I really don’t like things that crawl or land on you. Stepping on animal feces or slipping and falling in a muddy ditch is really not my idea of a good time. And I especially dislike being in the vicinity of things that can eat you. On paper, I’m not much of a nature lover, but my germophobia (insectophobia? bear-phobia?) goes out the window during a really good hike. There is something about conquering a mountain that makes you feel almost invincible. That was my state of mind after a 9-hour hike in Franconia Notch State Park.
If you find yourself in the New Hampshire area and like to hike, the Franconia Ridge Loop is a must. Voted as one of the World’s 20 Best Hikes by National Geographic, this nearly 9-mile loop crisscrosses over a system of waterfalls and passes through three different mountain peaks: Little Haystack (4760′), Mount Lincoln (5089′), and Mount Lafayette (5260′).
The loop is a combination of several different trails: Falling Waters Trail, Franconia Ridge Trail, Greenleaf Trail, Old Bridle Path, and even the Appalachian Trail.
You can hike the loop in either direction (starting with the Falling Waters Trail or the Old Bridle Path). There are pros and cons with starting in either direction. The Falling Waters Trail is slightly more difficult but the Old Bridle Path has several steep rocks that are much harder to handle going up than anything you’ll find in the other direction.
On the day of my hike, my traveling companion and I got up at the crack of dawn (did you know there is such a thing as 3:30 in the morning?) so that we could get on the long road up Interstate 93 and make it to the trail’s parking lot before 7 am. It was a weekend in early June and we were expecting a bit of a crowd but we were pleasantly surprised to find that others were not as willing to get up as early as we were.
We began with the Falling Waters Trail, which, as the name suggests, is a beautiful path through a system of waterfalls (tip number 1: don’t be like me, wear waterproof shoes).
This section of the loop isn’t that difficult but it is slippery. After falling on my face once (twice), I realized another benefit to starting with this trail: falling on slippery rocks while hiking up is way better than falling while hiking down.
Past the waterfalls, the hike becomes pretty steep as you make your way toward the Little Haystack summit (which is about 3 miles away from the starting point of the trail). At the bottom of the mountain it was a warm 75 degrees while at the top it was closer to 50 degrees (tip number 2: bring layers!)
The views from Little Haystack were unbelievable. It was a beautiful day. A bright blue sky with just enough layers of fluffy white clouds to add more drama to an already breathtaking mountain view. For anyone looking for inspiration, this very spot was actually the setting for my brother’s engagement proposal to his wife (although, keep in mind that if she (or he) says no, it will be a very long and awkward hike back down the mountain).
Past Little Haystack, you traverse through a relatively moderate path up to Mt. Lincoln and Mt. Lafayette. The path itself has some steep but short inclines and the views from both summits are just as extraordinary.
And then the decline begins. For anyone with bad knees (like me), this will be the most difficult section of the loop. It’s a high-impact, rocky path with a steep decline that puts a lot of pressure on the knees.
About a mile down from the Mt. Lafayette, you’ll come across Eagle Lake and the Greenleaf Hut, a resting spot for Appalachian Trail hikers. Here you’ll find snacks, composting toilets, and fresh spring water. Another benefit to starting with the Falling Waters Trail is that you’ll come across the Greenleaf Hut toward the end of your hike, when you’ll more tired and in desperate need to rest and refuel.
At this point, you’ll have about 2.9 miles left to go in the loop back down to the parking area. I made the mistake of letting my knee rest a little too long at the Greenleaf Hut, and the last segment of the hike was a bit unpleasant. The views on the way back down, however, were still pretty incredible.
After the hike, you’ll definitely need to refuel. We stopped at the Woodstock Inn restaurant and brewery (a favorite dining spot for locals and visiting hikers alike) for some much needed comfort food and alcohol (the generous plate of spicy mac and cheese I ordered really hit the spot!)
General Tips for Hiking the Franconia Ridge Loop
Avoid the crowds: This is a very popular trail. Hiking in late spring or early fall is best, but if summer time is your only option, go mid-week or very early on a weekend. I went on a Saturday (damn you work schedule) in early June and began my hike before 7 am just to avoid the crowds.
Bring your hiking sticks: If you have bad knees, hiking sticks are probably a good idea. This trail is rocky and steep in many spots and the impact on your knees is brutal. As a relatively fit, 30-something I had to endure watching people twice my age running down the last 2.9 miles of the loop while I was practically limping down the mountain. What should have been a 7 hour hike, took almost 9 hours because I wasn’t well prepared.
Check the weather: At the summits there is no cover and the weather can change in a heart beat. I was lucky enough to hike on a perfect day but some dark clouds in the distance definitely had us worried. If there is even a chance of rain, reschedule your hike and if you’re caught by surprise by a rain storm, turn back around if possible.