Eagle Cliff in a 3,420′ peak in Franconia Notch, one of the most beautiful mountain passes in the White Mountains. Although it’s not a 4,000 footer, it commands tremendous views of the surrounding high peaks including Mt Lafayette and Mount Cannon. But it’s not a popular peak to climb because there’s no trail to the top. It’s a bushwhack and the bushes on it whack back, so you’re going to bleed a bit if you want to climb up to its ledges for great views.
It’s well known that the people who bushwhack in New Hampshire’s White Mountains are half-crazed because the off-trail hiking here is so tough and even more remotely situated. On the flip side, that makes bushwhack hikes perfect adventures if you want to get away from the hordes of people who flock to the mountains in summer to climb the White Mountain 4,ooo footers. But Eagle Cliff is also very easy to get to, just off Interstate 93, and a short 2-3 hour bushwhack to the top, making it a good peak to practice your navigation skills. It’s also a moderate bushwhack and a good hike to do if you only have time for a half-day adventure.
Eagle Cliff is not one cliff but many with a number of subpeaks situated along a narrow tree-covered ridge at the northern end of Franconia Notch. The southwest face or front is covered with a series of cliffs and ledges, while its northeastern backside is a steep and densely forested slope that runs into the Lafayette Brook basin. The highest point on the ridge is the right-most or southern peaklet which has a canister and log book that you can sign if you make it to the top.
In preparing for this hike, I did a google search to see if there was a preferred approach up to the Eagle Cliff summit. I found two possible routes, one up the front of the peak on an avalanche slide and a second behind the peak that is reached by hiking up the Greenleaf Trail and bushwhacking through the forest behind the mountain to the summit ridge.
I decided to hike of the latter of these two because I was going solo and some of the trip reports about the front route made it sound like the slide and surrounding ledges were a little sketchy without climbing protection. I figured I’d take a safer, if longer and more arduous route, and that I could always return to the front of the peak if the back way didn’t pan out.
I parked in the Mt Canon Tramway lot across I-93 from Eagle Cliff, crossed under the highway, and entered the forest below the peak at the Greenleaf Trail head. This trail is not widely used anymore but used to be the primary route up to the AMC’s Greenleaf Hut, before people started hiking up the Old Bridle Path. A few years ago, I’d hiked down from the hut to the Notch after a long Franconia Ridge Traverse so I was familiar with the Greanleaf Trail.
From the trail head, the Greenleaf Trail ascends moderately, passing through a dense forest that mutes the sound of passing vehicles along nearby I-93. The treadway alternates between mineral soil and rocky sections of talus, clear evidence that rocks have been falling off the cliffs over time above and rolling downhill.
After an hour of hiking, I came to the narrow pass between Eagle Cliff and Mt Lafayette. The rocks here are wet and covered with thick moss. I looked closely and found a remaining patch of snow in one deep crevace, even this late into June. I’d also seen snow the last time I hiked through this pass in summer, about the same time of year.
Looking up, the top of Eagle Cliff loomed above me like the front prow of a huge ocean liner. My goal was to flank it it and find the canister log book somewhere amongst the summit spruce trees.
I continued walking a bit beyond the pass, hoping to find a herd path in the trees. I found what looked like a trail at the first water bar and hiked down to a scattered pile of rocks in a small open area. I couldn’t tell if this was a directional cue or not, so I took a magnetic bearing that would keep me paralleling the cliff face. There were a lot of old herd paths in the woods, but rather than commit myself too early, I wanted to hike northeast toward the interior of the ridge and avoid climbing up the steep and exposed end.
After about 45 minutes of bushwhacking and signs of many different herd paths, I started to slowly ascend the back of the peak using what open routes I could find before they petered out or were blocked by blowdowns. I kept a slow and steady pace, breaking through brush when I had to, but trying to avoid patches of hobble bush or ledges by walking past them rather taking them head on and over. I made it up to about 3250′ this way, before I switched directions and started climbing on a southwesterly track.
Luck was with me because I found an fairly open, narrow route through the woods than ran to the top of the peak. Observing closely, I could see that other hikers had broken branches along the sides of the route as they’d bushwhacked through here at an earlier time.
I followed this route a short ways until it came out in a small clearing with clear views of Northwest Lafayette at the top of Lafayette Brook.
I was surrounded by a dense patch of short spruce trees about 6′ in height, but I could see open sky above them and knew that it was simply a matter of hiking southeast until I came to the abandoned Eagle Cliff Trail running along the summit ridge. I searched for an easier path, but ended up bulldozing through, coming out at a huge open ledge across from the Mt Cannon Cliff (see top photo). I sat there for a while, admiring the view of Cannon, and swatting away the black fies that swarmed around my nicked and bleeding hands.
The summit canister and log book were nearby so I signed in.The last person to summit the peak had been there 3 weeks earlier – not a crowded place. I then continued to bushwhack along the top of the ridge to see if I could find any more open ledges and good views. It was pretty dense up there and difficult to see the front of the cliffs facing Cannon or to know where I was along the ridge.
I ended up hiking off the back of the ridge at its half-way point and rather than climb back up, I decided I’d rather walk around the back of the peak and bushwhack as close as possible back to the Greenleaf Trail head. I did this by descending slowly while heading northwest until I came to the north end of Eagle Cliff and could flip back in a southeasterly direction to the service road below the peak.
The woods opened up once I got down to 2500′ and it was pretty easy going although I had to bushwhack through a zone of hobblebush and blowdowns. As I got lower, I could hear the water coming down Lafayette Brook and decided that I’d stay above it rather than drop down the steep slopes to water level.
So I stayed above the stream basin, passing by one upslope feeder stream after another until I hit open woods and looped around the northern end of Eagle Cliff. This brought me out right at the Gallen Memorial and the adqueduct style Lafayette Brook bridge with its tremendous views of Northwest Lafayette and the back of Eagle Cliff.
This was a great bushwhack and I can’t wait to do more of these 3000-footers in the Franconia Notch area.
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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