The Ultimate Trail Guide to the Franconia Ridge Loop in the White Mountains
By Bearfoot Theory’s East Coast writer Katherine Oakes.
Up in scenic northern New Hampshire, there is a section of the White Mountains called Franconia Notch State Park. With miles of hiking, biking and skiing trails, plus, lakes, rivers and waterfalls (yeah, it’s all here) it is arguably one of the most varied and naturally beautiful parts of New England. I was lucky enough to grow up exploring the mountain ranges and gorges of the Franconia Notch State Park and I (along with its estimated 700 hikers per day) have totally fallen in love with the famous Franconia Ridge Loop Trail.
It’s a decisively strenuous and challenging hike that gives you extreme verticality in three peaks and some extremely stunning views. Hiking the ridge loop isn’t for the faint of heart, but it’s also not exclusively for experienced hikers. One of my favorite things about this hike is that it is truly a labor of love and doable for cautious and prepared hikers of all levels. All you need is a little determination and willpower — oh, and snacks, definitely bring the snacks.
Ready to get out there? Here is your complete guide to hiking the Franconia Ridge Loop Trail.
Franconia Ridge Loop Details
The Franconia Ridge Loop traverses Mount Lafayette Mount Lincoln and Little Haystack (4,780’) on Franconia Ridge, along the second highest range of peaks in the White Mountains. Since you are exposed on the alpine ridge line for approximately a mile and a half, the weather can be extreme and change rapidly, so, check the Mount Washington Observatory website before you head out.
- Trail Type: Loop
- Distance: 8.5 miles
- Difficulty: Strenuous
- Dogs Allowed?: YES
The ridge loop can be hiked within a day, but you can also stay at the Greenleaf Hut if you want to experience the AMC’s famous full-service huts and spend the night. Just make sure to check the huts availability and book your stay. Also, although the trail is dog-friendly, the huts are not. So, leave your pooch at home.
You must carry in and carry out all trash and recycling. Please remember to stay on the trail and leave no trace. The alpine flora and fauna are very fragile. Staying on the trail will prevent damage to this delicate environment.
Best Time to Hike the Franconia Ridge Loop
Although you can do the hike any time of the year, the best time to hike the Franconia Ridge Loop is from late May to September. You’ll have warmer temperatures and a better chance of clear skies during these months. Go mid-week to avoid the crowds and start hiking early on — this is easily a seven-hour hike and you don’t want to risk losing daylight. Since it is a very weather-dependent area, conditions can change drastically and instantly. Be prepared for all types of weather before heading out.
How to Get to The Franconia Ridge Loop Trailhead
The entirety of Franconia Notch State Park is easily accessible by Route 93 North and South, a highway that runs between the two mountain passes of Kinsman and Franconia Range. No matter which direction you are coming from, it’s a really scenic drive to the trailhead, with mountain ranges flanking you on both sides as you cruise along.
To get to there, park at the Lafayette Place parking area where you will see a well-marked trailhead on the east side of the road. This is a popular trail so you won’t be able to miss the many cars and hikers who are most likely to be here, too.
Franconia Ridge Loop Trail Hiking Guide
The first and most important thing to know is that there are two different ways to hike up to the ridge — a polarizing issue among many of seasoned hikers. The most popular way up is the Falling Waters Trail that leads you past a waterfall and up a steep, rocky path to Little Haystack.
However, I prefer to take the Old Bridle Path all the way up to the steepest of the three peaks, Mount Lafayette, because it typically is less crowded and offers scenic vistas where you can stop and rest on your climb up to the summit. Whichever way you decide to go, you’ll certainly run into some steeps but the Old Bridle Path, although is the steepest ascent, brings you the best rewards, less foot traffic and a slightly easier way down.
So, from the parking lot, take the Old Bridle Path for three miles, where you will climb up a strenuous section of the trail known as Agony Ridge, bringing you a 3,480 foot gain in elevation.
However, the effort really pays off in the form of stunning views and a glimpse of the summit that can’t be seen from the road. What’s more is that Agony Ridge takes you to the AMC Greenleaf Hut, which sits just above treeline, overlooking Eagle Lake.
If you are there between the months of June and October, you’ll be able to score some water, a homemade snack and meet the fun and dedicated “Hut Croo” who care for this cozy alpine lodge. During my last hike, the cook had just made fresh gingerbread which I thoroughly enjoyed while we chatted with a few other hikers who were passing through. It sounds like cheating, I know, but after the steep climb, it was just the refreshment that I needed before heading up the long and bouldery mile-long trek to the summit.
During your final haul up to the first peak make sure that you follow the blazes up the mountain and stay on the marked trail. It’s easy to lose your direction and zigzag through the boulder field, but in doing so you’re likely to trample the fragile alpine plants, so, tread lightly.
When you finally get up to the top of Mount Lafayette, take your time enjoying the panoramic view of the Pemigewasset Wilderness Area. From here, you can look south to the next two peaks along the ridgeline that more closely resemble the Alps than the White Mountains.
After Mount Lafayette, the elevation begins to get a little lower and you’ll continue along a well-worn path to the summit of Mount Lincoln and Little Haystack. Once you’ve bagged your third and final peak (go you!) keep an eye out for the blue trail blazes that will lead you back down to the Falling Water Trail.
An initially steep descent, the Falling Water Trail starts to level out after a couple miles and leads you below the treeline to the 80-foot Cloudland Falls where you can cool off and rest your feet. From here, continue to follow the Falling Water Trail all the way back to the parking lot to complete your 8.5-mile loop.