This nine mile hike is challenging, but pays off extravagantly in terms of spectacular views, alpine ecology and gorgeous waterfalls. The route also allows you to pay a visit to the AMC’s Greenleaf Hut.
Hiking Franconia Ridge has been on my must-do list for as long as I’ve known it existed. The knife’s edge trek, stretching from Mt Lafayette to Little Haystack, is a breathtaking walk across dramatic alpine terrain with a 360-degree view that goes on for almost two miles. The hike shows up on countless lists of hiking superlatives (best hikes, best views) and is definitely one of New Hampshire’s most popular hikes.
The AMC’s White Mountain Guide describes the most popular section of the ridge (from 5,260-foot Mount Lafayette to 4,780-foot Little Haystack Mountain)…
“It’s a Gothic Masterpiece, suggesting the ruins of a gigantic medieval cathedral. The peaks along the high serrated ridge are like towers supported by soaring buttresses that rise from the floor of the notch.”
You can’t help but be drawn to this beautiful place, but you should never forget that it’s also perilous. Numerous injuries and deaths happen on this section of trail every year, mostly due to hypothermia, falls, and fatigue. Franconia Ridge is the first prominent roadblock to fierce weather rolling in from the North Country, putting the exposed trail at high risk for lightning strikes, surprise storms and howling winds. It’s also a challenging climb. With well over 3500’ of ascent, this hike will challenge your lungs and leg muscles.
We were incredibly lucky to have beautiful hiking weather almost every day of our ten-day trip. The day we planned our Franconia Ridge hike came on the heels of a cold front that had pushed through the area. It was forecast to be 70 degrees with crystalline blue skies. I was so full of happy/nervous anticipation when we set out in the morning.
The trailhead was a short 25-minute drive from my parents’ house. The parking area is literally right off I-93, making it one of the easiest hikes to access in the White Mountains. As we approached Franconia Notch, we saw lots of thick, cottony fog still swirling around the summits. Adam and I both expressed a little concern that it might not blow off in time for us to enjoy views, but we pressed on with our plans.
We started off on the Old Bridle Path; climbing steadily uphill over stone stairs, smooth rock and switchbacks. There is nothing technical about this part of the trail. In fact, it’s called the Old Bridle Path for a reason – it’s the route historically used by horses and pack animals. In the 1800’s, there was even a stone shelter and stable at the summit of Lafayette.
About a mile and a half into the hike, the trail comes out of the trees onto an open ledge. If you listen, you can hear Walker Brook roaring in the ravine below. We were able to perch on a rock and look across the notch toward Cannon Mountain. Had it been clear, we would have been able to see Franconia Ridge looming above, but the peaks of Lafayette, Lincoln and Little Haystack were still completely consumed by clouds and dense fog. Adam and I again wondered (and hoped) that the ridge would clear off by the time we reached that point of the hike.
From the first view, the trail continued more steeply up the ridge. There were a couple more open views along the way, and at each we felt like the clouds seemed to be getting thinner and thinner. We crossed Agony Ridge and it’s three ‘agonies’ – large, steep, stone humps that you must traverse to continue. After the second agony, there is a great view. I was so impressed to look back and see how much elevation and terrain we had already covered!
After the final ‘agony’, the trail leveled out. We passed through misty, lushly vegetated forest. There were colorful fungi, mosses, and Indian Pipes everywhere. Within a couple tenths of a mile, Greenleaf Hut appeared, still veiled by mist.
We were really excited to arrive and have a chance to visit our first AMC hut. It was charming– rustic, but cozy with a nice view of Eagle Lake below. We shared a gigantic Whoopie Pie we had picked up from a bakery in Canaan, NH the previous day. We explored the hut a bit, checking out maps, browsing the library and signing the guest log.
After our brief rest, we made the final 1.1 mile push to the summit of Mt. Lafayette. The route follows the Greenleaf Trail, descending briefly from the hut, past Eagle Lake and then back into a dense coniferous forest. There were so many evergreens that it looked like an overpopulated Christmas tree farm. The thick trees quickly gave way to the Alpine Zone – the rocky, wind-swept area that exists above tree line. The New Hampshire Department of Forests and Land (NHDFL) has a great website and brochure about this climate and ecosystem if you want to learn more.
The climb to the summit was very steep and made even more challenging by the strong winds. The remainder of the cold front and clearing clouds on the summit brought sustained winds over 40 mph, with occasional gusts to 70 mph. We both got our jackets out and prepared for wilder weather. The upside of the strong wind was that it blew away the last of the low-hanging clouds and fog. Views were AMAZING looking back in the direction from which we had just come. We could see the increasingly tiny Greenleaf hut, precipitous ski slopes, tiny Lonesome Lake tucked into a plateau on the other side of the notch, and the dramatic, shining cliff-side of Cannon mountain.
We continually plodded uphill until reaching the trail marker at the top of Lafayette. At this point, the Greenleaf Trail ends and joins the Franconia Ridge Trail (which is also the Appalachian Trail). The wind at the summit was insane. I felt like a windsock in my jacket. We decided to go ahead and eat our packed lunch at the summit. To escape the wind, we found a protected place within the foundation of the old shelter/stable that used to be located at Lafayette’s summit. It definitely helped, but it was still really windy! One lesson I learned… don’t pack shredded cheese when wind exceeds 40 mph – your lunch will mostly blow away. I didn’t get to eat much of my cheese, but I had plenty of other windproof options for food, so I didn’t go hungry.
From the summit of Lafayette, the real pay-off portion of the hike begins – 1.8 miles of stunning, spectacular, breathtaking views. From photos I had seen in books and magazines, I knew the scenery along Franconia Ridge would be amazing, but until I saw it in person, I really had no idea how amazing. The beauty almost overcame me emotionally – I felt awestruck and blessed.
The walk along the ‘knife edge’ of Franconia Ridge passed all too quickly. Even though the ridge was crowded with other hikers, I still took every moment possible to appreciate the views and live in that moment. We scaled Mt. Lincoln and eventually made our way over to Little Haystack. It was the best 1.8 miles of hiking of my life!
At Little Haystack, we looked back over the Franconia Ridge Trail one last time. I told Adam, “We’re not even done hiking for the day, but I already want to do that again!’. I can’t even compose words that convey how much I enjoyed that bit of hiking.
On the summit of Little Haystack, Adam consulted a map and I put on my newly acquired knee brace. My knee felt fine, but I knew the Falling Waters Trail would be steep and rocky. I figured a preemptive brace might help me prevent another hard twist like the one I’d experienced on Grandfather Mountain.
I’m glad I did, because the descent from Franconia Ridge was TOUGH – so much harder than the climb up. We picked our way slowly down the trail – scrambling and climbing ‘crab-style’ over large boulders and loose rocks. In retrospect, it might have been better to ascend Falling Waters and come down on the Old Bridle Path. Experts seem split on the preferred route, our Falcon guide and the Dartmouth Outing Club outline the route we used. However, we learned after-the-fact that the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game says the Falling Waters Trail is ‘a route normally recommended only for ascending the mountain because of its steepness’. Fish and Game is responsible for hiker rescues in New Hampshire, so their advice is solid.
We saw a lot more people on the Falling Waters Trail than we had on the Old Bridle Path. Some were out for day hikes to see the waterfalls, but others were still making their way up to Franconia Ridge to spend the night at Greenleaf Hut. We saw several hikers that were really struggling; it was later in the day and they still had miles to go to reach the hut. I hope they all made it safely!
On the way down, one of Adam’s knees starting hurting pretty badly. It was hurting seriously enough that I was concerned for him. I offered to give him my knee brace, to take his pack weight – basically to do anything I could to help make his climb down a little easier. In the end, there’s really nothing you can do with pain like that other than take it slow and gut it out. (For the record, after this hike, Adam also acquired his own shiny new knee brace to use the rest of the week. It helped!)
My worry for Adam took a little bit of wind out of my sails. It’s impossible to fully enjoy scenery when you know your partner is hurting. Nevertheless, the Falling Waters trail in incredibly beautiful and scenic. If you think Virginia’s Crabtree Falls presents waterfall after waterfall, this trail has way more falls. I tried to take time to appreciate each of the beautiful waterfalls along the Falling Waters trail. I hoped that the loveliness of the falls would distract Adam a little from his pain, though I don’t think it did.
Each waterfall along the trail was unique and had its own special feature. Some slid gently over smooth expanses of rock, some came tumbling out of openings in the forest and some plunged steeply from ledges and spilled into clear pools below. Cloudland Falls was probably the most beautiful of the many cascades.
There were a few water crossings, with only one being of moderate challenge. Occasionally the trail would become more level and smooth, tricking us into thinking that the tough terrain was behind us. But the steep, rocky descent just kept coming and coming and coming! The trail finally leveled out for good about a mile from the parking lot. When we crossed the wooden bridge over Walker Brook, we knew we had just a short .2 mile walk back to the car.
Even though I was physically tired, I also felt really energized by all the wonderful things I had seen and the physical accomplishment of completing the hike. It was a great day, and I look forward to doing this hike again someday.
Christine and I both felt that Franconia Ridge is probably the best hike we’ve ever done. The views are amazing and you definitely feel that you have accomplished quite a feat when you’re hiking along the ridge. This was also probably the toughest hike we had done up to this point. I don’t think we’ve ever done anything with quite this much elevation gain before. After reflecting, we were thinking that we probably couldn’t have done this type of hike a few years earlier when we weren’t in as good of shape. Hiking in the White Mountains is quite tough and you have to be honest with yourself when judging your abilities.
The directions for this loop are fairly simple. We started off from the parking lot heading up a paved path that led us right by a couple of bathrooms. Once you pass the bathrooms, the paved walkway ends. We started our hike on the Old Bridle Path. At .3 miles, we saw a bridge to the right, which crossed over Walker Brook and served as the junction with the Falling Waters Trail, our return route. The Old Bridle Path begins to move away from Walker Brook. The trail begins a moderate climb. At 1.6 miles, you reach “Halfway Corner” and come across “Dead Ass Corner”, an area so-designated because a pack mule that was bringing up supplies to Greenleaf Hut was spooked by lightning and fell to its death. At about 1.8 miles, the trail begins to open up to views of a deep gorge. Across the gorge, you can stare up at Mount Lincoln and (on a clear day) can see your future path across the ridgeline.
From this viewpoint, we saw the clouds still hanging on the mountain. We were hoping that the clouds would roll off, but we really weren’t sure if it would happen. We continued upward and the trail led to a few overlooks of the gorge. We looked behind us and were impressed with how high we had climbed up by this point. At one viewpoint, I was watching a thick patch of clouds rolling down the mountainside. I told Christine that I wanted to wait until it crossed down a certain point. I felt that if the clouds were rolling down far enough, we would have some clear views, but the clouds just stuck on the side. I felt my hope for clear views starting to wane, but we pressed on. We saw a few families climbing down that had stayed at the Greenleaf Hut the night before. A young girl told us about the bad storms they had at the hut, but she was having a great time. We thought about how happy she seemed and we thought it was great that her parents had given her such a great experience. The trail started to be a bit steeper at this point, as you reach the area at 2.0 miles called “Agony Ridge”. The footing was a little looser and there were different steep ascents up the different humps. We both felt they weren’t that tough in comparison to some things we have climbed and the “agonies” were over within a short time. At 2.9 miles, we reached the Greenleaf Hut.
Greenleaf Hut is operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) and reservations can be made online to stay at this and other AMC huts. Weekends fill up quickly, so plans should be made well in advance. In 1929, the AMC was asked by the state of New Hampshire to run the nearby Lonesome Lake cabins. They agreed, but felt that Lonesome Lake was far removed from the other existing huts at Lakes of the Clouds, Madison Spring, and Carter Notch. After receiving a donation from Colonel Charles Greenleaf, the AMC decided to build the hut at this picturesque location. The hut can accommodate 48 people and is open from early May to mid-October, depending on weather. We hung out a while at the hut. I was pleased to find that the kitchen had leftover pancakes and bacon from the morning breakfast. I always like taking advantage of free bacon whenever the opportunity presents itself. The hut still had a thick bank of fog around, but we felt that it may be clearing off from above.
Continuing from the Greenleaf Hut, you take the Greenleaf Trail and pass by Eagle Lake. The trail dips into a dense pine area and then starts a steep, rocky climb. We followed a path of cairns along the mountainside. The air was cold and the steep hiking had us stopping in a few spots. As we looked behind us, the Greenleaf Hut started to look smaller and smaller and the views were opening up around us. One gentleman that was hiking down Mount Lafayette told us that we may have timed the Franconia Ridge hike perfectly, as the clouds were moving off quickly. We continued the climb until we reached the summit of Mt. Lafayette at 4.0 miles. The wind was blowing strongly and we stopped for a brief moment to get a summit picture of us, thinking this could be good photographic evidence of our hike before we were blown off the side of the mountain. The views were phenomenal as we could see back the way we had hiked and across the gorge to Lonesome Lake and the cliffside of Cannon Mountain, where the Old Man of the Mountain was located.
From the summit, we took a right on the Appalachian Trail. Once we crossed over the rocks of the summit, it helped to shield us somewhat from the winds, but it was still windy and cold. However, we didn’t think much about the wind or cold, since the views were absolutely breathtaking. We were walking along the knife-edged ridgeline with nothing but clear views for hundreds of miles. We can’t even do justice along to Franconia Ridge by trying to describe its beauty in words. The hike along the ridgeline goes up and down for the next 1.8 miles, crossing over Mount Lincoln until you reach Little Haystack Mountain at 5.7 miles.
Here you reach the junction with the Falling Waters Trail. Take in some last views and then take this route down the steep mountain. The trail enters into deeper forest almost immediately. Boulders and deep steps greet you in a painful climb down. In fact, this trail had me feeling the worst pains I’ve just about ever felt. My left knee was killing me and because I was needing to overcompensate for it with my other leg, that hurt as well. Every step I felt I had daggers shooting up my knees, but I had to press on. We continued down the steep terrain down a zig-zagging trail that then took a more gradual descent near Dry Brook. At 6.1 miles, you reach a junction with a side trail to Shining Rock Cliff. We decided not to go the extra distance, but the Shining Rock Cliff gives you views to Franconia Notch and the granite cliff-face is supposed to be worth the trip if you want to check it out. The trail crosses the stream at 7.3 miles. At this point, you then climb down more boulders on this side of the trail. It rejoins Dry Brook at 7.7 miles, with another crossing. At this point, you begin to see waterfalls along the trail. We passed by Cloudland Falls (7.7 miles), Swiftwater Falls (8.0 miles), and Stairs Falls (8.1 miles) along the path. We began to see a lot more people along the trail at this point, as many families take the trip up to the waterfalls to wade in the swimming holes created beneath the falls. (Taking the Falling Waters Trail to Cloudland Falls is a popular and moderate family hike.)
To be honest, the pain was so bad for me, I barely stopped to look at the falls. I needed the hike to be over soon, since I was in excruciating pain. I regret that I wasn’t able to take the time to enjoy these beautiful falls, but I couldn’t focus on anything other than where my next step was taking me. We finally reached the bridge to rejoin the Old Bridle Path Trail at 8.7 miles. We took a left here and made our way back to the car.
Despite the pain I was feeling, I was so glad we did this hike. I know Christine was already wondering if I would ever be willing to do this hike again. She realized what I was going through and thought this may be something I wouldn’t want to do again. However, I would go through all the pain again to do this hike. It is truly that remarkable. I think next time though, I would probably recommend climbing up Falling Waters Trail (which appeared to be what most people did) and then heading down the Old Bridle Path for this loop. So, to put this as a public promise to my wife – we’ll do this hike again.. The views here are the best I’ve ever seen, and there is no way that I would not want to see them again.
- Distance – 9 miles
(Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
My phone battery died before the hike’s end, so this data runs a bit short!
- Elevation Change – About 3500 ft.
- Difficulty – 5. This is a tough one! The climbing is challenging, but the descent is actually harder. The walk along the open knife’s edge of Franconia Ridge makes all the challenge worthwhile.
- Trail Conditions – 3.5. Nice trail conditions, but lots of rocks, boulders and a few possibly challenging stream crossing.
- Views – 5+. WOW, WOW, WOW – what an amazing gift to visit this place on a clear day, because the views are magnificent.
- Waterfalls/streams – 5. On the descent of the Falling Waters Trail, Walker Brook presents waterfall after waterfall.
- Wildlife – 1. We saw far more people than animals, though we did cross paths with an angry, chattering (but adorable) red squirrel.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Trails are well marked.
- Solitude – 0. Everybody who is physically capable (and some who are not) wants to hike this trail. It’s one of New Hampshire’s most popular dayhikes and also provides access to Greenleaf Hut.
Directions to trailhead: Head north on I-93 until it becomes Franconia Notch Parkway. Pass exit 1 and the exit for the Basin. Take the next exit (for trailhead parking). Park in this parking lot and the trailhead starts near the large billboard sign with the map of hiking trails.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
This moderate 3.3 mile hike takes you to the summit of a beautiful, bare mountaintop complete with a fire tower. Views from the summit look across three states.
Standing at just 3,155 feet, Cardigan is a diminutive mountain compared to many of its neighbors. Though it lacks in elevation, it still offers a bald, rocky summit and panoramic views that allow you to look across New Hampshire and into both Maine and Vermont.
We thought it would be a great first hike on our trip – kind of a White Mountain warm-up. We were still pretty tired from the 12-hour drive up, but we set out early Sunday morning. We arrived at the parking lot in Cardigan State Park and found only a few other cars, despite the day being sunny and pleasant.
There are several routes up Cardigan. We chose the ascent recommended by the Darmouth Outing Club, the West Ridge Trail, which climbs 1200 feet over 1.5 miles to the summit. The trail started out behind a small picnic shelter. It climbed quickly uphill through classic New England forest – lots of pines and white birches. As we climbed higher, we traversed several small streams and muddy areas on small footbridges and planks. There was even one tiny waterfall cascading over a slide of smooth rock.
After the junction with the Skyland Trail, we continued up the West Ridge on increasingly steep and rocky terrain. Soon the trees gave way to a smooth rock dome, and instead of orange blazes the route was marked by cairns (pyramid-shaped piles of rocks). Every time we paused, we took a moment to gaze backwards – the view was growing more and more spectacular with every step.
The last push to the fire tower was fairly steep, but once we reached the lookout the vista was open in every direction. It was also a lot colder and windier. Without the shelter of trees, the wind was whipping 25-30 mph. We explored the summit for a while – looking over toward the Presidentials, spotting the wind turbines on the ridge next to my parents’ house and guessing the names of lakes we could see from the top. Cardigan is made of Kinsman Quartz Monzonite, a rock similar to granite. It’s beautiful and almost shimmers and sparkles in the sun.
To make the hike a little more diverse, we decided to descend by the South Ridge Trail. This took us by the Fire Lookout Cabin and the South Peak and Rimrock summits. We enjoyed a couple more beautiful views. It was fun to look back up at the fire tower from the South Peak and marvel at the terrain we covered. This part of the trail also offered a bounty of wild blueberries. The berries were perfectly ripe – the ideal combo of sweet and tart. I know we have wild blueberries in Virginia, but I would swear the ones in New England taste better!
We didn’t expect the trail down to be so steep and rocky (especially the section after we crossed the Skyland Trail again), or to get caught in a pop-up rainsquall. Weather really does change in an instant in New Hampshire! I had my rain jacket in my backpack, but we were so close to the end of the trail that we just picked up the pace and jogged the rest of the way back. There’s a lack of photos for the portion of the trail that required us to run through the rain, but overall you get the gist of what this trail is all about.
When we got back to the car, the parking lot was jam-packed. Several cars were circling like vultures to claim the spot we were about to vacate. Soon, we were on our way, headed in the direction of Canaan, NH. We decided to grab lunch at a little diner-like place called ‘Dishin’ It Out’. As it turned out, Canaan was holding it’s Old Home Days weekend when we visited. Old Home Days are a New England tradition, kind of a mix of a homecoming and a fair. There were food stands, craft vendors, fresh produce, local maple syrup, softball games and even cow chip bingo. It was a fun ending to our first hike of the trip!
As Christine mentioned, this was a great introduction to hiking in the White Mountains. As we were driving along to Mt. Cardigan State Park, moose crossing signs made us excited about the possibility of spotting one of these elusive creatures. We weren’t lucky enough to spot any moose, but as we got closer and were driving into the wooded park area, we knew we were about to take on a classic New England hike. You can download a trail map here.
The trail started off with a few stairs and then started a rather gradual uphill climb. At .4 miles, the trail intersects with the South Ridge Trail, our return route. We stayed on the West Ridge Trail and continued the climb. At .9 miles, the trail intersects with the Skyland Trail. Continuing on the trail begins to open up to more views and as you continue to climb, the trail rises above the treeline. At this point, you follow carefully-placed cairns until you reach the summit. We passed a sign that showed the intersection with the Clark Trail, reaching the summit and fire tower at 1.4 miles where the wind was blowing strong and cold. Even though the cold air had my nose running, I didn’t feel like getting out my jacket. The fire tower was locked but one of the sides served as a good protector against the wind.
We shared the summit with a couple of guys that were using a mirror to signal someone down at the lodge where they were staying. I never could tell if they were returning signals back to them. We stayed at the summit before making our descent down. We decided to make a little loop of our hike and descended back to the sign that showed the intersection with the Clark Trail. We followed the yellow-blazed Clark Trail as we sharply descended the mountain to connect us to the South Ridge Trail, leading us past a locked building. Passing the building, we started to spot blueberries all around. At 1.75 miles, the trail intersected with the orange-blazed South Ridge trail. We took the South Ridge Trail and it was fairly level and winded through a low-brush area until we reached the South Peak. We continued along and met the summit of Rimrock at 2.1 miles.
At this point, the South Ridge trail crosses the Skyland Trail and then changes its blaze color from orange to white. This part of the trail was very steep and rocky, reminding us of some of the tough climbing down we did from Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. We pressed on down this tough section of trail, wishing we had taken the Skyland Trail back to the West Ridge Trail (which is what we would both recommend to save the strain on your knees). At 2.9 miles, the South Ridge Trail finally ended and intersected back with the West Ridge Trail. We took a left here and made our way back to our car at 3.3 miles.
The downhill from Mt. Cardigan had Christine worrying about her knee, especially when the rain started. We had to move quickly for the last .4 miles. When we got to the parking lot, the lot was now overflowing with cars. We were so glad that we started the hike early and that we had good views at the top.
Mount Cardigan has been a popular place for hiking since the 1800s. In 1855, a forest fire destroyed most of the trees at the top of the mountain, which has left it as the bald that you see today. Because of the ability to see from the summit, a wooden fire tower was built here in 1904, to be soon replaced with a steel tower in 1924. On a clear day, you can see Mount Washington and other peaks in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Pleasant Mountain in Maine to the east, and Camel’s Hump in Vermont to the west. Some people choose to stay at the nearby Cardigan Lodge, operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club, and hike an alternate route to the summit for 5.2 miles roundtrip.
The panoramic scenery from the top was truly breathtaking. Based on what we had hiked before in New Hampshire to this point, it was one of the best views we had seen up here. Of course, we were just getting started for this trip and we ended up having some other hikes take the prize for best views here. However, you won’t be disappointed in hiking up to Mt. Cardigan on a clear, summer day.
- Distance – 3.3 miles
(Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
- Elevation Change – About 1250 ft.
- Difficulty – 3. By Virginia standards this is a moderate hike, but by New Hampshire standards it’s an easier hike that still offers great views.
- Trail Conditions – 3. Like most New Hampshire trails, this trail is a mix of smooth rock, roots and mud. Trail builders have done a great job building bridge and planks to traverse muddy areas.
- Views – 5. Spectacular… if you can see mountains in three different states, you know it’s good!
- Waterfalls/streams – 2. There are small streams, but really nothing scenic or noteworthy.
- Wildlife – 2. We saw a red squirrel and a variety of birds.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Trails are well marked and free trail maps are available at the trailhead.
- Solitude – 1. If you start early, you can avoid crowds, but this is a popular trail.
Download a trail map (PDF)
A friend of mine (and native New Englander), Ben Kimball, sent me some additional resources! Check out his brochure about the ecology of Mt. Cardigan. The publication also includes an alternate hike route starting from the AMC Lodge. He’s also provided a link to a page with photos and more information about the mountain hosted by the New Hampshire Division of Forests and Lands. Thanks, Ben!
Directions to trailhead: From Route 4, head north on NH-118/Dorchester Road. In .5 miles, turn right on to Cardigan Mountain Road. Stay on this road for close to 4 miles until you reach the parking lot area. The West Ridge Trail marker is on the northern end of the lot.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
In 2013, we made our third visit to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Christine’s parents bought a home there in 2008, and it has quickly become a favorite destination.
Because several people have emailed us to tell us our Intro to the Smokies was helpful, we thought we’d share some of our favorite out-of-towner tips for enjoying the White Mountains, too!
Some General Tips for Hiking in the Area
The White Mountains are TOUGH
The trails are steep and the rocks are hard. Trails considered moderate in New Hampshire may have 3,000+ feet of elevation gain over just a few miles. Much of the footing on trails is root-snarled and rock-covered, with loads of mud, shifting boulders underfoot and swift-moving streams to cross. The weather changes without warning in the Whites. On a sunny 80 degree day in the valley, you may experience 50mph winds, 45 degree temps and heavy fog on a mountain top. Even in the heat of summer, it’s likely you’ll want a hat, gloves and a windproof/waterproof shell. There aren’t many trails in Virginia that can adequately prepare you for what you’ll see in the Whites.
In fact, in its section about Mt. Washington, the AMC’s White Mountain Guide states:
To a person unused to mountain trails or in less than excellent physical condition, this unrelenting uphill grind can be grueling and intensely discouraging. If you are not an experienced hiker or a trained athlete, you will almost certainly enjoy the ascent of Mount Washington a great deal more if you build up to it with easier climbs in areas with less exposure to potentially severe weather.
So, heed that advice and pick tough Virginia hikes to train/practice on before you make your White Mountains visit.
New Hampshire has a Negligent Hiker Law.
Be prepared to take care of yourself in the Whites. Carry the ten essentials in your pack, let someone know your route, stay on the trail, stay with your group, be willing to turn back if the weather or your ability dictates, and don’t do anything stupid. If you need rescue because of your own negligence, you may receive a hefty bill from the state. Visit HikeSafe.com for more information.
Many New Hampshire State Parks Are as Impressive as National Parks.
OK… now that we’ve sufficiently scared you with bad weather, tough climbs and personal liability, it’s time for the good stuff! New Hampshire is incredibly spectacular and wild. When you compare many of New Hampshire’s state parks to the state parks we have in Virginia, prepare yourself to be blown away! The scenery, wildlife and expansiveness of New Hampshire parks like Franconia Notch, Mount Cardigan and Mount Washington rivals (OK… let’s be honest – exceeds) what you see in Shenandoah National Park.
There are lots of great hiking guides for New Hampshire. We recommend the AMC’s White Mountain Guide, Hiking New Hampshire (Falcon Guide) and 50 Hikes in the White Mountains. We suggest photocopying the pages you need for the day of the hike, as it saves you from carrying the extra weight of a guidebook.
Stay Alert for Wildlife on Highways
Each time we’ve visited the White Mountains, we’ve seen moose hit by cars on I-93. It’s very sad and dreadfully dangerous to hit a moose. We’ve seen bears and deer along the interstate, too.
Where to Stay in the Area
We have free lodging in the Holderness/Plymouth area (thanks Mom & Dad!). It’s a great location – nestled right between the Lakes Region and the White Mountains Region. If you want lodging even closer to prime trails in the Whites, North Conway (very crowded, very touristy) and Lincoln are great choices. Both have tons of amenities and are close to popular trails. The area also has loads of camping, and for the true adventurer, the Appalachian Mountain Club maintains a series of seasonal backcountry lodging.
Must-See Things That Don’t Involve Hiking
- Take a Drive on the Scenic Kancamagus Highway. There are great views, cascading streams, opportunities to spot wildlife, and access to many of the area’s easier family trails.
- Visit the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center (Christine’s mom is a volunteer). This center has fantastic hands-on displays for children and a nice variety native animals on display (bears, bobcats, eagles, etc). The Center also runs boat excursions to observe loons in the wild on Squam Lake.
- Rent Bikes and ride through Franconia Notch. There is a ten-mile paved bike path that runs the length of the notch. You can rent a bike, arrange a shuttle and coast downhill through the park stopping at all the scenic/historical sites along the way.
- Watch an Optical Illusion Put the Old Man of the Mountain Back Into Place – In May of 2003, New Hampshire’s most notable natural landmark fell from the face of Cannon Cliffs. Now, due to the generosity and ingenuity of interested individuals and companies, you can visit Profile Plaza and watch the Old Man reappear on the cliffside. This stop was very cool!
- Sample Craft Beer – Moat Mountain, Woodstock Inn, Tuckerman’s, Smuttynose and Long Trail (among others) are all located roughly in this region (some require a bit more driving than others).
- Take a Day Trip to the Coast – In about an hour and a half you can be in York/Ogunquit eating lobsters and chowder by the oceanfront. There are lighthouses, beachfront strolling, mansions, ice cream… everything you expect to see at a New England Beach. York/Ogunquit has the Marginal Way – which is a beautiful walk. If you visit, don’t miss stopping by the Stonewall Kitchen flagship store. If you enjoy cooking or eating, it’s a great stop! Lunch at Lobster Cove in York was especially delicious and memorable.
- Take a Day Trip Into Burlington (Vermont) - Burlington is a beautiful city on the shores of Lake Champlain. On that day trip, we stopped at many shops in town and toured the University of Vermont. Along the route, stops at Ben & Jerry’s, the Cabot Cheese headquarters, and Dog Mountain (an absolute must for pet lovers!) are all worthwhile.
- Take a Day Trip to the Quechee Gorge (Vermont) – There is a lot to see on this drive! On the way to Quechee, you’ll get the chance to stop in Hanover and visit the beautiful grounds of Dartmouth College. This route also takes you by the King Arthur Flour headquarters. I know, many of you are thinking ‘flour?’ – but trust me, it’s another super stop for anyone who likes to cook or eat! Quechee is also home to another Cabot Shop and Simon Pearce Glassblowers. Another 30 minutes of driving will take you to the Long Trail brewing headquarters. Their riverside deck is a great place to relax with a drink.
Above: King Arthur Flour Company Bakers, Simon Pearce Glassblowers, Sampling at Long Trail, The Dog Chapel, Stonewall Kitchen Store & Cooking School, Nubble Lighthouse; Classic Maine Lobster Roll, Along the Marginal Way, Covered Bridges are everywhere, Profile Plaza recreates an optical illusion of the Old Man of the Mountain; Adam enjoys the children’s exhibits at the Squam Natural Science Center
A Restaurant Recap
- Polly’s Pancake Parlor (Sugar Hill, NH) is celebrating its 75th year of making customized, made-to-order pancakes. They have several batter choices and several add-in choices, so you can mix-and-match to create an endless number of combinations. Their maple-apple chicken sausage is delicious! Don’t forget to pose on Trot-Trot before or after your breakfast!
- Flatbread Company (North Conway, NH) serves handmade, wood-fire cooked pizzas that make heavy use of local, seasonal, organic ingredients. We went there for lunch on the one rainy day of our 2013 trip and loved sitting next to the huge, brick pizza oven. So cozy!
- Lucky Dog (Plymouth, NH) is a reliable college-town pub. They serve endless cheese and a wide variety of bar food – burgers, nachos, wings, etc. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s always good when we go.
- The Common Man (throughout New Hampshire) is a local chain of unique, independently run restaurants. They exist in many styles and iterations all over New Hampshire. We ate at three different restaurants under the Common Man umbrella on our 2013 visit. Italian Farmhouse, Town Docks and The Common Man – Ashland. All three were equally great!
- White Mountain Bagel Company (Lincoln, NH) was a great post-hike stop for sandwiches. Creative combos and everything was very fresh!
- Moat Mountain Smokehouse & Brewery (North Conway, NH) is a favorite stop for craft beer, but they also serve fantastic barbecue! We never miss a stop to eat at Moat when we visit the area.
- The Woodstock Station Restaurant (Woodstock, NH) is another brewery-restaurant combination. We visited early for dinner on a Monday evening, and the place was packed. The service has a reputation for being slow (and it was), but the food and beer was good. They have the biggest gluten-free menu we’ve ever seen, so if you have to avoid wheat and want a large selection, this is a great place to go!
Above: Town Docks by The Common Man has excellent outdoor, lakeside seating, Moat Mountain nachos, Flatbread Company pizza oven, Polly’s pancakes and maple-apple chicken sausage, Woodstock Station Inn
Trails We Covered in the White Mountains
- Mount Cardigan
- Franconia Ridge
- Lonesome Lake
- Mount Washington via Ammonoosuc Ravine
- Mount Moosilauke
This 2.2 mile route is more of a historic stroll than a true hike, but it’s definitely worth doing if you’re in Harpers Ferry and don’t have time for more significant hikes, like Weaverton Cliff, Loudon Heights or Maryland Heights.
We took a trip to Harpers Ferry, WV primarily to meet Jennifer Pharr-Davis, the current record-holder with the fastest time to hike the Appalachian Trail. She was giving a talk at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to promote her new book, Called Again, and talk about her experiences hiking the Appalachian Trail. The center holds archives of all the thru-hikers that have made it to this halfway point and while we waited for her talk to begin, we browsed around the center and looked through the photo archives to find some of our friends that had thru-hiked in years past. We found Jennifer’s talk to be truly inspirational and she took several questions about her experience.
After leaving the center, we decided to take advantage of being in the area and headed to Harpers Ferry National Historic Park. We drove up to the Visitor Center. At the gate, there was a line of cars and one car was taking a long time to get through. While I wasn’t feeling particularly patient either, the car in front of us was shouting for the car ahead to move along. When this car finally got to the gate, they yelled at the park ranger for being too thorough with the other people’s questions. They ended up just turning around since they were too mad to enjoy the park. We felt so bad that the park ranger had to take this abuse. We paid our $10 entry fee and parked near the Visitor Center. We talked to the staff there and asked for an idea for a quick hike. The staff member recommended this hike to us, since she said this had some of the nicest views of the Shenandoah River. We filled up our water bottles and began our hike.
The temperature was scorching this day and we hit the trail in the peak of the afternoon heat. We both talked about how much we hate the heat of the summer. Give me fall or spring hiking days any time over humid, hot summer days.
The trail starts from behind the restrooms of the Visitors Center and across the main road. Be sure to download a trail map here. As soon as you cross the cross the road, the trail bears a sharp left, skirting the tree line. The trail then goes deeper into the woods and begins a descent including a sharp switchback. At about .25 miles, the trail crosses a bridge over the small creek and then begins a short climb uphill. Once you reach the top, the trail opens up to houses on the right and a large field on the left. We took a sharp left, which hugged the tree line down a path that was cut into the tall grass. The shade of the trees gave us a little protection from the sun beating down, but it wasn’t quite enough. At .5 miles, the trail approaches the back of the Murphy-Chambers House. We decided to continue on and see the house on the return trip. We continued along the trail and at .9 miles, we reached the John Brown Fort foundation. John Brown was such an interesting character in American history and I remember writing a paper in college about his activist behavior. You can read more about the timeline of his raid on Harpers Ferry here. A short distance from the foundation, the trail dips into the woods for the view of the Shenandoah River. You get a nice view of the river and we weren’t surprised to see large rafts floating down the river. We continued from this point to take a right at the next junction (rather than continuing on to the earthworks) to head back to the Murphy-Chambers House. The trail follows a rather straight path and there wasn’t any shade to be found from the sun at this point. At 1.2 miles, we reached an area of cannons and learned about how Confederate General A.P. Hill maneuvered his troops to a fortified position on this hill.
From here we continued on the trail which led to a gate keeping an unpaved road from going any further. There is a parking lot here and a path to the right leads to the Murphy-Chambers House. The Union took over this farm in 1862, ousting the Chambers Family. While he tried to claim restitution for his property, there is no evidence that he was ever paid. In 1869, Alexander Murphy re-established the farm.
We continued along the trail on the unpaved road until we reached the junction again that led back into the woods at 1.5 miles. We followed the trail back to the Visitor Center and our car. While the day was incredibly hot, it was nice to get out and stretch our legs and learn a little about the history that shaped this area.
If the weather had been cooler or if we’d had more time, we would have opted to take one of the longer hike options in the area. But after spending Saturday visiting Charlottesville-area wineries (Horton and Barboursville), touring James Madison’s Montpelier and enjoying a huge dinner at the Barbeque Exchange, we got a very late start on Sunday morning. So late, in fact, that we were worried about making it to Jennifer Pharr Davis’ talk in time. The original plan had been to have a leisurely lunch in downtown Harpers Ferry and then make our way to the ATC. As it turned out, we ended up wolfing down Subway in Charles Town and making it to the talk just in time.
Jennifer’s talk was everything I hoped it would be and more! I will never be a tenth of the athlete that she is, but she inspires me to get out there and challenge myself. She loves the Appalachian Trail, and despite all the amazing places she has hiked, the AT is still her favorite. Some people might think that setting a speed record on the trail would preclude appreciating or enjoying the beauty and the experience of nature.
But after hearing her speak and reading Called Again, I believe she found new levels of beauty, love, and personal fulfillment. People hike the trail for a variety of reasons – to see scenery and wildlife, to engage in self-discovery, to challenge oneself physically or to form/deepen personal relationships. Jennifer may have flown across the trail in a mere 46 days, but she still had all the experiences you would expect a person to have along the way. I really enjoyed Jennifer’s first book Becoming Odyssa, but Called Again was even more rewarding. I also added Brew Davis’ book (Jennifer’s husband) to my reading queue. I expect his side of the story to be equally fascinating!
OK… now on to the hike! Adam has already done such a thorough job describing the route and points of interest, that I really don’t have much to add. I will echo his sentiments about the heat. I felt like I was going to melt into a pool of sweat on the trail. The day we were there was the beginning of one of the only really hot weeks we’ve had this summer. It was probably in the low nineties, but it was humid, windless and sunny, so the heat index was 101. I really don’t like to hike when it’s above the mid 80s, so this wasn’t a particularly fun hiking day. Even if there had been more time to explore the area, I don’t think I would have wanted to do a longer hike in this heat.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the views of the river and the historical attractions. If it had been cooler, I would have taken more time to read informational placards. My favorite part of the hike was spotting a fawn grazing in the field. From a distance, I saw a brown hump in the grass. I asked Adam, ‘Is that an animal of some kind?’. He thought it was a rock and headed over to read about the cannon on display. I tiptoed along with my camera and found that the ‘rock’ was actually an adorable spotted fawn. We made eye contact for a brief moment before he flashed his white tail and bounded off into the trees.
We made our way quickly back to the car where I chugged more water and blasted the air conditioning. The outdoor temp thermometer on our car said 107. I know that was mostly from leaving the car sitting in the sun… but still! This short hike in the heat added even more to the anticipation about our upcoming ten day trip north! Our next five posts are going to be out-of-staters! We’ll be taking you to the rugged, exciting, spectacular high peaks of New Hampshire!
- Distance – 2.2 miles
- Elevation Change – negligble
- Difficulty – 1. The trail was not very difficult and only had a little bit of elevation change on the hike.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail is well-established and didn’t have very difficult footing. Most of the trail is on grass or gravel.
- Views – 1.5. The views of the Shenandoah River were somewhat obstructed with trees around.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 2. You do get one heightened view of the Shenandoah River from this point.
- Wildlife – 2. I believe we were fairly lucky to see a fawn on the trail. I would expect to see field birds here for any bird-watchers.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The trails mostly inter-connect here, so you shouldn’t get lost.
- Solitude – 4. My guess is that most people that visit the Visitor Center do not hike up to this area, but you may see some people at the Murphy-Chambers House.
Directions to trailhead: From Charles Town, WV head north for about 4.5 miles. Turn right on Shoreline Drive (about .8 miles past Millville Road). The entrance fee station is just ahead and the large parking area is to the right. Walk up to the Visitor Center and the trail is across the road behind the bathrooms.
If you’re looking for a short, easy hike in the vicinity of the Riprap trail (southern district – Shenandoah National Park), the 3 mile walk to Calvary Rocks and Chimney Rock is a great option. It follows the same route as the 10-mile Riprap circuit, but turns around right after two excellent viewpoints.
After our long hiking trip to North Caroline and Tennessee, I came home with a really sore knee. Every step I took, it felt like someone was sticking an ice pick into the soft tissue under my kneecap. Even after a week’s rest, it didn’t feel better, so I reluctantly made an appointment with an orthopedist. He couldn’t find anything obviously wrong, so he diagnosed it as a bit of IT-band syndrome, a bit of inflamed cartilage and maybe the beginnings of arthritis. I was given orders to cross-train… which is essentially code-speak for ‘do something other than hiking‘. Bah! So, I spent most of June and July in the gym, doing cardio equipment and weights. I only managed to hit the trail a few times – all short and easy hikes. This walk to Calvary Rocks and Chimney Rock was one of those hikes.
It was a beautiful, sunny, crisp day for midsummer. We set out in the morning and had the trail almost completely to ourselves. The hike started off in the same parking lot as the longer Riprap loop hike. The hike follows the Appalachian Trail uphill for almost a half mile before intersecting with the Riprap trail.
At the junction, turn left onto the Riprap trail. The first viewpoint, Calvary Rocks comes shortly after passing a small talus slope. There are two small outcroppings of rocks at this viewpoint. It’s pretty, but in my opinion, the second view from Chimney Rock is the nicer of the two.
The second view comes just a few tenths of a mile past Calvary Rocks. The view is great and this outcropping is a bit more expansive. There are lots of places to scramble around. There were also a ton of blueberries growing around Chimney Rock. Most of them weren’t ripe, but I found a few that were dark purplish-blue and sweet-tart!
We lingered on the rocks for a while before heading back the way we came. It was great to be out on the trail after so many days of doing indoor workouts, and (thankfully) my knee held up pretty well!
This truly hasn’t been a typical summer in Virginia. I remember brutal, hot, muggy summers in which we never could feel we could escape the heat. Luckily, this summer has been much cooler. The bugs have also not been as bad this year, which has made hiking much more pleasant.
This was a test for Christine’s knee to see if she could take another hike after just a little rest. The amount of hiking we did in the Smokies demanded for some time off, but I was glad her knee was cooperative on this hike.
We started from the parking lot and began our hike uphill on the white-blazed Appalachian Trail. In about .4 miles, you reach the junction with the Riprap Trail. Take a left here and the trail goes down steeply before ascending. Around 1.1 miles, you will reach your first viewpoint of Calvary Rocks. There are some very nice views here, but not a lot of room to spread out if there are others on the trail. Continue from here along the trail and around 1.5 miles, you will reach Chimney Rock. Chimney Rock has great views and a little more room to enjoy the views with others or stop to eat a snack.
Along the trail, Christine was complimenting me on my ability to be able to find indian pipes. She is definitely the wildflower expert between the two of us, but for some reason I tend to spot indian pipes before she does. We found a few nice specimens along the trail.
We lingered for a short while to enjoy the views on such a nice summer day. We made our way back the same way on the return trip. If you would like some nice views with little effort, this is hike in the south district of Shenandoah National Park that shouldn’t be missed.
- Distance – 3 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – around 450 feet
- Difficulty – 2. This hike is short and easy without much climbing or descending.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trails was in great shape.
- Views – 4. The views are nice, but they aren’t panoramic,
- Waterfalls/streams – 0. None. If you want to see streams, you’ll have to do the full Riprap loop.
- Wildlife – 2. We saw a nice looking buck near the trailhead. Bears are known to frequent this area.
- Ease to Navigate – 3. The trail is well-marked and there is just one trail junction.
- Solitude – 3. We didn’t see many people at all on this hike!
Directions to trailhead:
From Skyline Drive, park on the western side at mile marker 90. There is a parking lot specifically for Riprap hikers.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
This wonderful little network of trails gives you the opportunity to view Linville Falls from every angle! You can choose short/easy routes or longer/harder routes depending what you’re in the mood to do. When all was said and done, we hiked a little over 3.5 miles and enjoyed several views of the falls.
To finish our trip to North Carolina, we had to visit Linville Falls along the Blue Ridge Parkway. While overcast days are better days for photographing waterfalls, we had to take what we were given. The sun was high in the sky and it was quite hot on the hike, but we knew this wasn’t going to be too long of a hike.
We drove up the gravel Wiseman’s View Road and went first to the USFS Visitor’s Center. Two women were inside and gave us some information on how to tackle the falls. We were looking for a place to eat lunch before the hike and they recommended Famous Louise’s Rock House, especially for their pies. We took their advice and refueled for the hike. We ventured back up Wiseman’s View Road and parked in the large gravel lot at the to the left of the road. The trail starts from the eastern side of the lot and begins with a steep descent.
There is a great map that you can download that shows you the trails of this entire hike here. At about .2 miles of a descent, we reached a junction. We took a right here to make our way to the series of overlooks of the falls. In a short distance, we reached another smaller junction with the trail to the Upper Falls, but we decided to approach that on the way back. Since there are so many choices to make about the order in which you take in the views, I will not list all the distances; but you can tell from the downloaded map the distances to each. We opted first to take a left for the trail to Chimney View, which provided a viewpoint to see the upper and lower falls. From this point, we backtracked to the main trail and took a left. Shortly, we came on to the side trail on the right for the Gorge View. The views from here showed the canyon of the gorge but the views didn’t allow you to see the bottom of the canyon. Next was the end of the main trail, which ended at Erwins View. This view gave you the furthest view away from the falls, but it was still spectacular. We backtracked and made our way back to the Upper Falls viewpoint. From here, you could see the water plunge down the falls from a closer distance.
From seeing people on the opposite side of the water and very close to the falls, we decided to take the trail down to the Linville Falls Visitor Center. The trail was wide, road-like and going slightly downhill. We eventually came to a bridge over the Linville River and the Visitor Center was on the opposite side. We grabbed a few cold waters from the center and talked to the rangers about the trails on the other side. We were fairly tired by this point, since we had done so much hiking during the week, but the temptation of the falls kept us pressing forward. From the front of the Visitor Center, the trail headed into the woods on the eastern side of the building. In a few feet, the trail branched and we took a right to head to the next overlook. This trail branched off after about .3 miles. We took a right at the junction, descending to reach the Plunge Basin overlook at .5 miles. This point gave you a vantage point to see the water shoot through the gorge and down below. We watched one man standing on the cliffside below, fishing from a precarious position. We then made our way back to our car by returning to the Visitor Center, back across the bridge, and taking a right to the trail junction that led us back to our vehicle.
We had a great time visiting Linville Falls and this is definitely a hike that most people could do with their families. A return trip in the peak of fall color with an overcast sky is something we will try to do. While many waterfalls allow you to get very close to them, the trails here mostly keep you at a distance. However, the view of the gorge with the waterfalls is breathtaking.
Linville Falls was a perfect hike to end our trip through Tennessee and North Carolina – short and very easy! Ten hikes packed into eight days was pretty rigorous and I had the sore knees, bruises and sunburned arms to show for it! Truth be told, I was secretly pleased that the ninth day of our voyage was stormy and rainy, because it meant we’d go home a day early instead of biking the 33+ miles of the Virginia Creeper. Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE biking the Creeper, but I was exhausted from our whirlwind trip. Maybe we ought to relax more on vacations – like normal people! Nah…. probably not.
Linville Falls were a gift to the National Park Service from John D. Rockefeller. So many of our favorite parks would not have existed without his generosity. Acadia, Shenandoah, Yosemite, the Grand Tetons, and the Smokies were all established, in part, due to his financial support.
Adam did a thorough job describing all the different paths we took, so I don’t have a lot of details to add about the terrain. The only thing I would say is that you can walk to the bottom of the falls. It’s about about .8 miles of hiking (some steep). We opted to skip the view from the bottom on this trip, mainly because we were tired and could tell that the base of the falls was extremely crowded.
I enjoyed stopping in the visitors center and talking to the park ranger. He was a pretty serious hiker and we enjoyed trading trail tips. He suggested Crabtree Falls, NC for a future hike. I was also fascinated by the cross section of an enormous tree hanging in the center. It fell when the Linville Gorge flooded in September of 2004. The hurricane-related flooding was so severe, that it washed away half of the visitor’s center and left many gigantic, toppled trees in its wake. Water is such a powerful force!
Linville Falls has one of the highest water volumes of any waterfall in the Blue Ridge, so it’s not surprising that it floods so easily. The high volume of water also makes the gorge perilous for people. Swimming is not allowed in the river near the falls, but numerous fatalities have still occurred in the area.
After finishing our hiking for the day, we retreated back to our cabin at the Pineola so we could get showered and dressed for dinner. We decided to go fancy for our last evening in the area, and enjoyed a fabulous dinner at the Storie Street Grille in Blowing Rock, NC. In addition to lovely outdoor patio seating, hey had a great wine line, beautifully prepared entrees, and amazing desserts. Even though I’d already had pie a la mode earlier in the day, I could not pass up their dark chocolate – coconut bread pudding. Adam’s banana creme brulee was equally delicious. It was a fitting end to a fabulous trip!
Our next post will actually be a Virginia hike – shocking! But then we’ll be going back to some more out-of-state posts. We’re headed for the White Mountains of New Hampshire in a couple weeks, and are hoping to bring back at least a couple posts from that area. Stay tuned!
- Distance – 3.65 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 350 ft.
- Difficulty – 1. The trail does have a little climbing up and down on the trail, but most people should be able to do it without too much trouble. We saw people of all ages and all levels of fitness on the trail, so it should be doable by anyone willing. The options for different viewpoints allow for people to choose what they can handle and decide when to stop.
- Trail Conditions – 4.5. Most of the trail is either gravel or dirt and is well-worn.
- Views – 4. Great views of the gorge and waterfalls.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 5. There are many viewpoints to see the waterfalls. The only challenge will be to enjoy it with few others around.
- Wildlife – 1. You may see squirrels and some birds flying around, but it would be unlikely to see much else.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. There is a large branching of side trails here, but using the map should guide you along.
- Solitude – 0. With such a close proximity to the Blue Ridge Parkway along with the ease of difficulty, this hike is crowded.
Directions to trailhead: From US 221, turn on to NC 183. In .7 miles, turn right on to Wisemans View Road at the large curve. The parking lot is a short distance on the left and the trail starts from the eastern side of the parking lot.
This 1.8-mile, moderately steep hike takes you to the summit of Hawksbill Mountain where you can enjoy stunning views of Linville Gorge.
Shenandoah National Park has a Hawksbill Mountain. It’s a nice hike and has lovely views, but Hawksbill Mountain in North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest is even more impressive! With a dramatic skyline of mountains with interesting profiles and a plunging view into Linville Gorge, this short hike offers scenery unparalleled by our Virginia Hawksbill. (sorry… I have to be honest!)
Adam and I woke up early on our last morning at the Pineola Inn. After a grueling day on Grandfather Mountain, we were in search of low-key hiking. My knee was hurting; every step I took on even the slightest downhill elicited stabbing pain under my kneecap. I thought to myself, ’if only we could find a hike without much elevation change, I can gut this out!’ I referred to our hiking guide for the Blue Ridge Parkway and found a few short, easy hikes in the Linville Gorge area. The first was Hawksbill. The description was pretty vague, but it sounded easy and short – good enough to fit the bill for the day.
We had breakfast and made our way to the trailhead. The drive down Table Rock Road was dusty, bumpy and pitted with axle-rattling potholes. Fortunately, we were on the road only a short while. We parked near the trailhead and started up the Hawksbill Trail.
There’s really not a lot you can say about a .9 mile trail that pretty goes straight up a mountainside. There weren’t many noteworthy features on the route. It started off gentle, but became increasingly steep and rocky as we approached the summit. We saw mountain laurel and Catawba rhododendron blooming along the way. After a short while of walking, the trail leveled out on a rocky summit. At first, we didn’t see any views. But then we followed a series of worn footpaths through the brush and over boulders. On the other side, we found magnificent views that far exceeded any expectations we had for the hike. Linville Gorge is a precipitous plunge from the summit of Hawksbill. If you look deep into the canyon, you can see the river trailing through the forest. All the mountains around the gorge have unusual shapes. Instead of gentle rounded domes like most mountains, they have cliffs and plunges and missing chunks.
There were tons of places to sit and enjoy the views in every direction. When we visited, morning clouds were still swirling around the summits – making the vista even more dramatic. We saw a large group of cedar waxwings cross the summit, pausing to eat berries from the trees. Much of the summit was crowned with sand myrtle. And best of all, we had the entire place to ourselves! We stayed up there for about 45 minutes before climbing back down.
On the descent my knee nagged at me, but I still wanted to get one more little hike done after Hawksbill! Because, what would a visit to the Linville Gorge area be without a visit to the famous Linville Falls? We opted to stop for lunch at Famous Louise’s Rock House before visiting the falls. The restaurant sits simultaneously in three different counties (Burke, McDowell, and Avery), and is very well known for its pies. I enjoyed a slice of their five fruit pie with ice cream, then it was on to our final hike of the trip!
When we started off our hike from the parking lot up Hawksbill Mountain, there were lots of cars at the trailhead. After seeing some of the people preparing for the walk, we noticed they were bringing a supply of ropes and carabiners for rock climbing. As it turns out, Hawksbill is more popular for rock-climbing than hiking, featuring several moderate and difficult routes. We jumped on to the trail not knowing how many people we would see, but as it turns out we were the only ones hiking the trail on this gorgeous day.
The trail started off very gradual, which felt fine to our sore joints from hiking up Grandfather Mountain the previous day. At .6 miles, the trail took a sharp left up the mountain. I’m not sure, but this may be the point that the rock climbers veer off the main trail since we saw a faint trail leading out from this point. The trail then becomes more steep and there are some very large steps to take in places up rocks to keep climbing up the trail. At .8 miles, we reached the height of the trail. We headed to the left and within a short distance, we could see the views open up. We walked on a faint trail at the top until we reached a nice rock outcropping to take in the views of the gorge. Across from this viewpoint was Table Rock and Short Off. We talked about how we would like to come down here again and hike those two. As we were taking in the views, we saw several cedar waxwings chasing each other in the air.
We initially thought this viewpoint was what we came to see, but I wondered where the rock climbers were. So, while Christine took some more photos, I decided to scout back to the top of the trail we traveled and headed the opposite direction. I could tell this opened up to even grander views, so I backtracked and brought Christine back. We walked about .1 mile to this other viewpoint which had a large rocky cliff-face to take in the view. We climbed around on the rocks for a while taking in the views of the gorge and mountains. One rock that I stood on pictured above wobbled a bit when I stood on it, so be very careful on the edges!
We made our way back to the trail, again not encountering any other people. We were so glad that we had found this gem of a hike. This is another one of those hikes that has outstanding views with not a lot of effort. I would recommend it to anyone visiting the Linville Gorge area.
- Distance – 1.8 miles
(Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
- Elevation Change – About 700 ft.
- Difficulty – 2. A little bit of the hike is steep and rocky, but it’s so short that most people should be able to tackle the route with ease.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail is in nice condition.
- Views – 5. Beautiful views of the gorge, Table Rock Mountain and Short Off Mountain
- Streams/Waterfalls – 0. None.
- Wildlife – 2. We saw a flock of cedar waxwings and a lizard.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The trail is a straight shot up the mountainside. There are a variety of footpaths around the summit, and lots of places to take in the view.
- Solitude – 4. Oddly, we did not see a single other person after we left the parking lot. We had the summit all to ourselves for a full 45 minutes.
Directions to trailhead: From Banner Elk, NC (a good hub for this area). Follow NC 105 south for about eight miles, turn left on NC-181 S/US-221 S/Linville Falls Hwy for about three miles, turn left onto NC-181 S/Jonas Ridge Hwy for six miles, turn right onto Ginger Cake road and continue onto Table Rock Rd. The trailhead will be marked with NFS signage.
This five-mile hike is demanding, thrilling and beautiful! It has everything from ladders and cables to amazing views of the Watauga Valley and the Blue Ridge Parkway. If you’re a fit hiker looking for something a little different – Grandfather Mountain definitely fits the bill!
We have a love-hate relationship with Grandfather Mountain. I definitely enjoy the hike more than Christine, but both times we have hiked it, things haven’t gone as great as planned. The views on Grandfather Mountain are amazing, but some of the physical and mental challenges definitely take their toll.
The last time we hiked up Grandfather Mountain, we only made it a little past Attic Window peak. Christine wasn’t feeling well that day, so we decided we make a second attempt on this trip and make it to the highest peak, Calloway Peak.
We were some of the first people on the trail that day. The lady at the entrance gate (it costs $18 per adult) gave us a parking sign to put in our car window. This is used in case someone goes missing on the mountain and they need to perform a rescue. We were told they wanted us back at our car by an hour before closing. We parked in the lower Trails Parking area and were the first car in the parking lot. We quickly set off on to the Bridge Trail, which winds through a series of switchbacks, crossing underneath the Mile High Swinging Bridge, before reaching the upper parking lot at .4 miles. We made a quick trip into the gift shop and then took a quick trip across the Mile High Swinging Bridge. The wind was quite calm this time on the trail; last time, the bridge was singing and the wind was so strong, Christine could barely walk across the parking lot. I have a big fear of heights when it comes to man-made things (roller coasters, ziplines, ladders, etc.), so the swinging bridge is always a gut-check for me. The fact that the wind was calm made it easier for me. We walked on to the rocks on the other side and enjoyed some spectacular morning views to the west.
Crossing back across the bridge, we made our way down the stairs and across the parking lot to the large wooden sign to begin our real hike on the Grandfather Trail. We climbed up a few stairs and started our hike on the blue-blazed trail. The first part of the trail isn’t too tough. You reach an open area called The Patio at .6 miles and at .7 miles you reach the junction with the Grandfather Extension Trail. Continue past this trail and at .8 miles, you will pass the scenic Grandfather Gap area. Just ahead is a junction where the Underwood Trail branches off at .9 miles. We continued on the Grandfather Trail and here is where it can be challenging. Your first introduction to the difficulty of the hike is when you come across some cables that are helpful to grab onto to help yourself climb up or down the trail. When it is wet, the rocks can be steep and slippery, so it is helpful and often necessary to grab onto these.
In a short distance as you are making way toward MacRae Peak, you have to navigate a series of ladders. The first one starts off as you squeeze along a rock that will have you hunched over and you climb up a tall ladder that is at an angle along a large rock face. This climb wasn’t as scary, but it is just a taste of what is to come. If you’re feeling uncomfortable climbing this ladder, I would recommend turning around. After climbing this first ladder, you will come upon more series of ladders. Some of these go directly up the cliff side and you are looking at huge drop-offs on the side. The first time I was definitely scared going up, but I felt more comfortable on this climb. The ladders are bolted into the rock and the ladders are placed at just enough angle that I didn’t feel I was going to plummet to my death. Once you navigate up through the ladders and climb up where it begins to level off, you are rewarded with more amazing views around you. We continued further and reached the sign to MacRae Peak at 1.3 miles. The sign rests at the bottom of another ladder. Climbing up to the top of the ladder, you then need to grab a cable to help pull yourself up to the summit boulder of MacRae Peak. The 360-degree views at this point are stunning on a clear day.
We took a short break at the top and then made our way back down the ladder to continue our hike. The trail begins to climb down and at 1.4 miles, you see another junction with the Underwood Trail. Continue the Grandfather Trail downhill with some big steps and cables. The trail then begins to climb again up to the Attic Window. You navigate through an area called The Chute, which has you climbing up a short but very steep area of small boulders to make your way to the top. As you crest the top at 1.6 miles, you can wind around to a rock outcropping known as Attic Window Peak, which serves as a great viewpoint. We had spotted someone sitting at the top of Attic Window Peak from MacRae peak. He was still there when we arrived and I noticed he was taking in the views while reading The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. He was asking if any of the other views were worth the trip, since he came up via the Profile Trail. He was interested in seeing the Mile High Swinging Bridge, but when we saw him later on the trail, we learned that he decided to just go back the way he came.
From Attic Window Peak, the trail goes downhill again, but then passes through a level area as you walk along a ridgeline with some great northwestern views (and a view of the steep Profile Trail). At 1.9 miles, you reach another overnight camping area known as Alpine Meadow. The trail descends again down another gap, before making the way up to Calloway Peak. At this point, the clouds were rolling in and sticking to the mountain, so our visibility was going away fast. We climbed up the Calloway Gap area and reached the junction with the Profile Trail at 2.3 miles. We pressed on, passing by the Cliffside Campsite at 2.4 miles. The trail continued to climb up some switchbacks. A sign came up at 2.7 miles which pointed the way to the Watauga View. Knowing there wasn’t much a view as we hiked in the fog, we made our way to the Calloway Peak. The trail at this point climbed up a couple of more technical ladders. We reached a rock that was the Calloway Peak at 2.8 miles. There was no sign designating this as the peak, but from ground markings, we could tell this is where the white-blazed trail of the Daniel Boone Scout Trail met the blue-blazed Grandfather Trail. I’m sure there is a view from the rocks here, but we could barely see 10 feet in front of our face. Disappointed, we made our way back down the ladders and took the side trail to the Watauga View. The view was barely there, but we stayed long enough to eat our packed lunch before making our way back. The views on the way back were getting swallowed by the clouds settling on the mountain, so we lost a lot of the views on the way back.
At 3.7 miles, we reached the junction with the yellow-blazed Underwood Trail. We decided to take that trail back to avoid some of the ladders. This trail is incredibly rocky and my knees were in so much pain after a short distance on this trail. I think if we do this trail again, I would rather take the ladders than this hellish, downhill knee-destroyer. Every step, I felt shooting pain in one of my knees and I wondered if I would need to be rescued (at least there was a sign in our car). We navigated down one large ladder and finally reached the junction with the Grandfather Trail again at 4.2 miles. I turned around to flip the bird to the trail for my personal enjoyment and reached the Grandfather Extension Trail junction at 4.4 miles. We took this red-blazed trail, which goes gradually downhill through a series of switchbacks until we reached the parking lot for our car at 5.0 miles. It was a tiring day, but if you are up for an adventurous hike, this is one you should definitely try.
Oh… Grandfather Mountain – what can I say about this place.
On one hand, it’s a beautiful, rugged and exciting place to hike. On the other hand, things always seem to go wrong when I hike there – I’m sick, my technology fails, I injure myself. Maybe this mountain is trying to tell me something?
The first time we hiked Grandfather, I developed a 101 degree fever, and ended up having to turn around near Attic Window Peak (the original goal had been to make it to Calloway Peak). I was just too dizzy and fatigued to hike anymore.
I was really excited to revisit the mountain and finish the hike we tried to do last fall. The morning started off with a great breakfast at the River Dog Café. We paid our entry fee to the park and headed up the mountain. The hiker parking lot was completely empty, skies were sunny and the wind was fairly gentle. It was pretty much the opposite of our last trip up the mountain.
We hiked up to the Mile-High Swinging Bridge. This time, we took the time to climb around the rocky outcropping on the far side of the bridge. Back in the fall, the wind had been so strong that we didn’t dare go out on the rocks!
We started up the Grandfather Trail, which departs from the upper parking area. We had the trail mostly to ourselves this time. We really didn’t see anyone else at all until the latter part of the hike. I enjoyed seeing the wild pink azaleas in bloom. Grandfather Gap was especially colorful with blossoms.
We negotiated the cables and ladders before coming to MacRae Peak. We scaled the ladder to the top and enjoyed the view from the big rock. One side of the mountain was clear, but the other was covered with low clouds and fog. The breeze pushed the clouds against the side of the mountain. They would hang along the ridge for a few minutes and then roll over and dissipate on the clearer side of the mountain. It was fun to watch the low clouds moving so quickly.
From MacRae, we descended steeply through a slick and rocky gap. The descent was short and ended at an immense rock jumble called ‘The Subway’. Ladders and blazes lead you through openings between giant boulders. On the other side, you soon face ‘The Chute’. The chute is a narrow, steep rock scramble that you must negotiate to reach Attic Window Peak.
From Attic Window Peak, the hike offers some more moderate ridge walking with spectacular views all along the way. The rocky spine was covered with blooming sand myrtle, so it was especially pretty on this visit. In fact, when famed naturalist John Muir visited this mountain, he described this ridge as “the face of all Heaven come to earth.” Luckily, John Muir got to visit this area before some idiot approved the Sugar Mountain construction project. I swear, ‘The Sugar Cube‘ (the main building’s nickname) has to be one of the worst eyesores in Appalachian nature. I guess its construction did inspire a change in legislation, so mistakes like that are less likely to happen again.
From the crest of the mountain, the trail descends again before beginning the final ascent toward Calloway Peak. The uphill hike passes through rich, mossy evergreen forest. On the way to Calloway, don’t miss taking a few minutes to walk out to the Watauga View. It’s a lovely rocky outcropping that looks into the Watuaga Valley. It was also the last place we had a view on our hike! On the way to Calloway, a massive cloud bank moved in and parked atop the mountain. It was like it was stuck and couldn’t quite make it over the peak. Watauga View was also the place I noticed that my smart phone had crashed at some point and wouldn’t restart (sorry – no MapMyHike stats). Normally, this would be a small annoyance, but just the night before my MacBook Pro self-destructed. Such technology angst!
We finished the climb to Calloway (which required a couple more ladders), spotted the elevation benchmark and wondered what the view would have been like on a clear day. Had we continued hiking, we would have continued on the Daniel Boone Trail and soon reached the Hi-Balsam backcountry shelter. But the peak was our turnaround point.
We made our way back along the ridge before eventually reaching the junction of the Underwood Trail. I remembered the Underwood Trail as very rocky and difficult. And it certainly was! I think at this point of the hike, the exhaustion of six straight days of hiking kind of kicked in. We really struggled, physically and mentally, with the tough terrain on this stretch of the hike. I guess I was fatigued and not being careful, because my foot slipped and I felt a twinge in my knee. I shook it off and kept going, but after that I felt a nagging, sharp pain under my knee cap. It came and went, so I did my best to ignore it. (I continued to ignore it on our last two hikes of the trip the next day, and ended up at the orthopedist and off the trail for a month after our trip.)
When the Underwood Trail ended near Grandfather Gap, I was thrilled to be back on easier footing. The rest of the hike went by quickly and easily. After we got back to our car, we spent some time walking around the Nature Center. We saw bears, eagles and mountain lions and enjoyed eating giant cookies and icy soda.
Like I said at the beginning, I both love and hate this trail. It offers so much in terms of scenery and physical challenge, but it’s a tough hike and I always seem to pay some kind of price for hiking there. Maybe I’ll hike it again someday… maybe.
- Distance – 5.0 miles.
- Elevation Change – 2084 ft
- Difficulty – 5. Having to use cables and climb ladders should tell you something. While this route was only five miles, you will go very slowly during most of the hike due to the steepness of the terrain.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail is well-maintained, but that doesn’t make it easy. There are lots of rocky parts to navigate, especially on The Chute up Attic Window and the footing on the Underwood Trail is grueling.
- Views – 5. The best views are from the Mile High Swinging Bridge, MacRae Peak, and Attic Window Peak. The clouds were covering the area at Calloway Peak for us, but I could tell the views from the Watauga View would have been spectacular also.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 0. None.
- Wildlife – 1. We didn’t really see anything beyond birds.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. All junctions are labeled and the trail is fairly easy to follow. We have seen people get turned around at certain points (including us previously).
- Solitude – 1.5. I would expect to see people along the trail and lingering especially at the viewpoints. Starting out early in the day should help with the solitude.
Directions to trailhead: The entrance to Grandfather Mountain is located on US 221, two miles north of Linville, North Carolina, and one mile south of the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 305. Signs for the entrance are well-marked and an entrance station is right off the road with large gates. Travel up the road by car until you reach the parking lot designated for hiking trails. The trailhead for the Bridge Trail is on the left side of the parking lot as you are driving up.