DIFFICULT Dayhike: 8.9 miles (6.5 hours) — 65 miles from Hanover
The Franconia Ridge is one of New England’s most dramatic hikes. Close to one third of the route is above treeline, some of it on a steep-sided ridge known as “the Knife Edge”. This hike is also one of the most popular dayhikes in New England, so if you have the opportunity to visit Franconia Ridge on a non-holiday weekday, you will be able to focus more on the natural wonder and less on the hundreds of people who frequent this hike on busy days.
Because the Franconia Ridge is the first barrier to many summer thunderstorms traveling across from the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, lightning strikes are particularly common on this hiking route. In addition, this same exposure creates fiercely cold conditions on the Ridge when the winds back into the northwest following a passing cold front. This hike is the most difficult and dangerous of any in this section. Check the weather forecast before setting out, and bring extra equipment.
How To Get There:
Follow the directions for getting to the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge as detailed in the Moosilauke chapter (Route 10 North to Orford, Route 25A East to Wentworth, Route 25 West to Warren, Route 118 East to MRL). Continue uphill on Route 118 past the Ravine Lodge, over the height of land (past an overlook with views ahead to the Franconia Ridge), and downhill to where Route 118 converges with Route 112. Turn right onto Route 112 and follow it into North Woodstock. Cross Route 3 at the stoplight, continue across the Pemigewasset River on the stone bridge, and come to the intersection with I-93 in Lincoln. Turn left onto I-93 North, and follow it towards Franconia Notch where it becomes the Franconia Notch Parkway. Get off the Parkway at the Lafayette Place northbound exit, where the sign says TRAILHEAD PARKING. Park in the parking lot.
The Old Bridle Path leaves from the center of the parking lot on a paved path that leads up to two bathrooms (0.0 miles). Continue to the right past the bathrooms, along the edge of the old gravel pit clearing, and into the woods.
At 0.2 miles, reach the junction with the Falling Waters Trail. This trail, crossing over Walker Brook on a wooden bridge to the right, will be your descent route. Stay straight on the Old Bridle Path, and shortly turn left as the trail ascends a rock staircase. The trail traverses left for a quarter mile, switchbacks right, and begins its ascent through the beech and red maple of the northern hardwood forest.
At 0.9 miles, following two switchbacks to the right, the trail makes a wide turn back to the north. Walker Brook roars through the trees far below. The trail now ascends to the north over two more switchbacks.
At 1.6 miles, after ascending a rock staircase, the trail turns sharply left at “Halfway Corner”. Walker Brook can again be heard in the valley below. Before various trail relocations lengthened the lower section of the Bridle Path, this turn marked the halfway point between the highway and Greenleaf Hut. This trail originally was constructed in the late 1850s as a riding trail for carrying visitors from the Lafayette Place hotel in Franconia Notch to the stone shelter atop Mount Lafayette.
After Greenleaf Hut was built by the AMC in 1930, the Old Bridle Path became the pack route for mules supplying the hut with food. One-hundred yards past “Halfway Corner,” the trail switches back to the right at “Dead Ass Corner” — marking the spot where a mule spooked by lightning broke out of its traces, slipped on the ledges, and fell to its death in the woods below.
At 1.8 miles, the trail ascends smooth ledges as it breaks out of the trees. On clear days, there is an excellent view here across Walker Brook to Mounts Lafayette, Lincoln, and Little Haystack, and the high point of the hike.
For the next quarter-mile, the trail ascends along the ledges above Walker Brook. The coniferous trees are stunted here by the harsh exposure. Members of the heath family, including several rhododendron varieties, live along this cliff walk. Soon the trail descends to the left off the ledges, reenters the woods, and continues relatively flat to the beginning of the Agony Ridge. So named by the mules — both animal and human — who packed food and supplies up this route to Greenleaf Hut, the trail rises steeply over three bump-like “agonies” en route to the exposed ridge above.
At 2.4 miles, at the top of the second “agony”, the first of two views to the northwest is reached. Cannon Mountain is in the foreground, with Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom stretching away to the horizon.
At 2.9 miles, reach Greenleaf Hut, and the intersection with the Greenleaf Trail. Water and toilets are available here, as is information on trail and weather conditions. Make a final check of the weather before deciding whether today is an appropriate day for hiking above treeline.
From the Hut, follow the Greenleaf Trail south out of the clearing and descend in a few dozen yards to Eagle Lake. Crossing the lake’s outlet, the trail rises shortly to a view back towards the hut. From here, the trail returns briefly to the woods before breaking into the clear for good as it switchbacks towards the ridgeline.
At 4.0 miles, reach the summit of Mount Lafayette. At 5,260 feet, Lafayette is the sixth highest peak in New Hampshire. Here are your first views to the east. In the foreground is the Pemigewasset Wilderness, with 4,025 foot Owl’s Head hardly sticking up above the forest canopy. Two ridges, the Twins and the Bonds, form the far side of this basin, with Mount Washington and the Presidential Range dominating the horizon farther on.
As on Camel’s Hump, the alpine tundra here above treeline is extremely fragile. Ironically, these plants, which endure winter weather conditions that would prove quickly fatal to humans, cannot survive even the occasional tread of summer hiking boots. Please remain on the trail. Again, if you do decide to wander over to the edge for more views, be sure to hop from rock to rock. Tremendous effort on the part of volunteers and paid crews over the past decade have made great strides in defining the treadway and restoring this ecosystem. Please do your part by remaining on the trail.
At the summit, the Greenleaf Trail meets the Appalachian Trail at a T junction. To the left, the Garfield Ridge Trail continues north (with less-visited North Lafayette a worthwhile side trip). To continue this loop hike, turn right (south) onto the Franconia Ridge Trail.
At 5.0 miles, the trail crests Mount Lincoln at 5,089 feet. The tundra covering this ridge is left over from the retreat of the glaciers some 12,000 years ago. As the climate warmed and the glaciers melted, these cold-enduring plants migrated northward following the colder weather. Where once these plants lived as far south as Pennsylvania, they are now native to northern Canada. On the Franconia Ridge, however, and also on several other mountains in New England, the cold climate and harsh weather create a mini-ecosystem similar to that of the glacial period. Small “islands” of alpine tundra are able to remain on these peaks. These plants are a reminder that if our climate were to cool just a few degrees, these mountain tops would once again be home to alpine glaciers.
Continue south on the Franconia Ridge Trail off of Mount Lincoln.
At 5.7 miles, reach Little Haystack, the name given to the last pile of rocks on the ridge before it descends into the forest. The north-south ridge that you have been walking on since Mount Lafayette is the western flank of an old volcano. Similar to Crater Lake in Oregon, this volcano spewed out so much of its interior ash and lava that it eventually collapsed into itself. The ensuing basin is known geologically as a caldera, and this one stretches across the Pemigewasset Wilderness to where the Twins and Bonds form the eastern flank. The rock that is now exposed as the Franconia Ridge is a granite that during the time of the volcanic eruptions was still liquid magma far below the surface. In the ensuing hundred million years, water and ice have eroded away all of the volcano that once towered many thousand feet above today’s Little Haystack.
At Little Haystack, the Falling Waters Trail leaves the Franconia Ridge Trail. To continue our loop hike, turn right onto the Falling Waters Trail, and follow it down into the boreal forest.
At 6.1 miles, after descending nearly straight from the summit of Little Haystack, the trail turns left to meet a short side trail leading left to Shining Rock Cliff in 100 yards. This 200 by 800 yard granite shield, when covered by dripping water from the woods above, often shines like a mirror in the sun. This side trip is well worth the effort, not only for Shining Rock itself, but also for the views north into Franconia Notch.
Retracing your steps to the Falling Waters Trail, turn left, and descend along switchbacks until the trail converges with a logging road running in from the left. Starting just before the turn of the century, and lasting in places until World War II, vast tracts of the White Mountains’ forests were clearcut. Using a combination of horses, steel cables, and railroads, the timber from these steep mountain slopes was lowered to the valley floor. The timber from this particular location was brought to a sawmill in Lincoln. The logging road you are standing on was a tote road used by horses.
At 7.3 miles, after passing a viewpoint on the left, the trail crosses to the north bank of Dry Brook. Continue downhill on a logging road, cross back to the south bank of the brook, and soon recross to the north bank before descending steeply.
At 7.6 miles, reach the top of eighty-foot Cloudland Falls, with views west to Mount Moosilauke. You are standing in the pocket where the two branches of Dry Brook flow together. The small waterfall to the left, which the trail has been following, drains Mount Lincoln, while the mirror waterfall to the right drains Little Haystack. Descend on the north side of the brook to the base of Cloudland Falls. From here the trail follows the north bank down to another logging road, which it follows along the narrow Dry Brook gorge before descending once again on switchbacks.
At 8.0 miles, cross to the south bank of the stream just below sixty-foot Swiftwater Falls, and pass beneath Sawteeth Ledges.
At 8.1 miles, reach Stairs Falls, the last of the beautiful cascades that give this trail its name. Continue downhill on the south side of the brook.
At 8.2 miles, cross back to the north bank of Dry Brook, and begin skirting the wide ridge that separates Dry Brook from Walker Brook.
At 8.7 miles, the Falling Waters Trail crosses Walker Brook on a wooden footbridge and meets the Old Bridle Path at a T junction. Turn left, onto familiar ground, and reach the parking lot in another 0.2 miles.