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AT Section Hike: Franconia Notch to Skookumchuck Tr

Franconia Ridge, Appalachian Trail

The weather was perfect on Saturday for a traverse of Franconia Ridge, a very exposed section of the Appalachian Trail in the New Hampshire’s White Mountains that runs from Mt. Liberty to the northern shoulder of Mt Lafayette. Total mileage for this hike was 15.7 miles and I covered another 7.2 miles of the AT. Elevation gain for the day was 4,500 ft.

Major peaks included:

  • Mt. Liberty (4,459 ft)
  • Little Haystack Mountain (4,780 ft)
  • Mt. Lincoln (5,089 ft)
  • Mt Lafayette (5,260 ft)

I went on this walk despite that fact that my knees are still giving me trouble. The reason was that I needed a bit of solitude and a personal challenge. Work has been very stressful recently and the outdoors is an island that I can always count on to get away from worldly matters and focus on the moment.

So, Saturday morning I left my house at 5:25 am and made it to the trailhead by 7:25 am, a distance of 130 miles. I am lucky that  I live so close to serious wilderness and mountains.

Driving at dawn has been special this year. I used to camp out at trailheads the night before, but I’ve taken to driving up on the morning of the hike instead. The traffic is certainly better (none) and it gives me some quiet time to be by myself, despite the fact that with music blasting, it is anything but quiet inside the car.

After arriving the trailhead, I put on my boots and started out. For this trip, I’d brought along a Cho-Pat Knee Brace for my left knee which has been giving me trouble since returning from my 100 mile wilderness trip in Maine. However, within a half mile I could barely walk because my right knee was bothering me. So I switched the Cho-Pat to the right knee and continued on.

Miraculously this worked and I was pain free until I sumitted Mt. Liberty, about 3,000 ft and 3.2 miles later. My luck did not last and I had pain ranging from level 3 to level 8 on descents and level ground after that. Luckily, most of this hike was uphill until the end, and by then I was so elated that I didn’t care about the pain anymore – and I was wolfing Vitamin I.

Pemigewasset Wilderness

The climb up Mt Liberty via the Liberty Springs Trail is quite strenuous and there a number of shallow creak crossings along the way. I was carrying a summer day hiking load, which in the White Mountains, consists of all my gear minus a sleeping and and shelter. In spring and autumn, it’s not uncommon for me to carry a sleeping bag and a tarp, because the weather is so unpredictable and downright dangerous.

There is a spring just below Mt Liberty at the Liberty Sprint Tentsite and I topped off my water to 3 liters because Franconia Ridge is dry. I chatted with the the camp site caretaker for a while and then climbed the short side trail to Liberty, breaking treeline just below the  summit. The views of the Pemmigewasset Wilderness from Liberty are outstanding (see above). This area is surrounded by a ring of ridges and major peaks: it depends on how you count but it’s more than a dozen, including the ones on my hike.

After climbing Liberty and having a short snack, I backtracked to the Franconia Ridge Trail and headed to Little Haystack Mountain. It’s a 1.9 mile hike between these two peaks through stunted forest: not exactly full exposure, but not someplace I’d want to be during a lighting storm.

After Haystack, the 5,000+ footers are spaced closer together and the Franconia Ridge Trail becomes a fully exposed ridge walk. I continued on with one eye on the gathering cumulus clouds to Mt. Lincoln, which in my opinion is the nicest peak on the ridge. Looks like Scotland, doesn’t it?

Mt. Lafayette, White Mountains, Franconia Ridge, Appalachian Trail

After Mt Lincoln, Mt Lafayette is only another 0.7 miles down the ridge. I arrived at 1 pm and chatted with some AT thru-hikers on the summit before deciding to hike a bit farther than originally planned, over and down the north shoulder of Lafayette to Skookumchuck Trailhead about 0.8 miles away.

My motivation for continuing to Skookumchuck, despite the fact that I like writing this funny name, is that I am trying to finish the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire this year and I’m running out of time to do it before it snows. My strategy is to bag all of the major peaks over 4,500 feet before the end of autumn, so I can backpack any outstanding sections this winter if need be. Hiking down to the Skookumchuck trailhead lets me avoid re-sumitting Layfayette in winter, which is no joke. Later this year, I’ll hike up the Skookumchuck Trail to get back onto the AT and hike the remaining 6.4 mile section I have left between Franconia Notch and Crawford Notch. This will require an overnight trip, hiking over Mt Garfield (4,500 ft) and Galehead Mountain (4,024), but it’s a good winter route and I’m sure I can recruit one or two hardy souls to come with me.

After I got down to the Skookumchuck trailhead, I did an about face and hiked back up Lafayette passing the thru-hikers I had spoken with at the summit. They were a little surprised to see me again, but understood immediately when I explained I was section hiking.

When I got back up to Lafayette, I started the 4 mile decent back to Franconia Notch, stopping to refill my water at the Greenleaf hut a mile below the summit. Temperatures were running in the 90’s yesterday throughout the area, although the ridge had been in the 60’s, so I tanked up with another 3 liters before hiking down to the Notch via the Old Bridle Path trail.

This trail is quite challenging and quite popular with day hikers because it is a direct route up Mt Layfayette. Despite my knees, I made it down the remaining 3 miles in about 2 hours, and then had another 90 minute walk back to my car along the bike trail that runs through Franconia Notch and conveniently connects the major trail heads together

This has been the best section of the AT that I’ve hiked in New Hampshire and I expect to return here again and again. I wish I had had the time to continue on and do a full Pemigewasset Loop. It’s on my life list now, and maybe I’ll try to fit it in next year.

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12 comments

  1. Hey Philip

    Looked a nice day out (although a bit to hot!) You knocking off those 4-5,000 ft mountains, you'll have no trouble in Scotland; the biggest we got is only 4,400 and a bit :-).

    I'm lucky if I see 600ft in my part of the U.K. :-)

    George

  2. What a fantastic web blog on hiking. SectionHiker is great – Im now following you!

  3. George – I was lucky to get a day like this. without thunderstorms in August. It's a miracle with the weather we've been having this year. So elevation or not, it wasn't something I could pass up. I'm know that the munros in Scotland are equally challenging, if not more so.

  4. I love your photos. Would you consider allowing me to use one for my book I am writing? I love the ones in the whites.

  5. sure thing pearl – I'll contact you via email.

  6. Awesome pictures…first time that I read your blog and enjoyed it immensely. Been up all the trails myself and found it to be incredible but so far the most difficult hikes that I've been on ever. Still…would go again in a heartbeat! Best of everything in your journey!

  7. Is this route possible to do without snow gear in late October?

  8. It really depends on the weather. All bets are off at that time of year. It's early October now and I'm already carrying more thermal wear just in case I need to spend an unexpected night out.

  9. I would do an overnight two weeks from now….with a 15-degree sleeping bag, thermal underwear, the works (just in case). My question, though, is the likelihood that I would need snowshoes to do the hike, rather than my regular hiking boots. I presume that's not likely to be needed?

  10. Sounds like an awesome hike. I am an AT section hiker and have not done the Whites yet. I am hoping to complete that section next year. My question for you, I am deathly afraid of thunderstorms when I am hiking. I have been through several but can't overcome the fear. What is the best time of year to hike the Whites with fewer chances of tstorms? If caught in one can you work your way down the side of the mountain so not exposed on the ridge to sit out the storm?

  11. June is the best time of year to avoid thunderstorms. You can't really get off Franconia Ridge in one unless you're at the Mt Liberty or Haystack end. The best thing to do is to watch the weather forecast and keep your eyes open – you can usually spot a storm approaching from 25-50 miles away and get down in time.

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