Hike Distance: 9.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 3822 ft
Prominence: Lafayette 3,320 ft; Lincoln 169 ft; Little Haystack < 80 ft
Click here for a review of prominence and its role in mountain topography.
“Mountains have a way of dealing with overconfidence.” Hermann Buhl.
The hike to Mt Lafayette and Mt Lincoln and Little Haystack Mt via Franconia Ridge Trail is one of the most popular hikes in the White Mountains. After reviewing our options, we chose to hike the loop clockwise: following the Old Bridle Path and Green Leaf Trail to Lafayette then using the Franconia Ridge Trail to summit Lincoln and Little Haystack and finally descending back to the trailhead via Falling Water Trail.
We started bright and early and were on the trail by 8:00 AM. Weather was perfect for a long day of hiking with cool temperatures and no winds.
Crossing over Walker Brook.
What an incredible root pattern on this tree.
We were surprised by the lack of fall colors in the trees.
It wasn't long before we left the flat stretch of trail behind and began the rocky climb to the summit of Lafayette. People new to the White Mountains are often surprised by how rugged the trails are. They’re often narrow, steep, and require good scrambling skills to ascend and descend.
According to the Appalachian Mountain Club, the generalization that New England trails are rockier and steeper than elsewhere in the country is true-ish.
These are also some of the oldest trails in the country, so perhaps they are rougher than elsewhere because of the standards when they were built.
We got a slight break with some well placed steps to ease the quads and hamstring abuse from the 1.5 miles.
After 75 minutes we emerged from the dense evergreen and birch and approached the first vista.
Overlooking Walker Ravine and Agony Ridge that tops out at the Greenleaf Hut is where the trail begins the final incline to the summit. From the Hut we followed the Greenleaf Trail almost entirely above the treeline to Mt Lafayette (peak right of center). To reach this vista we had hiked about 2 miles and gained over 1,700 feet in elevation.
At 5,260 feet, Mount Lafayette is the 6th highest peak in New Hampshire and the second most prominent peak (3,320 ft), surpassed only by Mt Washington (6,148 ft).
Quickly enough we were back to rock hopping as the next 0.5 miles of trail became steeper and the footing less reliable. The average grade for this trail is 17% and it maxed out at 78%.
Hiking in the White Mountains is not for everyone. Here is an excerpt from a letter to the editor of a local NH newspaper: "The trails in the White Mountains are a disgrace," wrote Altz-Smith, who said she and her husband are "veteran backpackers from Alabama with 40 years of hiking experience. You have to negotiate boulders and, basically, hike rocky stream beds to gain the most meager vistas and distance. These trails are dangerous and limit safe use to only athletes. The Mount Jackson trail raises those hazards to unacceptable levels. The boulders should be reduced to proper steps and the last section should have handholds for safety."
Throw in some scrambling to add to the excitement and exertion.
If you regularly hike in a part of the country where the trails are graded and tramped smooth mitigating the necessity of negotiating rocks and roots, hiking in the Whites may prove to be a disappointment. This is when hiking with a 35-mm camera is tough.
The views across Franconia Notch to the Cannon Cliff were worth the effort. At roughly 1,000 feet high and more than 1 mile long, Cannon Cliff is the largest vertical rock face in the Northeast.
Looking behind us at the southern end of Franconia Notch. The entrance to the parking lot where we started is visible (right of center).
The Christmas tree scent helped to make the hike less painful.
Except for the rocks on the path, moss covered every surface.
After two hours, we had hiked three miles and gained 2,431 ft in elevation. Before COVID, the Greenleaf Hut would be busy with day hikers. This hut is one of eight backcountry huts managed by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) within the White Mountain National Forest. Greenleaf was built in 1930 and has had some improvements in recent years. It can sleep 48 in two bunkrooms with a crew of 5 people.
The hut has a dramatic view overlooking Eagle Lake situated below the bulge of Mount Lafayette (top right of center). The mountain is even more impressive since the summit is out of sight behind the curve of this giant mound. It looks like more than 1.1 miles to the summit
The start of the Greenleaf trail was boggy by the lake's edge.
A quick gain in elevation gave us spectacular views of the White Mountains. In the distance is Mt Moosilauke, another of the NH 4000 footers that we plan to hike in 2020. It looks like an orange carpet was stretched across the mountains. Click here to navigate to the Hike Mt Moosilauke blog.
On top of the roughness of the trails, the ascents to White Mountain high peaks are quite steep, rising over 1,000 feet per mile for miles at a time without switchbacks to provide physical or mental relief to weary hikers. The best thing to do under these circumstances is to keep your eyes down to avoid crushing all hope and take small steps so not to exhaust your quadriceps muscles.
We entered the last forested area before transitioning to the zone between forest and the treeless alpine tundra above. The summit seemed further than 1 mile away.
The last half mile to the summit was over a rock path marked by cairns. The path started out with only a moderate incline.
Soon the trail was well over a 20% grade, but we took few breaks since we were eager to reach the summit. The cairns may not seem necessary on a day like today but imagine how difficult it would be to follow the trail in snow or fog.
The Greenleaf Hut was getting smaller with each step toward the summit.
By now our legs were feeling the 4-miles uphill climb.
The last section of the trail had a grade of more than 30% and maxed out at 53%.
The summit was right over this ridge.
We reached the summit in 3 hours having hiked 4 miles and gained 3,443 feet in elevation. The sky was overcast and there was a light wind - almost perfect conditions for October.
A close-up of the geodetic survey marker at the summit.
Mount Washington off in the distance to the North. At 6,228 feet, Washington is the tallest mountain in NH. Click here to navigate to our Mt Washington hike blog.
At the summit is the foundation of a building which was used as hiker hut and stables for bridle horses but burned long ago.
After taking in the views and taking a well deserved break, we began our trek on the Franconia Ridge Trail. Pictures don't do this trail justice. The ridge forms the backbone of the Franconia Mountain range, stringing together all of its major summits. The knobby peak in the background (left of center) is Mt Liberty. Hiking to this 4,459 foot Franconia summit wasn't in our plans for today.
Although it looks like a straight route from Lafayette to Lincoln, the trail dips and climbs more than it appears. It's a one mile trek between these two peaks.
With solid footing we quickly descended from the peak. Looking back at Lafayette, you can trace the trail from the rock summit through the low brush.
This curved rocky crest is Mount North Lincoln, which is also known as Mount Truman (5,020 ft). Although part of the Franconia Ridge, Truman is not included in the New Hampshire 4,000 footers list due to its lack of vertical prominence (78 ft). Though it is displayed on the maps at the Lafayette Place trailhead, Mt. Truman is not labelled on most topographical maps.
I love this sign on the trail. The alpine environment is so fragile. Please remember that when you're hiking...here or anywhere.
Although not as narrow as some ridge trails, Franconia Ridge is classified as a knife-edge trail. I took this picture of the trail leading from Lafayette as we approached the halfway mark to Mt Lincoln.
This picture was taken from the same location but looking up at Mt Lincoln. Navigating this trail during inclement weather would be tough.
A rock outcropping in the middle of the trail.
Approaching the top of Mt Lincoln and our second NH 4000 footer today.
The summit was crowded so we didn't hunt around for the geodetic survey marker.
Feeling strong after our legs had recovered from the initial climb.
The view from our lunch spot.
Our final view from the Lincoln summit looking back at Mt Lafayette.
It was a short 0.7 mile hike to the last summit of the day, Little Haystack Mountain. In the distance are two other Franconia Mountain Range peaks: Mount Liberty 4,459 ft (center) and Mount Flume 4,328 ft (left of center).
The trail followed the ridge. Look closely and you can see hikers on the trail leading down to the rock outcropping.
Little Haystack is the last peak to the right.
I took this picture looking back at Mt Lincoln as we approached Little Haystack summit.
The summit was very crowded especially for a midweek afternoon. We didn't spend any time here except for a few minutes to appreciate the views and look back at the ridge trail.
Despite an elevation of 4,760 ft Little Haystack does not meet all the NH 4000 footer criteria. But the views and experience of completing the loop trail made it worth the journey.
Now began the knee jolting and ankle twisting 3.2 mile hike on Falling Water Trail.
Because trails in the Whites run straight up and down the mountains at steep grades without switchbacks, they behave like rivers when it rains. The trails become channels for the water causing erosion and exposing even more roots and rocks and further deepening the trails and channels.
Some don’t mind and sail effortlessly from rock to rock. Others, like me, carefully navigate between rocks and around roots. The average grade for the trail was 20% and it maxed out at 48%.
As happens often, the number of pictures on 'the way down' decreased significantly for a number of reasons. First every step involved rocks or roots so it was impossible to walk and focus at the same time. Secondly, low level lighting on the trail made picture taking more difficult.
Less than two miles from the summit, the trail crossed Dry Brook which creates a succession of waterfalls and cascades. The 80-foot tall Cloudlands Falls was the first and most spectacular. The fanning structure is impressive starting with a two foot opening at the top and cascading over multiple levels to a 25 foot wide base.
There is usually quite a crowd here but since it was late in the day, we had the place to ourselves. Hopefully, this picture puts the height of the falls in perspective.
Here are the cascading drops of Swiftwater Falls. I think the falls helped distract us from the grueling trail conditions.
After this entertainment, we had less than one mile left to hike. We arrived at the car tired, sweaty, and ready to drive home.
Hike Distance: 9. 9 miles
Duration: 7.6 hours
Average Pace: 46.5 min/mile