After hiking Mount Washington and being confident that I would’ve had energy for the drive home, I decided to do a day trip to the Whites. I planned to go a few weeks ago, but failed to wake up early enough. But on October 8th I got up a little after 3:30 and was out the door at 4:00. I drove up 91 North about 130 miles into Vermont and turned down 93 South. My destination was Franconia Ridge. I am far from done with the Presidentials, but wanted to check out a new area. Franconia is home to the two tallest peaks in the Whites outside of the Presidentials, Lafayette and Liberty (my targets). It also has two other big advantages: it is directly off 93 and it does not require a parking pass. Unfortunately, there are multiple parking areas, and this led to a slightly later start than planned.
I knew how to get to Franconia Notch but wasn’t sure which parking area I wanted. I thought I wanted the first sign for trailhead parking after Exit 34B (spoiler alert: I was wrong). I pulled into the parking lot at about 7:30 and there were already ten or fifteen cars. I put on my boots, grabbed my backpack and started looking for the tunnel underneath the highway. Not sure of which direction to go, I headed south. The person I tried asking didn’t know, but he also looked like he’d been stoned since Woodstock, so I didn’t put too much into his opinion. I walked for a few minutes before deciding that I must be headed in the wrong direction. I have the AMC Guide maps, which are great, but the scale on the Franconia map is smaller than the Presidential map and I couldn’t decipher the parking area. As I passed back through the parking lot I noticed that everyone in sight had rock climbing gear and not hiking gear. This was alarming, but didn’t necessarily prove anything, so I proceeded to the north end of the lot, where I immediately found the tunnel. Now sure of myself, I crossed under the highway and texted my girlfriend that I was at the trailhead. The only problem was I didn’t see a trail. I walked for a few minutes on the paved bike path until I looked across the highway and could see a decent sized body of water. This was on my map and it allowed me to determine that I was too far north. So I went back to the parking lot, drove down 93, and quickly saw signs for trailhead parking at Lafayette Place Campground. I got off that exit, drove around the little parking lot, and found that all of the parking spaces were filled. I pulled over in front of the hiker information shack to ask if there was anywhere else to park. The woman inside told me that I could where I had pulled over, so I crossed under the highway and was off.
My route was a counterclockwise loop. I started with Old Bridle Path for a couple tenths of a mile before turning onto Falling Waters Trail for the ascent to Little Haystack Mountain and the intersection with Franconia Ridge Trail. I turned left (north), to cross over Lincoln, then Lafayette. I descended via the Greenleaf Trail and Old Bridle Path. This loop (in either direction) is considered one of the classic day hikes of the White Mountains. Falling Waters Trail was appropriately named. It crossed over brooks multiple times and had excellent views of waterfalls. The first and largest brook crossing had a bridge but the rest did not. While they were easily manageable now, I imagine they would be challenging with higher waters.
After the brook crossings, the trail became somewhat non-descript. This wasn’t a bad thing, it had generally good footing and was reasonably graded, but nothing really stood out besides a couple switchbacks to ease the grade. There were no great views until breaking treeline slightly below Little Haystack Mountain (which lacks the prominence to be an official AMC 4000-footer). At this point the views became fantastic, as I could see back across to the other side of the notch. Upon reaching the top of Little Haystack, I had 360° views: Franconia Notch, up and down Franconia Ridge, and east into the Pemi.
I went north toward Lincoln, fighting some strong wind coming from the west. Every time the trail dipped down to the east side of the ridge was a welcome relief. I took a lot of pictures, but none of them really do the views justice; it felt like the pictures would all come out the same despite the views seeming to change drastically as I moved just a short distance. There was still a bit of haze, but still a better than average day for visibility. Because there’s no trail that ascends directly to Lincoln, it seemed like a midpoint more than a destination and I did not stop.
Moving onward, I quickly reached Lafayette, where I sat for a few minutes taking in the views of Owl’s Head and the Pemi. I also checked out my new views to the north of Garfield Ridge and back south toward Lincoln. The summit, while not loud, had a few groups on it, so I didn’t stay long.
I began my descent down the Greenleaf Trail. This trail was above treeline for quite some time so I had excellent views to the west. I was now encountering a lot of people coming up, so I frequently had to yield. I saw an older group of three approaching and one of the men was wearing a shirt from a road race with the L&M Hospital logo on it. As he neared, I also noticed that he was wearing a Conn College hat. I asked if he was from Connecticut and when he said yes, I asked where. He said from the New London area and I responded that I was from Ledyard. The woman then replied that the second man was from Ledyard. I didn’t know him, but he lives on Whalehead, so that was my “small world” interaction for the day.
The last thing I’ll note about the descent was the incredible number of French Canadian people that I encountered. I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised since many of them likely had shorter drives than I did, but it was a little jarring for the proportion to be about 50%. Everyone was nice, although I did receive some blank stares back when I replaced “hi” with a more casual “how’s it going”. At one point I came across a young boy who could not have been more than 8 and we said hi to each other. It then occurred to me that I hadn’t passed anyone in a few minutes and I didn’t see anyone else coming. I turned back to him and asked if he knew where his parents were, but he just pointed at himself and said “me French”, so that was the end of that conversation. I passed several more people in the next couple minutes so I’m sure he was fine. Mount Lafayette must be one of the most popular destinations in the Whites, but it is amusing to wonder if French Canadians like to hike this peak to honor its namesake.
I enjoyed the views on Old Bridle Path, which had a few lookout areas below treeline. I soon reached the brook where Falling Waters Trail had initially diverged, and a few minutes later I was at my car. There is no access to 93 North from where I parked, so I hopped on South. I immediately learned that I did not understand the parking situation up there: there were cars parked on both the north and south sides on 93 for almost half a mile. Since I was the first car to not get a spot in the morning, I didn’t get to see this as an example, but it’s good to know for the future. Overall, this was a great hike, and a highly recommended route for a day with good weather.