Ever since we separately hiked Mount Lafayette – one of New Hampshire’s highest, we had decided to return and enjoy the vastness of the ridge walk together some day.
I can’t say much about Ciara’s hike that late winter morning except for her recollections of high wind gusts during the ascent that neither of our puppy dogs can tolerate (who would want 50mph winds blasting into their ear drums? Poor puppy dogs!)
When I decided to hike along the Franconia Ridge, the weather was fantastic for my drive up and as I traveled north along Interstate 93, the blue skies turned to gusting super-sized flakes of snow and a thick blanket of low-laying gray fog. The ridge was equally windy, if not a bit more from the constant exposure of being 5000+ feet above sea level with a bowl-shaped ridge line all around.
We wanted to come back during better weather and enjoy some time together going peak to peak along the fine ridge, but as we have one dog (Boone) that can be a bit “intolerant” of other dogs invading his personal bubble, and a certain brother (Crockett) who feeds on Boone’s energy and just looks foolish yipping away for the whole forest to see and hear, we knew we would have to defer our mountain-ridge line walk for a quiet weekday, probably during the winter months. Both options sounded completely fine with us, we had heard just how much of a tourist trap the Notch can be – being so easily accessible, and the 6th highest peak in New Hampshire.
Several weeks ago Ciara had mentioned three hikes that we should brainstorm, map out and keep in mind for a quiet day; it was brought back up mid-week as we tried to plan out and check mountain weather for the coming weekend. My initial thought had always been trekking up to Mount Lafayette and then continuing south over Mount Lincoln to the smaller sub-peak of Little Haystack and then descending the Falling Waters Trail, which is the loop that I had completed the prior winter. So you could probably fathom my sheer surprise and excitement when it was suggested (Ciara’s great idea!) that we continue along the ‘Pemi Loop’ and somehow link in Mount’s Liberty and Flume.
Was this hike actually do-able?
I had never heard of this in all my hours of trail reports and topographic map consultations – I had to find out! The first question that rose in my mind was the logistics of parking: the book-end mountains of this style loop have miles of interstate highway travel between them! The first report I could find (thanks to Alltrails.com) was showing that the hiker had parked at the Flume Gorge Visitor Center, which appeared to have tacked on an extra 3 or so miles just to connect up to the main loop.
What came out of this initial planning, however, was that there is a bike-path that is free of auto travel (some snow mobiles in the winter as I recall from my Flume/Liberty hike also during the previous winter). Knowing that this ski/bike path skirted under the interstate was a huge bonus for planning our trip – this opened our plan up to any parking lot/trail head along I93. Now the option was simple: park higher north at the Franconia Notch/Old Bridle Path trail head and walk the 2mi flat path at the end of our day, or use The Basin lot (which is where I parked for my winter hike up the Flume Slide Trail), trek the path in
headlamps and then be much closer to our car at the end of the day, once we descended out.
I had also heard of parking at Lincoln Woods, much further south along the Kancamangus Highway which appeared to smack us onto Mount Flume first – none of this route really made any sense to me, having to hike down between Lafayette and Owls Head? I was not sure, so that idea was quickly scrapped!
We had our parking, but what about the weather?
I had begun checking on Tuesday and the weather surprisingly improved as the weekend drew closer! Winds turned into a trace 5mph all along the ridge, unfortunately the forecast for all-day blue skies diminished to only morning time clarity, with advancing clouds in the afternoon hours – we could easily, and gladly deal with this fact for the opportunity to return to these high summits! The temps were on our side this weekend – hanging around the low 30s all day, and we graciously welcomed the sun which was dancing around cloud cover all day.
We departed our home along the Connecticut River with the sky radiating with bright constellations, not a cloud in the sky that we could see! After my typical breakfast snack of 3 carrots (this usually keeps Boone and Crockett alert yet patiently waiting for their share of a carrot end or two – but they slept hard this morning!) on the hour and a half drive to The Basin parking lot, we were ready to roll! When I arrived around 5:15am in the lot, we were the only car to be found in both the upper and lower lots on this Saturday morning.
Ciara curiously asked if I would be starting out with any foot traction,
I glanced behind my car to the bike path a mere two feet away, it was packed from all the snow mobile travel: I opted for Hillsound spikes for the initial 2-mile trek north to the next parking area where the real trail action would begin (we both secretly hoped the trail would be packed and not actually need snowshoes – but this being January in the White Mountains, they got strapped to our packs!)
Despite the humming of cars and clamoring of tractor trailer jake-brakes nearby on 93, when I glanced off trail into the forest, the trees were neatly frosted with six inches of fluffy white power, completely devoid of paw or boot prints, just pristine glistening snow as far as we could see into the forest. A quick warm up over two miles and we had reached the campground where we would be diving under the highway to begin along the Old Bridle Path trail – a place we had both visited at separate times. We continued happily in our spikes for the initial 1,300 foot ascent to our first morning sights of the surrounding terrain.
The sun was coming up to the south-east, which cast a glow of cotton candy pinks,
streaks of blues and peach hues all around the summit of Cannon Mountain to our west – I secretly wanted the clouds to hold off until we reached the summit of Lafayette, then they could pile up in the sky – I did not think that was asking too much of our friends controlling the weather in the sky!
Our camera lenses bobbed from east to west as we continued along the initial ridge up what the locals call “The OBP”, or as I prefer: The Old Bridle Path (as found on all area maps!). We were following in the fresh prints of large full-crampon spike marks and grippy MSR snowshoe tracks, neither of which we had on at this time – but we both agreed, anything more than our 1/2″ spikes would be completely over-kill on this well packed trail!
In just under 2 hours into our day we stood at the door step of the vacant Greenleaf Hut,
boarded up as several other climbers used its porch to change into wind-proof gear; Ciara had her Marmot synthetically insulated jacket while I had my fleece to break any trace winds going by (I even had the sleeves rolled up, it was a balmy 35 or so degrees this morning!), we both had heavier layers which went along for the ride all day in our packs. We continuously remarked back and forth how lucky we felt to have the mountain almost to ourselves with such low wind and incredible colors lighting the surrounding skies.
We met a couple in matching bright orange jackets (I thought it was to aid in a complete white-out, turns out they were ‘left-overs’ from his days as a triathlon coach!), we talked for a bit and all caught our breath as we encouraged them to proceed ahead of us. Shortly after we encountered the infamous kink in the trail just prior to arriving at Lafayette’s summit; ice: blue ice, white ice, black ice, hoarfrost – you name it, this spot had it all; and then we saw our new friend lose his footing halfway up this sheet of ice and slide about 10 feet until he could grind to a halt with his crampon spiked feet. We tried to ask if he was okay,
– all we could see was the gesturing to his left shoulder and elbow – he had landed directly on it, their day was over and we wished them well.
We scoped out our ascent, opting to clearly avoid this treacherous section (we would go on to hear about this ice sheet wreaking havoc on several other folks throughout our day!) and scoot off to the right, there were no clumps of grass or fragile alpine environment to dodge, so we kicked our toe spikes into the ice, dug in with our poles and with whole bodies engaged, we motored ourselves up and around this rock and ice cornice and made our way back on to the trail.
Within minutes, it seemed we had crested, hooting and hollering that we had made our ascent – first of the day, and the only four up on the peak at that point. Two hours and forty minutes since we departed The Basin lot, we grabbed at our snack of dates, cashews, pumpkin seeds, followed up by a few quick gulps of water –
and of course the boys got their doggie treats – a few well-deserved calories!
By now, I knew that the trail went up and briefly over the summit and hanging to the right before descending (something I was unaware of on my first trek to this area of the wilderness), we quickly wanted to get out of the wind, which was mild but after our quick snack break we were anxious to get rolling and get the blood flowing again! The path along the ridge here is not as narrow as I had originally heard discussed, but so beautiful – the rock lined Appalachian Trail now trail meandering down and hence back up the side of the lesser known peak of Mount Truman – at about 5000′ is incredibly easy to follow as the trail now drops to either side (if you go off the trail to the west, you will surely know it as you plummet into the steep, craggy ravine..).
The views, no matter which summit you are on along this journey are all awe-inspiring and never-ending, 360 degrees non-stop as you hike! We passed several people traversing the opposite direction, but when we topped Mount Lincoln – this is when we could see the crowd gathering over on Little Haystack. We took our photos and prepared to be bombarded by all 20 or so at once, thankfully this did not happen! They dispersed in their groups of 2-4 each and we passed, greeting each with smiles and wishing them a great hike –
we all truly lucked out this January day when we decided to climb a mountain or six!
As we passed over Little Haystack, the boys greeted (with licks, returned with ear scritches) the last of the hikers that we would encounter for several hours. Luckily the couple who was attempting the Winterized Pemi-Loop had graciously broken out (or at least made snowshoe tracks) the trail reaching over to the Liberty Springs Tentsite junction. After the steeper of the descents along this section of the AT, we stopped for a snack which would be known as “lunch and water”, and switched into our snowshoes for the foreseeable future. This move certainly helped us maintain the trail for the future travelers, but also gave Ciara an opportunity to try out her new Tubbs Flex TRK snowshoes – she loved their inaugural break-in. Her first pair of snowshoes with the heel elevator attachment (I had raved about this when I would remember to put it up on my older Tubbs, my Dion snowshoes do not have this awesome feature), turns out she enjoyed those snowshoes very much, thrilled with the amount of grip they offered on powder and packed snow alike!
We met a fellow with an incredible celtic accent, descending Liberty as we merged onto the main trail to make the climb, asked about what lay ahead of us, he confirmed that the trail was indeed packed – but continuing over to Flume, the trail was “narrow and interesting – if that is your type of fun” – he said with a passing laugh. Left me scratching my head in anticipation of what the heck he could be hinting at..
Avoiding the summit of Liberty, we cruised on a spur trail and found a spot to switch back into our spikes.
At just under 10 miles for the day, we were quickly descending Liberty (Ciara on her bum, me running and sliding on my feet) and trying to safely pass the groups making their trek back from Mount Flume – with the stiff evergreen branches hugging the trail, it was a task to fit two hikers side by side through here, generally guaranteeing that whoever pulled over to let the oncoming traffic pass, would post hole to their thighs.
Our legs were beginning to feel the preceding 5000ft of elevation gain at this point as we trudged on, ascending the final half mile to the summit of Flume. Once at the peak, the boys were greeted by 8 or so hikers with elegant French accents all standing around eating a bag of candy and chocolate bar (I’m not sure what the pups wanted more – pets or treats!), we looked around, took in the views and confirmed that we were not going to attempt descending the Flume Slide under these conditions, so after a mere minute or two and some photos, we began our final trek out.
What took the better part of an hour to ascent, was behind us in a matter of minutes –
cruising with spirits high back over to our final climb of the day – we were all amped up to stand on Liberty and take in our final views of the day, reflecting on the previous 12 miles and all the good times we had up to that point! I even found my first USGS marker of the day atop Mount Liberty, Ciara talked with some enthusiastic folks about dogs and dog hiking gear.
As the sun began to fall low in the sky and reflect in the surrounding clouds with hues of peach and fiery reds, we wished them well and departed the summit. I remembered from my first descent of the Liberty Springs Trail, how badly I wanted to bring Ciara here, with her love of butt-sliding and gaining incredible speed racing down the trails – I knew this near-constant declination was just what she needed! I was out front – trail running with spikes as she and the boys gained on me with every dip in the trail. Unfortunately at this point in the day – and with the decreasing elevation perhaps, the snow was not dissimilar to walking through dried out mashed potatoes, occasionally balling up and making me fearful that with one misplaced step, I’d roll an ankle (thankfully never did though!!).
We ended up easily finding the bushwhack, cutting off about three-quarters of a mile on the trek out; following the sound of the highway, we both remarked how we could kiss the bike path, knowing it was generally a quick, flat hike out. I ditched my spikes and in a matter of minutes we were at the car, dogs both curled up in the back,
Ciara and I shovelling both green and red grapes into our mouths – one of our favorite ways to rehydrate!
We arrived back at my Subaru just as the sun dipped behind the surrounding mountains and the sky was now lit up with shades of burgundy and the deepest, warmest oranges. We both agree that this was one of the best days in the mountains that we have had in a long, long time. A most satisfying accomplishment!!
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Cheers and happy trails!!
Overall stats for the day:
Tracked with my Coros Pace GPS watch
- 15.1 miles
- 10hr 18minutes
- 5994′ elevation gain
- Mount Lafayette – 5240′
- Mount Truman – 5000′
- Mount Lincoln – 5089′
- Mount Little Haystack – 4760′
- Mount Liberty – 4459′
- Mount Flume – 4328′