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.