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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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! :-)
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!
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).
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!
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
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 www.appalachiantrail.org/journey. 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: www.appalachiantrail.org/journey.
- 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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).
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.
- 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.
This nine mile hike is challenging, but pays off extravagantly in terms of spectacular views, alpine ecology and gorgeous waterfalls. The route also allows you to pay a visit to the AMC’s Greenleaf Hut.
Hiking Franconia Ridge has been on my must-do list for as long as I’ve known it existed. The knife’s edge trek, stretching from Mt Lafayette to Little Haystack, is a breathtaking walk across dramatic alpine terrain with a 360-degree view that goes on for almost two miles. The hike shows up on countless lists of hiking superlatives (best hikes, best views) and is definitely one of New Hampshire’s most popular hikes.
The AMC’s White Mountain Guide describes the most popular section of the ridge (from 5,260-foot Mount Lafayette to 4,780-foot Little Haystack Mountain)…
“It’s a Gothic Masterpiece, suggesting the ruins of a gigantic medieval cathedral. The peaks along the high serrated ridge are like towers supported by soaring buttresses that rise from the floor of the notch.”
You can’t help but be drawn to this beautiful place, but you should never forget that it’s also perilous. Numerous injuries and deaths happen on this section of trail every year, mostly due to hypothermia, falls, and fatigue. Franconia Ridge is the first prominent roadblock to fierce weather rolling in from the North Country, putting the exposed trail at high risk for lightning strikes, surprise storms and howling winds. It’s also a challenging climb. With well over 3500’ of ascent, this hike will challenge your lungs and leg muscles.
We were incredibly lucky to have beautiful hiking weather almost every day of our ten-day trip. The day we planned our Franconia Ridge hike came on the heels of a cold front that had pushed through the area. It was forecast to be 70 degrees with crystalline blue skies. I was so full of happy/nervous anticipation when we set out in the morning.
The trailhead was a short 25-minute drive from my parents’ house. The parking area is literally right off I-93, making it one of the easiest hikes to access in the White Mountains. As we approached Franconia Notch, we saw lots of thick, cottony fog still swirling around the summits. Adam and I both expressed a little concern that it might not blow off in time for us to enjoy views, but we pressed on with our plans.
We started off on the Old Bridle Path; climbing steadily uphill over stone stairs, smooth rock and switchbacks. There is nothing technical about this part of the trail. In fact, it’s called the Old Bridle Path for a reason – it’s the route historically used by horses and pack animals. In the 1800’s, there was even a stone shelter and stable at the summit of Lafayette.
About a mile and a half into the hike, the trail comes out of the trees onto an open ledge. If you listen, you can hear Walker Brook roaring in the ravine below. We were able to perch on a rock and look across the notch toward Cannon Mountain. Had it been clear, we would have been able to see Franconia Ridge looming above, but the peaks of Lafayette, Lincoln and Little Haystack were still completely consumed by clouds and dense fog. Adam and I again wondered (and hoped) that the ridge would clear off by the time we reached that point of the hike.
From the first view, the trail continued more steeply up the ridge. There were a couple more open views along the way, and at each we felt like the clouds seemed to be getting thinner and thinner. We crossed Agony Ridge and it’s three ‘agonies’ – large, steep, stone humps that you must traverse to continue. After the second agony, there is a great view. I was so impressed to look back and see how much elevation and terrain we had already covered!
After the final ‘agony’, the trail leveled out. We passed through misty, lushly vegetated forest. There were colorful fungi, mosses, and Indian Pipes everywhere. Within a couple tenths of a mile, Greenleaf Hut appeared, still veiled by mist.
We were really excited to arrive and have a chance to visit our first AMC hut. It was charming– rustic, but cozy with a nice view of Eagle Lake below. We shared a gigantic Whoopie Pie we had picked up from a bakery in Canaan, NH the previous day. We explored the hut a bit, checking out maps, browsing the library and signing the guest log.
After our brief rest, we made the final 1.1 mile push to the summit of Mt. Lafayette. The route follows the Greenleaf Trail, descending briefly from the hut, past Eagle Lake and then back into a dense coniferous forest. There were so many evergreens that it looked like an overpopulated Christmas tree farm. The thick trees quickly gave way to the Alpine Zone – the rocky, wind-swept area that exists above tree line. The New Hampshire Department of Forests and Land (NHDFL) has a great website and brochure about this climate and ecosystem if you want to learn more.
The climb to the summit was very steep and made even more challenging by the strong winds. The remainder of the cold front and clearing clouds on the summit brought sustained winds over 40 mph, with occasional gusts to 70 mph. We both got our jackets out and prepared for wilder weather. The upside of the strong wind was that it blew away the last of the low-hanging clouds and fog. Views were AMAZING looking back in the direction from which we had just come. We could see the increasingly tiny Greenleaf hut, precipitous ski slopes, tiny Lonesome Lake tucked into a plateau on the other side of the notch, and the dramatic, shining cliff-side of Cannon mountain.
We continually plodded uphill until reaching the trail marker at the top of Lafayette. At this point, the Greenleaf Trail ends and joins the Franconia Ridge Trail (which is also the Appalachian Trail). The wind at the summit was insane. I felt like a windsock in my jacket. We decided to go ahead and eat our packed lunch at the summit. To escape the wind, we found a protected place within the foundation of the old shelter/stable that used to be located at Lafayette’s summit. It definitely helped, but it was still really windy! One lesson I learned… don’t pack shredded cheese when wind exceeds 40 mph – your lunch will mostly blow away. I didn’t get to eat much of my cheese, but I had plenty of other windproof options for food, so I didn’t go hungry. :-)
From the summit of Lafayette, the real pay-off portion of the hike begins – 1.8 miles of stunning, spectacular, breathtaking views. From photos I had seen in books and magazines, I knew the scenery along Franconia Ridge would be amazing, but until I saw it in person, I really had no idea how amazing. The beauty almost overcame me emotionally – I felt awestruck and blessed.
The walk along the ‘knife edge’ of Franconia Ridge passed all too quickly. Even though the ridge was crowded with other hikers, I still took every moment possible to appreciate the views and live in that moment. We scaled Mt. Lincoln and eventually made our way over to Little Haystack. It was the best 1.8 miles of hiking of my life!
At Little Haystack, we looked back over the Franconia Ridge Trail one last time. I told Adam, “We’re not even done hiking for the day, but I already want to do that again!’. I can’t even compose words that convey how much I enjoyed that bit of hiking.
On the summit of Little Haystack, Adam consulted a map and I put on my newly acquired knee brace. My knee felt fine, but I knew the Falling Waters Trail would be steep and rocky. I figured a preemptive brace might help me prevent another hard twist like the one I’d experienced on Grandfather Mountain.
I’m glad I did, because the descent from Franconia Ridge was TOUGH – so much harder than the climb up. We picked our way slowly down the trail – scrambling and climbing ‘crab-style’ over large boulders and loose rocks. In retrospect, it might have been better to ascend Falling Waters and come down on the Old Bridle Path. Experts seem split on the preferred route, our Falcon guide and the Dartmouth Outing Club outline the route we used. However, we learned after-the-fact that the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game says the Falling Waters Trail is ‘a route normally recommended only for ascending the mountain because of its steepness’. Fish and Game is responsible for hiker rescues in New Hampshire, so their advice is solid.
We saw a lot more people on the Falling Waters Trail than we had on the Old Bridle Path. Some were out for day hikes to see the waterfalls, but others were still making their way up to Franconia Ridge to spend the night at Greenleaf Hut. We saw several hikers that were really struggling; it was later in the day and they still had miles to go to reach the hut. I hope they all made it safely!
On the way down, one of Adam’s knees starting hurting pretty badly. It was hurting seriously enough that I was concerned for him. I offered to give him my knee brace, to take his pack weight – basically to do anything I could to help make his climb down a little easier. In the end, there’s really nothing you can do with pain like that other than take it slow and gut it out. (For the record, after this hike, Adam also acquired his own shiny new knee brace to use the rest of the week. It helped!)
My worry for Adam took a little bit of wind out of my sails. It’s impossible to fully enjoy scenery when you know your partner is hurting. Nevertheless, the Falling Waters trail in incredibly beautiful and scenic. If you think Virginia’s Crabtree Falls presents waterfall after waterfall, this trail has way more falls. I tried to take time to appreciate each of the beautiful waterfalls along the Falling Waters trail. I hoped that the loveliness of the falls would distract Adam a little from his pain, though I don’t think it did.
Each waterfall along the trail was unique and had its own special feature. Some slid gently over smooth expanses of rock, some came tumbling out of openings in the forest and some plunged steeply from ledges and spilled into clear pools below. Cloudland Falls was probably the most beautiful of the many cascades.
There were a few water crossings, with only one being of moderate challenge. Occasionally the trail would become more level and smooth, tricking us into thinking that the tough terrain was behind us. But the steep, rocky descent just kept coming and coming and coming! The trail finally leveled out for good about a mile from the parking lot. When we crossed the wooden bridge over Walker Brook, we knew we had just a short .2 mile walk back to the car.
Even though I was physically tired, I also felt really energized by all the wonderful things I had seen and the physical accomplishment of completing the hike. It was a great day, and I look forward to doing this hike again someday.
Christine and I both felt that Franconia Ridge is probably the best hike we’ve ever done. The views are amazing and you definitely feel that you have accomplished quite a feat when you’re hiking along the ridge. This was also probably the toughest hike we had done up to this point. I don’t think we’ve ever done anything with quite this much elevation gain before. After reflecting, we were thinking that we probably couldn’t have done this type of hike a few years earlier when we weren’t in as good of shape. Hiking in the White Mountains is quite tough and you have to be honest with yourself when judging your abilities.
The directions for this loop are fairly simple. We started off from the parking lot heading up a paved path that led us right by a couple of bathrooms. Once you pass the bathrooms, the paved walkway ends. We started our hike on the Old Bridle Path. At .3 miles, we saw a bridge to the right, which crossed over Walker Brook and served as the junction with the Falling Waters Trail, our return route. The Old Bridle Path begins to move away from Walker Brook. The trail begins a moderate climb. At 1.6 miles, you reach “Halfway Corner” and come across “Dead Ass Corner”, an area so-designated because a pack mule that was bringing up supplies to Greenleaf Hut was spooked by lightning and fell to its death. At about 1.8 miles, the trail begins to open up to views of a deep gorge. Across the gorge, you can stare up at Mount Lincoln and (on a clear day) can see your future path across the ridgeline.
From this viewpoint, we saw the clouds still hanging on the mountain. We were hoping that the clouds would roll off, but we really weren’t sure if it would happen. We continued upward and the trail led to a few overlooks of the gorge. We looked behind us and were impressed with how high we had climbed up by this point. At one viewpoint, I was watching a thick patch of clouds rolling down the mountainside. I told Christine that I wanted to wait until it crossed down a certain point. I felt that if the clouds were rolling down far enough, we would have some clear views, but the clouds just stuck on the side. I felt my hope for clear views starting to wane, but we pressed on. We saw a few families climbing down that had stayed at the Greenleaf Hut the night before. A young girl told us about the bad storms they had at the hut, but she was having a great time. We thought about how happy she seemed and we thought it was great that her parents had given her such a great experience. The trail started to be a bit steeper at this point, as you reach the area at 2.0 miles called “Agony Ridge”. The footing was a little looser and there were different steep ascents up the different humps. We both felt they weren’t that tough in comparison to some things we have climbed and the “agonies” were over within a short time. At 2.9 miles, we reached the Greenleaf Hut.
Greenleaf Hut is operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) and reservations can be made online to stay at this and other AMC huts. Weekends fill up quickly, so plans should be made well in advance. In 1929, the AMC was asked by the state of New Hampshire to run the nearby Lonesome Lake cabins. They agreed, but felt that Lonesome Lake was far removed from the other existing huts at Lakes of the Clouds, Madison Spring, and Carter Notch. After receiving a donation from Colonel Charles Greenleaf, the AMC decided to build the hut at this picturesque location. The hut can accommodate 48 people and is open from early May to mid-October, depending on weather. We hung out a while at the hut. I was pleased to find that the kitchen had leftover pancakes and bacon from the morning breakfast. I always like taking advantage of free bacon whenever the opportunity presents itself. The hut still had a thick bank of fog around, but we felt that it may be clearing off from above.
Continuing from the Greenleaf Hut, you take the Greenleaf Trail and pass by Eagle Lake. The trail dips into a dense pine area and then starts a steep, rocky climb. We followed a path of cairns along the mountainside. The air was cold and the steep hiking had us stopping in a few spots. As we looked behind us, the Greenleaf Hut started to look smaller and smaller and the views were opening up around us. One gentleman that was hiking down Mount Lafayette told us that we may have timed the Franconia Ridge hike perfectly, as the clouds were moving off quickly. We continued the climb until we reached the summit of Mt. Lafayette at 4.0 miles. The wind was blowing strongly and we stopped for a brief moment to get a summit picture of us, thinking this could be good photographic evidence of our hike before we were blown off the side of the mountain. The views were phenomenal as we could see back the way we had hiked and across the gorge to Lonesome Lake and the cliffside of Cannon Mountain, where the Old Man of the Mountain was located.
From the summit, we took a right on the Appalachian Trail. Once we crossed over the rocks of the summit, it helped to shield us somewhat from the winds, but it was still windy and cold. However, we didn’t think much about the wind or cold, since the views were absolutely breathtaking. We were walking along the knife-edged ridgeline with nothing but clear views for hundreds of miles. We can’t even do justice along to Franconia Ridge by trying to describe its beauty in words. The hike along the ridgeline goes up and down for the next 1.8 miles, crossing over Mount Lincoln until you reach Little Haystack Mountain at 5.7 miles.
Here you reach the junction with the Falling Waters Trail. Take in some last views and then take this route down the steep mountain. The trail enters into deeper forest almost immediately. Boulders and deep steps greet you in a painful climb down. In fact, this trail had me feeling the worst pains I’ve just about ever felt. My left knee was killing me and because I was needing to overcompensate for it with my other leg, that hurt as well. Every step I felt I had daggers shooting up my knees, but I had to press on. We continued down the steep terrain down a zig-zagging trail that then took a more gradual descent near Dry Brook. At 6.1 miles, you reach a junction with a side trail to Shining Rock Cliff. We decided not to go the extra distance, but the Shining Rock Cliff gives you views to Franconia Notch and the granite cliff-face is supposed to be worth the trip if you want to check it out. The trail crosses the stream at 7.3 miles. At this point, you then climb down more boulders on this side of the trail. It rejoins Dry Brook at 7.7 miles, with another crossing. At this point, you begin to see waterfalls along the trail. We passed by Cloudland Falls (7.7 miles), Swiftwater Falls (8.0 miles), and Stairs Falls (8.1 miles) along the path. We began to see a lot more people along the trail at this point, as many families take the trip up to the waterfalls to wade in the swimming holes created beneath the falls. (Taking the Falling Waters Trail to Cloudland Falls is a popular and moderate family hike.)
To be honest, the pain was so bad for me, I barely stopped to look at the falls. I needed the hike to be over soon, since I was in excruciating pain. I regret that I wasn’t able to take the time to enjoy these beautiful falls, but I couldn’t focus on anything other than where my next step was taking me. We finally reached the bridge to rejoin the Old Bridle Path Trail at 8.7 miles. We took a left here and made our way back to the car.
Despite the pain I was feeling, I was so glad we did this hike. I know Christine was already wondering if I would ever be willing to do this hike again. She realized what I was going through and thought this may be something I wouldn’t want to do again. However, I would go through all the pain again to do this hike. It is truly that remarkable. I think next time though, I would probably recommend climbing up Falling Waters Trail (which appeared to be what most people did) and then heading down the Old Bridle Path for this loop. So, to put this as a public promise to my wife – we’ll do this hike again.. The views here are the best I’ve ever seen, and there is no way that I would not want to see them again.
- Distance – 9 miles
(Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
My phone battery died before the hike’s end, so this data runs a bit short!
- Elevation Change – About 3500 ft.
- Difficulty – 5. This is a tough one! The climbing is challenging, but the descent is actually harder. The walk along the open knife’s edge of Franconia Ridge makes all the challenge worthwhile.
- Trail Conditions – 3.5. Nice trail conditions, but lots of rocks, boulders and a few possibly challenging stream crossing.
- Views – 5+. WOW, WOW, WOW – what an amazing gift to visit this place on a clear day, because the views are magnificent.
- Waterfalls/streams – 5. On the descent of the Falling Waters Trail, Walker Brook presents waterfall after waterfall.
- Wildlife – 1. We saw far more people than animals, though we did cross paths with an angry, chattering (but adorable) red squirrel.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Trails are well marked.
- Solitude – 0. Everybody who is physically capable (and some who are not) wants to hike this trail. It’s one of New Hampshire’s most popular dayhikes and also provides access to Greenleaf Hut.
Directions to trailhead: Head north on I-93 until it becomes Franconia Notch Parkway. Pass exit 1 and the exit for the Basin. Take the next exit (for trailhead parking). Park in this parking lot and the trailhead starts near the large billboard sign with the map of hiking trails.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.
This moderate 3.3 mile hike takes you to the summit of a beautiful, bare mountaintop complete with a fire tower. Views from the summit look across three states.
Standing at just 3,155 feet, Cardigan is a diminutive mountain compared to many of its neighbors. Though it lacks in elevation, it still offers a bald, rocky summit and panoramic views that allow you to look across New Hampshire and into both Maine and Vermont.
We thought it would be a great first hike on our trip – kind of a White Mountain warm-up. We were still pretty tired from the 12-hour drive up, but we set out early Sunday morning. We arrived at the parking lot in Cardigan State Park and found only a few other cars, despite the day being sunny and pleasant.
There are several routes up Cardigan. We chose the ascent recommended by the Darmouth Outing Club, the West Ridge Trail, which climbs 1200 feet over 1.5 miles to the summit. The trail started out behind a small picnic shelter. It climbed quickly uphill through classic New England forest – lots of pines and white birches. As we climbed higher, we traversed several small streams and muddy areas on small footbridges and planks. There was even one tiny waterfall cascading over a slide of smooth rock.
After the junction with the Skyland Trail, we continued up the West Ridge on increasingly steep and rocky terrain. Soon the trees gave way to a smooth rock dome, and instead of orange blazes the route was marked by cairns (pyramid-shaped piles of rocks). Every time we paused, we took a moment to gaze backwards – the view was growing more and more spectacular with every step.
The last push to the fire tower was fairly steep, but once we reached the lookout the vista was open in every direction. It was also a lot colder and windier. Without the shelter of trees, the wind was whipping 25-30 mph. We explored the summit for a while – looking over toward the Presidentials, spotting the wind turbines on the ridge next to my parents’ house and guessing the names of lakes we could see from the top. Cardigan is made of Kinsman Quartz Monzonite, a rock similar to granite. It’s beautiful and almost shimmers and sparkles in the sun.
To make the hike a little more diverse, we decided to descend by the South Ridge Trail. This took us by the Fire Lookout Cabin and the South Peak and Rimrock summits. We enjoyed a couple more beautiful views. It was fun to look back up at the fire tower from the South Peak and marvel at the terrain we covered. This part of the trail also offered a bounty of wild blueberries. The berries were perfectly ripe – the ideal combo of sweet and tart. I know we have wild blueberries in Virginia, but I would swear the ones in New England taste better!
We didn’t expect the trail down to be so steep and rocky (especially the section after we crossed the Skyland Trail again), or to get caught in a pop-up rainsquall. Weather really does change in an instant in New Hampshire! I had my rain jacket in my backpack, but we were so close to the end of the trail that we just picked up the pace and jogged the rest of the way back. There’s a lack of photos for the portion of the trail that required us to run through the rain, but overall you get the gist of what this trail is all about.
When we got back to the car, the parking lot was jam-packed. Several cars were circling like vultures to claim the spot we were about to vacate. Soon, we were on our way, headed in the direction of Canaan, NH. We decided to grab lunch at a little diner-like place called ‘Dishin’ It Out’. As it turned out, Canaan was holding it’s Old Home Days weekend when we visited. Old Home Days are a New England tradition, kind of a mix of a homecoming and a fair. There were food stands, craft vendors, fresh produce, local maple syrup, softball games and even cow chip bingo. It was a fun ending to our first hike of the trip!
As Christine mentioned, this was a great introduction to hiking in the White Mountains. As we were driving along to Mt. Cardigan State Park, moose crossing signs made us excited about the possibility of spotting one of these elusive creatures. We weren’t lucky enough to spot any moose, but as we got closer and were driving into the wooded park area, we knew we were about to take on a classic New England hike. You can download a trail map here.
The trail started off with a few stairs and then started a rather gradual uphill climb. At .4 miles, the trail intersects with the South Ridge Trail, our return route. We stayed on the West Ridge Trail and continued the climb. At .9 miles, the trail intersects with the Skyland Trail. Continuing on the trail begins to open up to more views and as you continue to climb, the trail rises above the treeline. At this point, you follow carefully-placed cairns until you reach the summit. We passed a sign that showed the intersection with the Clark Trail, reaching the summit and fire tower at 1.4 miles where the wind was blowing strong and cold. Even though the cold air had my nose running, I didn’t feel like getting out my jacket. The fire tower was locked but one of the sides served as a good protector against the wind.
We shared the summit with a couple of guys that were using a mirror to signal someone down at the lodge where they were staying. I never could tell if they were returning signals back to them. We stayed at the summit before making our descent down. We decided to make a little loop of our hike and descended back to the sign that showed the intersection with the Clark Trail. We followed the yellow-blazed Clark Trail as we sharply descended the mountain to connect us to the South Ridge Trail, leading us past a locked building. Passing the building, we started to spot blueberries all around. At 1.75 miles, the trail intersected with the orange-blazed South Ridge trail. We took the South Ridge Trail and it was fairly level and winded through a low-brush area until we reached the South Peak. We continued along and met the summit of Rimrock at 2.1 miles.
At this point, the South Ridge trail crosses the Skyland Trail and then changes its blaze color from orange to white. This part of the trail was very steep and rocky, reminding us of some of the tough climbing down we did from Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. We pressed on down this tough section of trail, wishing we had taken the Skyland Trail back to the West Ridge Trail (which is what we would both recommend to save the strain on your knees). At 2.9 miles, the South Ridge Trail finally ended and intersected back with the West Ridge Trail. We took a left here and made our way back to our car at 3.3 miles.
The downhill from Mt. Cardigan had Christine worrying about her knee, especially when the rain started. We had to move quickly for the last .4 miles. When we got to the parking lot, the lot was now overflowing with cars. We were so glad that we started the hike early and that we had good views at the top.
Mount Cardigan has been a popular place for hiking since the 1800s. In 1855, a forest fire destroyed most of the trees at the top of the mountain, which has left it as the bald that you see today. Because of the ability to see from the summit, a wooden fire tower was built here in 1904, to be soon replaced with a steel tower in 1924. On a clear day, you can see Mount Washington and other peaks in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Pleasant Mountain in Maine to the east, and Camel’s Hump in Vermont to the west. Some people choose to stay at the nearby Cardigan Lodge, operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club, and hike an alternate route to the summit for 5.2 miles roundtrip.
The panoramic scenery from the top was truly breathtaking. Based on what we had hiked before in New Hampshire to this point, it was one of the best views we had seen up here. Of course, we were just getting started for this trip and we ended up having some other hikes take the prize for best views here. However, you won’t be disappointed in hiking up to Mt. Cardigan on a clear, summer day.
- Distance – 3.3 miles
(Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
- Elevation Change – About 1250 ft.
- Difficulty – 3. By Virginia standards this is a moderate hike, but by New Hampshire standards it’s an easier hike that still offers great views.
- Trail Conditions – 3. Like most New Hampshire trails, this trail is a mix of smooth rock, roots and mud. Trail builders have done a great job building bridge and planks to traverse muddy areas.
- Views – 5. Spectacular… if you can see mountains in three different states, you know it’s good!
- Waterfalls/streams – 2. There are small streams, but really nothing scenic or noteworthy.
- Wildlife – 2. We saw a red squirrel and a variety of birds.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Trails are well marked and free trail maps are available at the trailhead.
- Solitude – 1. If you start early, you can avoid crowds, but this is a popular trail.
Download a trail map (PDF)
A friend of mine (and native New Englander), Ben Kimball, sent me some additional resources! Check out his brochure about the ecology of Mt. Cardigan. The publication also includes an alternate hike route starting from the AMC Lodge. He’s also provided a link to a page with photos and more information about the mountain hosted by the New Hampshire Division of Forests and Lands. Thanks, Ben!
Directions to trailhead: From Route 4, head north on NH-118/Dorchester Road. In .5 miles, turn right on to Cardigan Mountain Road. Stay on this road for close to 4 miles until you reach the parking lot area. The West Ridge Trail marker is on the northern end of the lot.
In 2013, we made our third visit to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Christine’s parents bought a home there in 2008, and it has quickly become a favorite destination.
Because several people have emailed us to tell us our Intro to the Smokies was helpful, we thought we’d share some of our favorite out-of-towner tips for enjoying the White Mountains, too!
Some General Tips for Hiking in the Area
The White Mountains are TOUGH
The trails are steep and the rocks are hard. Trails considered moderate in New Hampshire may have 3,000+ feet of elevation gain over just a few miles. Much of the footing on trails is root-snarled and rock-covered, with loads of mud, shifting boulders underfoot and swift-moving streams to cross. The weather changes without warning in the Whites. On a sunny 80 degree day in the valley, you may experience 50mph winds, 45 degree temps and heavy fog on a mountain top. Even in the heat of summer, it’s likely you’ll want a hat, gloves and a windproof/waterproof shell. There aren’t many trails in Virginia that can adequately prepare you for what you’ll see in the Whites.
In fact, in its section about Mt. Washington, the AMC’s White Mountain Guide states:
To a person unused to mountain trails or in less than excellent physical condition, this unrelenting uphill grind can be grueling and intensely discouraging. If you are not an experienced hiker or a trained athlete, you will almost certainly enjoy the ascent of Mount Washington a great deal more if you build up to it with easier climbs in areas with less exposure to potentially severe weather.
So, heed that advice and pick tough Virginia hikes to train/practice on before you make your White Mountains visit.
New Hampshire has a Negligent Hiker Law.
Be prepared to take care of yourself in the Whites. Carry the ten essentials in your pack, let someone know your route, stay on the trail, stay with your group, be willing to turn back if the weather or your ability dictates, and don’t do anything stupid. If you need rescue because of your own negligence, you may receive a hefty bill from the state. Visit HikeSafe.com for more information.
Many New Hampshire State Parks Are as Impressive as National Parks.
OK… now that we’ve sufficiently scared you with bad weather, tough climbs and personal liability, it’s time for the good stuff! New Hampshire is incredibly spectacular and wild. When you compare many of New Hampshire’s state parks to the state parks we have in Virginia, prepare yourself to be blown away! The scenery, wildlife and expansiveness of New Hampshire parks like Franconia Notch, Mount Cardigan and Mount Washington rivals (OK… let’s be honest – exceeds) what you see in Shenandoah National Park.
There are lots of great hiking guides for New Hampshire. We recommend the AMC’s White Mountain Guide, Hiking New Hampshire (Falcon Guide) and 50 Hikes in the White Mountains. We suggest photocopying the pages you need for the day of the hike, as it saves you from carrying the extra weight of a guidebook.
Stay Alert for Wildlife on Highways
Each time we’ve visited the White Mountains, we’ve seen moose hit by cars on I-93. It’s very sad and dreadfully dangerous to hit a moose. We’ve seen bears and deer along the interstate, too.
Where to Stay in the Area
We have free lodging in the Holderness/Plymouth area (thanks Mom & Dad!). It’s a great location – nestled right between the Lakes Region and the White Mountains Region. If you want lodging even closer to prime trails in the Whites, North Conway (very crowded, very touristy) and Lincoln are great choices. Both have tons of amenities and are close to popular trails. The area also has loads of camping, and for the true adventurer, the Appalachian Mountain Club maintains a series of seasonal backcountry lodging.
Must-See Things That Don’t Involve Hiking
- Take a Drive on the Scenic Kancamagus Highway. There are great views, cascading streams, opportunities to spot wildlife, and access to many of the area’s easier family trails.
- Visit the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center (Christine’s mom is a volunteer). This center has fantastic hands-on displays for children and a nice variety native animals on display (bears, bobcats, eagles, etc). The Center also runs boat excursions to observe loons in the wild on Squam Lake.
- Rent Bikes and ride through Franconia Notch. There is a ten-mile paved bike path that runs the length of the notch. You can rent a bike, arrange a shuttle and coast downhill through the park stopping at all the scenic/historical sites along the way.
- Watch an Optical Illusion Put the Old Man of the Mountain Back Into Place – In May of 2003, New Hampshire’s most notable natural landmark fell from the face of Cannon Cliffs. Now, due to the generosity and ingenuity of interested individuals and companies, you can visit Profile Plaza and watch the Old Man reappear on the cliffside. This stop was very cool!
- Sample Craft Beer – Moat Mountain, Woodstock Inn, Tuckerman’s, Smuttynose and Long Trail (among others) are all located roughly in this region (some require a bit more driving than others).
- Take a Day Trip to the Coast – In about an hour and a half you can be in York/Ogunquit eating lobsters and chowder by the oceanfront. There are lighthouses, beachfront strolling, mansions, ice cream… everything you expect to see at a New England Beach. York/Ogunquit has the Marginal Way – which is a beautiful walk. If you visit, don’t miss stopping by the Stonewall Kitchen flagship store. If you enjoy cooking or eating, it’s a great stop! Lunch at Lobster Cove in York was especially delicious and memorable.
- Take a Day Trip Into Burlington (Vermont) - Burlington is a beautiful city on the shores of Lake Champlain. On that day trip, we stopped at many shops in town and toured the University of Vermont. Along the route, stops at Ben & Jerry’s, the Cabot Cheese headquarters, and Dog Mountain (an absolute must for pet lovers!) are all worthwhile.
- Take a Day Trip to the Quechee Gorge (Vermont) – There is a lot to see on this drive! On the way to Quechee, you’ll get the chance to stop in Hanover and visit the beautiful grounds of Dartmouth College. This route also takes you by the King Arthur Flour headquarters. I know, many of you are thinking ‘flour?’ – but trust me, it’s another super stop for anyone who likes to cook or eat! Quechee is also home to another Cabot Shop and Simon Pearce Glassblowers. Another 30 minutes of driving will take you to the Long Trail brewing headquarters. Their riverside deck is a great place to relax with a drink.
Above: King Arthur Flour Company Bakers, Simon Pearce Glassblowers, Sampling at Long Trail, The Dog Chapel, Stonewall Kitchen Store & Cooking School, Nubble Lighthouse; Classic Maine Lobster Roll, Along the Marginal Way, Covered Bridges are everywhere, Profile Plaza recreates an optical illusion of the Old Man of the Mountain; Adam enjoys the children’s exhibits at the Squam Natural Science Center
A Restaurant Recap
- Polly’s Pancake Parlor (Sugar Hill, NH) is celebrating its 75th year of making customized, made-to-order pancakes. They have several batter choices and several add-in choices, so you can mix-and-match to create an endless number of combinations. Their maple-apple chicken sausage is delicious! Don’t forget to pose on Trot-Trot before or after your breakfast!
- Flatbread Company (North Conway, NH) serves handmade, wood-fire cooked pizzas that make heavy use of local, seasonal, organic ingredients. We went there for lunch on the one rainy day of our 2013 trip and loved sitting next to the huge, brick pizza oven. So cozy!
- Lucky Dog (Plymouth, NH) is a reliable college-town pub. They serve endless cheese and a wide variety of bar food – burgers, nachos, wings, etc. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s always good when we go.
- The Common Man (throughout New Hampshire) is a local chain of unique, independently run restaurants. They exist in many styles and iterations all over New Hampshire. We ate at three different restaurants under the Common Man umbrella on our 2013 visit. Italian Farmhouse, Town Docks and The Common Man – Ashland. All three were equally great!
- White Mountain Bagel Company (Lincoln, NH) was a great post-hike stop for sandwiches. Creative combos and everything was very fresh!
- Moat Mountain Smokehouse & Brewery (North Conway, NH) is a favorite stop for craft beer, but they also serve fantastic barbecue! We never miss a stop to eat at Moat when we visit the area.
- The Woodstock Station Restaurant (Woodstock, NH) is another brewery-restaurant combination. We visited early for dinner on a Monday evening, and the place was packed. The service has a reputation for being slow (and it was), but the food and beer was good. They have the biggest gluten-free menu we’ve ever seen, so if you have to avoid wheat and want a large selection, this is a great place to go!
Above: Town Docks by The Common Man has excellent outdoor, lakeside seating, Moat Mountain nachos, Flatbread Company pizza oven, Polly’s pancakes and maple-apple chicken sausage, Woodstock Station Inn
Trails We Covered in the White Mountains
- Mount Cardigan
- Franconia Ridge
- Lonesome Lake
- Mount Washington via Ammonoosuc Ravine
- Mount Moosilauke
This 2.2 mile route is more of a historic stroll than a true hike, but it’s definitely worth doing if you’re in Harpers Ferry and don’t have time for more significant hikes, like Weaverton Cliff, Loudon Heights or Maryland Heights.
We took a trip to Harpers Ferry, WV primarily to meet Jennifer Pharr-Davis, the current record-holder with the fastest time to hike the Appalachian Trail. She was giving a talk at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to promote her new book, Called Again, and talk about her experiences hiking the Appalachian Trail. The center holds archives of all the thru-hikers that have made it to this halfway point and while we waited for her talk to begin, we browsed around the center and looked through the photo archives to find some of our friends that had thru-hiked in years past. We found Jennifer’s talk to be truly inspirational and she took several questions about her experience.
After leaving the center, we decided to take advantage of being in the area and headed to Harpers Ferry National Historic Park. We drove up to the Visitor Center. At the gate, there was a line of cars and one car was taking a long time to get through. While I wasn’t feeling particularly patient either, the car in front of us was shouting for the car ahead to move along. When this car finally got to the gate, they yelled at the park ranger for being too thorough with the other people’s questions. They ended up just turning around since they were too mad to enjoy the park. We felt so bad that the park ranger had to take this abuse. We paid our $10 entry fee and parked near the Visitor Center. We talked to the staff there and asked for an idea for a quick hike. The staff member recommended this hike to us, since she said this had some of the nicest views of the Shenandoah River. We filled up our water bottles and began our hike.
The temperature was scorching this day and we hit the trail in the peak of the afternoon heat. We both talked about how much we hate the heat of the summer. Give me fall or spring hiking days any time over humid, hot summer days.
The trail starts from behind the restrooms of the Visitors Center and across the main road. Be sure to download a trail map here. As soon as you cross the cross the road, the trail bears a sharp left, skirting the tree line. The trail then goes deeper into the woods and begins a descent including a sharp switchback. At about .25 miles, the trail crosses a bridge over the small creek and then begins a short climb uphill. Once you reach the top, the trail opens up to houses on the right and a large field on the left. We took a sharp left, which hugged the tree line down a path that was cut into the tall grass. The shade of the trees gave us a little protection from the sun beating down, but it wasn’t quite enough. At .5 miles, the trail approaches the back of the Murphy-Chambers House. We decided to continue on and see the house on the return trip. We continued along the trail and at .9 miles, we reached the John Brown Fort foundation. John Brown was such an interesting character in American history and I remember writing a paper in college about his activist behavior. You can read more about the timeline of his raid on Harpers Ferry here. A short distance from the foundation, the trail dips into the woods for the view of the Shenandoah River. You get a nice view of the river and we weren’t surprised to see large rafts floating down the river. We continued from this point to take a right at the next junction (rather than continuing on to the earthworks) to head back to the Murphy-Chambers House. The trail follows a rather straight path and there wasn’t any shade to be found from the sun at this point. At 1.2 miles, we reached an area of cannons and learned about how Confederate General A.P. Hill maneuvered his troops to a fortified position on this hill.
From here we continued on the trail which led to a gate keeping an unpaved road from going any further. There is a parking lot here and a path to the right leads to the Murphy-Chambers House. The Union took over this farm in 1862, ousting the Chambers Family. While he tried to claim restitution for his property, there is no evidence that he was ever paid. In 1869, Alexander Murphy re-established the farm.
We continued along the trail on the unpaved road until we reached the junction again that led back into the woods at 1.5 miles. We followed the trail back to the Visitor Center and our car. While the day was incredibly hot, it was nice to get out and stretch our legs and learn a little about the history that shaped this area.
If the weather had been cooler or if we’d had more time, we would have opted to take one of the longer hike options in the area. But after spending Saturday visiting Charlottesville-area wineries (Horton and Barboursville), touring James Madison’s Montpelier and enjoying a huge dinner at the Barbeque Exchange, we got a very late start on Sunday morning. So late, in fact, that we were worried about making it to Jennifer Pharr Davis’ talk in time. The original plan had been to have a leisurely lunch in downtown Harpers Ferry and then make our way to the ATC. As it turned out, we ended up wolfing down Subway in Charles Town and making it to the talk just in time.
Jennifer’s talk was everything I hoped it would be and more! I will never be a tenth of the athlete that she is, but she inspires me to get out there and challenge myself. She loves the Appalachian Trail, and despite all the amazing places she has hiked, the AT is still her favorite. Some people might think that setting a speed record on the trail would preclude appreciating or enjoying the beauty and the experience of nature.
But after hearing her speak and reading Called Again, I believe she found new levels of beauty, love, and personal fulfillment. People hike the trail for a variety of reasons – to see scenery and wildlife, to engage in self-discovery, to challenge oneself physically or to form/deepen personal relationships. Jennifer may have flown across the trail in a mere 46 days, but she still had all the experiences you would expect a person to have along the way. I really enjoyed Jennifer’s first book Becoming Odyssa, but Called Again was even more rewarding. I also added Brew Davis’ book (Jennifer’s husband) to my reading queue. I expect his side of the story to be equally fascinating!
OK… now on to the hike! Adam has already done such a thorough job describing the route and points of interest, that I really don’t have much to add. I will echo his sentiments about the heat. I felt like I was going to melt into a pool of sweat on the trail. The day we were there was the beginning of one of the only really hot weeks we’ve had this summer. It was probably in the low nineties, but it was humid, windless and sunny, so the heat index was 101. I really don’t like to hike when it’s above the mid 80s, so this wasn’t a particularly fun hiking day. Even if there had been more time to explore the area, I don’t think I would have wanted to do a longer hike in this heat.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the views of the river and the historical attractions. If it had been cooler, I would have taken more time to read informational placards. My favorite part of the hike was spotting a fawn grazing in the field. From a distance, I saw a brown hump in the grass. I asked Adam, ‘Is that an animal of some kind?’. He thought it was a rock and headed over to read about the cannon on display. I tiptoed along with my camera and found that the ‘rock’ was actually an adorable spotted fawn. We made eye contact for a brief moment before he flashed his white tail and bounded off into the trees.
We made our way quickly back to the car where I chugged more water and blasted the air conditioning. The outdoor temp thermometer on our car said 107. I know that was mostly from leaving the car sitting in the sun… but still! This short hike in the heat added even more to the anticipation about our upcoming ten day trip north! Our next five posts are going to be out-of-staters! We’ll be taking you to the rugged, exciting, spectacular high peaks of New Hampshire!
- Distance – 2.2 miles
- Elevation Change – negligble
- Difficulty – 1. The trail was not very difficult and only had a little bit of elevation change on the hike.
- Trail Conditions – 4. The trail is well-established and didn’t have very difficult footing. Most of the trail is on grass or gravel.
- Views – 1.5. The views of the Shenandoah River were somewhat obstructed with trees around.
- Streams/Waterfalls – 2. You do get one heightened view of the Shenandoah River from this point.
- Wildlife – 2. I believe we were fairly lucky to see a fawn on the trail. I would expect to see field birds here for any bird-watchers.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. The trails mostly inter-connect here, so you shouldn’t get lost.
- Solitude – 4. My guess is that most people that visit the Visitor Center do not hike up to this area, but you may see some people at the Murphy-Chambers House.
Directions to trailhead: From Charles Town, WV head north for about 4.5 miles. Turn right on Shoreline Drive (about .8 miles past Millville Road). The entrance fee station is just ahead and the large parking area is to the right. Walk up to the Visitor Center and the trail is across the road behind the bathrooms.