Hiking Mt Lincoln and Mt Lafayette along the Franconia Ridge Trail is one of the best hikes in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and one that I never get tired of hiking since the views are tremendous on a clear day. While we anticipated having clear weather on this hike, it didn’t turn out that way. This is another instance where it pays to be prepared with the right clothing and gear whenever you venture above-treeline in the White Mountains.
Located in Franconia Notch, the hike up Lincoln (5089′) and Lafayette (5260′) is a loop hike, climbing the Falling Waters Trail (3.2 miles/3050′ gain) and descending via the Old Bridle Trail (4.0 miles), passing by the AMC’s Greenleaf Hut where you can resupply water, get a snack, or use a bathroom.Lincoln Lafayette Loop
The hard part of the loop is getting up to the Franconia Ridge Trail which requires several thousand feet of elevation gain up the Falling Waters Trail which is frequently wet and quite rocky. The climb up ends on Little Haystack, which is a sub-peak along the ridge. Huddled behind its rocky summit (from the prevailing westerly wind) it is a good spot to stop, rest, have a drink, and adjust your clothing since it’s usually cooler and much windier above treeline for the exposed ridge portion of the hike.
I climbed this route the other day with my friend and grid partner, Ken, who needed no persuading to hike it with me since it’s such an inspiring route. I only needed Lincoln for my July Grid (hiking all 48 – 4000 footers in each month), as I’d hiked Lafayette on a prior July hike, but this is one of those hikes where you owe it to yourself to hike both to complete the loop.
The forecast was a little iffy for this hike with sustained winds of 30 mph, gusting to 45 mph, and a chance of light rain until 11 am, clearing in the afternoon. Those conditions would give me pause in early spring, autumn, or winter, but this being summer I wasn’t that worried about them since the warmer temperatures would offset any risk of hypothermia. Still, we pushed our start time back 2 hours to let the weather clear.
A bigger factor for me was the likely lack of crowding up on Franconia Ridge, mid-week after a major holiday. This hike is often mobbed by visitors in summer, but you can usually experience some solitude after a major holiday (after July 4), mid-week, and with an early AM start.
We set out to climb up the Falling Waters Trail, which passes many breathtaking waterfalls. Like all White Mountain Trails, it’s steep and rocky, wet, and full of tree roots. Though the temperature was cool, we were both in shorts because you work up a sweat climbing these peaks. As we gained elevation, you could see that the sun was trying to burn through, but it never did. Instead, it got colder and windier, but we had both packed our usual 4000 footer gear with fleece hoodies, a rain jacket and pants, a puffy, and a warm hat.
When we got to Little Haystack, I layered up, putting on my fleece hoody, a fleece hat, and Zpacks wind shirt. Ken donned similar layers, plus gloves, which I’d wished I’d brought. We both stayed in shorts though, since our legs need less warmth than our torsos. The wind was blowing briskly and the ridge was smothered in cloud as we turned north and started the ridge walk to Mt Lincoln and Mt Lafayette.
We’ve both been on the Franconia Ridge Trail many times, but this hike resembled winter more than summer with the low cloud obscuring Lincoln and Lafayette. Visibility was about 50 feet, but the trail is well marked and bordered by scree walls so it was easy to follow. The scree walls are designed to keep people from trampling the alpine plants that grow alongside the trail. “Plants in the alpine zone take decades to grow and under your footsteps, die in a day.”
We reached the summit cairn on Lincoln and then headed over to Lafayette, passing over Mt Truman, which is a sub-peak located between the two. Unfortunately, the sun never did come out and the cloud cover only began to clear as we descended the Old Bridle Path to the AMC’s Greenleaf Hut.
That trail is in the midst of a major renovation because it’s so heavily used and we passed a trail crew on the way down. They were installing stone stairs, making use of the abundant local materials for the job.
On the one hand, you have to applaud the fact that the Appalachian Mountain Club, the US Forest Service, and the State of New Hampshire are fortifying the trails up to Franconia Ridge, to repair the amount of overuse they get. But on the other, there’s a loss of wildness that comes when you install long stretches of stone stairways up the side of a mountain. Mt Washington (the Crawford Path) and Mt Tecumseh have undergone similar “improvements” although you can still experience their original “mountainess” in winter when everything is buried in snow and ice.
As I descended Lafayette, I thought to myself, “I need to finish hiking the 4000-footer grid, before all the trails up to the high peaks have stairs that climb to the summit.” The wildness of a mountain summit and the feelings of awe and accomplishment that I get by climbing it are the things I relish. No worries though: there are hundreds of other wild mountains left in New Hampshire and Maine to go climb instead.
Once past the hut, we started the long hike down the Old Bridle Path which is the long ridge that runs from the hut back to the start of the hike in Franconia Notch. The section just below the hut has a series so of “bumps” called the Agonies. I imagine they are agonizing if you climb up this trail, but I think I’ve only ever hiked down it.
It took another 2 hours to get back down to the Notch, where the weather was sunny, clear, and warm. Ken, in his infinite wisdom, had brought some cold beers in a cooler along with lawn chairs so we could rehydrate in the trailhead parking lot after our hike. We have a mutual friend who always has a cooler in her car for after-hike refreshments, a practice I think we’ll be adopting this summer.