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Undercast in Franconia Notch

Franconia Notch with undercast
Franconia Notch with undercast

When we crested Kinsman Ridge, the first thing we saw was Franconia Ridge floating above a billowy cloud of undercast. Also called a cloud inversion, undercast occurs when a cold layer of air is trapped in a canyon or mountain pass and topped with a layer of warm air, which combines with moisture and condensation to form a sea of clouds. It was a breathtaking sight, to see Mts Lafayette, Lincoln, Liberty and Flume poking their summits above the cloud layer, like islands in a white sea. Yeah, I live for sublime days like this in the mountains in winter.

Our goal for the day was to climb North and South Kinsman Mountains, with a side visit to Bald Peak Mountain along the way. North and South Kinsman are on the Appalachian Trail, directly opposite Franconia Ridge in Franconia Notch and provide the best viewpoint to see the ridge from a distance.

To get there, we climbed the less popular Mt Kinsman Trail which approaches the ridge from the west. It’s a much nicer trail than the Lonesome Lake and Fishin’ Jimmy Trails which climb the ridge from the east, but much less used because the trailhead is more remote. The Kinsman Trail is 3.7 miles long and climbs 2850 feet to the ridge. This took 11 of us, close to 4 hours to break out by snowshoe. The final 1.6 miles of trail gains about 1600′ of elevation and it was by far the toughest part of the climb, because the snow was powdery and didn’t compact well under foot. For every two steps forward, you’d slide a half step back.

Snowshoeing up the Mt Kinsman Trail in deep snow.
Snowshoeing up the Mt Kinsman Trail in deep snow.

We stopped after 2.1 miles and snowshoed out to Bald Peak, a large open ledge atop a western spur of Kinsman Mountain. The mountaintop was smothered in mist, so we didn’t have any views, but we had a snack break and short rest, just the same. I have to get back up there. It looks like a fabulous place to do a little star watching on a clear night.

When we got to the Kinsman Ridge Trail junction, I promptly fell into a spruce trap and struggled to get out. When snow falls on small spruce trees in the mountains, it creates a little cocoon around the trees, leaving voids under the branches instead of being densely packed. If you step on one of the branches, you can fall into the void and become trapped if your boots or snowshoes become ensnared in the tangled mess of branches inside the hole. Getting out by yourself can be quite difficult and it can turn into a life threatening situation if you’re alone and can’t escape without assistance. It’s one of the chief reasons why hiking with other people is prudent in winter. I managed to extract myself, but was embarrassed by my plight.

From the junction, we climbed up to North Kinsman and a view ledge just below its summit. The undercast in the Notch had started to dissipate by then but was still thick and fluffy to the south. The day was waning however and we made the call to skip the final segment to the South Kinsman summit. The climb up to the ridge had been quite exhausting and we still had a long hike ahead of us to get back down.

Random Hikers at the North Kinsman view ledge
Random Hikers at the North Kinsman view ledge

I have to admit, I was pretty zonked after this hike and it took me a day rest up again. But I am having a blast snowshoeing this winter, even though it’s technically still autumn. It’s just three more weeks until the start of calendar winter and the prospect of more fun hikes on the horizon.

Here’s a map of our route. This is a georeferenced PDF created using Caltopo. You can navigate with it using an app like Avenza (directions here) or just print it out.

North Kinsman and Bald Peak

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