Summer New England Hiking is truly a sensory experience. The warm air you breathe in feels thick and rich. Sunlight shining through the trees turns the leaves in the forest a brilliant green. The sound of running water seems to be all around you with song birds occasionally providing an accent to the calming white noise. One of the most iconic hikes in the region is found in the White Mountains near Franconia Notch. Mt. Lafayette sits at 5,260’ elevation and an incredible ridgeline connects it to Mt. Lincoln and Little Haystack Mountain. The views from the trail are breathtaking but if you are not careful, faulty planning, the exposure, and over-exertion can be too. I recently traveled to the White Mountains to hike Lafayette again and brought my camera and notepad with me to document the trip.
Arriving at the Falling Waters Trailhead, I loaded my Kifaru Doorgunner pack with lightweight gear. The trail is just shy of 9 miles and I planned on traveling light to minimize impact on my knees. This meant packing liberal amounts of water but forgoing heavier emergency kit items like a sleeping bag, shelter, full-size med kit, etc. I did pack a possibles pouch with scaled-down components just in case but managed to keep my kit manageable and compact. At the trailhead, I found the map of the route and planned to take the Falling Waters Trail to the Franconia Ridge Trail to the Greenleaf Trail and the Old Bridle Path trail back to my starting point. Here’s tip #1, always remember your destination is your starting point. Don’t gas out before you make it back and the summit is just a temporary stop along the way.
The first part of the hike to the summit of Lafayette is through a zig-zag trail that crosses Walker Brook and Dry Brook. Depending on the conditions when you go, the water flow can be a trickle or the brooks can push a lot of water. On my most recent hike, they offered some spectacular cascades and frequent water crossings. This meant I had to play leap frog on questionably stable rocks and logs as I worked my way across. The Falling Waters Trail eventually breaks away from the brooks and meanders up the side of Little Haystack Mountain. As you hike through the woods, pay attention to your footing as plenty of exposed roots can trip you up. After about 3 miles of well-earned distance, you’ll arrive in the alpine zone.
Once you break free from the trees, you are only a few hundred yards from the top of Little Haystack Mountain. This peak is 4760 feet high and has an elevation gain of just over 3000 feet making it a real leg burner. Since the majority of your climb takes place on the Falling Waters Trail, it makes sense to take a break at the top. There you will be treated with 360 degree views of the surrounding White Mountains and a cool breeze to dry off your clothes. By the way, don’t plan on using your knives to cut any trees or do any bushcrafting up top as you’ll face steep fines. The diminutive Fiddleback Forge Solo is about all the knife you’ll need to spread peanut butter or open up jerky stick packaging.
From Little Haystack Mountain, the traverse to Mt. Lincoln takes you another 300 feet or so to the summit. This traverse is along a distinct alpine ridgeline with amazing views all around. Don’t get fooled by the sign to Mt. Lafayette. The peak you see from Little Haystack is Mt. Lincoln and you will have about a mile to travel further from the summit of Lincoln. Along this traverse, you will have to take some large steps as you climb on top of car-sized boulders but the trail overall is very easy to navigate. Traveling from Lincoln to Lafayette, you can expect an elevation of less than 200 feet but exposed to the sun and the elements, it is easy to feel like this final stretch to the top is the hardest. Push on because at the top of the summit you’ll likely join a number of other hikers eating freeze-dried meals, drinking electrolytes in their water bottles, and joking about the pain they are feeling in their backs or feet. I can’t describe the camaraderie on the summit of a mountain other than saying it is part shared pain, part shared beauty (of the views), and part accomplishment.
From Lafayette summit, you descend to the Greenleaf Hut via the Greenleaf trail. It is just about a mile but it is a mile of steep gradient before you get channeled between the trees on the path to the shelter. Look back from time to time to see where you came and also take a look at the path you didn’t take. When you get to the shelter, you can fill up your water bottles and hang out on the porch with the folks spending the night there. You may even see some wildlife drinking from the nearby Eagle Lakes. Don’t hang out here too long as you still will have a few miles to the trailhead on the Old Bridle Path and to your ride home. The path down to the parking area occasionally offers up views of the ridgeline you just hiked but for the most part it is wooded and snakes around through the mountains. Keep in mind, your hike down will be exhaustive especially after 4-6 hours hiking uphill. Be mindful of the status of your legs as you hop from one rock to the next. This is where hiking poles will really be useful as they will help take some of the burden off of your legs. As you travel downhill, you’ll begin to hear the sound of running water, Walker Brook, which the trail runs mostly parallel with. When you finally reach the brook, you’ll know the hike is just about over and you’ll pass one of the small footbridges you took at the start of your hike.
Expect to spend about 6-12 hours round trip if you plan on doing this entire loop. Don’t worry about the traveling speed of the occasional runner that will zip past you. Just focus on getting down to your car safely and at your own pace. While those people training for marathons or daily summiters may not have the time of day for you, there are plenty of people you will meet along the trail who do. New Hampshire is a great state filled with people who embrace the “live free or die” state motto. Many are armed making an armed society, a polite society. The trail has a lot to offer. I’ve never seen the sunrise from the ridge but I know I will one day when I revisit it. This last time I hiked the trail, I used it for a check-out hike to assess my conditioning for a trip to Alaska. This hike has something for everyone and it is absolutely worth checking out if you end up visiting the Granite State of New Hampshire here in New England.
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