8.8 miles round trip
Difficulty: Pack the Aleve
Good for: hiking enthusiasts, weekend warriors, psychotic trail runners, Goldendoodles
Recommended Gear: Hiking Boots or Trail Runners; Trekking Poles
This is one kick-ass hike (Mom, I’m sorry for swearing on the Internet). The complete loop of Mt. Lafayette and Mt. Lincoln encompasses the Falling Waters, Franconia Ridge, Greenleaf, and Old Bridle Path trails. Halfway up I was already ranking it amongst my personal favorites. Not quite Katahdin level, but close.
The Mt. Lafayette loop hike is rated as difficult and for good reason. The trails in the loop earn their grade through relentlessly steep and rugged terrain covering exposed tree roots, rock staircases, boulders, and loose gravel.
It’s not a hike I’d do with Jr. in the pack, at least not without installing a roll bar on the Kelty and outfitting the little guy with a helmet and elbow pads. Then again, we did see a woman with a baby carrier. I also wouldn’t recommend it for children under twelve, but we also saw several ten(ish) year olds on the summit, and they appeared to be holding their own. The key here is to know your limits.
The Falling Waters and Old Bridle Path trails split 0.2 miles from the trailhead parking lot on the northbound side of I-93. If you’re doing the full Lafayette loop, the Falling Waters Trail is generally considered to be more difficult, albeit marginally, and thus is the better trail to ascend. The difference maker is the close proximity to Dry Brook on the Falling Waters Trail and the likelihood of slippery-when-wet terrain. So if you’re going to break a leg or get a concussion, do it going uphill. Much better that way.
All that being said, the Moon New England Hiking guide by Jacqueline Tourville recommends ascending the Old Bridle Path Trail on days with high winds as this will likely put the winds at your back on Franconia Ridge. In truly inclement weather, consider hiking the front step of the Woodstock Inn and Brewery instead. Do that step several thousand times and it’s basically the same.
The Falling Waters Trail begins by crossing Walker Brook via a footbridge and soon parallels Dry Brook. You’ll have to cross Dry Brook several times, sans bridge, boardwalk, zip line or pogo stick, which can likely get tricky during times when there has been significant rainfall. On the plus side the brook delivers an abundance of natural beauty through a succession of waterfalls and cascades—highlighted by the 80-foot Cloudland Falls—that can easily distract your mind from the grueling trail and put an extra pep in your step. The mist off the falls is welcomed when it’s hot out but should be planned for on cool days.
The trail eventually turns away from the brook and offers a brief climbing reprieve with a flat stretch through dense evergreen and birch cover. Emphasis on brief as the trail is soon back to taunting your hamstrings and insulting your quads. As you near the alpine zone there is a .2-mile spur trail to the Shining Rock viewpoint. I can’t comment on the scenery here as our thirst for the summit led us to skip this side path. Sorry.
It’s 3.2 miles and about two and a half hours hiking time from the parking lot to the summit of Little Haystack Mountain (elevation 4761). Here you’ll connect onto the Franconia Ridge Trail, which is also the Appalachian Trail. If the weather makes a turn for the worse, it’s best to turn back here. You don’t want to be exposed on the ridge in a storm.
In fair weather, assuming you’ve brought enough water (I drank roughly 70 ounces on the trip), trail runners pose the biggest threat. There’s something inherently out of place with anyone who willingly runs up a 5,000+ -foot mountain, and I encourage you to exercise caution around these individuals, especially if they’re foaming at the mouth. The mere sight of them can instantly dissolve your self-esteem.
From the summit of Little Haystack, Mt. Lincoln (elevation 5,089) looms 0.7 miles to the north, and though you won’t be able to see it at this point, Mt. Lafayette (elevation 5,261) is 0.9 further. The alpine region between these three peaks isn’t to be underestimated; the rocky ridge line is unyielding with periods of short but steep climbs. No great hike comes easy and the 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains and beyond is well worth the calories burned.
To descend Mt. Lafayette, take the Greenleaf Trail down a succession of rock staircases, past Eagle Lakes, and up a short climb for a total of 1.1 miles to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Greenleaf Hut. If the weather makes a turn for the worse, this is the best refuge. The hut’s cheerful and hospitable staff maintains a modest café, there are bathrooms, and coed bunkrooms are available for overnight stays (reservations and fees required).
Take the Old Bridle Path from the Greenleaf Hut down the remaining 2.9 miles to the parking lot. The descent is grueling in its own right, but there are numerous scenic viewpoints along the way to take a break and admire Franconia Ridge and Walker Ravine. Happy trails.
Note to spur-of-the-moment hikers: this is about as serious of a day hike as you can find in the Northeast. If the weather report isn’t favorable, stay home. Always pack rain gear, even when the forecast calls for wall-to-wall sunshine. If you don’t think you can get hypothermia in the summer, you’re wrong. And bring water—lots of it—at least two Nalgene bottles per person. Get started as early as possible, and unless you are going to be camping out in one of the designated sites, don’t start any later than noon.
If you enjoyed this post, check out winter hiking the Mt. Lafayette loop.
Take I-93 in New Hampshire to Franconia Notch. Northbound traffic can park in the trailhead lot for the Falling Waters and Old Bridle Path trails. Southbound traffic should exit at Lafayette Place Campground (there’s a walking path and tunnel that goes under I-93 to where the trail can be accessed). The parking lots fill up quickly so it’s best to arrive early.