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Our Most Popular Trails

November 18, 2013

It was time to update our ‘Most Popular’ list!  These are Virginia Trail Guide’s most searched and most viewed hikes as of April 2014!

Mt. Rogers is beautiful, rugged and home to several herds of wild ponies.

1. Mt. Rogers

At the top of the list for the latest update –  Mt. Rogers – Virginia’s tallest peak. It also has wild ponies, breathtaking views and one of Virginia’s most spectacular rhododendron blooms. In our book, Mt. Rogers is a must-see destination for every Virginia hiker. It’s our all-time favorite hike in the state!

Adam Explores Spy Rock

Adam Explores Spy Rock

2. Spy Rock

Spy Rock remains at number two. We honestly didn’t think many people knew about this hike, but apparently the word is out. The views are majestic and it’s great fun to scale the enormous rock to get to the viewpoint. This area of Virginia is rich with some of the state’s most beautiful hikes.

This View of McAfee is an Appalachian Trail Icon

This View of McAfee is iconic Appalachian Trail imagery.

3. McAfee Knob

This hike climbed from number seven to number three – which we personally think is more appropriate!  It’s a classic and it was one of our very first blog posts!  McAfee Knob is considered a must-do Virginia hike.  The ledge in the photo above is the most photographed spot on the Appalachian Trail.

The summit of Humpback Rock

4. Humpback Rock

Our old number one, Humpback Rock, has dropped yet another spot (it was number three at the last update).  Personally, it’s not one of our favorite hikes, but it’s one of the state’s most popular hikes.  It has nice views, but the crowds can be a bit thick.  It’s also one of the shorter hikes on our top ten list, so it’s suitable for most people, regardless of experience and fitness level.

Rose River Falls

5. The Rose River Loop

Do you like waterfalls? If so, our number five hike, the Rose River Loop is for you! This moderate hike passes by two larger waterfalls (Rose River Falls and Dark Hollow Falls) and many small unnamed cascades. It’s a great trail for wildlife and history buffs will enjoy a visit to the old Cave family cemetery.

Another beautiful section of Crabtree Falls.

6. Crabtree Falls

Crabtree Falls remains at the number six spot. This long, meandering waterfall tumbles down the mountainside over the entire course of the hikes. If you like to hike along and hear the sound of rushing water, this hike is a don’t miss!

Upper Falls of White Oak Canyon

7. White Oak Canyon

While you can do this trail as a longer loop paired with Cedar Run, we tackled our number five hike as an out-and-back. White Oak Canyon is another of Shenandoah’s most popular waterfall hikes. One of our favorite memories from this hike is watching a momma bear and her two cubs from the trail.

The Sites Homestead

The Sites Homestead sits in the shadow of dramatic Seneca Rocks.

8. Seneca Rocks (West Virginia)

Seneca Rocks, climbs up a spot from nine to eight, and is the only non-Virginia hike to make the list!  The short hike is very moderate and gives folks access to views from one of the most dramatic rock formations in the mid-Atlantic.

This is the first of the four summit views you’ll come to along the Hawksbill Loop Trail.

9. Hawksbill Mountain

It’s no surprise that Hawksbill Mountain held onto a spot in the top ten. It’s a moderate hike with amazing views, located right in the heart of Shenandoah National Park. Hawksbill is also the park’s tallest mountain. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of peregrine falcons along the way.

The Pinnacle offers spectacular views.

The Pinnacle offers spectacular views.

10. Mary’s Rock

Mary’s Rock is one of Christine’s favorite hikes in Shenandoah National Park, and it’s also our reader’s choice for number ten (dropping two more spots down from number 8).  If you hike to Mary’s Rock from Pinnacles Picnic Area, you get great views in multiple spots.  You also can take a break at an Appalachian Trail hut and have great odds of seeing wildlife along the way.

Hikes That Just Missed the Top Ten

These hikes were all just outside the top ten.

11. Sharp Top

11. Cold/Cole Mountain

13. Massanutten Ridge Trail

14. The Devils Marbleyard

15. Bearfence Mountain

16. Dark Hollow Falls

17. The Priest

18. Stony Man & Little Stony Man

19. Old Rag

20. Riprap Trail

(Trails that recently lost spots in the top 20 include:  Appalachian Trail: Skyland to Big Meadows, Knob Mountain – Jeremy’s Run Loop, Loft Mountain Loop, and Buzzard Rock)

Mount Moosilauke

November 3, 2013

Special: New Hampshire Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting the White Mountains

This 7.2 mile hike takes you to the summit of Mt. Moosilauke – Dartmouth College’s ‘home mountain’.  It’s also the first place in New Hampshire where Appalachian Trail hikers walk above treeline in the alpine zone.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Mt. Moosilauke Summit Views

Adam enjoys the summit of Mt. Moosilauke. Below: Damage from Hurricane Irene forced the rerouting of trails; Adam climbs the Gorge Brook Trail; Open views along the ‘balcony’ section of the hike; The area right below treeline was thickly forested with evergreens.

Irene Damage Climbing Gorge Brook Balcony Dense Pines

Christine Says…

For the final hike of our granite-state adventure, Adam and I chose to hike the western-most of  New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers – Mount Moosilauke.  At 4,802 feet, Moosilauke is the first spot northbound Appalachian Trail thru-hikers truly walk above the treeline.  Yes… there are balds and high grassy meadows in the south, but those are not created by the unforgiving alpine climate it takes to truly create areas above the treeline.

There are several different routes up Moosilauke.  We chose a 7.2 mile loop following the Gorge Book Trail, the old Carriage Road and the Snapper trail. It’s probably the most popular route for dayhikers.

We started off from the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge.  Before I get started talking about the actual hike, I wanted to take a moment to talk about how much I enjoyed visiting the Ravine Lodge.  The lodge and several surrounding bunkhouses were built in the late 1930’s and were originally used as a hub for competitive skiers.  Nowadays, the lodge is owned by Dartmouth College and run by students. You can stay the night or just come in to enjoy a hearty home-style dinner.  The lodge is everything you would imagine a rustic mountain cabin to be – antique skis, old trail signs and mooseheads adorn the walls. There’s a big stone fireplace (yes… a fire was necessary and burning cheerfully on this chilly August morning) and an old piano along one wall of the dining room.  There’s even a cozy library on the lower level!   The lodge windows and back porches also offer stunning views of its namesake mountain.

Moosilauke Ravine Lodge

Dartmouth College owns and runs the Moosilauke Ravine Lodge.  Below: The lodge is very rustic and comfortable.  It was even cool enough in August to have a fire in the fireplace; The food at the Ravine Lodge is supposed to be pretty good!; Adam checks out out route.

Inside the Lodge Ravine Lodge Trail Marker

Now back to the hike… our route started off behind the lodge.  We almost immediately crossed the Baker River on a nice, sturdy bridge.  The Gorge Brook trail climbs uphill gradually over rocky terrain.  We soon came to a sign announcing a reroute of the Gorge Brook Trail.  Evidently, the heavy rains from Tropical Storm Irene caused rock slides and irreparable damage to part of the original route.  A group of Dartmouth students built the Wales Carter Connection, a short section of trail that bypasses the damage.  The connection eventually came back out on the Gorge Brook trail near it’s junction with the Snapper Trail.  We continued gradually uphill on Gorge Brook.  Much of this section of trail followed a pretty stream.  After passing a memorial plaque and a sign for ‘last sure water’ we moved away from the stream and into forest increasingly made up of evergreens.

At 2.3 miles, we got our first open views of the hike.  Through a wide opening in the trees, we could look across the valley in the direction of Mount Cardigan – our first hike of the trip!  Around this part of the hike, we came across our first human company!  One group of three was carrying on a loud and detailed conversation about the best spots to get clear 3G service in the wilderness.  Another group, maybe a father/daughter, was arguing about the nature of God – whether he’s benign and quietly observes suffering or if he’s like a menacing boy who enjoys pulling the legs off of bugs to watch them struggle.  I think we overheard them talking about Shakespeare, too, but I can’t be certain. Usually when Adam and I talk on the trail, we talk about the scenery/wildlife or we just walk in companionable silence.  It made me curious… are you a chatty hiker?  What are your typical trail topics?

Gorge Brook Trail

Adam climbs the rocky Gorge Brook Trail.  Below:  Beautiful stream scenery; The  Gorge Brook trail was very rocky; Our first views along the way.

Brook More Rocky Climbing First Views

After the first view, the trail got a bit steeper and the trees a bit sparser.  We enjoyed several nice views from a section of the trail called ‘The Balcony’. After climbing the massive stone steps along the Balcony, we dipped in and out of thick stands of evergreens.  It was almost like walking through an overcrowded Christmas tree farm.

We soon stepped out into the alpine zone – the barren rocky expanse that exists above the treeline.  We could see the rocky path winding across the bare terrain toward a copse of rocks a top the summit of Moosilauke.

As soon as we were in the open, I had to dig my fleece out of my backpack.  It was a good 15-20 degrees colder (and much windier) on the summit.  We enjoyed a snack, took our photos at the summit sign and marveled at the views.  I especially liked looking across and seeing the Kinsmans, Franconia Ridge and the distant Presidentials.

Above Treeline

Mt. Moosilauke is the first New Hampshire peak on the Appalachian Trail that includes an alpine zone.  Below:  Coming out of the trees; The final push to the summit; At the summit marker.

Approaching the Treeline Nearing the Summit Summit Marker

Leaving the summit, we briefly followed the white-blazed Glencliff trail (which is also the Appalachian Trail across this mountain) to its junction with the Carriage Road.  This section of trail was almost perfectly flat and went through more areas that resembled large groupings of Christmas trees.  We could have taken a detour to visit the South Peak of Moosilauke, but we decided to skip it.

The Carriage Road was wide and graveled, but a little steep.  I can’t imagine people coming up this route in horse-drawn carriages!  This part of the hike was pretty uneventful, and we were glad to finally reach the Snapper Trail.

The Snapper Trail descended gradually through stunningly beautiful New England woods.  There were thick beds of moss, peeling white birches and several small bubbling streams.  It was a lovely way to bid farewell to New Hampshire trails.  Before we knew it, we were back at the Ravine Lodge and finished with a productive week of hiking!

Adam Says…

Mt. Moosilauke was one of the three hikes we most wanted to do in New Hampshire.  Having hiked Mt. Washington and Franconia Ridge earlier that week, we were feeling a little tired and sore but we decided to press on to cover Mt. Moosilauke.   We try to get a lot accomplished on our vacations, so we didn’t want to have any regrets of not doing a certain hike.  We always say that we can be tired when we go back to work, so we run ourselves ragged on our vacations.

Parking at Mt. Moosilauke can at times be a challenge.  There is one long gravel road and during the summer, you will likely see cars lining one side of the road, parallel parked.  We had to drive to the end of the road and then turn around and backtrack, but we were able to find a decent spot since we left so early in the morning.

We first visited the lodge and you can just imagine the history here.  The lodge is rustic but has that snuggle-by-the-fire cozy feel to it.  Since this is maintained by an Ivy League school, my mind began to wonder if there were academic secret society meetings held here or if famous alumnus, Robert Frost penned any of his poetry here.  All I witnessed were a few students playing Magic: The Gathering in the basement.

Leaving the Summit

The first trail we used for our descent was the Appalachian Trail, also called the Glencliff trail in this area.  Below: Christine makes the descent; Looking back through the pines toward the summit; Alpine zone marker.

Views on Hike Down More Pines Alpine Warning

The trail had us a little confused to start off on the right path.  My recommendation would be to go to the back of the lodge and as you are looking into the backyard, head down the lawn towards the right.  You will soon come to a path that will lead you to the Baker River.  In a short distance, you will cross the bridge over the river.  The Gorge Brook Trail starts off to the left.  The trail takes a right turn in a short distance and you begin a moderate ascent through a very rocky trail.  You’ll hear the sounds of the Gorge Brook to the left of the trail at times as it carries water to the Baker River.  As you keep climbing, at .6 miles you will reach the junction with the Snapper Trail, your return route.  The trail has been rerouted at this point with the Wales Carter Connection.  Follow the signs through this .5 mile connection to continue along the Gorge River Trail.  The trail continues to ascend through a steeper section of trail through the woods.

At 2.3 miles you reach a break in the trees and can see your first views of Mount Carr, Mount Cardigan, and Mount Kearsarge.  The trail continues to ascend and then loops back around to the northwest as you gain some more views from the area known as The Balcony at 3.0 miles.  The views were quite delightful and gave us something else to focus on as we labored up more rocky steps.  The trail then ducks away from the views and you find yourself soon immersed into a dense forest of spruce and fir as the trail snakes through.  You will see signs reminding you to stay on the trail to protect the fragile vegetation.   At about 3.25 miles, you will come out of the trees and into the open alpine area.  Large cairns are placed on the side of the trail.  The summit looks misleadingly close, but due to the open nature it still takes about 10 minutes to reach the summit at 3.5 miles.

At the summit, the wind had picked up quite a bit across this vast, open area.  We found lots of people huddled up against rocks, trying to protect themselves from the wind.  We ate some lunch on the trail, snapped a few photos from the summit, and made our way back on a different set of trails.

Snapper Trail

The Snapper Trail was delightfully green and shady.  Below: Adam descends the Old Carriage Road; The Snapper trail was mossy; Water crossing on the Snapper Trail.

Old Carriage Road Mossy Water Crossing

From the summit marker, we followed the signs for the Glencliff Trail (also known as the Appalachian Trail) southwest of the summit.  This trail started off as a ridgeline hike which gave us even more views along the way to start our hike.  At 4.4 miles, the Appalachian Trail ducks off to the right to take you to the South Peak summit.  We stayed on the main trail which is the Moosilauke Carriage Trail, which drops steeply down the rocky “road”.  The trail was fairly uneventful, but the downward climb can be hard on the knees.  At 5.7 miles, we reached a junction and took the Snapper Trail.  This trail was thickly wooded and had lots of beautiful fern along the trail.  At 6.4 miles, we rejoined the Gorge Brook Trail and made our way back to the lodge, which we reached at 7.2 miles.

Back at the Ravine Lodge

The trail returns to the Ravine Lodge. Below: Looking back toward Mt. Moosilauke; A pleasant patio spot to take in views of the summit; Lodge decor

Looking Back to Moosilauke Patio Moosehead

One thing that amazed me about this hike is how Dartmouth College has integrated with and adopted this mountain.  They maintain and run the lodge and the network of trails is maintained by students in the Dartmouth Outing Club.  We had the opportunity on our visit to New Hampshire to step on the campus and actually walked into the Dartmouth Outing Club building.  Yes, this college has a building designated for this club and they even post information for Appalachian Trail thru-hikers to get them connected to where they could stay for the night.  I was amazed at how the students have made this a strong tradition of caring for the mountain and environment.  They even hold freshman pre-orientation trips where they all meet up at the Ravine Lodge.  I wish more colleges and universities had more intentional connectivity with the outdoors.

What a great last hike for our trip to New Hampshire!  We felt so blessed to have great weather for the entire week and our hiking adventures whetted our appetites for more trips in the future.

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 7.2 miles
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
  • Elevation Change – About 2500 ft.
  • Difficulty – 3.  There may be over 2,000 feet of climbing, but it’s gradual and never feels that difficult.
  • Trail Conditions –  4.  The Dartmouth Outing Club does a great job on these trails!
  • Views –  5.  Spectacular – especially at the summit where you can see all across the White Mountains.
  • Waterfalls/streams  3.  The Baker River and streams in the area are lovely.
  • Wildlife – 2.  We didn’t see anything, but rumor has it that there are occasional moose sightings in the area.
  • Ease to Navigate – 3.  The reroute was a little confusing at first because it varied from our map.
  • Solitude – 1.  This is an extremely popular dayhike.  Expect to see many other hikers.

Download a trail map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: From Interstate 93, take exit 32 for NH-112 toward North Woodstock/Lincoln.  Follow NH-112 West for 3.2 miles.  Take a slight left onto NH-118 S/Sawyer Highway.  Follow this for 7.1 miles.  Take a right on to Ravine Road.  Follow this gravel road for 1.5 miles.  The entrance to the lodge is on the left.  Go behind the lodge across the lawn to the right to start the hike.

MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Mt. Washington via Ammonoosuc Ravine

October 6, 2013

Special: New Hampshire Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting the White Mountains

This 4.5 mile ascent of Mt. Washington follows challenging, steep, slick terrain along a ravine that showcases waterfall after waterfall.  Once you clear the treeline, you are treated to a hut visit and some of the most dramatic alpine walking in the east.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Adam On Crawford Path

From Lakes of the Clouds Hut, you follow the Crawford Path (America’s oldest continually used hiking trail) to the summit of Mt. Washington. In this photo, you can see the summit and its weather towers looming in the distance.  Below: The trailhead begins near the cog railway on Basecamp Rd; The beginning of the trail is deceptively easy; There are many water crossings en route to the top – some easy, some not so easy.

Ammonoosuc Ravine Trailhead Deceptively Easy Water Crossing

Adam Says…

Hiking to the summit of Mount Washington (also known as ‘the most dangerous small mountain in the world‘) was definitely a bucket-list item for me.  Making it to the top of the highest peak in New England feels like an accomplishment and we definitely have memories from the hike that we will never forget.

Before you attempt to hike up Mount Washington, some planning needs to take place.  Mount Washington has been called the Home of the World’s Worst Weather due to the high winds, ice, and low visibility that can rear quickly.  In fact, in 1934, they recorded a wind gust of 231 mph.  Check out the funny video of someone trying to eat breakfast from the summit area during one of these high wind days.  Needless to say, I would strongly recommend checking out the weather from the Mount Washington Observatory to determine if a summit is possible and how different the weather and temperature will be at the top.

We  arranged for Christine’s parents to meet us at the top and shuttle us back to our car.  Many people descend by trail, but there is a hiker shuttle and a limited number of seats available on the Cog.  It’s important to note that you should always be prepared and have a plan for walking off the mountain.  Trains and shuttles book up quickly and the auto road closes from time to time.  Ultimately, you are responsible for your safety and the manner of your descent.  Visit New Hampshire’s Hike Safe site so you can learn more about mountain safety and the state’s expectation that every hiker be prepared.


The entire Ammonoosuc Ravine trail followed a stream which tumbled down the mountainside in waterfall after waterfall. Below: Lakes of the Clouds advertisement; The early parts of the trail are rocky, but only slightly uphill.

First Lake of Clouds Sign  Early on the Ammonoosuc Ravine

As we were driving along the road to the parking lot, the sky was completely cloudy.  The online forecast said it was going to be a perfect day, but the clouds were saying something different.  We hoped that the weather would push off and made it to the parking lot.  We packed some extra gear knowing that the temperature was going to be much cooler at the top.  We started off from the parking lot and filled out our parking permit, enclosing $3 in an envelope to allow us to park in the lot.  The parking lot was already getting full and we could tell that all the people getting ready to hike were in great shape.  We hoped we were ready for the challenge and started on the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail from the end of the parking lot.  The trail started off relatively flat through a thickly forested area.  At .25 miles, we reached a stream crossing.  Because a heavy rain fell just the day before, the crossing, which is normally easy, presented a real challenge.  We saw a few others cross in different areas, but ultimately decided the best route was tightrope-walk across a thin log that spanned the creek.  This is always more unnerving when you are carrying expensive camera gear, but we made it across without a hitch.  We were worried how many other crossings we would have to make seeing the Ammonoosuc River on our trail map coming ahead.

At 1.0 miles, the trail reached the Ammonoosuc River, but the trail turned quickly to the right.  We saw the rushing water of the river and glimpsed up at the sky, which looked less foreboding than earlier.  The trail hugs the riverside and begins a steep ascent up a rocky slope.  At 2.1 miles, we reached the Gem Pool, a serene swimming hole created by a small waterfall.  We rock-hopped across to continue the path from the pool and stopped for a short rest in this peaceful area.   After leaving the Gem Pool, the trail becomes very steep as you climb up the rocky slope.  At 2.35 miles, a small trail to the right leads about .1 miles to The Gorge waterfall.  I highly recommend checking out this waterfall, which you can see plunging over 100 feet.   We returned from The Gorge and rejoined the trail.  The trail continues its steep ascent and you can only imagine that you are climbing up a slope that seems to be as steep as the slope of the waterfall you just saw.

Christine at Gem Poo

Christine crossing the water at Gem Pool. This is the point of the hike where the climbing starts getting serious. Below: Adam works his way uphill on the steepest part of the hike; It was seriously steep; One section had a little ladder to help you over the boulder.

Adam Climbing Seriously Steep Ladder

We continued to climb up the very steep slope until we reached a great viewpoint at 2.7 miles. Along with the view, there were also multiple waterfalls falling in dramatic cascades.  It was here that we were finally able to see that the clouds had moved off and we should have a gorgeous hike to the summit.  The unnerving this was that in order to continue the trail we had to walk across the top of a waterfall, with a very precipitous drop to one side  Due to the rain, there was no way to rock-hop across.  We knew we had to put our feet in the water to make it across, but we couldn’t tell how deep the water was or how fast it moved.  As we realized that a false step could have meant a long plummet down, it definitely gave us a gut-check to see if we could make it.  We tried to look around for the best way to cross and decided to wait and let a few other hikers attempt it first.  After learning what others had done, we followed suit and crossed without any difficulty.

The hike from this point continued to be steep as you climb along some areas of bare, slick rock.   Eventually, we began to rise above treeline and were able to see Lakes of the Clouds hut seated on the edge of the ravine.  The wind was already picking up and the cold wind had us switching into cold-weather clothes.  To the left of the hut was the summit hike to Mount Washington and we could clearly see the Observatory Tower in the distance.  We reached Lakes of the Clouds hut at 3.2 miles and decided to go inside to eat a snack.

Big Waterfall

One little spur trail on the steepest section of climbing led to this large and impressive waterfall called Gorge Falls. Below: Christine picks her way through boulders and across the water; Our first views into the Washington Valley; At the halfway point

Bouldering First Views Halfway There

Lakes of the Clouds hut was built here over 100 years ago and has some interesting history.  Two AMC members, William Curtis and Allen Ormsbee, were hiking up the Crawford Path to go to an annual AMC meeting at the Summit House on the top of Mount Washington in 1900.   They reached what is now Mount Eisenhower and met 60 mph winds and cold temperatures.  By the time they reach Mount Monroe, the temperature had plummeted to freezing and the rain became ice.  Curtis died at Lakes of the Clouds and Ormsbee pushed on for help before perishing himself only a few hundred yards from the summit station.  The storm lasted for 60 hours and there bodies were discovered.  The AMC created a wooden shelter first near where Curtis had died.  In 1915, the wooden shelter was replaced with a stone shelter and it has since had several additions and improvements made.  It can accommodate up to 90 guests per night.

From the shelter, you can see a trail that leads up to Mount Monroe.  If you are interested in peak-bagging a few of “the Presidentials”, it is a short but steep hike.  We decided to save our energy and just tackle Mount Washington.  We continued along the trail and soon reached views of the Lakes of the Clouds, which are actually more like mountaintop ponds than full lakes.

Since we were now above treeline, the hike to the summit of Mount Washington was now just a series of steps across boulders for the remaining 1.3 miles.  The wind was incredibly strong and I believe gusts were at least 50 mph, which is considered more of a calm day on the mountain.  The wind was blowing up the ravine to the left of our bodies, so there were times that we had to angle ourselves to fight the winds as we pushed onward.  The views of the ravine and behind us were more breathtaking with each step.  Whenever we stopped to turn around, the wind had our noses running from the cold and it was hard to even talk to each other through the force of the gusts.

Waterfalls Near the Headwall

Near the top of the headwall, there is a series of several impressive waterfalls and the scariest water crossing we’ve ever done. Below: This trail had so many waterfalls; Our first view of the Mt. Washington summit; Hikers coming out of the ravine.

More Waterfalls First View of Summit Climbing Out of the Ravine

At 4.5 miles, we reached the summit area.  We followed the signs to the summit marker, that was crawling with people.  Most people reach Mount Washington by car or by the cog railroad.  When you pay to take the Mount Washington auto road, you receive a sticker that states “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington”.   We waited our turn to get a picture with the summit sign.  Some people were amazed that we had hiked up.  We made our way over to the visitor center and snack bar.  We had agreed to jokingly meet her parents by the “death plaque”, a plaque that shows a list of the names of  people who have died on the mountain.  When we arrived at the snack bar area, a group of hikers we had seen earlier on the trail whispered to us “there’s a hiker’s lounge downstairs”.  While the upstairs area was crawling with people, the hiker’s lounge was quiet and nearly empty.  We had a peaceful time to eat our lunch and then were able to meet her parents in about 30 minutes.  From here, we jumped in their vehicle and enjoyed the car ride down the narrow road that snakes down the mountain.  We stopped a few times along the way to catch some last views of the Presidential Range before we were back on the road.

The hike up Mount Washington was definitely something that Christine and I felt that we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish several years ago.  I can’t think of any other time that I have felt such a sense of accomplishment after reaching this summit.  We were so blessed with the great weather and we have already begun talking about how we could do an entire hut-to-hut Presidential traverse.

Christine Says…

With our days in New Hampshire running out and great weather in the forecast, we decided we had to tackle Mt. Washington.  With a reputation for fickle weather, ice storms that happen at the height of summer, and gusts of wind that can blow a grown-man sideways, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  The night before our hike, we were looking at maps and guidebooks and discussing our different route options.  Across the living room, my mother was Googling ‘deaths on Mt. Washington‘, ‘failed hikes of Mt. Washington‘ and ‘accidents on Mt. Washington’. Comforting, right?  She also told me to make sure I had the phone number for New Hampshire’s Fish and Game department on hand – they do most of the mountain rescues in the state.  Her worries and cautiousness got into my head, and I went to bed feeling really nervous about my ability to make it to the top.

Adam Approaches Lakes of the Clouds

Adam approaches Lakes of the Clouds Hut. Below: Inside Lakes of the Clouds; We ate cake!; Wooden racks for carrying supplies.

Inside Lakes Cake! Racks

On the drive to the trailhead, dark blackish clouds completely obscured the mountain.  I said to Adam, ‘This is probably a bad idea.’  He reassured me, telling me he was certain the clouds would blow off, the day would be beautiful, and that we would have a great time.  I let my worries non-verbally stew in the back of my mind.  We parked, geared up and made our way down the trail with several other groups of people.

Within the first mile, we came to a rain-swollen stream with no clear way to cross. The rocks normally used to rock hop were all under rushing water.  I tested a few spots, and ended up falling shin deep into water and wrenching my knee. I was feeling discouraged, because the only other potential crossing left was a thin, bouncy, moss-covered log that had fallen across the stream.  I have problems with vertigo and balance, so situations like this really push me outside my comfort zone.  Adam carried all the expensive camera gear, and I slowly and carefully stepped across that log.  Phew!  I told Adam if there were lots of crossings like this one, I didn’t think I could do the hike.  He offered to turn back, but I told him that I wanted to challenge myself and keep going.

Fortunately, most of the hike followed alongside the stream with only a few much easier crossings along the way.  Eventually we reached the Gem Pool. What a gorgeous spot!  It’s a crystal clear, green, pool; fed by a cascading waterfall.  It would be a great place to take a picnic and go for a swim. We did one more rock hop at the end of the pool and prepared ourselves to do some serious climbing!

Mount Monroe & Hut

Mt. Monroe looks like a small hill above the hut. Below: Mt. Monroe; The Lakes of the Clouds’ namesakes.

Mt Monroe Lakes Lakes of the Clouds

About 1600 feet of elevation gain comes in just about a mile of hiking after you pass the Gem Pool.  It’s grueling and steep, but both Adam and I were well-prepared with all the hiking and other cardio we’d done to prepare for this trip.  We were able to make the ascent without having to take a breather!  The only stop we made along the way was the side trail to check out the Gorge Waterfall.

On the climb up, we started seeing glimpses of the valley through the trees.  The majestic Mount Washington Hotel looked like a tiny red speck below.  We’d come a long way up already!  The remainder of the steep climb followed the Ammonoosuc River through the plunging ravine.  Even when we couldn’t see the water, we could hear it.

Eventually, the trail exited from the woods onto a wide rock plateau.  Above, we could see a waterfall falling in several distinct drops and below, we could see the water crashing over a steep, long drop.  We decided to take a break and enjoy the view from the rocks.  We sat for a minute taking it all in.  At that point, I noticed I didn’t see the trail continuing anywhere.  Horror dawned on me when I realized that the trail continued on the other side of the river. We saw two people cross it successfully, but I still wasn’t so sure.  The water was fast and a little deep from the rainfall the day before.  I had no idea how slick the rock under the water would be.   The crossing had just a couple feet of flat width on the downhill side before the water dropped over a 100 feet down into the ravine.  A slip at this crossing would almost surely be fatal.  I took a moment to hyperventilate and freak out, and then I plunged across.  This was followed by another ‘Phew – I’m still ALIVE’ moment.

Fighting the Wind

Adam fights the 50-60 mph winds.  Below: The hut grows increasingly tiny; Christine hikes along; There were several rock fields to cross.

Tiny Hut Christine Climbing Boulder Field

After that crossing, the hike was less steep but a lot rockier.  The trees were getting smaller and more stunted as we approached the treeline.  We could see the summits of both Mt. Washington and Mt. Monroe looming above. Lakes of the Clouds Hut was in view, but distances are so deceptive above treeline.  Everything looks so close, but it’s always further than you expect. I guess it’s a bit of an optical illusion when you don’t have trees to compare for scale.

As soon as we broke the treeline, just slightly below the hut, the wind was shockingly strong.  I was hiking in long pants and long sleeves, but I had to add my hooded jacket right away.  Even so, my face and hands were freezing!  I was sure I had packed gloves.  I usually keep a spare pair in all my backpacks, but I couldn’t find them anywhere.  I ended up paying the premium price to buy a cheap pair of gloves at the hut (only to find the spare pair of gloves in a side pocket that night when we got home).

We took a twenty minute break at the hut and enjoyed some of the baked goods made by the Croo.  Adam had pumpkin cake and I had chocolate cake.  I had my phone with me, so I decided to take a look at MapMyHike to see how we were progressing.  I found that Lakes of the Clouds actually has 3G service, so I posted an Instagram and a Facebook status from the hut.  Ah… technology! :-)

Tough Climbing

Adam pushes uphill against wind, over rocky terrain. Below: Spectacular Presidential Views; Christine has made a lot of uphill progress;  Many cairns mark the way above treeline.

Beautiful Views Progress So Many Cairns

After our snack and rest, we were ready to tackle the last mile and a half of trail to reach the Mt. Washington summit.  I can’t even describe how much I enjoyed this portion of the hike!  The climb up the Ammonoosuc ravine had been moderately scary, physically challenging and really slippery, but the hike along the Crawford Path was pure, unadulterated hiking joy!

The Crawford Path was built in the 1800’s and originally used as a horse trail to the summit of Mt. Washington. The trail celebrated its 175th anniversary in 1994 and is the oldest, continuously maintained, hiking path in America.  I felt so privileged to be walking someplace so beautiful and historic.

We spent some time exploring and photographing the glacial ponds that give Lakes of the Clouds its name.  On this particular day, the pools were sapphire blue and covered with scalloped ripples from the brisk wind.  It was spectacular and gorgeous.

We toiled along, pushing our bodies against the 50 mph winds.  The alpine terrain was breathtaking and otherworldly.  I’ve never seen mountain views like the ones I saw in New Hampshire on this trip.  Between the walk along Franconia Ridge, and then the hike along the Crawford Path, I had my mind blown twice in one week. These places should be on every American hiker’s bucket list!


We made it to the top! Below: Adam makes the last push to the summit, The Crawford Path is also the Appalachian Trail; The summit was crawling with people who had driven or taken the cog to the summit.

Nearing the Summit crawford path Crawling with People

The stretch of trail between the hut and the summit is a rock field.  Sometimes the rocks are wide and flat, sometimes they are uneven, loose and pumpkin-sized.  The trail isn’t so much a path as it is a series of cairns that keep hikers on course.

At first, the trail between the hut and Mt. Washington was pretty flat, but the final push to the summit required a little more steep climbing.  The weather station towers looked so close you could almost touch them, but it turned out they were still about a half mile away.

We could tell we were getting really close when we started seeing more and more people in jeans, sneakers and sweatshirts milling about the trail.  These were the car and train people!  Eventually the trail emptied us out onto the summit.  We passed the historic hotel-turned-museum – Tip Top House – and made our way over to the summit marker.  We actually had to wait in line with all the car and train people to have our picture taken at the summit sign.  It’s always funny to finish a hike that has a summit that can also be reached by car – Clingmans Dome comes to mind (the high point on the Appalachian Trail).

Cog Railway

The cog makes a few daily ascents/descents of Mt. Washington. Below: The crowded summit building; The Mt. Washington Hotel sits below the mountain – what a beautiful day!

Summit Building Hotel

After taking our obligatory summit photo, we grabbed some drinks and hot dogs from the summit building’s snack bar and waited in the hiker’s lounge.  My parents still hadn’t arrived, so we had about a half hour to kill.  It made me wish we actually had taken the time to do the short side-trip climb to the summit of Mt. Monroe when we had been at Lakes of the Clouds.  I just didn’t want to leave my parents waiting in case we took longer than expected.  I didn’t want them to worry more than they had to.

Every 10 minutes or so, I ran up the stairs to look for my parents.  On the third trip up, I spotted my father and my (nervous-looking) mother waiting by the death sign.  I know it sounds kind of mean to have them meet us there, but honestly, it’s the easiest ‘landmark’ to find in the summit building.  The place is so crowded that you can’t really say ‘meet me by the snack bar, museum or gift shop’.  My parents were both relieved and impressed by how quickly we’d made it to the top.

Honestly, other than the two nerve-wracking water crossings, the hike up Mt. Washington was not nearly as difficult as I expected.  The elevation gain was challenging, but I think it would be doable for most reasonably fit people.  And the walk from Lakes of the Clouds to the summit was a pure pleasure, and definitely one of my most memorable hikes ever!

Trail Notes

  • Distance – 4.5 miles
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
  • Elevation Change – About 3800 ft.
  • Difficulty – 5.  The steepness of the hike is no joke.  The winds and weather possibilities just add to the difficulty.
  • Trail Conditions – 3.5.  The trail is well-maintained, but there were some stream crossings, loose and wet rock that made this tough in some parts.
  • Views – 5.  Once you rise above treeline you have great views of the ravine.  The view from the top of The Gorge is also nice.
  • Waterfalls/streams 5.  You get the rushing waters of the Ammonoosuc River, the Gem Pool, The Gorge waterfall, and Lakes of the Clouds.
  • Wildlife – 1. We didn’t see much other than squirrels.  Some moose have been spotted near the lower parts of the trail. 
  • Ease to Navigate – 4.  Junctions were clearly marked.  The hike from Lakes of the Clouds to the summit could be difficult on foggy/rainy days, but follow the cairns. 
  • Solitude – 2.  On a gorgeous day, there were lots of people.  But, due to the danger of hiking this trail, that is probably a good thing to have others nearby.  We were always able though to find our own space to enjoy views.

Download a trail map (PDF)

Directions to trailhead: From Interstate 93, take exit 35 to merge on to US-3.  Take US-3 for 10.4 miles and then take a right onto US-302 East.  In 4.4 miles, take a left on to Base Station Road.  Follow this about 5.7 miles until you reach a large gravel parking lot on the right.  The trailhead can be found as you entered on the lefthand side 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.

A Chat with Jennifer Pharr Davis

September 27, 2013
Jennifer Pharr Davis

Jennifer Pharr Davis presents at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters in Harpers Ferry, WV. Below: Virginia Trail Guide was honored to meet the family!


Back in July, we had the pleasure of meeting Jennifer Pharr Davis (and family) at the ATC Headquarters in Harpers Ferry, WV.  She was there to talk about her hiking experiences and help promote her latest book, Called Again.  Jennifer holds the record for the fastest hike of the Appalachian Trail, completing the 2150 miles in 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes.   Her husband, Brew was there to support her along the trail, meeting her to provide food, shelter, and love along the way.   In 2012, National Geographic named her as one of the Adventurers of the Year for her amazing accomplishment.  She also holds records for hiking the Long Trail in Vermont and Bibbulmun Track in Australia.

During her presentation at the ATC Headquarters, Jennifer showed pictures of some of the places she has hiked around the world and talked about her experiences hiking the AT.  We both left the talk truly inspired and I think a few minutes listening to Jennifer would have the same effect on anyone!

In 2005, she established her company, Blue Ridge Hiking Company, with the mission of “making the wilderness accessible and enjoyable through written and spoken word, instruction and guiding.”  She has authored three North Carolina hiking guides and two books about her experiences on the Appalachian Trail.  Her husband also wrote a book about supporting her through the record-setting hike.   You can purchase her books through her website.

She is currently on a book tour to promote Called Again.  [Schedule of upcoming presentations through the fall] While she is promoting her book, she is hoping to hike in every state along the way.

Jennifer was kind enough to do a brief Q&A with Virginia Trail Guide.  Check out what she had to say!

In Called Again, it was pretty clear that the New England states (especially New Hampshire) were tough on your body. I think most regular hikers have had days on the trail that aren’t fun, when everything hurts, when the weather turns, etc. What do you think about or do that gives you the strength to push through the pain/frustration and make it to your next goal?

The trail has taught me a few lessons that help keep me going during those tough stretches:

  1. Live in the moment. You might not think you can make it to the top of the mountain… or to your car, but I bet you can take one more step and maybe even hike one more mile. Just take it one step and one mile at a time.
  2. It is WORTH it. I wouldn’t take back a single “BAD” day on the trail. Those are the days that strengthen my mind and my body the most. They give me the best stories for my books, Becoming Odyssa and Called Again. AND, the bad days give you a heightened appreciation for the good days.
  3. A bad day on the trail is still better than a good day in an office! We were made to spend time outdoors in motion. It is much more natural than spending all day in a chair.

As I read Called Again, I was impressed by how much of the ‘traditional’ AT experience you were able to still have on your speed record hike.  You witnessed beautiful sunrises/sunsets, saw wild animals, ate tons of food, shared time on the trail with an ever-changing cast of people and walked through a lot of weather.  Do you have a favorite moment or memory from your most recent thru-hike that is unrelated to attaining the speed record?

Making awesome trail friends. Two unexpected and unplanned thru-hikers came out to help us through the mid-Atlantic. I didn’t really know Rambler, and I had never met Dutch. But after a couple of days of hiking together, I now consider them to be two of the dearest men that I have ever met. I made so many awesome trail friends that summer! I think I appreciated the friendships even more that summer, because the encouragement, laughter and companionship was so helpful. I will never forget hiking up Blackstack Cliffs in the rain and mud listening to my friend Hampton recount all his dating blunders. I could hardly hike I was laughing so hard.

In the beginning of Called Again, you shared some stories about hiking with your husband, Brew.  I think a lot of couples who hike together read that section of the book while nodding and thinking ‘yes!’.  There are always going to be different paces, changing moods and energy levels. What tips can you offer for communication methods to help maintain sanity and harmony for couples/groups that hike together?

The trail really helps couples to focus on teamwork, communication and forgiveness. Usually Brew and I have it out the first week of hiking together. But after lots of talks, and plenty of forgiveness we are closer than ever for the rest of the trail. Remember that you are only as strong as your weakest link. If one person is miserable, you will both probably be miserable. Also, just because you are hiking together – you don’t always have to hike together. Consider splitting up for the morning or afternoon and meeting back up in time for the next meal. Finally, share the responsibilities of a thru-hike. I was an experienced thru-hiker when I met Brew, and it wasn’t til I started having him plan the trips, buy our resupply food, and select our camping spots that he really started to enjoy OUR hikes.

Can you describe a little about what Blue Ridge Hiking Company does?

We encourage everyone, especially women and kids, to GET OUTDOORS. We try to do that through writing, speaking, and guiding. I have authored two A.T. memoirs, and 3 N.C. hiking guides. Brew even wrote a book called 46 Days. We travel around so that I can give trail based talks at schools, businesses, outdoor stores, libraries, etc… And sometimes we offer very specific workshops for folks ready to take on the trail. Blue Ridge Hiking Company also offers guided hiking trips near Asheville, North Carolina. Right now, I have four contract guides who help me get folks out on the trails. Our most popular offerings are half and full day hikes, but we also lead custom overnight trips.

On your Blue Ridge Hiking Company website, I read that one of your personal goals is to encourage more people to get outdoors, especially women and children.  What are some easy and non-intimidating ways for people to get started with hiking or backpacking?

I encourage people to start in their comfort zone. If you don’t want to go alone, then set out with a friend, pet, or protection. If you aren’t in great shape, don’t make your first outing a 10-mile ascent. If you enjoy the wilderness, you will want to go back to the wilderness. If you go back, your comfort zone will probably increase and you will be willing to try new and often more difficult hikes. I believe that when people experience and enjoy nature they are more likely to protect and preserve the wilderness.

Our readers are mostly located in Virginia.  Do you have a favorite place along the AT in Virginia that you remember or an interesting story that happened to you in Virginia?

GRAYSON HIGHLANDS! It is really special. I love it there. I got to meet David Horton going up the Priest in 2005, and he has become one of my good friends, on and off the trail. Also, one day in the Shenandoah National Park, I GOT to see 14 bears. That was really cool. I always say, that if any state alone the A.T. has to have over 500 miles of trail then I am glad it is Virginia!

Appalachian Trail Membership Drive and Movie

September 21, 2013

AT Promo

Hey fellow hikers!  Virginia Trail Guide would like to invite you to join us for a great opportunity.  We will be helping to promote the Front Royal showing of the Appalachian Trail film, Appalachian Impressions.   We hope to see you all there.  We joined the ATC a while back and are proud of the work they do to help maintain the AT.

See below for directions on how to order tickets to the event using the $5 off promo code, “vatrailguide”.  If you’re not able to go to the Front Royal showing, the promo code will work with any of the showings.

This October, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) will be on tour to help spread the word about the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) during their 2013 Membership drive. For a limited time, they will be showcasing the film Appalachian Impressions on the big screen.

Here’s how it works. First, find the location nearest you by visiting Then reserve your seat today. Be sure to enter PROMO CODE: vatrailguide to receive $5 off your reservation. Offer cannot be combined with membership renewal.

Every dollar raised will help preserve and manage the A.T.

To watch a trailer of the film, visit:


  • Watch the film Appalachian Impressions on the big screen
  • Hear amazing stories of the men and women who volunteer on the Trail
  • Interact with a 2,000 Miler
  • 1 Year Membership or Gift Membership to the ATC ($40 value)
  • Free admission for Kids (13 and under)
  • Win cool prizes such as an ATC ENO™ Hammock
  • Make new friends in the outdoor and hiking community
  • 1 year subscription to A.T. Journeys, the official magazine of the Appalachian Trail
  • Receive an ATC decal and patch
  • Protect an irreplaceable treasure: the Appalachian Trail


Location: New Haven, CT – Criterion Cinemas
Date & Time: October 2, 2013 from 7:00pm – 9:30pm

Location: Boston, MA – Club Café
Date & Time: October 3, 2013 from 7:00pm – 9:30pm

Location: Front Royal, VA – Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Front Royal Campus
Date & Time: October 4, 2013 from 7:00pm – 9:30pm

Location: Cincinnati, OH – Esquire Theatre
Date & Time: October 9, 2013 from 7:00pm – 9:30pm

Location: Washington, D.C. – Avalon Theatre
Date & Time: October 10, 2013 from 8:00pm – 10:30pm

Location: Philadelphia, PA – Pearl Theatre – At Avenue North
Date & Time: October 17, 2013 from 7:00pm – 9:30pm

Location: Franklin, NC – Drake Educational Center
Date & Time: October 18, 2013 from 7:00pm – 9:30pm (refreshments at 6:30pm)

Location: Pawling, NY – Trinity Pawling School
Date & Time: October 20, 2013 from 2:00pm – 4:30pm

Location: Erwin, TN – Capitol Cinema
Date & Time: October 20, 2013 from 6:00pm – 8:30pm

Location: Raleigh, NC – CAM Raleigh
Date & Time: October 23, 2013 from 7:00pm – 9:30pm

Location: Charlotte, NC – The Charlotte Crownpoint Theater
Date & Time: October 24, 2013 from 7:00pm – 9:30pm

Location: Atlanta, GA – Landmark Theatres – Midtown Art Cinema
Date & Time: October 26, 2013 from 11:00am – 1:30pm

Location: Hot Springs, NC – The Chapel at Laughing Heart Lodge
Date & Time: October 26, 2013 from 7:00pm – 9:30pm

Location: Carlisle, PA – The Carlisle Theatre
Date & Time: October 29, 2013 from 7:00pm – 9:30pm

Location: Tampa, FL  – Muvico Theaters – Starlight 20
Date & Time: October 30, 2013 from 7:00pm – 9:30pm

Hope to see you there!

Lonesome Lake

September 16, 2013

Special: New Hampshire Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting the White Mountains

This 3.3 mile hike is one of the easiest and most accessible ‘hut hikes’ in the White Mountains.  Lonesome Lake is beautiful and the hut provides a nice place to stop for a picnic lunch.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Lonesome Lake

Lonesome Lake is beautiful and one of the easiest, most accessible ‘hut hikes’ in the White Mountains. Below: The trail for Lonesome Lake starts in the campground; Adam climbs the trail; As is the case with most New Hampshire trails, the path to Lonesome Lake is rocky and rooty.

Trail Head Adam Hiking Rocky and Rooty

Adam Says…

After our hike on Franconia Ridge, I had to take a day off to let my leg muscles recover.  When we were ready to tackle another hike, we decided to do something on the easier side this time that didn’t have nearly as much elevation as our previous hikes.  While we were hiking up the Franconia Ridge Trail, we noticed this serene lake in the far distance.

We started off our hike from the opposite side of I-93, so we walked underneath the interstate bridge and followed the signs for the Lonesome Lake hike.  This led us into Lafayette Place campground, which has 98 campsites.  With such nice weather we were having, it was no surprise that the campground was full.  It always feels awkward to me to be walking by campsites while people are still sleeping, eating breakfast, or hanging out.  We made our way along quietly and then reached the true trailhead next to campsite #93.

The Lonesome Lake trail consisted of a steady climb through sections that are covered with roots and steep rock steps.   At 1.35 miles, we reached the ridge and came upon our first glimpse of Lonesome Lake at a junction point with several other trails.  We stopped for a quick breather and to enjoy the view of the lake, a remnant of a glacier that had carved out the mountains.  The uphill hiking was over, and we headed left on the Cascade Brook Trail, which winds around the side of the lake.  The trail was boggy in many spots, but there were often footbridges, rock steps, or logs to walk on in the muck to make our way across easily.  On our way, we passed a croo member from Lonesome Lake who was heading down the mountain with a wooden frame loaded with outgoing refuse from the hut.

Mountain Reflection

The mountains reflect in Lonesome Lake. Below: There are lots of trail junctions when you reach the end of the lake; The trail around the lake is muddy and traversed by planks and stepping stones; Climbing the stairs to Lonesome Lake Hut.

Arriving at the Lake Walking Around the Lake Arriving at the Hut

At 1.6 miles, we reached the junction with the Fishin’ Jimmy Trail.  We took a right on to this trail and in a short distance we came to a large dock on the lakeside.  There were a ton of teenagers on the dock, so we decided to check this out later.  Right above the dock was a series of steps that led to the Lonesome Lake Hut.  When we arrived in the hut, there was nobody there except for a few croo members.  One was cleaning up the kitchen and the other was packing her frame to take down the mountain.  We talked to her for a while and found out that they make several trips a week down to the base of the mountain where they meet up with someone to help them resupply for their trip back to the hut.

We rested a while on the back porch of the hut and talked to a family that was visiting from the Netherlands. They were on their way to visit Shenandoah National Park soon, so we gave them some tips on where to stay in the park and some of the things we would recommend they do while in Virginia.  The large group of teenagers had cleared out, so we went to the dock to enjoy views of the southern end of the lake (now occupied by several families with toddlers).  We made our way back the way we came to finish the out-and-back hike.

Inside Lonesome Lake Hut

The inside of Lonesome Lake Hut is cozy, bright and cheerful. Below: Adam enjoys a nice seat on the large porch overlooking the lake; Whoopie pies and mountain views; The Lonesome Lake dock gets crowded!

Relaxing on the Porch Whoopie Pie Crowded Dock

We could tell from the people that we saw climbing up that this is a highly-trafficked hike.  We hope in the next few years to do a larger hut-to-hut traverse across this area.  It was nice to see a possible overnight location in advance.  This is an easier hike that most families should be able to do if they take their time.

Christine Says…

After hiking Franconia Ridge, we decided to take a day off and be restful tourists rather than ambitious hikers.  We spent the day visiting Dartmouth College, sampling Long Trail Ale, gorging ourselves on Cabot Cheese and watching glassblowers at Simon Pearce.  The next morning, we were ready to get back on the trail.  Adam’s knees and calf muscles were still bothering him, so we went with the easy hike to Lonesome Lake.

Lonesome Lake is lovely glacial pool sitting between North Kinsman and Cannon Mountains.  The initial ascent to the lake is a little steep – about 1000 feet over 1.3 miles, but compared to many other hikes in the area, it’s considered a very easy trail.

When we began our hike, the morning was cold and sort of grey.  The forecast called for brilliantly sunny weather, but you just never know what you’re really going to get in the White Mountains.  We meandered through the Lafayette Place campground to reach the trailhead.  The smell of campfires and cooking bacon was heavy in the air.  That smell always makes me so nostalgic for the camping trips of my youth.  My mom was a great camp cook – there were always sausages, bacon, pancakes and eggs.  Nice memories…


Each hut is run by a ‘Croo’ – mostly college students on summer break. They carry supplies for the hut on their backs using these wooden racks.

The hike up to the small plateau where the lake sits is uphill and pretty, but generally unremarkable.  Like most New Hampshire trails, you can expect to see lots of rocks and roots along the way.  As you climb, the woods change from predominantly hardwood to a heavier evergreen mix.

At the tail-end of the lake, there was a junction sign with different trail options headed in many different directions.  We followed an almost completely flat trail around the perimeter of the lake.  We caught lots of glimpses of the water through the trees, but the most memorable feature of this trail was the mud!  Thankfully, the trail is well maintained and rocks and planks were strategically situated the entire way, and we never had to get our boots muddy.

At the head of the lake, we crossed a wooden footbridge that came out between a wooden staircase and a lakefront dock.  Since the dock was packed with kids from a summer camp group, we decided to check out Lonesome Lake Hut before enjoying the water.  We climbed the stairs and found a charming cluster of wooden buildings that make up the ‘hut’.  Unlike Greenleaf Hut, which is in a single building, Lonesome Lake Hut is a collection of cabins and a main dining room.

A couple members of the Croo were still cleaning up from breakfast.  And of course, Adam managed to snag more free leftover pancakes!  If you have a spare minute, check out this fun video about the 2013 hut Croo.  If I had known there was such a job opportunity as ‘AMC Croo Member’ when I was in college, I would have leapt at the opportunity.   It sure would have been more fun than filing procurement paperwork for the Army Corps of Engineers!  (no offense to ACoE).

Christine Enjoys the Lake

Christine sports her new knee brace.  Below: The beautiful lake; Beginning the climb down; The ranger station at the base of the mountain.

Franconia Ridge from Lake Hike Down Ranger Station

At Lonesome Lake, we met another croo member who was loading up her packboard with empty boxes and other outgoing items to carry down the mountain.  She said the trip down is typically a lighter load than the trip up, which includes food and other supplies.  The AMC has a fun article about Packboarding Legends.  Can you believe some people have carried packboards weighing over 100 pounds?  The average is more in the 40-80 pound range, which is still extremely impressive!

After looking around the hut for a few minutes, we found a couple pleasant Adirondack chairs to relax upon.  The back porch of Lonesome Lake hut is a great place to idle away a pretty summer afternoon.  While we relaxed, the sun came out, making it even nicer for sitting.  I shared a whoopie pie with Adam.  We also had a very nice conversation with a family visiting from the Netherlands.  They were greatly enjoying the expansive, forested terrain of New Hampshire – something they said they have little of at home.

After a while, we made our way back down to the lakeside dock.  We found it still crowded, so I took some photos and didn’t linger for long.  The hike back went very quickly.  We saw lots of families hiking up to spend a night at the hut.  I hope we’ll have the opportunity to do a hut stay on our next New Hampshire trip.

Trail Notes

  • Distance –3.3 miles
    (Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
  • Elevation Change – About 1000 ft.
  • Difficulty – 2.5.  The climb up was fairly steep, but because of the short distance, you can take your time. 
  • Trail Conditions – 3.5.  The trail is well-traveled and in good condition.  There are some steeper sections and some worn-out areas that do require careful footing. 
  • Views – 2.  You do get views from the lake of the mountains around you, but the height of the mountains around the lake keeps you from getting distant views.
  • Waterfalls/streams 4.  While you don’t have waterfalls and very limited stream views, you are rewarded with a massive lake on this trail. 
  • Wildlife – 1.  We didn’t see anything on this hike other than squirrels.
  • Ease to Navigate – 3.  There are some confusing spots where you wonder where the trail is leaving the campground.  Also, the junction at the ridge has a lot of different trails to follow.  Read the signs and you should be fine.
  • Solitude – 1.  On a clear day, this hike is likely crawling with people.

Download a trail map (PDF) – Coming soon!

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.  Leave your car and head underneath the bridge that is I-93.  Follow the signs for the Lonesome Lake trailhead, going into the Lafayette Place Campground.  The trailhead leaves near campsite #93.

* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.

Franconia Ridge

September 1, 2013

Special: New Hampshire Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting the White Mountains

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.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Franconia Ridge Hike

The Appalachian Trail makes its way across the knife edge of Franconia Ridge. The most scenic section is the 1.8 miles between Lafayette and Little Haystack. Below:  Walker Brook; Trails signs for the Old Bridle Path; Adam climbs a few of the many rock stairs on the way up.

Walker Brook Old Bridle Path Stone Stairs

Christine Says…

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.

Halfway Corner

At about 1.5 miles, the trail takes a sharp turn and puts you on on open ledge overlooking Walker Ravine. At this point of the hike, Franconia Ridge was still completely obscured by clouds and fog. Below: The Old Bridle Path has relatively nice footing and climbs steadily, but moderately; They don’t call New Hampshire the Granite State without good reason; Christine is happy to see a clearing view!

Bridle Path Christine Ascends Starting to Clear

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.

Adam Climbs Agony Ridge

Adam climbs one of the three ‘agonies’ on Agony Ridge. (It really wasn’t that bad!)  Below: Christine climbs one of the ‘agonies'; Looking back at Cannon Mountain Sku; Adam takes in the nice view that comes shortly after the second agony.

Christine Climbs Agony Ridge Cannon Mountain Ski Area Adam Takes in the View from the Second Agony

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.

Greenleaf Hut Comes Into View

Greenleaf Hut comes into view. Below: We passed briefly into fog and mist near Greenleaf Hut; Indian pipes along the trail; Inside Greenleaf Hut.

Misty Trail Indian Pipes Inside Greenleaf

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.

Looking Toward Lafayette

Christine looks at the shoulder of Lafayette before making the final push to the summit. Below: Eagle Lake sits right below Greenleaf Hut; you can see it from the dining area windows; From a cairn marking the way, you can look back toward the hut and Cannon Mountain; Christine takes in the amazing view from the shoulder of Lafayette.

Eagle Lake Looking Back at Greenleaf Amazing Views of Cannon

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.

The Knife Edge of Franconia Ridge

The spectacular Knife Edge of Franconia Ridge. Below: Christine is blowing up like a windsock on the summit of Lafayette; The foundation of an old stone shelter still sits on the summit of Lafayette – the 6th tallest mountain in New Hampshire; Adam begins the traverse of Franconia Ridge.

Christine as a Windsock Old Foundation Adam Hikes the Knife Edge

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.

Adam Says…

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.

Looking Back at Lafayette

Mt. Lafayette looms large behind us on our way to Mt. Lincoln.  Below: Christine walks Franconia Ridge; Hikers on the ridge (we liked the red, white & blue); Adam near the summit of Mt. Lincoln – the pointy summits in the background are Mt. Flume and Mt. Liberty.

Christine on the Ridge Hikers on Franconia Ridge Mt. Lincoln

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.

Dramatic Landscape

Franconia Ridge offers dramatic scenery!  Below: Looking back over the ridge walk; Adam checks our map on the summit of Little Haystack Mountain.

Looking Back Across the Ridge Adam Checks Map on Little Haystack

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.

Descending Falling Waters

Christine picks her way through the boulders on the Falling Waters Trail. Below: Adam crosses the stream on the Falling Waters Trail; A beautiful slide fall; Falling Waters is steep and extremely rocky!

Water Crossing One of Many Falls Adam on the Falling Waters Trail

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.

Cloudland Falls

Cloudland Falls was the largest and prettiest of the waterfalls on the Falling Waters Trail. Below: Other smaller falls on the trail.

Falling Waters Falling Waters

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.

Trail Notes

  • 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.

Download a trail map (PDF)

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.

Mt. Cardigan

August 25, 2013

Special: New Hampshire Edition

Introductory Guide to Visiting the White Mountains

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.

View the Full Album of Photos From This Hike

Views from the Summit of Cardigan

Even though Cardigan is a small mountain by New Hampshire standards, it still offers dramatic views. Below:  Adam begins the ascent of the West Ridge Trail; Trees give way to open rock;  Cairns mark the way across the rocky mountain top.

Trailhead of Cardigan West Ridge Opening Views on Cardigan Cairns as Trail Markers

Christine Says…

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.

Rough Terrain on Cardigan

Most New Hampshire mountain trail require negotiating rocks, roots and mud. Below: Classic New England woods – pines and birches; Adam crosses a plank over a muddy area; Our first open views on the trail.

Birches and Pines Crossing Mud First Open Views on Cardigan

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!

Mt. Cardigan Fire Tower

The Mount Cardigan Fire Tower. Below: Cairns mark the way as the fire tower comes into view,  the steep descent; the rock was steep and slick.

Approaching the Fire Tower Descending Cardigan Slick Rock

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!

Fire Tower

The summit is dominated by the fire tower. There are great views and lots of small pools on the summit.

Adam Says…

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.


From Rimrock, we could see a rainsquall approaching. Below: The fire lookout cabin; Adam picking blueberries; From South Peak you can look back toward the fire tower atop Cardigan.

Fire Lookout Cabin Picking Blueberries South Peak View

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.

Descent into the Woods

The descent into the woods was steep and rocky. Below: More steep descending.

Steep Cardigan

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.

Trail Notes

  • 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.


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