly cooled our wet long sleeve shirts. A bright sun, ever slanting lower, warmed our backs. The scent of pine permeated the air.
Appalachian Trail through-hikers
We set out from Little Haystack Mountain around 3:15 p.m. and an hour later summited Mount Lincoln. The ridge trail isn’t as intense as the initial climb, regardless of which direction you start in, but it’s deceptively difficult.
And I didn’t stretch over lunch and paid the consequences in quad-cramps soon after setting off again.
Mount Lafayette is perhaps the most beautiful spot on the loop. We reached there before 5 p.m. Franconia Notch, a u-shaped valley can be seen below. And the famous Old Man of the Mountain, a rock formation that collapsed in 2003, is nearby.
Occasionally, Appalachian Trail through-hikers, who started in Georgia, could be seen lounging around enjoying the sunshine. They’re like gods walking among mortals.
One played a clear mandolin leaning on the wall outside the door of a Dunkin’ Donuts in the nearby town of Lincoln. With ripped shirts, tattoos, unkempt hair, and a nonchalant demeanor, they struck me in stark contrast to laypersons sweating, uptight, stiffened, and stressed by the trail.
Our Descent: The Greenleaf Trail
From the top, the trail turns into Greenleaf Trail on the way down. By around 5 30 p.m. we reached Appalachian Mountain Club’s Greenleaf Hut (which is more of a lodge), a welcome place to break for dinner and refill our water.
Back on the trail at 6 p.m., we quickly walked through slanted golden light down Old Bridle Path and reached Lafayette Place Campground at 7:30 p.m., just before sunset.