The Franconia Ridge hike in New Hampshire is considered one of the best alpine hike in the Northeast United States. As the description on backpacker.com goes – “Get a taste of the Alps in New Hampshire on this high-wire loop. Franconia Ridge’s exposed, 1.7-mile alpine traverse–over Little Haystack Mountain, Mt. Flume, Mt. Lincoln, and Mt. Lafayette–feels much higher than its 5,000-foot elevation”. The 28th edition of AMC’s White Mountain Guide labels the high ridge from 5,260-foot Mount Lafayette to 4,780-foot Little Haystack Mountain—“a Gothic masterpiece.”
Sam and I started off at around 8.30 AM from the parking lot in Lincoln, NH – it was snowing and the temperature at the base was about 20 F. We took the falling water trail up, which was soft under our feet with the fresh snow over a layer of ice. The fresh snow provided good traction for the first mile. After we crossed Cloudland falls, as the climb became steeper, we put on our micro-spikes. We came across several waterfalls; sprinkled with ice and snow they created a sculpted view.
Once we reached the ridge, just above the treeline, we needed to decide if we should turn back or complete the loop down the old bridle path. We are all faced with critical decisions in our lives and nothing is more critical on a mountain than the decision to summit or turn back. There are numerous accounts of hikers needing rescue on the ridge due to insufficient preparation or blatantly ignoring the weather. In this particular case, we were well prepared with several layers of appropriate winter clothing.
The weather gods were smiling at us with the sun shining but conditions are known to change rapidly on the ridge. The winds were blowing with gusts of what seemed to be around 30 – 40 miles per hour which is normal on the ridge. Considering our preparation and the good weather, we decided to walk the high ridge. For the next 1.7 miles, we were traversing the 4 high peaks along the Franconia Ridge, fully exposed to the high winds.
We needed to keep a brisk pace to try to get down below the ridge to the treeline before dark. The wind howled with continuous gusts, which periodically was powerful enough to push us down. The windchill effect froze the water in our hydration pack within minutes.
The views were breathtaking all the way and it is not hard to imagine why this trail gets about 700 people a day in summer. But on this day, we only met 4 other hikers also in pairs of 2. It was just us and the mountain for the most part. The howling of the wind, the fast moving clouds, the bright sun, snow covered bushes and rocks, and the sound of our breath and footsteps, combined together, created an exhilarating experience. About 2.8 miles and 3.5 hours later, we made it to the Greenleaf AMC hut below the high ridge and just above the treeline.
The hut was closed for the season but it made a good stop for a quick snack with views of the ridge behind us. As we observed the ridge and the fast moving clouds, we took a deep breath and reflected upon our walking the ridge fighting the winds. We soon entered the protection of the treeline and our minds switched into a relaxed feel-good mode. It was a much easier walk as we traced along the old bridle path to the parking lot.
We finished the almost 9 mile loop in about 7 hr, 45 min. It was a very memorable hike and the Franconia Ridge mountains seem to be calling us to return.