Friday, October 31, 2014

Franconia Ridge

Fall foliage on Mt. Lafayette and Mt. Lincoln
8.9 miles loop, 3800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous
Access: Paved road to trailhead, no fee required

The Franconia Ridge Loop ascends from a dramatic, deep pass in the White Mountains up to the stark alpine world of some of the tallest peaks in the northern Appalachians. It's a tough and rocky day hike, but it's also outlandishly scenic. The scenery along the hike is also greatly varied: in just under 9 miles, the loop visits a beautiful northern hardwood forest, a set of cascading falls, and a sub-alpine forest of spruce and fir; then, a glorious 2-mile stretch of alpine tundra along the crest of Franconia Ridge with never-ending views, before a descent to an Appalachian Mountain Club overnight hut and finally a ridgeline hike with views from outcrops during the descent to the trailhead. While this hike has great rewards, it also involves a fairly large chunk of elevation gain as well as some harsh terrain and weather; please be aware of your abilities before you attempt it.

As many readers know, I've sadly moved from Virginia (thus the paucity of recent updates); but I still miss the Appalachians dearly, especially during the fall! So when I found myself in Boston at the end of September, I couldn't pass the opportunity to see a part of the Appalachians- albeit the unfamiliar White Mountains, rather than my home Blue Ridge- during peak fall foliage. The Internet (and the folks over at Virginia Trail Guide) suggested that my best bet for a day in the White Mountains would be the Franconia Ridge Loop, which was just a tad over 2 hours driving from Boston, so I decided to hike the loop and see what the White Mountains were all about.

The hike ascends from a parking lot off I-93 opposite the Lafayette Campground on the Falling Waters Trail, then follows the Appalachian Trail from the summit of Little Haystack to Mt. Lafayette, descends via the Greenleaf Trail to the AMC Greenleaf Hut and then returns to the trailhead on the Old Bridle Path. I highly recommend doing the loop in this direction rather than the other way around, as the Falling Waters Trail is very steep and rocky and is better done uphill than down.

I arrived at the trailhead very early in the morning on an overcast Tuesday, slightly worried about whether there'd be any views; it was raining in Boston and the forecast indicated a slight chance of rain in the Whites as well. I quickly started up the trail leading behind the bathrooms, which soon split at a bridge; I crossed the bridge on the Falling Waters Trail (I would later return via the other fork on the Old Bridle Path). The trail stayed fairly flat or climbed just slightly for the next few tenths of a mile until it came to the oddly named Dry Brook, which it began to follow uphill.

In the next mile, the trail crossed the stream multiple times, passing many beautiful cascades as well. The stream level was fairly low; typical for an Appalachian stream at the beginning of fall. This made stream crossings quite easy (these were all rock hops- no bridges), but also meant that the waterfalls all fell on the drier side. They were still very beautiful and were well complemented by the colors of maple and oak and the low light caused by the clouds above. The most spectacular of these falls was Cloudland Falls, a 70 or 80 foot cascade that fanned out as it tumbled down a rock face.

Waterfall on Falling Waters Trail
Cloudland Falls
The trail here was often rocky and a little wet, with some areas requiring some mild scrambling. In wetter times, descending this trail is potentially hazardous, so I'd recommend going up and not down this trail if doing the loop on the ridge.

Past the falls, the trail climbed steadily, though never too steeply, up the west side of Little Haystack Mountain. Soon after passing Cloudland Falls, I entered into the clouds themselves; the vegetation changed from deciduous to coniferous. Soon, I found myself above the clouds: I was still in the trees, with limited views, but above the sky was blue and behind me I could faintly make out the outline of Cannon Mountain. Hoping to get to the ridgeline and its views quickly, I sped up my pace, skipping the turnoff to Shining Rock and emerging into a forest of six-foot tall conifers at three miles and two hours from the trailhead. A final push brought me to the alpine summit of Little Haystack, where I could see over a sea of clouds to Cannon Mountain and the cloud-shrouded summit of Mt. Lincoln and the brilliant fall colors of the valley directly to the east.

At the top of Little Haystack, the Falling Waters Trail intersected the white blazes of the Appalachian Trail. Here, I turned left, taking the AT north along the spine of Franconia Ridge. Unfortunately for me, clouds rolled in almost immediately after I reached the ridge, fogging out the views of the rocky Mount Lincoln and of Mounts Liberty and Flume to the south. The clouds moved quickly though, allowing occasional views that would slip away as quickly as they had come. At various points, I caught sight of Kinsman Mountain to the west and Garfield Mountain to the north; however, the summits of Lincoln and Lafayette remained largely hidden. The ascent from Little Haystack to the top of Lincoln was fairly straightforward: in spots, there was a bit of a scrambling, but the trail was generally wide and easy to follow. Although the spine of Franconia Ridge was dramatic, it also wasn't the knife edge that you'd find on peaks in the West, making it feel fairly safe.

From the top of Lincoln, standing at the second-highest point on Franconia Ridge, I still had no views; fog enveloped the ridge from all sides. Atop Mt. Lincoln, I was passed by a northbound thru-hiker- which blew my mind for just the slightest second because I was so used to the AT in Virginia, where thru-hikers were long gone by the fall. I gazed out into the fog a bit and then continued along the ridge down the north side of the peak.

At this point, the ever-mobile clouds suddenly rolled off the top of the ridge, clearing a view of the spine of Franconia Ridge and beyond that, the peak of Mt. Lafayette. Blue skies appeared: to the northwest, I could peek just slightly into the valley beyond Franconia Notch, and in front of me was the wind-swept alpine tundra of Franconia Ridge, one of the largest alpine zones in the eastern US (only the alpine zones in the Presidentials and on Katahdin are larger).

Appalachian Trail on Mt. Lincoln
I hiked a little further to a bump between the summits of Lafayette and Lincoln. The pyramidal summit of Lafayette rose directly ahead, a stunning, lordly crown of rock and tundra rising above a forest of miniature conifers.

Mount Lafayette
The summit seemed hard to gain from this vantage point, but the trail was fairly straightforward and a quick, short ascent put me atop the sixth highest peak of the Whites and the highest outside the Presidentials. The summit was a broad, rocky area with what seemed to be the stone foundations of a former building and the junction between the Greenleaf Trail and the AT. I ate my lunch at the summit, enjoying the blue sky that just hours before I had been afraid would not appear.

The views to the east remained in the clouds, but the view of the ridge and the surounding landscape was stunning and easily worth the effort needed to gain the ridge. Higher peaks remained green from the conifers; halfway down, the spruce and fir faded to golden and orange deciduous trees. In the distance, Kinsman Mountain and other peaks of the Whites floated above the low cloud layer over the Notch. Looking back south along the trail I had come, I could see the clouds dancing around the Appalachian Trail as it snaked along the ridgeline to the rocky massif of Mt. Lincoln.

Kinsman and Cannon Mountain above the clouds
View from Mt. Lafayette to Mt. Lincoln
I was unfortunately on a time crunch that afternoon to return to Boston, so I left the summit before noon and began my descent down the Greenleaf Trail. The beginning of the descent was extraordinarily scenic, with a sweeping view out towards Franconia and the valley north of the Notch. Most notably, the clouds that had accumulated at the southern end of the Notch had begun to pour through the Notch, creating a massive cloudfall at the foot of Cannon Mountain. It was a remarkable scene and it was a big pity I was somewhat rushed and couldn't spend as much time admiring it.

After a good part of a mile of descending, I exited the alpine zone and returned to the conifer forests; a few hundred more yards of rocky descent and a slight uphill brought me to the Appalachian Mountain Club Greenleaf Hut, which overlooked Eagle Lake with a sweeping view of Franconia Ridge. The hut is one of the many in the White Mountains that allow for hut-to-hut hiking through the highest peaks of the range. I popped inside for a quick look and found what seemed to be comfortable looking bunks in dorm-style rooms, a big kitchen, and some reading material and maps. I also started running into many more hikers than I had previously- apparently the hike is a popular day-hike destination from the Notch.

Eagle Lake
AMC Greenleaf Hut
From the hut, I started my descent to the parking lot on the Old Bridle Path, which follows Agony Ridge. I was expecting a forested, straightforward path back down, but was pleasantly surprised by the many views along the descent. I was even more pleasantly surprised when I emerged on a rock outcrop and saw that the low clouds that had earlier filled the Notch had dispersed and that the valleys below were ablaze with fall color. And what color! The lower flanks of both Lafayette and Lincoln had been painted orange and gold. Above, the slopes turned green again, covered with conifers; even further up, the bare, rocky peaks of Franconia Ridge towered over the valley. To the south was a view of layers of mountains fading out to flatter terrain and to the west I could see the massive stone face of Cannon Mountain. I enjoyed this scenery as I descended Agony Ridge, stopping at each of the many rock outcrops.

Lincoln from the Old Bridle Path
But I had limited time and had to get back to the car; so I eventually tore myself away from the views and continued downhill at a quick pace. The rest of the trail was fairly uneventful: there were no views and no wildlife but the forest had plenty of vibrant fall color. After a long descent, the trail flattened out for a stretch and then rejoined the Falling Waters Trail. Less than an hour after I left the viewpoints on Agony Ridge, I was back in the car and on the way south to Boston.

I enjoyed my first trip to the Whites very much, enough so that I highly look forward to returning. The Franconia Ridge Loop was one of the highlights of my hiking experiences in the Appalachians: in many ways, it is quintessentially Appalachian (the rocky outcrops of Agony Ridge, the tumbling streams along the Falling Waters Trail) while in other ways, it is quite unique (the barren alpine zone along the ridge). These qualities make the hike both a summation of the Appalachian experience and an exception from it. If you're in good shape, decently experienced, and in New Hampshire during good weather, this hike is not to be missed.