The weather forecast for that day wasn’t particularly enthralling: 60% chance of rain and afternoon thundershowers. But we didn’t have much flexibility with our schedule as we had a family reunion to attend on Sunday. Anyway, we’re not made of sugar, right?
So we flew up to Boston and drove up 93 all the way to Franconia Notch. We stayed at a friend’s place up there (thanks Fran). After gawking at the multitudes of stars and the milky way, we went to bed to get as much sleep as possible before our hike.
We awoke to overcast skies and an agreeable temperature in the mid 70’s. I went into town and bought some sandwiches and snacks for the hike. We drank coffee, ate sugary breakfast bars, packed our bags and off we went to the trailhead at the Lafayette Place Campground.
We decided to hike the loop in a counter-clockwise direction: 3.2 miles up the Falling Waters Trail to the Little Haystack Mountain Summit (4,760′). Once there, hike 1.7 miles on the ridge (which is the Appalachian Trail), gaining elevation with the successive summits of Mt. Lincoln ( 5,089′) and Mt. Lafayette (5,260′). Then leave the ridge hiking 1.1 miles down the Greenleaf trail to the Greenleaf Hut. From the hut, it’s another 2.9 miles down the Old Bridle Path Trail back to the trailhead where we began the hike. In all, it’s 8.8 miles. Which doesn’t sound too bad, right?
Here’s my assessment. It’s a hike that’s variously labeled “difficult” or “strenuous” and that is certainly is. But it’s especially challenging, and slow going, when it’s raining. From leaving the car to our return, it took us 10 hours, 10 minutes to complete, including a brief side hike to see Shining Rock about 100 yards off the Falling Waters Trail, eating lunch and refilling water at the Greenleaf Hut.
At the start, going up the Falling Waters Trail wasn’t bad. In fact, it was pretty ideal conditions for hiking up a mountain: mid 70’s and overcast. Sure, it was humid, but there were no black flies. And the trail was just beautiful, climbing up along the defile with multiple cascades and water falls for us to enjoy.
Near the top of the trail, there’s a short side trail that branches down about 100 yards to Shining Rock.
It’s a big, flat granite slab, shining with water runoff. It’s pretty nice, but turn away from the rock and you catch your first glimpse of the views to come as you gaze down back into the valley and the surrounding peaks.
After snapping some pictures, we climbed back to the Falling Waters Trail and continued up about 4/10’s of a mile to escape the trees and reach the summit of Little Haystack.
At Little Haystack, we paused amidst the throngs of other hikers to drink in the view and enjoy our lunch.
We had just completed about one-third of our planned hike. But most of the up-hill was behind us. The ridge promised faster progress.
While we ate our lunch we also witnessed the closing in of the peaks as the late afternoon showers seemed intent on arriving early. I love ridge hiking, It offers great views. But it seems our little family excursions are starting to develop a pattern of meeting unfriendly weather soon after reaching exposed ridge lines. We still had more “up” to go along the ridge and the weather was getting uglier, so we crammed our lunch down and continued the hike along the ridge.
Soon we reached Mt. Lincoln, the half way point of the ridge portion of the hike. And it was here, half way out on the ridge–fully committed to being up there and exposed–that we heard our first rumbles of thunder off in the distance. From Lincoln to Lafayette, our footsteps were accented with periodic rumblings as the rain came. First a few drops. Then persistent, soaking rain.
We paused–very briefly–at the summit of Lafayette to take a picture to commemorate our achievement before retreating down back to the cover of trees and the Greenleaf Hut. From the Summit, we were still 4.0 miles away from our car.
It was a very long 4 miles down. It is slow work to come down the glassy, wet surface of glacier-polished granite. When we finally reached the hut to re-fill our water we still had 2.9 miles to go and a decision needed to be made whether we should seek refuge there or continue down. We were losing daylight, but even budgeting 3.5 hours to travel 2.9 miles, we still had enough time. We needed every minute of the 3.5 hours to get to the car, though.
I have to say there’s a certain peace of mind that comes with hiking down the wet, slick granite rocks. There is no need to wonder if the next step will be slippery, whether you’ll lose your footing. You KNOW the next step will be slippery and that you WILL lose your footing. With this insight, we walked down those 2.9 miles like a child taking it’s first halting steps. Going slow was the only option and still we slipped and fell a couple of times.
At long last we limped back to our car and headed back to the notch. At this late hour, we realized there was no time to go back to the chalet, shower and change. All the restaurants in the area (and there aren’t many) would be closed. So we just drove off straight to the Horse and Hound Inn and presented ourselves in all our soggy, filthy, stinky, glory. I had two questions for the hostess: 1) were they still seating people for dinner and 2) would they be willing to seat US? Well, despite our appearance and rank odor, they were most gracious They served us up a wonderful meal which was very much appreciated at that late hour after that long day.
So, yeah, the Franconia Ridge Loop. It’s a tough hike, especially in inclement weather. But it is a beautiful hike, well worth the effort, if your schedule allows. I’d recommend a sunnier day, though!