I’d been keen to try a trail in New Hampshire’s White Mountains for a while, but there’s so many to choose from that it’s difficult to decide how to make the best use of limited time. After various recommendations from some helpful people on the Couchsurfing website, I decided to tackle Mount Lafayette via Franconia Ridge. This 14.2 km loop starts at the Lafayette Campground and combines a few different trails to make a loop that crosses three different mountain tops. The trail starts by climbing Mount Lafayette via the Greenleaf Hut and continues over Franconia Ridge to bag Mount Lincoln and Little Haystack as well. The descent along the Falling Waters Trail returns to the campsite. The book time says 8 hours, I managed it in 6 and a half including breaks, but I’m a fast climber and the weather was perfect. Wind along the ridge could certainly slow you down and if fog comes in it’s recommended not to go above the tree line. Take plenty of water, it’s a lot of uphill at the start, but you’ll be able to refill water bottles at the Greenleaf Hut.
I can tell my hike in the White Mountains is going to be good before I get anywhere near the trailhead. The views of the mountains from the road are spectacular. The road into Franconia Notch is beautiful in a bizarre sort of way. It’s not the mountains that are bizarre but the fact that there is what appears to be a large motorway running through the middle of them. Now I don’t know about you, but where I’m from when you go into the wilderness, you’re lucky if the road is wide enough for two cars the whole way. I can’t get over the strangeness of speeding down a multi-laned highway, taking an exit ramp, and ending up at a rustic campground. Not that I’m complaining. I’m still getting used to driving on the right so the wide roads are certainly appreciated as they leave me with plenty of room for error while I get used to where my car sits on the road.
The trail starts from the Lafayette Campground, which also has a small visitor’s center with information for hikers. I’ve already got my map sorted so I don’t stop in here, but for the less organised they can point you in the right direction. The first part of the hike is a steady uphill section ringed in with trees. It takes a good hour or so of climbing before the good views start, but I’m not used to the type of forest here so it’s still a novelty for me seeing how different all the trees are. It’s a decent climb, mainly steps that aren’t too massive for my little legs, but it gets pretty rugged in a few places. The track itself is well kept but the nature of the terrain means the trail is basically rocks in a lot of places, particularly as it gets higher. Be prepared for a lot of scrambling and a bit of light rock climbing. The rocks are pretty grippy though so nothing too slippery. On the plus side, as the terrain gets more difficult, the views start to open a bit more with frequent breaks in the trees that give me glimpses of Mount Lafayette as I stride past. It’s still towering well above me but is definitely getting closer.
About an hour out from the peak of Lafayette the trail passes the Greenleaf Hut. Apparently it’s not just America’s wilderness roads that are impressive. New Zealand certainly doesn’t have any huts like this. It’s a nice rustic looking place with bunk beds like I’m used to, but there’s baked goods for sale, showers, and if you stay the night a hot cooked breakfast and dinner is included in the price. Now that is one luxurious multi-day hike. I stop to refill my drink bottles and have a snoop around. They have a whole bunch of little lodges like this throughout the White Mountains so if you’re doing a longer trail you can hop between them for a fair few days. It would be completely cheating staying here of course, but I’m almost tempted…
From the Greenleaf Hut it’s another hour of uphill grind to the top of Lafayette. It gets less scrambly from here, but there are some decent sized steps that get my thighs working hard. I’m above the tree line now though, so the views are fantastic. The weather is perfect, there’s a bit of haze around in the distance, but other than that just a few patches of clouds that sit well above the peaks. There are clear views over the mountain tops and into the distance. Aside from being beautiful, the views are great because they’re a perfect excuse to rest my legs on the climb. “Tired? Of course not. I’m just taking in this wonderful view!”
I finally reach the peak of Lafayette, the highest mountain I’ll be tackling today. The peak is surprisingly busy considering how quiet the trail has been so far. I thought the views down lower were good but they’re nothing compared to the wonderful panorama up here. Along with the sights from down lower, there’s a stunning view over Franconia Ridge, the next section of the trail. I’ll only be going as far as Little Haystack but I can see the ridge line stretching all the way to Mount Liberty and off into the distance. As well as being a gorgeous bit of trail, the section along Franconia Ridge also happens to be a section of the Appalachian Trail. After wasting plenty of time staring at the view while I eat some snacks I get a mandatory photograph with the Appalachian Trail sign. Hey, it’s nice to say you’ve done it right? …even if it was only a small section of it. An hour on the Appalachian Trail is better than nothing!
I wouldn’t want to tackle Franconia Ridge on a windy day. It’s pretty exposed up here. On a fine day like today however, it’s absolutely wonderful. There are a few scrambly sections, and some gentle ups and downs, but nothing close to as strenuous as the climb up Lafayette. Most of the time it’s pretty easy going, and being above the tree line for so long makes for some wonderful views.
About half way along the ridge I come to the top of Mount Lincoln, the next highest peak on the trail. Coming down from here is amusing. Mount Lincoln sneakily blocks Lafayette from view going the other way so I get a lot of people hiking in the other direction asking me if this is Lafayette, with adorably hopeful looks on their faces. Sorry guys. You’ve got a ways to go yet.
A bit further on from Lincoln and I make it to Little Haystack, the smallest and last peak of the day. Three mountains in a day? Not a bad effort if I say so myself. It’s possible to continue along the ridge to Mount Liberty from here, but not as a loop so I begin my descent back into the forest along the Falling Waters Trail instead. The trail gets fairly rugged from here, in fact, I wouldn’t want to come down this way in bad weather. It’s steep and pretty slippery in places. I slow right down making sure to watch my footing. There’s a short detour part way down called Shining Rock that’s apparently a lookout of some description. I consider going for a look but a passing grumpy old man describes it so scathingly that I decide to give it a miss.
For the last section of the hike, the Falling Waters Trail finally lives up to it’s name by going past a series of lovely waterfalls. The trail remains scrambly and a bit slick in places, in fact, for a lot of the time I’m pretty much climbing down a waterfall. The forest thins a bit here so I can see better, and the falls themselves are gorgeous. There’s a whole series of them, all worth stopping for a look, but Swiftwater Falls is my favorite. There’s something imposing yet delicate about it. Very pretty indeed.
Once the waterfalls peter out it’s an easy stroll back to the car park. It’s been a long day but I feel surprisingly perky. Good thing I’ll be on my way to Acadia soon. My legs are already itching for another adventure…AFTER a cold beer and a good nights’ sleep that is.
Listening to: Cockroach Blues – Coyote Kolb