Daunted by the idea of long hike, but seeking to seriously kill your comfort zone? Want to bag multiple 4K peaks in one shot? Then the Franconia Ridge Loop will quickly become the hike of your dreams!
This popular nine-mile hike will tick off two peaks from the New Hampshire 48 list (that is, peaks that are more than 4,000 feet in elevation). Say hello to Mount Lincoln and Mount Lafayette. You’ll also hit Little Haystack, which isn’t considered part of the NH 48 list but standing at 4,760 ft still manages to pack a mighty punch all its own.
So where do you start? Much debate has been done concerning which trail to begin and end the hike with either Falling Waters or Bridle Path. When doing a loop hike, always start with the tougher trail. It’s the beginning of the day and you’re fresh-faced from a good night’s sleep. Take advantage of your strength early on. Plus, it’s always easier (and generally safer) going up steeper terrain. Falling Waters, as its name implies, is full of …falling waters. This means there’s slick rock and mud everywhere. If you’re hiking after rain, it’s going to be more difficult to navigate.
Your way up the Falling Waters trail will yield beautiful views of Stairs Falls, Swiftwater Falls, and Cloudland Falls (slightly off the main trail). After hiking about 3.2 miles, you’ll finally arrive in the fabled Alpine Zone.
The Alpine Zone of the Franconia Ridge Loop is a rocky ridge line littered with shrubs and stunted conifers. Hikers are completely exposed to the elements and on a clear day, can make out the spine of the ridge as it weaves from Little Haystack to Lincoln.
Your first official stop for the day is Little Haystack. Though well over 4,000 feet, the Appalachian Mountain Club doesn’t consider Little Haystack as a “four-thousand footer” as it stands less than two hundred feet above the col on the ridge from Lincoln. This is a good place to take in fantastic views, enjoy a break, and have a snack.
When packing up and continuing on, hikers will notice cairns (piled rock towers) scattered along the ridge. In clear weather, the path is easy to discern. Unpredictable cloud cover can cause whiteout conditions. During these times, cairns are a helpful tool in marking the direction wayward hikers should travel. However, cairns should never be the only source of navigation as this increases the chances of hikers misstepping and ending up in a potentially precarious situation.
It’s also important to note that hikers should never build their own cairns. Practice the “Leave No Trace” ethics and leave the mountain as you found it (this includes carrying out your trash).
On your way to Lincoln, be mindful to stay on trail. Stepping off route presents a danger to the naturally occurring fauna. This is great advice to follow when tackling any hike. In fact, the ridge makes it quite easy since stones are stacked on both sides of the trail.
After hiking 0.7 miles from Little Haystack, you’ll arrive at the summit of Mount Lincoln. This peak has an elevation 5,089 feet with a prominence of 169 feet. As the middle peak of this hike, congratulate yourself on a job well done! If your legs are feeling tired, why not give the yoga stance “Legs Up the Wall” a try? This reinvigorating stance will drain the blood from your legs and grant you a reprieve from fatigue!
Once you’ve snapped a few photos and grabbed some water, it’s time to continue on to the main event – Mount Lafayette!
The approach of Mount Lafayette will take you up and down a few dips in the trail. One of the most distinct memories about this part of the Franconia Ridge Loop hike is hitting a section that winds between stunted conifers. Hikers are flanked by trees on each side and are treated to the sweet smell of balsam. Though “stunted” has been previously used in this post to describe ground crawling shrubbery, these conifers were easily taller than your average Joe and provided decent coverage from the usual exposure of the alpine zone.
Out of all three peaks, Lafayette (elevation: 5249 feet, prominence: 3320 feet) offers the most expansive views of the surrounding mountain ranges. One of the first things you’ll notice about Lafayette’s summit is that there are stones stacked which create a barrier along the edges of the peak. It’s said that these are the remains of an old shelter – Lafayette’s Summit House – which was built around 1859/1860. Besides glimpsing a bit of history, sitting near these stones provides hikers with protection on particularly gusty days.
Be sure to explore every inch of Lafayette’s peak as you’ve earned some outstanding views! If you go early in the season, you may even find some berries near the summit.
A little perspective on earning those views during the Franconia Ridge Loop hike.
Your journey back along the loop is sure to be an exhausting one. If you notice a dot in the distance, take heart, that’s the Greenleaf Hut. The building is run by the AMC and is open for a full-service season from June 2nd – October 15th. It offers access to running water and pit toilets, as well as many other amenities. The best part? You can refuel with some goodies made by the staff! So stay strong and push on. I still maintain that the beef and barley soup at the Greenleaf Hut was some of the best I’ve ever tasted.
From here, hikers are approaching the home stretch. It’s 2.9 miles to complete the Franconia Ridge Loop hike. Follow signs for the Bridle Path trail. If you haven’t broken out your handy trekking poles, now may be a good time. It’s always easier on the knees and ankles to descend the ridge via human four-wheel drive.
Without stops, it should take seasoned hikers around seven hours to complete the Franconia Ridge Loop hike. Our excursion, with breaks, took between nine and ten hours to finish.
Some things to keep in mind:
This is one of the most popular hikes in the White Mountains. Nicholas and I hiked the Franconia Ridge Loop during Columbus Day Weekend. There were a lot of people on trail, especially when coming down from Mount Lafayette (we had to keep pulling over to the side to let faster hikers pass). If you’re able, the best time to hike the Franconia Ridge Loop is mid week, as there will be less traffic.
Completing this hike in autumn is best, especially if you want to catch a glimpse of the foliage at its peak.
Again, it’s worth mentioning to pack/wear layers. Weather can change in a blink. The temperature at the trailhead will be different from what’s found in the alpine zone. Start out in pants and a long sleeve shirt (a short sleeve shirt can be layered underneath). Regardless of the season, bring light gloves, a baklava, and a hard shell. High winds will steal the heat from your body in no time. People assume you can’t catch hypothermia in warm weather but they’d be wrong.
Also, wear proper footwear. Hiking shoes/boots are your best option.
Pack plenty of water (at least two liters per person) and snacks. Consider this trip an all day affair. You’ll need fuel to complete it.
Gun for an alpine start, especially if you’ll be hiking during a season that’s short on daylight and you’re not comfortable descending the trail by headlamp. For this trip, we were on trail by 7:30am, which meant waking up at 5am, grabbing breakfast, and driving to the trailhead super early.
Lastly, have fun! Lose yourself in nature and enjoy the feeling of accomplishment (and exhaustion) that comes from a fantastic hike. Here’s hoping you conquer all 48 of the 4,000 footers!
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