A classic hike in New England, I finally crossed the Franconia Ridge Trail off my hiking bucket list with Nichole! We were blessed with a beautiful day, albeit a wee bit windy, and minimal people encountered. With 9 miles and ~4K of elevation gain, this is a challenging hike requiring some effort, but well worth the reward for bagging TWO more of the New Hampshire 48–Mount Lincoln and Mount Lafayette!
Date Hiked: May 2022
Distance: 9.3 miles (round trip)
Elevation Gain: 3,890 feet
Highest Elevation: Mount Lincoln summit (5089 feet) and Mount Lafayette summit (5249 feet)
Route: Counterclockwise loop from Falling Waters trail > Mt. Lincoln > Franconia Ridge Trail > Mt. Lafayette > descend via Greenleaf Trail > finish via Old Bridal Path
Parking/TH: Lafayette Place East Parking Lot/Franconia Notch parking lot to start at Old Bridal Path TH
Drive from Boston: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Weather/Conditions: Pretty hot and felt like summer! Lots of open sun areas, could have put sunscreen on my hands hah.
Highlights: An extremely popular hike in New England, this hike has incredible views! I liked hiking from Lincoln to Lafayette as the ridge walk between the two was beautiful.
I love doing my hiking research and getting little sneak peaks of a trail, but I mostly focus on the terrain I’ll be hiking in. I’ll study guide books and maps of the area to make sure I know which direction we’ll be traveling in and, of course, always bring a map & compass with me! I did minimal research for this trail because I wanted to be surprised by the views. I’ve heard how spectacular the views are on the Franconia Ridge trail and didn’t want to hype it too much because I know plenty of folks who hiked to these summits with no views.
The Falling Waters Trail starts at the Lafayette Place parking lots and climbs to the Franconia Ridge trail at the summit of Little Haystack Mountain. Knowing how popular this hike is, Nichole and I opted to arrive at the trailhead early. This meant leaving Boston at a pre-sunset time of 4:30am to start hiking by 6:30am! Once the parking lot fills, there is NO PARKING allowed on the highway, so you have to get a spot in the parking lot to hike this trail! Nothing like an alpine start, love it.
From the parking lot, Falling Waters begins on a combined path with Old Bridle Path. I was pleasantly surprised by the abundance of waterfalls on this trail. I guess I could have assumed the “Falling Waters Trail” was aptly named, but it was truly a gift from nature. Only a quarter mile into the hike, we crossed Walter Brook on a bridge, then crossed Dry Brook at 0.7 miles. The number of crossings were a-plenty (we counted more than 5) and trekking poles lended from other hikers were game-changers! I left my trekking poles in the car regrettably and Nichole didn’t have ’em, so we were trusting our feet the whole time… barely getting our boots and socks wet at all (WIN).
Following the south bank of Dry Brook, we got to Stairs Falls — a cascade I could have sat beside all day! Next, we hit Swiftwater Falls… then Cloudland Falls (80 feet high) at 1.3 miles. We reached the top of the falls via a little scramble and were afforded view toward Mount Moosilauke. At the head of Cloudland Falls, there are two smaller cascades facing each other, each about 25 feet tall. To the south is a branch of Dry Brook from Little Haystack, and the other is from Mount Lincoln. We followed the Mount Lincoln branch, crossing to the south bank across slippery ledges, then crossed again to the north side. At 1.6 miles, guess what?! You cross Dry brook AGAIN to get back onto the south bank. At the south end of Dry Brook, we ascended the ridge via a series of the rarely-seen switchbacks. This portion of the trail was essentially a game of leap-frog or real-life mountain Frogger (click for Windows 97 nostalgia).
At 2.8 miles, the joy of switchbacks comes to an end at the northeast corner of Shining Rock, which glimmers in the sun like a mirror due to its slippery surface. While Shining Rock is not climbable without proper rock climbing gear, it is a mere feast for the eyes up close or can be seen from across the ridge. Here, the trail continues north and then turns right towards the summit of Little Haystack Mountain. Unfortunately, this 4,760-foot peak does not meet the 200-foot prominence criteria to be on the NH48 list, but it’s still a sweet little summit.
After Little Haystack, we turned left to hike 0.7 miles to the summit of Mount Lincoln (5,089 feet) along the Franconia Ridge Trail/Appalachian Trail. The white blazes led our way for an additional 0.9 miles along the beautiful ridge towards Mount Lafayette (5,260 feet)–our final summit of the day with 360-degree views of Mount Washington and the Presidential Range.
We met many people along the way and chatted with an older couple who are planning to hike the Appalachian Trail in 2023! They joined our “What state would you live in on the west coast” conversation, adding their own stories from Wyoming and trails traveled. Mountain conversations are simply the best.
Descending Mount Lafayette via the Greenleaf Trail was beautiful with a lot of greenery and brushes. At 1.1 miles from the summit, we reached AMC’s Greenleaf Hut, which is a great place to refill on water, buy some snacks, and/or use the bathroom facilities for fair-weather poopers (be forewarned the hut is closed in winter). From the hut, we traveled along Old Bridal Path for an additional 3.1 miles to the parking lot where our day began.
I do not think the Mountain Gods could have painted a more pristine day for our day. The temperature and weather were picture-perfect and we embraced all the connection, freedom, and joy the mountains bring. While I definitely recommend this trail to get a taste of the White Mountains in New Hampshire, it is difficult and taxing! Be sure you’re prepared with the proper layers, hydration, nutrition, and knowledge/skills to go on this hike.
WARNING: The Franconia Ridge trail above the tree-line between Little Haystack and Lafayette does not have coverage and can be very dangerous in lightning, so it’s best to avoid this portion of the trail during possible thunderstorms.
Trail alternatives: Climb Mt. Lafayette via Skookumchuck and Garfield Ridge trails, including a traverse of the mountain’s open north ridge. You can also do this trail in reverse, though descending via Falling Waters Trail is generally not preferred or recommended as it’s steep and can be slippery.