Hike: Franconia Loop 2016

TRIP REPORT

In late April I took my older son on one of the classic hikes in New Hampshire, a traverse of the Franconia Ridge Trail. The weekend prior I went camping with both my boys and we hiked Bald Mountain and Artists Bluff. From that vantage point we had a great view of Lafayette. It looked like most of the snow and ice had melted from the ridge, so I had asked my son if he’d like to hike it the next weekend. He said he did.

We got up early (for a teenager) and drove to Franconia Notch State Park, getting there at about 8:30 am. Getting out of the car was a practice of tempering ourselves against the frigid temperature and gusts of wind from the northwest. With it being a clear day, the parking lot at the Falling Waters Trail head was fairly packed with like-minded hikers. We set off up the trail to get our blood pumping and fend off the cold penetrating our layers.

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Hike: 2014 Franconia Ridge Loop

Date Hiked: 24 September 2014

For the last three years I’ve brought a good friend of mine camping and hiking in the White Mountains National Forest. It is typically one of my favorite trips to the Whites for the year because he doesn’t often get out of the city and he brings an enthusiastic and fresh outlook on the trip which I sometimes neglect to do myself. This year we didn’t coordinate well enough to go camping, but we went on an epic hike. Since he is not a dirtbag like myself, we started with easier hikes and made them progressively harder hikes over the years. We started with Mount Willard and Mount Field in Crawford Notch, last year we did both Osceolas off the Kancamangus Highway, and this year we did one the most spectacular hikes in the Northeast, Franconia Ridge.

We left Portland at around 8am and hit the trailhead in Franconia Notch State Park just before 11am. We did the typical loop starting up Falling Waters Trail, north along the ridge from Little Haystack to Lafayette (Big Haystack) an back down via Greenleaf Trail and Old Bridle Path. Falling Waters is a beautiful path the follows Dry Brook up to Shining Rock and then the summit of Little Haystack. On the lower half the trail crosses the brook many time and in places follows the bald rock which comprises the brook’s bank. The foliage was approaching its peak which added contrast to the scenery, but brought a lot of foot traffic to the already very popular trails.

Falling Waters Trail

Falling Waters Trail

Once the trail left the brook-side it became very steep. A lot of the leaf-peepers stopped at this point, but many decided that they would attempt the ridge. As a result, we started passing people who were way beyond their comfort level attempting to climb the steep trail. There was a couple near collapse who asked if they were near the summit when they were only 1/3 of the way and had yet hit the steepest portion of the trail. There was also a pair of seemingly fit yet exhausted men who asked if they were near Lafayette. I explained that they were 3/4 of the way to Little Haystack, not Lafayette. They thought they were on Old Bridle Path and had no map or sense of where they truly were. They wanted to be back down by 3pm and I informed them that we were shooting for 5:30pm and were moving a lot faster than they were.

This is something that really irks me. I know that Franconia Ridge is hugely popular and based on the views, deservedly so. But, why do people choose one of the more difficult hikes as an introduction into hiking, why not work up to it like I did over three years with my friend? Some of the people I saw attempting the hike would have had a hard time walking 9 miles around a track. Why did they think they could do the same distance but up steep rock and far from any help?

My friend led the way as we burned past group after group of hikers. Based on their apparent fitness level, exhaustion and preparedness I either greeted them or warned them of the difficulty and length of the trail ahead. We soon came to the spur trail out to Shining Rock and took a short break to enjoy the views.

Trail Ends Here

Trail Ends Here

Shining Rock

Shining Rock

After we had taken in the views of Lonesome Lake, Cannon Cliffs and North and South Kinsman we made our way up to Little Haystack. The hike from Shining Rock was short but steep and we didn’t break out of the trees until we were almost to the summit. I found a rock with a view to the west toward Cannon Mountain while my friend hopped around with his camera snapping shots of the amazing view. At one point he stopped on a ledge and stared across Franconia Notch to the Cannon Cliffs. I took out my Nikon and captured a photo of him standing there lost in thought. The immensity of the cliffs appeared to be drawing him into the void between.

Cannon Cliffs from Little Haystack

Cannon Cliffs from Little Haystack

After we had a snack and conversed with other hikers we began our trek north up Franconia Ridge Trail. There was something very unique and powerful about this section of the Appalachian Trail. I’ve talked to many thru-hikers who have placed it on top of their list of favorite sections of the AT. My friend kept commenting on how it felt like something out of The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, it did. It was my third time hiking those 1.7 miles of trail, but it still felt like there was too much to see, too much to take in.

video-icon Hyperlapse video of Franconia Ridge Trail

It wasn’t long before we had pushed our way up to the summit of Mount Lincoln. Looking back I could see the trail following the spine of the mountain back to Little Haystack and behind it the conical Mount Flume and Mount Liberty.

Looking Back from Lincoln Summit

Looking Back from Lincoln Summit

Flume and Liberty

Mounts Liberty and Flume

We continued on, diving down into the col between Lincoln and Lafayette and then making the rugged climb up Lafayette’s cone. The climb from Little Haystack to Lafayette is only 850′ over almost 2 miles but at that point in the hike we had gone nearly 5 miles and 4000′ of vertical. As we approached Lafayette the summit was occasionally smudged out by clouds and as we made the peak we did so in the cool mist of one such cloud. I was afraid that I had missed my chance to stand on Lafayette and take in the view. The first time I had been there it was raining and the second time Lafayette’s peak was affixed in a think blanket of clouds. But, within 10 minutes of being on the peak the clouds broke and I had my view. I was particularly fond of Owls Head and the rest of the Pemigewasset Wilderness to the east. It reminded me of the Pemi Loop, a great 3 day hike I did the previous year.

Owls Head and Pemi Wilderness from Lafayette

Owls Head and Pemi Wilderness from Lafayette

My friend got to talking with some other hikers about different camera models while I had another snack. The peak soon became crowded and as we stood talking our sweaty clothes began to cool us off. As another cloud rolled over the top of Lafayette me started down Greenleaf Trail toward Greenleaf Hut, a mile below. The hike down the ridge was steep and rugged, but we made good time. We soon descended back into the stunted, high altitude evergreens surrounding Franconia Ridge. The trail flattened and then rose a little as we approached Greenleaf hut. There were many packs and trekking poles lining the wall outside the entrance to the hut, so were stopped for just a minute to take some photos of Eagle Lakes with Lafayette standing guard over it and then made our way toward Old Bridle Path.

Eagle Lake and Lafayette from Greenleaf Hut

Eagle Lakes and Lafayette from Greenleaf Hut

The only other time I had hiked down Old Bridle Path the rain was flying up from the notch due to high winds. My brother and I had no views that day but we appreciated the fact that they would have been superb. On this day my friend and I got to take in those views. Old Bridle Path follows a long curving arm of ridge, affording great views of Franconia Notch and of the valley and headwall between Lafayette and Lincoln. It is a very unique path with many vistas of bald ledge facing Franconia Ridge.

Old Bridle Path

Old Bridle Path

After coming down off the ridge the Old Bridle Path was fairly flat for a mile or so and then it connected back to Falling Waters Trail. We got back on the road in time for me to not have to wait for the late boat back to the island. Hopefully those who were not prepared for the challenge of the ridge found their way safely of the mountain that day.

The Franconia Ridge experiences what I call the ‘tourist syndrome,’ People think: ‘The mountain is right here so I’ll just go take a simple walk without planning.’ They underestimate their plan, and the mountain, and think they won’t get into trouble. That’s usually when they do.
—Todd Bogardus, director of New Hampshire Search and Rescue

Map of Hike

Map of Hike

Stats:
Highest Elevation: 5260′
Elevation Gain: 3850′
Distance: 8.8 miles
Book Time: 6:15
Actual Time: 5:40
Temperature: 50°s
Weather: partly cloudy
Wind: S slight breeze

References:
Franconia Notch State Park.” nhparks.org. NH Department of Resources and Economic Development. Web. 26 October 2014.
Greenleaf Hut at Mount Lafayette.” outdoors.org. Appalachian Mountain Club. Web. 30 October 2014.
Rescue on the Ridge.” outdoors.org. Appalachian Mountain Club. Web. 30 October 2014.

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Hike: Monroe Skyline

Date hiked: 08-10 August 2014

THURSDAY

My brother, two friends from work and I spent 3 days hiking the Monroe Skyline, a stretch of the Long Trail in Vermont from Lincoln Gap to the Winooski River. This was our second-annual backcountry, multi-day summer hike, the previous year we did the Pemi Loop in New Hampshire. We left Maine on Thursday afternoon and drove to the northern terminus of our planned hike in order to leave a vehicle there.

We found the first parking lot on Duxbury Road in Waterbury alongside some farms, between the Winooski River and the shoulder of Camels Hump. Unfortunately, we did not pay attention to signage, a mistake we would pay for at the end of the hike.

Parking on Duxbury Road in Waterbury, VT

Parking on Duxbury Road in Waterbury, VT

My brother showed up shortly thereafter, and we left my friend’s truck at the parking lot (it having four seats and truck bed to hold all of our gear when returning to the other vehicles).

We stopped in Waterbury to taste some of the local beer, easily some of the best in the country. We found what we were looking for at The Reservoir: The Alchemist, Hill Farmstead and Lawson’s Finest Liquids all on tap at the same place. After a game of pool we stopped at American Flatbread at Lareau Farms in Waitsville, the original Flatbread restaurant. We enjoyed some more Lawson’s Finest Liquids and a game of Cornhole while we waited for our table. We were at Flatbread later than we anticipated but after leaving we drove through Appalachian Gap in order to plant 3 gallons of water in woods for a refill on Saturday morning. Finally, our non-hiking adventures concluded by camping at the privately owned Maple Hill Campsites, the closest campground we could find to the southern terminus of our hike. We stayed up until after 2am drinking beer by the campfire and arguing about the supermoon.

FRIDAY

Friday morning I woke with sunrise, had breakfast, meditated and watched the shade creep across the nearby field while the sun rose. Three hours later everyone else woke up. We had plenty of daylight, and were in no hurry. The morning had rolled in with low lying mists so our gear was soaked. We attempted to dry out in the sun and then packed up and took the short drive to our starting point, Lincoln Gap.

We started off the day at 10:45am with one of our steepest hikes of the trip. The weather was warm and everything was damp from the thunderstorms the previous afternoon, so the sweat came easily and I had to proceed with caution as from my experience on the Carter Loop I knew my shoes had no traction on wet rocks. Regardless, I slipped and fell two times during the day.

I finally invested in some trekking poles for this trip and was working on getting used to them. After much online research I landed on Leki Corklite. I chose them for their light weight, their locking system and their cork grip, which is supposed to improve with use rather than rubber handles which degrade. I found that one of the locks was not tight enough and would slide shorter when I put weight on the pole. Luckily, adjusting it was as simple as adjusting a quick release bike tire’s lock, since it was the same device. Overall I was very impressed with the poles, the only downside was that my hands became sweaty very easily, even though the handles were vented.

The climb up Mount Abraham was not too bad, as it approached the summit the trail became rocky and eventually went above the tree line. We made the climb in less than two hours and stopped briefly on the summit where we got our first good look of the Green Mountains, including the mountains we would be climbing that afternoon.

View from Mount Abraham

View from Mount Abraham

Shortly after the summit, we saw a narrow spur trail marked with a small cairn. We decided to follow it, expecting to find an overlook to the west, but instead found the wreckage of a small plane. Apparently the Cessna was left there from a non-fatal crash in 1973. I found it peculiar that both Maine and Vermont have a 4000′ mountain named Abraham with a plane wreckage on it.

Plane crash on Mount Abraham

Plane crash on Mount Abraham

After Abraham we followed the ridge line to Little Abe and Lincoln Peak. There was a viewing platform on the summit of Lincoln that afforded views of the surrounding mountains, including Sunday’s destination, Camels Hump. It looked very far away. The ski resort Sugarbush is located on Lincoln Peak and just below the summit we stopped at the top of the slopes to peer down into the valley below.

Big sky at Mount Lincoln

Big sky at Lincoln Peak

We continued along the ridge past Nancy Hanks Peak and got to Ellen Peak by 3pm. Ellen was a wooded peak without a view, but just below it was another Sugarbush ski lift which afforded views. We stopped for a late lunch. At one point a cloud in the shape of a sea monster floated over Lake Champlain and I took a photo of it, convinced that it was Champ.

Champ cloud over Lake Champlain

Champ cloud over Lake Champlain

Once we were ready to move on we followed a ski trail for a short while and then continued along the wooded ridge line. By late afternoon we hit General Stark’s Peak and continued on to Stark’s Nest, a small peak with a ski lift (the nation’s last single-chair) and shelter on Mad River Glen (ski it if you can). The goal for the day had been to get to Theron Dean shelter, but it was another 1.3 miles, and a fairly steep descent. It was almost 6pm and we were all pretty beat, so we decided to camp out near Stark’s Nest.

We talked with a guy with a hurt ankle who had been staying inside the Stark’s Nest shelter for the last couple of days and it sounded like there would be no problem if we camped nearby. We found a really sweet spot with a partial view west for sunset and an uninterrupted view east for sunrise. We set up our tents and a group of scouts hiked by and also set up camp near Stark’s Nest. We had dinner and watched the sun set with the scouts’ leaders. As the air cooled we retired to the area near our tents. I drank the one beer I lugged with me and we watched satellites burn through the stars and tracked airplanes flying overhead with an iOS app, trying to guess their departures and destinations.

SATURDAY

In the morning I woke with the rising sun. I watched it rise over the purple shadows of Moosilauke, Franconia Ridge and the Presidentials on the horizon and meditated at the top of the Catamount Bowl slope.

Sunrise from Stark's Nest

Sunrise from Stark’s Nest

As I was drying my tent fly and preparing breakfast the others got up, starting brewing coffee and preparing breakfast as well. Right in the middle of eating, someone from Mad River Glen drove by on an ATV but all he said was “good morning.” By 8:45am we were ready to go and started the descent down to Appalachian Gap. On the way down we crawled through the cave near Theron Dean shelter and talked with a mother/daughter pair who were thru-hiking the Long Trail.

After Theron Dean the terrain became interesting, with a couple of steep climbs with ladders. We stopped for a moment at the last ski lift we would see during the trip and I took a photo of fitting graffiti in the nearby shelter.

We're all mad here

We’re all mad here

By 10:45am we had descended the rest of the way down to Appalachian Gap and to our water stash. The parking area was crowded with vehicles, motorcycles and bicycles. We refilled our water and my brother convinced a road biker to take our empty bottles so we wouldn’t have to return for them. After a short break we slogged up the Stark peaks on the north side of the gap. Baby Stark was the first stop and was a pretty demanding climb. From the nearby overlook we could see Stark’s Nest and the ski slopes which marked our day’s starting point.

View from Baby Stark

View from Baby Stark

We hit Molly Stark peak and Molly Stark’s Balcony in quick succession and stumbled upon a woman peeing right next to the trail and facing the trail! I think we were more embarrassed than she was. Molly Stark’s Balcony afforded a view north all the way to Camels Hump and the notch between it and Mount Ethan Allen where we would be ending our day. It looked forever away.

Camels Hump from Molly Stark's Balcony

Camels Hump from Molly Stark’s Balcony

We slipped over the edge of Molly Stark’s Balcony just after noon and started some of the lowest altitude hiking we would do the whole trip. It also marked the point where my brother saw new trail for the first time. An hour or so later we stopped at the peaceful Birch Glen shelter and had a snack and soon after that hit Huntington Gap, the mid-point of our trip by mileage. We made it to Cowles Cove shelter sometime around 3pm where we had a late lunch and were able to top off our water for the rest of the day.

As we approached Burnt Rock Mountain me made up the elevation that we lost at Huntington Gap. We passed the first and only person we saw that afternoon since the squatting lady. Burnt Rock was definitely the highlight of the day. The trail zig-zagged around exposed ledge and we had many excellent views to the east and south, where we could see the amazing distance we had hiked that day.

Panorama from Burnt Rock

Panorama from Burnt Rock

I think it was after our short break on Burnt Rock peak that we all realized how exhausted we were. The pace lagged and we all grew quiet as we focused on churning up miles of trail and ignoring our sore joints and muscles. On the climb past Mount Ira Allen and to Mount Ethan Allen I took up the lead for the first and only time during the trip. I often hesitate being the lead hiker as I tend to push a challenging pace, which is habit from worrying about making the boat back to my island when doing day hikes. But, I was pretty sure that we would not make Montclair Glen by sundown if the pace was not increased. There was also the risk that it would be full and we would have hike another mile or more to the Hump Brook tent sites.

We had picked our way through the moose droppings to the peak of Mount Ethan Allen by 6:30pm. I had never seen so much moose scat scattered about in my life. By the time we made Montclair Glen it was clearly full and the caretaker confirmed that we would have to hike to Hump Brook to find camping spots for the night. We staggered into Hump Brook at 8:30pm like zombies and found only one test platform available, which would only hold two of our four tents.

The caretaker, Greenlight, led us past tent platform 8 to the overflow area. We settled in quietly and quickly and started making dinner. As we were sitting around eating, Greenlight swung by to collect our dues. He entertained us with his story of thruhiking the entire Appalachian Trail in his Teva sandals and his dream to open an erotic ice cream shop in New York City called Hitchhiker.

Once we finished dinner and hung our food we crashed. We had hiked around 15 miles that day, nearly half our entire trip, and were exhausted.

SUNDAY

I woke a little later on Sunday morning as we were in a low point between Camels Hump and Mount Ethan Allen and it stayed dark enough to sleep well after sunrise. We were all up and packed by 8:30am and hit the trail. We decided to not retrace our steps up Dean Trail to the Long Trail, but to hike a short distance down to Dean Trail and then up Monroe Trail and Alpine Trail back to the Long Trail. We would miss Wind Gap, but would still approach Camels Hump from the south.

On Alpine Trail we kept our eyes out for a side trail to the wreckage of a B-24 bomber on the side of the mountain. My brother and I thought we had found it, but it turned out to be a game trail. Upon turning back, a branch caught in my pack as I ducked under it, causing the branch to scrape the side of my head deeply. I bled for a while but kept pressure on it while hiking until it stopped.

Soon after we found the wreckage. Only a wing was left of the plane. The fuselage was top secret at the time, so the military cut it up and dragged it off the mountain.

B-24 Bomber wing on Camels Hump

B-24 Bomber wing on Camels Hump

Soon after the bomber we came out of the woods and rejoined the Long Trail. The view south, the direction from which we had come, was expansive and amazing. We could just see Mount Ellen and Mount Abraham on the horizon.

Looking back on Monroe Skyline

Looking back on Monroe Skyline

The rocky summit of Camels Hump towered over us and the trail skirting up its side was the most interesting of the trip. We took our time, stopping and enjoying the view often.

Ascending Camels Hump

Ascending Camels Hump

video-icon Video of Camels Hump ascent

We climbed up to the rocky summit and took in the 360 degree view. The White Mountains to the east, the Monroe Skyline to the South, Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks to the west and the impressive peak of Mount Mansfield to the north.

Camels Hump panorama

Camels Hump panorama

We posed for a celebratory photo, had a snack and spent some time wandering the peak and talking with the small crowd on the summit.

Celebratory photo on Camels Hump

Celebratory photo on Camels Hump

It was all downhill from that point, but it was a long, 4000 feet worth of downhill. The hike down Bamforth Ridge was nice. It would be a long climb up but definitely worth the views of Camels Hump as one approached it. Going down it I was more concerned with climbing down the rocks with the least amount of impact to my knees and ankles as possible.

After Duxbury Window, a vista looking down on I-89, the trail widened and dove through the pine forest at a perilous pitch. It was quite exciting to hike down until I twisted my ankle about a mile from the parking lot. The twist was not serious and I had walked it off by the time we made it to the parking lot and our finish line.

Except, it was not. The parking lot we exited onto was clearly not the same one where we left our vehicle. We had ignored the signage which clearly state that we were not at the Long Trail.

This is NOT the Long Trail

This is NOT the Long Trail

Technically, we were parked on the Long Trail, just not the closest parking lot to where it hit the Winooski River valley. We yellow-blazed the mile to our vehicle, which was almost worth it when a couple of cars went by and the passangers honked and raised their fists out their windows, clearly mistaking us for Long Trail thruhikers.

Though I got a little banged up and we had some parking issues, the trip was unforgettable. The weather was absolutely perfect, the trail was beautiful and challenging, and the company was irreplaceable. It was like what John Muir said, the time we spent hiking in the woods did not subtract from our lives but added to it.

Wander here a whole summer, if you can… The time will not be taken from the sum of your life. Instead of shortening, it will indefinitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal.
—John Muir

Map of Hike - Day 3

Map of Hike – Sunday

Map of Hike - Day 2

Map of Hike – Saturday

Map of Hike - Day 1

Map of Hike – Friday

Stats:
Highest Elevation: 4083′
Elevation Gain: 5500′
Distance: 33.6 miles
Book Time: 19:35
Actual Time: 21:40
Temperature: 60°s
Weather: sunny and breezy

References:
American Flatbread.” americanflatbread.com. American Flatbread. Web 26 August 2014.
ASN Aircraft accident 28-JUN-1973 Cessna 182N N92431.” aviation-safety.net. Aviation Safety Network (ASN). Web. 25 August 2014.
Champ Lake Champlain Monster.” lakechamplainregion.com. Lake Champlain Region. Web. 7 September 2014.
Corklite.” shop.leki.com. LEKI Lenhart GmbH. Web. 2 September 2014.
Mad River Glen.” madriverglen.com. Mad River Glen Cooperative. Web. 7 September 2014.
Maple Hill Campsites.” maplehill.com. Maple Hill Campsites. Web. 26 August 2014.
Remembering Camels Hump plane crash.” archive.burlingtonfreepress.com. archive.burlingtonfreepress.com. Web. 22 August 2014.
Sugarbush Resort.” sugarbush.com. Sugarbush Resort. Web. 7 September 2014.
The Reservoir.” waterburyreservoir.com. The Reservoir. Web. 26 August 2014.

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