By the time you feel a hotspot, it’s often too late to do anything about it. That’s been my experience with hiking up steep mountains in winter. I knew we were just 300 feet below Franconia Ridge, so I said screw it, and kept on going. I knew that the hot spot wouldn’t bother me once we got above treeline. Hiking on Franconia Ridge is so wondrously picturesque that you forget about anything else. It doesn’t matter what time of year you get up here, if you have clear weather, the scale of the mountains is simply awe-inspiring. Mt Washington is higher in elevation, but Franconia Ridge is a far prettier hike in my opinion and I never tire of hiking it.
Weatherwise, we were lucky last Saturday with fairly warm temperatures and a wind chill of only about -2. It was borderline goggles and mask weather, but all of us like our facial features (frostbitten noses turn black) so we put them on and bundled up for full exposure. A front was blowing through, so it was especially blustery, but we enjoyed partly sunny skies for most of the ridge walk until we got to Mt Lafayette.
I did this climb with my friends, Trey, Carrie, and SG who are all excellent hikers, well versed in the rigors and skills of winter hiking above treeline. It was the first time I’d hiked with Carrie in a few years, although she’s co-leading an AMC trip with me this weekend, and my first time with SG, who is about to go do some high elevation climbing overseas. Trey, the green man, and I have been doing weekly hikes recently and I really enjoy his company.
Rather than doing a full traverse of Franconia Ridge, which includes Mounts Lafayette, Lincoln, Haystack, Liberty, and Flume, we did the shorter Franconia Ridge Loop, hiking to Haystack Mountain, and then following the ridge north over Mt Lincoln and Mt Lafayette. This shorter loop is 8.8 miles long and runs up the Falling Waters Trail, north along the Franconia Ridge Trail, and back down the Old Bridle Trail over Agony Ridge. You can also reverse the loop, but I like climbing Haystack first because you’re protected by krummholz all the way until treeline and can easily abort if the weather is bad. If you climb Mt Lafayette first, there’s about a mile of full exposure between treeline (where Greenleaf Hut is located ) and the summit, and the cairns are very easy to lose in the fog.
I know Carrie and SG were a little concerned about the Lafayette descent and making sure we stayed on the right trail on the way down, as was I. I’ve come off Lafayette in fog before and not been able to find the cairns going down, which are small enough that it’s hard to distinguish them from the boulders that litter the steep west face of the mountain. Lafayette is often in cloud, so it’s good to bring a compass with you to make sure you come off it on the right bearing if visibility to low.
While there was a lot of snow below treeline, there was hardly any on top of the ridge which is continuously scoured by winds. I’d brought full crampons with me because I have needed them before on top, but we really only needed microspikes on this hike.
We hiked over Haystack, Lincoln, and Lafayette stopping frequently to take photos and point out peaks in the distance. Franconia Ridge forms the western side of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, a huge caldera of mountains, though non-volcanic. Owlshead Mountain parallels Franconia Ridge to the east, while Mt Garfield is farther north along the ridge. In the distance, we could see the other peaks bordering the wilderness: North and South Twin Mountains, Galehead, Guyot, West Bond, Mount Bond, and Bondcliff, and more, 360 degrees in all directions. It was a feast for the eyes.
But only for short time…because heavy cloud descended on the ridge just as we reached the summit of Mt Lafayette. As soon as the fog hit that peak, the temperature plunged at least 20 degrees, so we hiked on down, past Greenleaf Hut, and down Agony Ridge to Franconia Notch below.
The Franconia Ridge Loop is one of those hikes that you can savor for months afterwards, but I’ll be ready to go back soon.
Distance: 8.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 4100 ft
Hiking Time: 7 hours
Conditions: Packed Trails, Microspikes
Recommended Guidebooks and Maps:
- Appalachian Mountain Club White Mountain Guide
- AMC White Mountain National Forest Map Set
- Exploring New Hampshire Map from the Wilderness Map Company
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