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The Franconia Ridge Loop

Mount Lincoln, Franconia Ridge
Mount Lincoln, Franconia Ridge

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.

Agony Ridge, Old Bridle Path
Agony Ridge, Old Bridle Path

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.

Mount Lafayette
Mount Lafayette, Franconia Ridge

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.

Alpine Vegetation Preservation along the Franconia Ridge Trail
Alpine Vegetation Preservation along the Franconia Ridge Trail

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.

Basking in the Magnificence of Mount Lincoln
Basking in the Magnificence of Mount Lincoln

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.

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  1. Nice waterfall video! Did you see me waving to you from Garfield? J/k, we’d left the summit by the time you got up to the ridge. :-)

  2. Great post. Did the reverse trip last June with a friend of mine. Stayed overnight at Greenleaf – was an amazing experience I’ll never forget. We had beautiful weather for the entire trip. Definitely recommend it to anyone who is in somewhat decent shape :) Not sure I’d enjoying coming DOWN Falling Waters, tho…

  3. I was inspired by this post so I went up and did the loop on Saturday. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect- just enough cloud cover that sunglasses weren’t required and just enough sun to keep the temps nice while I hiked. There were tons of people up there which was to be expected, so it wasn’t exactly a serene stroll in the mountains, but the views were awesome nonetheless. One of the reasons I like reading Section Hiker- gives me good ideas for hikes and I can get a little trail recon so I know what to expect!

  4. When exiting my Bonds/Twins AMC backpacking experience that Sunday, and waiting for the car-shuffle, a few of us waiting had a chance to look at the list of volunteer trail maintainers for the Pemi-area on the trail bulletin/info board and saw your name. Glad you got out to enjoy a beautiful weekend!

    • Glad they put that up! Thx.

      • I (we?) were pretty much amazed how many singular names were on the trail maintainer volunteer list. I was expecting many more non-profit “groups” or corporate sponsors. I try to do as much obvious “trail love” as I can by picking up random litter and packing it out and doing my best to adhere to Leave-No-Trace principles. I saw several “Oh-Noes” this trip around Guyot/Bonds:

        – A few “trail crumbs” of orange rind on the trail between Mount Bond and Bondcliff.
        – The most horrible error was someone at the Guyot Campsite decided that the Guyot Spring was the “kitchen sink” and the morning we went to fill our water containers, we found someone had washed their food dishes in the Guyot spring spout and left rice crumbs just below the from-the-mother-mountain-spout. The most sad error is that most anyone staying in the area has to pass the prominently marked food-cleaning area in order to get to the spring.
        – Reclaimation area or overflow?! So when my group was returning from a Bonds loop to Guyot Campsite, there was this very even and sandy area that said “NO Trespassing, Vegetation reclamation area”, and there were two tents standing there. I (somewhat politely) challenged theonly human that was in that spot and he proudly declared that he was vegetation. So what’s that about? Is it overflow or is it “you aren’t tempted” area? I assume it’s overflow…but I’d wish it be marked not so deceptively.

  5. I retired as an Alpine Steward for the Franconia Ridge and as a member of the West End Trail Tenders , the group initially formed by Guy and Laura, a couple of years ago. We worked on the trail between Little Haystack, up over Lincoln, down to and over what Guy called Truman (not a 400-er but nevertheless significant if one is hiking the ridge, then up Lafayette. Often, we would extend our endeavors over past North Lafayette and across to Mt. Garfield. Additionally, we would maintain the Upper Greenleaf trail down to the hut. If you hike the ridge, often you will note that there is a little rock roof over the exit from waterbars. These were a Guy and Laura touch. Though they no longer hike the ridge (they used to do so about every two – three weeks), signs of their efforts are still present. On weekends and holidays the loop can become quite crowded. I have had daily counts in excess of 1,200! My spiel to as many hikers as I could talk to was focused on the very limited area of alpine area that exists east of the Mississippi.Therefore, the alpine plants are uniquely present within that small area. Once they had heard my presentation, I would anoint them “Ambassadors of the Alpine Zone” by virtue of the authority I gave unto myself, and their status would be confirmed by their helping some one else understand about the unique vegetation and the desirability to stay on the trails.

  6. In a few days I’ll be doing a big loop in this area. A buddy of mine and I are going to go up Falling Waters trail, head over the ridge, over Garfield, then down to Thirteen Falls to spend the night, then over to Franconia Brook tentsite for a second night, then loop back up and over to the car. I know you said that Falling Waters was in miserable shape…how do you think it would be going up it? The other option for us would be to take the AT (Liberty Springs) up, but it doesn’t look like there is decent parking at that trailhead? Lastly, has anyone forded the river to get to Franconia Brook tentsite from the west side? Not sure if its super hairy or anything…Any help from anyone would be much appreciated.

  7. Nice! I did this hike up Falling Waters and down Old Bridje Path. I got NH4k #2 and 3! It was beautiful up there; I’ll never forget it.

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