Franconia Ridge: Mounts Lincoln & Lafayette

After nineteen years away from our home state, four years away from the East Coast entirely, and a pandemic that largely prevented us from seeing family and properly celebrating milestone moments for a couple of years, we decided to spend the first part of 2024 back in New Hampshire.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been four years since the start of the pandemic pandemonium. I guess a crisis of those proportions has a way of freezing time. Just two weeks before all hell broke loose and COVID lockdowns were instituted, our niece was born. Two years later, as restrictions were starting to ease, our nephew was born. To say we feel like we missed a lot of precious time with them – due to our own geographic location or the pandemic itself – would be an understatement. As such, we finally decided to take advantage of our remote status and spend some quality time up north.

While we’re admittedly not in love with the dreary New England weather and seemingly endless winters, we were really feeling the pull to come back and be closer to family for a few months. With little inventory to choose from for a four-month stay, we ultimately settled on the Lakes Region. We’d be within driving distance of everyone we love, a stone’s throw from Lake Winnipesauke, and easy striking distance of a bevy White Mountain trails.

Despite both growing up in New Hampshire, neither Stephan nor I have done any hiking in the Whites. Unlike the peaks we’ve gotten used to scrambling in the Rockies, the more diminutive Whites offer the advantage of year-round accessibility (winter conditions here are far less prohibitive than they are out west). Consequently, we figured it would be a great – if not muddy – place to finally do some meaningful spring hiking. Our objective became to start checking some summits off the list of NH’s 48 4000-Footers – a group of forty-eight White Mountain peaks that all stand above 4,000 feet in elevation.

Compared to the Rocky Mountain Ranges of the American and Canadian West, this northern swath of the Appalachians is comparatively tame. While the Rockies are much younger at around 70 million years old, the Appalachians have withstood some 300 million years of erosion and weathering. Consequently, the antiquated East Coast chain is the shortest of the three major ranges in the U.S. (the third being the Sierra Nevadas).

While we’ve been grateful for the opportunity to put boots to trail, the peaks here have been somewhat underwhelming. I know hundreds of Appalachian afficionados will probably decry snobbery, but we’ve found hiking to be much less interesting here than in the Rockies. To be fair, the trails here are indeed a rugged mixture of boulders and roots, and there’s still plenty of steep slopes and vertical gain to be found. The peaks here may be shorter, but they are quite certainly still mountains and should be respected as such.

That said, it’s pretty tough to regularly get above tree line here, and the landscape just isn’t as grand or diverse as we’ve found it to be out west. What’s more, for me at least, peak bagging has become as much (if not more) of a mental challenge in recent years as it is a physical one. There’s some seriously big terrain and massive exposure in scrambling those gnarlier peaks, and overcoming my trepidation around exposure has kind of become a quest in its own right.

Despite their more humble stature, though, we’re still excited to explore all the Whites have to offer. While they may lack some of the technical difficulty of their western counterparts, there’s still a number of challenging day and thru hikes to be found here – a few of which we’re hoping to take on later in the season. While we likely won’t be detailing every outing during our time here (there’s only so much to say about a trail that never breaks tree line), we’ll certainly be sharing some of our White Mountain summit adventures. First up: Mounts Lincoln and Lafayette.

The Franconia Ridge Trail that traverses Little Haystack, Mount Lincoln and Mount Lafayette is one of the most scenic and popular trails in the Whites and, in fact, all of New England. The open ridgeline is part of the second-highest range in the White Mountains, the Franconia Range, and offers sweeping panoramas out to the Presidential Range (the highest White Mountain Range). Unlike a lot of highpoints in the area, Franconia Ridge stays above tree line for a full mile and a half.

Located in Franconia Notch State Park, the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) reports that the trail can see an astonishing 700 hikers a day during the peak summer months. Because of its insane popularity, we opted to hike this one on an off-season weekday in early March. We’d much rather trade a warm, summer day with 700 of our closest friends for a lovely mix of spring snow, slush, ice, and mud. While our strategy worked and the trail wasn’t particularly crowded, we still saw a few dozen other hikers – far more than we’re used to see in the backcountry of the Canadian Rockies. I cannot begin to imagine hiking this trail on a sunny summer Saturday.

Not only is the ridge super scenic, but it can also be hiked as a loop. I don’t know about anyone else, but we love a good loop trail. So many of our summit scrambles are out-and-backs, and even Sanchez gets bored with a simple return route. The loop here can be hiked in either direction, with no real advantage to either one on most days (at least not in our opinion). The steepness is roughly equivalent regardless of which way you ascend. Depending on the season, though, the one benefit to hiking counterclockwise (up Falling Waters) is that you can tackle the water crossings early in the day. If there’s a lot of daytime melt during the spring season (or a lot of rain), water levels can rise noticeably, making the half dozen wet crossings much more of a challenge.

Since it was early spring and we weren’t familiar with the local watershed, we ultimately opted to hike counterclockwise. There had also been a lot of recent rain, so we checked out the creek level at the first bridge before continuing. The bridge marks the junction of the Falling Waters and Old Bridle Path trails and, as such, also marks the decision point for choosing which direction to hike. With the creek looking to be at a reasonable level, we continued right towards the Falling Waters Trail.

While we weren’t expecting much, we were pleasantly surprised with the first part of the hike. As we crisscrossed Dry Brook via six wet crossings, we passed three gorgeous waterfalls along the way: Stair Falls, Swiftwater Falls, and Cloudland Falls. About 1.3 miles into the hike and cascading some sixty feet in a veiling horsetail, Cloudland Falls is easily the highlight of the Falling Waters Trail.

From Cloudland Falls, it’s another 1.7 miles through the forest to the summit of Little Haystack. Despite its elevation of 4,724 feet, Little Haystack doesn’t meet the criteria for the AMC’s list of 4,000-footers. The mountain club only counts peaks above 4,000 feet that also have 200 feet of topographic prominence. Because Little Haystack stands less than 200 feet above the col between it and Mount Lincoln, it doesn’t count toward NH’s list of 48 (a similar ‘300 foot rule’ exists on Colorado’s list of fifty-three 14ers).

Official or unofficial, the view from Little Haystack is awesome. To the south, you can see neighboring Mount Liberty and Flume, while Owl’s Head sits just across the Lincoln Brook Valley to the east. Beyond Lincoln Woods, Mount Washington’s snowy summit was easily recognizable. Directly in front of us, the rocky spine to Mount Lincoln was shockingly scenic. After being shrouded in a stubborn cloud atop Mount Moosilauke a few days prior, it felt great to be above tree line and actually have a view.

From Little Haystack, it was a quick half-mile jaunt over to Mount Lincoln. Atop the 5,089-foot peak – her fourth in the Whites and second official 4,000-footer – Sanchez claimed her 100th summit. While, for her, it was all about the celebratory snacks, it felt a little more special to us. This was a dog destined for a life on the streets before being unceremoniously dumped at an elephant rescue in Mae Taeng, Thailand. And now, ten years later, here she was. On her hundredth mountain. In her thirty-second state. In her third country. Quickly approaching 2,000 miles of unique wilderness trails hiked and half a million vertical feet (88 vertical miles) gained. I was so overjoyed for her that I didn’t even care when I got home later and learned that I had f—ed up her count and her 100th peak had, in fact, been just minutes before on Little Haystack (smacks hand to forehead). It didn’t matter. She was a fuzzy warrior taking life by storm, and our very own scruffy hero.

Continuing north along the prominent spine, it was another mile to the top of Mount Lafayette’s 5,249-foot summit. The views here and along the entire length of the ridge are solid, with a nice look at peaks such as Cannon Mountain, Mount Garfield, and Mount Washington. As we paused for lunch, we also admired some of the horizontal ice covering the signs and rocks atop Lafayette. Horizontal icicles are a hallmark of winter hiking in the Whites, and are formed by the combination of fierce winds and freezing fog that is so common on these mountains. While it had a been a little too warm for the more dramatic ice forms, the quickly melting vestiges were still super cool to look at.

From our third and final summit of the day, we descended Lafayette via the west ridge toward the Old Bridle Path Trail. Here, late winter/early spring conditions had us slogging over everything from snow to ice to mud to bare rock. After about a mile, we reached the AMC Greenleaf Hut. As we turned southward, we got a great look back at Franconia Ridge before finally dipping back into the forest. From there, it was an easy 0.8 miles back to the trailhead.

While my attitude toward the Whites may have seemed a bit dismissive earlier, it didn’t come with ill intent. We all find that utmost embodiment of beauty and joy in different places, in different forms, and in different ways. And while this may not be my place, it’s still magic for many. Undoubtedly, we did find a piece of that magic atop Franconia Ridge. The wide-open ridge was stunning, and there were views for days of those classic, rolling green New England hillsides. Between the views and the waterfalls, it’s obvious to see why this one is such a sought-after day trip and a favorite of so many.

Total distance: 8.3 miles
Elevation gain: 3,931 feet

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