A Spectacular Early Spring Day Hike in New Hampshire’s Franconia Range
The Franconia range offers challenging terrain and beautiful views while still within a 2 hour drive from Boston. The area is popular with hikers in all seasons, but I like it most in the snow. It is the best time of year for many reasons. No black flies, no mosquitoes and no traffic jams on the trails. Sure you must carry extra gear and prepare for dangerous cold, but the stunning views that greet you when rise out of the forest into the snow covered alpine tundra make it all worthwhile.
Mount Liberty is 4,560 foot high and capped by a sharp granite peak that offers 360 degree views. It is a great target for a winter outing. The Flume parking area in (which is plowed in the winter) in Franconia Notch State Park offers the best starting point for the 8 mile round trip to the summit.
It should be noted that New Hampshire’s high peaks are subjected to brutally cold temperatures and some of the highest recorded winds on earth. They must be respected in all seasons, but especially in winter and early spring. The conditions above the tree line can be extreme on the mildest days. My hiking companion Chris and I followed the late March weather forecast and picked a day when the valley was to have mild temps in the 30s and winds 10-20 mph. A rough rule of thumb would put the temps above tree line in the 20s and winds 20-30 mph. We packed enough layers of clothing for a brief stay at the top.
At 10:30 am we headed south from the Basin parking area along the bike trail that follows the Pemigewassett River. Special care must be taken hiking along the bike trail in winter, as it is popular with snowmobilers who like to go very fast. About a mile down the bike trail we turned left on to Liberty Spring trail. Six inches of fresh snow had fallen overnight and there were no footprints on the trail. We briefly debated putting on snowshoes, but then decided to try Kahtoola MICROspikes on our boots instead. The trail was firmly packed under the fresh snow. The traffic had carved about an 18” trough that wasn’t really wide enough for graceful striding on snowshoes. The fresh snow was a bit more effort than hiking a packed trail, but not bad.
The four mile ascent has a total elevation gain of 3,250 feet and the incline is fairly steady along the Liberty Spring trail with no real treacherous grades until near the end. We did encounter some steeper areas where we were backsliding in the snow and did consider donning the snowshoes. By this point we had been passed up by six younger, faster hikers and we made note of their footwear – three with snowshoes, three without. A tough call, but we pressed on without.
Stopping for some Lunch
Our original plan was to stop and have lunch at Liberty Spring campsite, .6 miles from the summit. I ran out of energy before we got that far, so we had to break for lunch along the trail, or more accurately, on the trail. The winter traffic on this popular trail produces a firm packed base to stand on. The problem with hiking sans snowshoes is that you can’t step off the trail without plunging into some awfully deep snow. We were forced to break for lunch sitting directly on the trail, which became very awkward when a couple of hikers had to pass through. Very much like playing the game of Twister. They were good sports about it.
Liberty Spring campsite wouldn’t have been a better place to stop for lunch. The campsite consists of 7 single and 3 double tent platforms, but all were buried in the deep snow. The latter part of the ascent was in a tunnel of pine trees laden with fresh snow. By 2 PM the trees began getting very short. At this point we were fueled by the anticipation of the views that awaited us at the top.
The Liberty Spring trail ends at the Franconia Ridge trail about .3 of a mile from the summit. This is where you break out into the open alpine tundra. Turning right on the Franconia Ridge trail brings you to the Summit of Little Haystack. The summit was a grand sight after hours in the forest. It consists of a sharply peaked granite outcropping. Chris remarked that the location of the summit is obvious, “you can put your finger on it”.
The conditions were not what we expected from the “partly cloudy” forecast. Dark snow squalls were rolling through. Visibility was spotty, but the nearby peaks could be seen at times. The wind and snow stung exposed skin, but it felt great. Standing at the peak in those conditions felt like the summit of Everest. We got to stand like explorers at the top of the world, but still had time to get down the mountain and drive home for dinner. Everything we could have hoped for in a day hike.