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.
What beautiful photos (for the most part)! 🙂 This kind of makes me want to get in to hiking. Nah, nevermind. I enjoyed my nap today.
Great description. I wanted to go before reading it, now I REALLY want to go. Need to find a babysitter and free time. D’oh!
Enjoyed your writeup! Just did this loop in the other direction, and now I think I know why *everyone* seems to prefer to ascend Falling Waters – coming down was an unrelenting exercise in not tripping off one sharp piece of granite and taking a header 10 feet down onto another one. I have run down Old Bridal Path, but it was a lot harder to maintain momentum safely down Falling Waters…
Am in the area for the week and this hike was suggested to me as a good ambitious one to do where I could start and end at my car! I was thinking that it would be better to do ‘not alone’, and was wondering if there is a place to find one or two others to go with on Friday (weather looks promising). Is there such a thing?? lol…thanks for whatever you can share.
Hoping not to leave NH without trying this 🙂
Just did this loop this past weekend. Looks like you had some awesome weather on your hike! I was not that lucky. haha. Great page!
Great review! Many thanks for realistic advices! We arrived to the parking lot at 12:50 p.m. (slightly after noon you’d say?) and decided to do only half of the loop (stopping at mount Lincoln). We barely made it – took us 6:25 for easier part of the loop I’d say. Great advice not to start full loop after noon.
Great journal. Did the hike the opposite way about 13 years ago, and I will be doing it this way, in a few weeks. Not sure how kind it will be on my aging body, but as my Uncle red would say, “Let it Rip.”
Hiked up the Bridle path on Sept 11th…. initial plan was to do the whole deal.. Franconia Ridge. It started raining. It started pouring. Hooked up with a great guy fromOhio and we made it to Greenleaf, full of hikers trying to dry off. The lightning when we were fully exposed to the ledges was nerve racking. I stayed at the hut for an hour and the weather finally settled. Wasn’t crazy enough to attempt the ridge with 60 mile and hour winds. Came back down Bridle path and the sun came out. Excellent views. One quarter of the way down an emergency helicopter went over my head. I hope it wasn’t my buddy! Will come back to attempt the whole Franconia Ridge, but will make sure the weather is my friend.
Great write up and spot on comments about the Falling Waters Trail. I have read too many accident reports about FW trail claiming victims slipping on those rocks. I did this trail a year ago and was amazed at how the mist reached so far onto the trail making those ledges very slippery.
I want to hike up Bridal as far as Walkers Ravine. I heard it’s 1.9 miles. How will I know when I am there? Is it the first view point? I will then turn around and go back down. I don’t want to get ALMOST THERE then turn around too soon. Any ideas from you experienced hikers?
Thanks…….and happy trails!!
Hiked this with my now husband back in 2003 and what a debacle! I wish we had this great article back then…we hiked up Falling Waters and we were supposed to take Old Bridle down but…
This hike was the biggest learning lesson of my hiking life so far. Preparation. We intended for it to be a day hike but started out way too late in the day. We had no idea what the trail looked like and I left all the planning up to him so I didn’t study the length, elevation climb, etc.
Long story short, we ended up at the top of Little Haystack as the sun was going down. I hadn’t eaten or drank enough and my body started letting me know how upset it was. We missed our turn off for Old Bridle and it was so dark, we had no lights, so we just started cruising down the side of the mountain until it was too dark to go further. Pulled up a rock and waited for the sun to rise.
AWFUL night but BUT, knowing what I know now…I would like to return and do it right. Great information here, thank you! 🙂
Not an experienced hiker? Do you “think” you are…Please take the time to read my review. Our family is active and loves adventure especially a great hike. We wanted to really challenge ourselves so tried hiking the whole loop starting with waterfalls. After reading everything we could find online we were aware the hike took most around 8 hrs. We left at 8:15am planning on a 10 hr hike recognizing we would be slower than most. The climb up the waterfalls although amazing meant crossing water several times. Not wanting to fall I took off shoes and socks. (We did bring dry socks but not shoes). The way up was difficult for me at 42 with 40 lbs of extra weight. Knowing what I can handle in the gym (Crossfit) I knew I had the strength and could get through the cardio. What I didn’t anticipate was the constant drops from peak to peak and down the mountain. Having severed several ligaments in right knee and functioning bone on bone at this point with metal holding everything together it was a killer for me. Every drop I held my daughters shoulder (16) to ease the impact. Walking sticks were recommended repeatedly. No doubt my family (husband 12,16,and 18 year old) could have done the hike better without me. Great news is I finished and mentally that feels incredible. Bad news is it took 13.5 hours without a stop longer than 20 min. If you did the math we finished the hike in pitch dark. Thanks to the couple that was aware of our pace and gave us a flashlight. Our son (18) was back at the locked car hours before us. They stayed with him,gave him food,and called us several times to check on our progress. The trail is every bit as amazing as others have said but due to a knee injury I had no business up there. Our success had a lot to do with tons of hydration several days leading up to our hike. I drank 120 ounces while hiking. Hope my honest review helps someone make a safe decision preventing a hard day. Go hike…just pick the right trail for your body and enjoy God revealing himself through creation.
Thanks, Tamara, for sharing! I’m sure there are a lot of people who can learn from your experience.
My son and I have been thinking of doing this hike.(age 15 & 57) We do day hikes, Mount Moosilauke,Black Mountain,Blueberry,Mount Cube and Camels Hump in Vermont.This would be the most challenging,and if we do it I plan on being at the trail head at daybreak.Also leaving the 9 1/2 year old large breed dog at home, Mount Cube at 6 miles was a push to her limits. Thanks for all the info!
Thanks for the write up here. Lived in NH all my life and finally got this done with my wife and three kids. It was great but tough. Took us 6.5 hours including a nice visit to the hut. My 11 year old was really impressed with the ridge. Can’t beat it!
Awesome, well done!
Did the Falling Waters Trail today with my husband and then read this information tonight while laying around nursing sore knees. We are visiting Vermont’s NEK and it was recommended we take a moderate trail nearby. Had no clue about Falling Waters trail. It was a Beautiful day. We had no food or water with us. We had on hiking boots and were dressed warmly. I had a hiking stick (thank God). At about a half mile from the top we met up with someone that told us we had to come back down the same way we came up. That’s when I started to cry and my husband realized I was dehydrated. The kind girl we met gave me some of her water to sip and some nuts. My husband didn’t drink anything. So almost to the top we headed back down. I was scared as heck but my husband stayed close. The wet rocks covered with leaves because it is autumn made it really dangerous. Here’s why we were nuts. I am 64 and my husband is 69. We are av id bikers but like to hike on occassion. I broke my kneecap in June and then fell on the same knee last week. Xray showed I didn’t rebreak it. Whew. Falling Water trail kicked my butt today but I did it. Take water and food and hiking poles or sticks. My husband has a hip replacement,a knee replacement, a rod where his thigh bone should be and 13 screws. Oh and a bad back. He isn’t complaining at all. Crazy right? So be wise and be prepared. Be safe but by all means hike this trail if you are in good shape. …….can’t get rid of these last few leftover words. Delete not working…. 47 Godz) bebeautiful day
Great writing! Really enjoyed reading probably because I’ve shared some of those same moments (trail runners and elite peak baggers who have to refuse your offer of a snack or their attempt doesn’t count..). Keep writing!