I got another very fine above-treeline hike in on Monday, climbing Mount Lafayette (5240′), Mount Lincoln (5089′) and Little Haystack (4780′) on Franconia Ridge.This is one of the top three or four most beautiful hikes in the White Mountains and is a shining example of how volunteer conservation and trail maintenance can preserve the beauty of a heavily used alpine area.
The Franconia Ridge Trail runs from south to north and links Mount Liberty (4459′), Little Haystack, Mount Lincoln and Mount Lafayette along a knife-edge, above-treeline trail that plunges thousands of feet to the Walker Brook and Lincoln Brook river valleys below. On a clear day, you can see the entire Pemigewasset Wilderness to the east including a profile view of distant Bondcliff, the Twins, and Owls Head Mountain. To the east, is the magnificent Cannon Cliff and the Kinsmans, with views of Vermont and even New York State in crystal clear weather.
There are a number of different routes one can take to get to the ridge including the Falling Waters Trail, The Old Bridle Path, the Liberty Springs Trail or the Garfield Ridge Trail. The only one of these that I’d never hiked up before was the Old Bridle Path, which climbs 3,600′ up to the summit of Mt Lafayette – it’s usually the route that I take off the ridge.
Although Lafayette and Lincoln are climbed from a trailhead in Franconia Notch, you can’t actually see the ridge or the summits from the road running through the Notch because they’re hidden by the subordinate north-south ridge, aptly named Agony Ridge, that is climbed by the Old Bridle Path. This is a worthy destination in itself because you can see the entire Franconia Ridge profile from its upper ledges.
After 3 miles, Agony Ridge tops out at Eagles Lakes, several small alpine tarns at treeline. This is a location of the AMC Greenleaf Hut, where I stopped for a long break to eat a pack of graham crackers and refill my water bottles. I was feeling a wee bit sluggish on the climb up after a long weekend of intense hiking on Mount Clay and down south in Massachusetts. I’m trying to get in shape for an upcoming Presidential Traverse in 2 weeks, which requires 23 miles of hiking and 9,200 feet of elevation gain in one day! The only way I know how to do that is to hike long miles with lots of elevation, if only to give myself the mental confidence that I can complete a hike like that.
The hike from the hut to the summit of Lafayette is 1.1 miles and entirely above treeline. The last time I was here was during a winter hike of the ridge and I remember how hard it was to find the cairns down in the fog. Even in warmer clear weather, it’s easy to miss one and wander off the path into the boulder fields on either side.
I summited Lafayette shortly after noon, but was a bit disappointed because it and Mt Lincoln were in and out of cloud without any clear views. However, I could see the sun shining brightly on Cannon Mountain, just across Franconia Notch, so it was just a matter of time before the clouds blew through and lit up Franconia Ridge. The question was how long I could wait and still get off the ridge and down the mountain, with an acceptable safety margin before nightfall.
By 2 pm the cloud cover blew threw and the sun came out and with it, my mood shifted from triumph at climbing the ridge, to the awe I always feel at being in such a beautiful place.
However, I hadn’t been idle during my wait for the sun. During that time, I’d had some nice chats with passing hikers including a man carrying an axe in his pack, who turned out to be the Liberty Springs caretaker, a campsite farther along the ridge that is managed by the AMC. We talked a bit about the restoration policy the AMC has regarding the unsightly bootleg, above-treeline campsites along the ridge, including the one mentioned by EastieTrekker in my post last week about Low Impact Stealth Camping.
I’d also spent time assessing the effectiveness of the scree-bordered paths that run the length of the ridge and encourage hikers to stay off the fragile and rare alpine vegetation growing on the sides of the peaks. These were originally built by Laura and Guy Waterman, the first volunteer trail maintainers on Franconia Ridge, whose influential essays in their book Wilderness Ethics, provided the intellectual underpinnings of the Leave No Trace conservation movement. It’s amazing how effective these scree paths are, given the amount of traffic that passes over Franconia Ridge during the summer months.
The sun came out just as I started climbing Mount Lincoln, far and away my favorite peak on the ridge, and the only one that doesn’t have an alternate trail running up it. It’s a perfect pyramid, an aesthetic marvel in my opinion, and being in such close proximity always fills my heart with joy.
From Lincoln it’s a short hike to Little Haystack and the descent off the ridge via the Falling Waters trail. If you are coming down this way, be forewarned that the trail is in a terrible state, and all the bridges have been washed out. I managed to get through it ok and find the trail, but it seems that a lot of the old signage was carried away by high water. I don’t know if this is still a leftover from Hurricane Irene or the result of the heavy spring rains we’ve had this year, but give yourself a little extra times to get through this section and the precarious footing over wet rock that it requires.
On a final note, I’ll leave you with a beautiful waterfall video from my hike yesterday near the base of the Falling Waters Trail, also a worthy destination, which appeals to all ages.
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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