Each October while living in New England I would find a ‘postcard day’ and drive 5 hours to the White Mountains of New Hampshire to hike. One of my favorites was the Franconia Ridge just north of Lincoln (pictured here in the summer from Cannon Mountain.)
There is no easy way on or off a 5,000 foot mountain.
The Franconia Ridge loop which takes you from the Lafayette Campground parking lot up and along an alpine spine connecting three of New Hampshire’s White Mountains – Little Haystack, Mount Lincoln and Mount Lafayette – is 8.4 very beautiful, very strenuous miles. Like any long hike, make sure that your knees and back are sound, your jeans are strongly stitched, your bladder is empty, and you have at least two full, large, cold bottles of water to tie you over the hike which is advertised as 7-9 hours. Since the hike was a last-minute “What the heck,” decision, I kept up a sturdy pace – wanting to leave time for the unexpected, not to mention my five-hour drive home to Connecticut – and clocked in at just shy of 6½ hours.
You can take the loop counter-clockwise, beginning with the Falling Waters trail, and ending with the Bridle Path, or clockwise beginning with Bridle first. Neither is easier than the other; both start by whispering sweet-nothings into your ear, but finish with a tongue-lashing. I’d recommend the counter-clockwise route if only because you arrive at the Greenleaf Hut (an AMC full-service pit-stop with bathrooms, bunks, ice-cold drinking water, and an on-call therapist trained in deep tissue massages) well into the second half of the hike, which gives you a good place to catch your breath and refill your water bottles before the final 2.9 mile push home. (Football taught me you don’t want to take your timeouts too early in the game.) But more importantly, the Bridle Path affords some spectacular vistas of the three mountains which, come afternoon, will be beautifully lit up like fine art above the fireplace, should the sun be on duty.
I left the parking lot at 8:30 sharp and quickly jumped onto the Falling Water trail, which is as pretty as its name. Be careful about 15-20 minutes in. The trail crosses over the Falling Brook to the right on some rocks, but it looks like you might want to go left instead and veer upwards along the stream that way. Enough people (including me) have made that mistake so there’s an actual path of sorts there, but the ground gets boggy quickly and plugged up with fallen trees. Trust me – walk to the brook and go across. Look a bit up and to the right, and you’ll see the back side of a sign for the trail magically appear. Remember the scene in the third Indian Jones movie when Indy must make the leap of faith? Cross the stream and leap, then the path appears. Zen hiking, baby.
Of course the park rangers could just paint a few more blue blazes at that juncture, but then what fun would that be? Every hike needs a moment when a horrible chill washes over you, and in your imagination you can picture your loved ones waiting angst-ridden by the phone, waiting for that call, as helicopters do futile sweeps over the mountain, and years later a stray hiker finds your bear-gnawed bones and loose credit cards scattered over the forest floor.
Having a mountain stream as your companion is not a bad way to hike, but don’t get used to it. A little more than halfway up, the stream goes left and you go right – and up. And up and up some more. Every true hike is a marathon. It begins easy enough and pleasant enough, and you say to yourself, “Well, this is easy; life is good.”
Then all hell breaks loose and before long, you’re vowing never to hike again, taking rest breaks every fifty steps, with your heart pounding like a madman on the asylum door. That’s when the boys become men and you have to start regurgitating every Chinese proverb you’ve ever heard about journeys or reciting poems about roads less traveled. And if Frost doesn’t work, then recall your Pixar. “Just keep swimming.”. Hiking is as much about what’s between the ears as it is about what’s between Point A and B.
Though the day started with thick frost on the valley floor (and I packed hat and gloves and an extra sweatshirt in my backpack), by the time I was in the thick of the thicket, pulling and scrambling my way up, I had to rip off my heavy-as-a-mammoth-skin fleece. Peel off, rather, for I now had falling waters pouring off my torso. That’s when I noticed the large, growing hole in the crotch of my jeans. It took four years before nature reduced Tom Hanks in “Castaway” to nakedness. Me? Forty minutes. That’s the risk you run taking impromptu scampers up a mountain. (Later that night, I laid down my guard for a moment and gave a lady a thrill at the Five Guys hamburger joint.)