The season for leaf viewing is almost over, but for hikers that want to see it out with a bang, the White Mountains of New Hampshire are a fine place to do it. The Franconia Ridge Loop is an extremely popular trail for leaf viewers during the autumn season due to its close proximity to the scenic Interstate 93. This popularity can make it unpleasant for the solitary outdoors enthusiast, but waiting until the very end of leaf season has its benefits. The surrounding area is still beautiful and the crowds have significantly dwindled away. The hike itself is a strenuous one. It takes hikers along the ridge of Mount Lafayette, Mount Lincoln, and Little Haystack along a narrow rocky trail. The hard work is worth it since on a clear day, hikers can get a stunning overview of the whole Pemigewasset Wilderness. The area is scenic any time of year, but New Hampshire is famous for its fall colors and the White Mountains area is surrounded by some of the most vibrant fall leaf producing trees.
|Trail Length:||8.9 miles||City/State:|| Lincoln,
|Elevation:||3,487 feet gain
From the nearest town of Lincoln, New Hampshire, take I-93 north for about seven miles to Franconia Notch State Park. Just after turning into the park, the road leads right into the parking lot by the trailhead. Be sure to not take the turnoff for Lafayette Campground, it is on the wrong side of the highway.
From the parking lot the trail isn't initially obvious, for the first mile or so, hikers will be tredding on different trails that comprise the loop. From the parking lot, hikers should take the Lafayette Place trailhead heading east. After only a couple hundred feet into the rocky forest, the trail forks into Old Bridle Path on the left and Falling Waters on the right. Hikers will want to keep right on the Falling Waters Trail that almost immediately crossed a small brook, although the trail can be done in reverse via the Old Bridle. The little spit of water is easily jumped over at this section, but just down the trail, water can become an issue.
The majority of this trail traces the Dry Brook, which is far from fitting its name. This quick moving stream is scenic, but it can be tricky if there has been a lot of rain in the area lately. However, potentially getting some wet feet is worth it when the trail weaves over three successive waterfalls. With the trail crisscrossing over the stream at several points over the next mile, hikers are privileged to views of the Stairs Falls, Swiftwater Falls and the Cloudland Falls. At 60 feet high, the Swiftwater Falls is the most impressive and the highest point along the Dry Brook.
The trail moves away from the Dry Brook as it makes a firm ascent up an old logging road which makes a series of switchbacks to ease the strain. Those who happen to have a bit of climbing gear on them can take the Shining Rock side trail at the last switchback. Shining Rock does host some great views of the area, but it does require gear to get up there. Those who choose to continue on will take a straight shot to the official Franconia Ridge Trail.
Keep left and the ridge trail officially begins and does so with a bang. With a knee-achingly sharp ascent, hikers climb to the summit of Little Haystack on the rough and rocky mountain trail. From atop the summit, hikers will get their first taste of the panoramic scenery that makes this trail so popular. This is the first point in the trail that soars above the tree line, but far from the last. To the north is Mount Lincoln while to the west is Mount Mooselauke, Franconia Notch, The Kinsmans and Cannon Mountain with Mount Washington and the other presidential mountains looming ominously to the east. Smattered all in between these many mountain tops is some of the most beautiful forest in New Hampshire.
Continuing on, hikers walk along the ultra thin and rocky ridge trail towards Mount Lincoln. The trail remains relatively level right up until the ascent of the mountain comes. Then, much like the ascent of Little Haystack, it gets insanely steep all the way up to the summit. Some argue that the views from the summit of Mount Lincoln are some of the best on the trail because it is so high up, so hikers should take a break and enjoy it. Although, it is worth noting that being on the top of a mountain when the weather is about to turn bad is a very dangerous idea. Keeping one eye on the sky is never a bad idea when hiking even small mountains.
Others who have hiked this trail believe Mount Lafayette has the best views, but hikers can judge for themselves as that is the next summit on the trail. From Mount Lincoln, the trail descends the mountain but takes a wavy approach with several sags and humps in the saddle between the two mountains. In several of the dips, there is also some scrub that, during summer hikes, visitors may need to hack their way through. The climb up Lafayette is less dramatic than previous ascents, but the summit is just as scenic.
After taking in the scenery, take the Greenleaf Trail down the mountain towards Greenleaf Hut. After the descent, hikers may notice a small spring. It tends to gush more in the springtime, but in the autumn or winter, it can be hard to spot. Regardless, it's a good place to get a drink if the water is flowing. Past the spring, the trail descends into scrub that is usually pretty easy to navigate. The hard work of navigating scrubs is rewarded by a nice sandy area that also has great distance views of Mount Lincoln.
The sand becomes less out of place as the trail continues to descend to Eagle Lake. The lakes' cool water and sandy shores is a nice spot for a break on a sunny day, especially since many hikers are weary near this final stretch. After climbing a little hump through the forest, hikers approach Greenleaf Hut and the junction for the last leg of the hike. Take the trail for Old Bridle Path that leads down Agony Ridge. Agony Ridge isn't very steep, but the narrow path can cause problems for those with wide backpacks. Once across the ridge, it is a pleasant little hike all the way back to the parking lot.