Everyone has a handful of favorite places they have travelled, hiked or visited that leave a special imprint on the heart and mind. I have an ever growing list of favorite places I can’t wait to return to. But there is one hike that stands out as my most favorite to date: and that was the Franconia Ridge Trail in New Hampshire. This is the trail that lands on the cover of New Hampshire guide books for its stunning beauty and views. Most would say this trail is one of New Hampshire’s best. I would have to agree.
The trail weaves through the forest, past beautiful trickling creeks and waterfalls to the alpine zone before it spits you out on top of your first summit of the day. Follow the ridge, and the trail has you topping two more mountains before looping back to your starting point on another stunning trail. Three summits (over 4000 ft), jaw-dropping views and a challenging trail… all in one day?… Now that’s my kind of hike! For an added bonus, you can’t drive to the top of these mountains, which means you will only be sharing them with other hikers.
What: Franconia Ridge Loop Trail
Where: New Hampshire
Distance: 8.9 miles as a loop – View Trail Map
Falling Waters Trail: 3.2 miles
Greenleaf Trail: Mt Lafayette to AMC Hut: 1.1 Miles
Old Bridle Path Trail: 2.9 Miles
Franconia Ridge Trail: Mt Lafayette – Little Haystack: 1.7 Miles
Difficulty: Challenging but not impossible
Awesomeness Factors: View for days, 3 summits, waterfalls, AMC Hut
First of all, I love New Hampshire. It has this earthy, relaxed vibe that has you instantly feeling at ease, especially when coming from the big city. I love the forests and the never-ending summits of the White mountains. Everyone I met here seemed so outdoorsy and adventurous. NH has no shortage of great trails and summits to be explored.
The Franconia Ridge trail is great for a few reasons:
Is obvious – the views from the ridge are phenomenal.
It’s the perfect distance for a manageable day hike
Challenging but not impossible
It’s a loop trail, no backtracking and more views !
The potential overnight at an AMC Hut
Did I mention the views?
On my itinerary to this part of New Hampshire, I planned on ample wiggle room so I could wait out good weather for the best hikes. I was blessed with clear skies on Mt Washington two days before (after waiting out a day of rain). And I also waited a couple of days for the Franconia ridge to lose its heavy cloud cover. I was lucky to enjoy the most clear of days to take in the vast and stunning views from the top of the Franconia ridge. I can’t imagine how brutal it would be to try to hike and navigate the narrow ridge line in blowing winds, rain and heavy fog. If there is any advice I can offer: you WANT to wait for a clear day to do this hike. Weather in the White Mountains is unpredictable and fast changing. Know what conditions you may be facing up there before you go.
I waited out the weather at the Lafayette Campground in Franconia Notch State Park. It was right across the road from the trailhead. Other great trails spur off from this campground, providing lots of opportunity to keep moving and explore some other spots while you wait out good weather. For a mid-Sept weekend, the campground was pretty empty since the weekend campers found the near freezing temps at night a bit too cold for their liking. I arrived too early to see full fall colors. The leaves had just started to change: a trade-off for warmer days for hiking I suppose.
When planning the hike, one can go clockwise up the Old Bridle Path, past the Greenleaf AMC hut and direct to the summit of Mt Lafayette (5249ft) – the highest peak on the trek. Another option is counter-clockwise by starting on the Falling Waters Trail (3.2 Miles) putting you on top of Little Haystack (4760ft), allowing you to traverse the ridge trail to Mt Lincoln (5089ft) and upwards to Mt Lafayette. I chose to start on the Falling Waters Trail so I could have the last summit be the spectacular Mt Lafayette.
From the Lafayette Place Trailhead (can be reached direct from the campground), take the trail from the parking lot for about 0.2 miles until you reach a junction. Here you can decide to take the Old Bridle Path or the Falling Waters Trail. This trail climbs steadily and has you pass over a series of brooks and creeks and a great waterfall; worthy of a little snack break: the hike has only just begun at this point. The trail can be slick from the running water and there are lots of rocks and natural steps to navigate.
After a series of switchbacks through the trees, you finally reach a very steep climb up to the Franconia Ridge Trail. You reach the start of the alpine zone while on the Falling Waters Trail but still have no clear views, until BAM!!!… You pop out on top of Little Haystack: and what seems like instantly, you are surrounded in incredible views.
The ridge trail cuts left to Mt Lincoln and is well-marked by signs, rock paths and cairns. It skirts along the steep ridge going upwards to the next summit.
I took a long break atop of Mt. Lincoln. I would say the views from here were the best of the day, and I enjoyed it because I shared the summit with only two other hikers passing by.
The trail climbs up again to reach the summit of Mt Lafayette. Because this is the destination for a lot of the day hikers from the AMC hut, and AT thru-hikers passing by; this summit was far busier. What I love most about this trail is that the views from each summit are all unique but equally impressive.
Make your way down through the rock field (ouch my feet!!) on the 1.1 mile Greenleaf Trail to the AMC Greenleaf Hut. If you wanted to make this an overnight trip, this would be an AMAZING place to stay. It has toilets, bunk rooms and serves hot meals, all for a reasonable fee. Pretty good for a priceless view of Eagle Lake and the majestic Mt Lafayette when you wake up in the morning.
From the AMC Hut, pick up the Old Bridle Path back down the trailhead. This trail is less steep vs the Falling Waters Trail in my opinion, but had a significant amount of hand and feet hopping.
If you are looking for a challenging day hike or a quick overnight, I would recommend, HANDS DOWN, this as the hike you want to do if you visit New Hampshire. Nearby, Mt Washington is bigger and generally more popular, but the views from these three peaks will truly take your breath away. I was captivated by the mountains here, and I will be back again!
You may think: Where to from here Glynis? If this is your favorite hike, how can you top it? I have a plan! The next trip to New Hampshire will include an amazing adventure known as the Presidential Traverse: bagging 7 of the tallest peaks in the range… did I mention all in one day? There are always more adventures out there…you just need to know where to look for them.