It was nine degrees in the Lafayette Place parking lot and the car was getting blasted by wind. At a little past seven on a February morning, I had a good mind to retreat home to the warmth of my down comforter. Fortunately, common sense was in short supply.
In warmer months the Mt. Lafayette loop, an 8.8 mile round trek, is quite possibly the most popular hike in New England. In addition to 5,261-foot Mt. Lafayette, the route also encompasses 5,089-foot Mt. Lincoln and 4,761-foot Little Haystack Mountain via the Falling Waters, Franconia Ridge, Greenleaf and Old Bridle Path trails. The winter season also draws a good amount of foot traffic; however, it’s worth noting that with a significant portion of the loop above treeline and fully exposed to the elements, this isn’t a hike for the inexperienced. Or for that matter, the underdressed.
While most of New Hampshire suffered from snow anemia this winter, Franconia Notch appeared to be hoarding. Not convinced by the meaty snowbanks in the parking lot, I left my snowshoes in the car. This was a mistake. The trail was well packed for a good portion of the journey, but in the higher elevation the wind drifts were aplenty. The irony here being that I’d previously carried the snowshoes on my back hiking Mt. Adams and Mt. Washington this winter. Go figure.
Given the strong winds, I decided to ascend Mt. Lafayette via the Old Bridle Path in the hope this would put the gusts at my back on Franconia Ridge. In this regard, I chose wisely. Fortunately the air temperature rose into the mid twenties as the morning wore on; however, the winds didn’t subside. Quite the opposite, in fact. At one point the insulated tube from my Camelbak froze solid, threatening a premature end to the hike. This problem was solved by stuffing the reservoir into my shirt instead of running it from the pack.
A strong sideways wind made for a brutal trek from the Greenleaf Hut to the Lafayette summit. When I reached the top, a couple of hikers from Vermont that I’d met outside the hut were waiting for me to take the 1.6-mile jaunt across Franconia Ridge with them. With the heavy winds nearly knocking me off my feet in places, even with crampons on, I was grateful for this courtesy. When I thanked them, one of them shrugged it off and said, “If you fall up here, it’s not like we could do anything for you.” True, but at least someone would have known.
What really surprised me were the people we saw on the ridge who weren’t prepared. This isn’t exactly a spur-of-the-moment hike, and yet a couple of hikers were wearing jeans. They didn’t have any protection for their beat-red faces, either, and they were hiking into the wind. Hopefully they didn’t get frost bite, but I’d be shocked if this were the case. By comparison, they must have thought I was dressed for a moon landing.
A truly spectacular hike in all seasons, the one downfall to the Lafayette loop in the winter is the elements are often too harsh to really enjoy the landscape. It also didn’t help that my goggles kept freezing. What little I did see, though, was worth the effort. The hike down was a bonus reward. Once back under treeline the crampons came off and I had a blast boot-skiing the Falling Waters Trail.
The view of Cannon Mountain from the Old Bridle Path on Mt. Lafayette.
A cloud sweeps over the summit of Mt. Lafayette. In the foreground the Greenleaf Hut is boarded up for the winter.
Perfect timing. The cloud cover was clearing out just as I was starting the hike from the Greenleaf Hut to the Lafayette summit.
The final approach to the summit of Mt. Lafayette.
A quick photo opp on the summit of Mt. Lafayette, elevation 5,261 feet. Emphasis on quick. If I look fatter than normal, it’s the Camelbak stuffed under my shirt. Some of it, anyway. Mt. Washington is visible in the background.
There was more snow on the Franconia Ridge Trail than I expected. The view here is of Mt. Lafayette as seen from Mt. Lincoln.
Hikers on the Franconia Ridge Trail between Mt. Lincoln and Little Haystack Mountain. The trail continues on to Mt. Liberty and Mt. Flume in the background.
Great write up, thanks for sharing. Are you carrying an SLR on these adventures?
No, just a simple point and shoot. Too nervous I’d bust an SLR. Thanks for perusing the site!
Im going on this hike the first weekend in August and was trying to make it a weekend one and do some camping can I camp anywhere up there I mean as long as im a 1/4 mile off the trail?
Corey, the Forest Service monitors the ridge trail and strongly encourages people to stay on trail to protect the alpine vegetation. Given the high volume of hikers/backpackers that this area gets, this is most definitely for the best. There are designated camp sites on Mt. Garfield and Mt. Liberty that you probably want to plan/shoot for. Lafayette is almost all open above the Greenleaf Hut, rocky and exposed to the elements, so this mountain isn’t really conducive to stealth camping.
Thank you very much that was helpful
Thanks for the detailed write-up, it got me really excited for my own winter adventures this summer. I plan on doing Mt. Lafayette and a few other small New England Peaks this winter. Will be my first “mountaineering”/”snow climbing”, so I was wondering if I could run a few questions by you? Stuff like what gear and clothing you recommend? Do I need an alpine back or will a 20L BD Hollowpoint be fine? Do I NEED snowshoes, or will crampons suffice? And then clothing is the big one for me.. Any advice would be really appreciated…
Thank you, this was super helpful. This was all very helpful info that would have taken me a dozen forums to compile. Only follow up question I have is if you could recommend any entry-level hikes before trying to tackle Lafayette? I’m looking to hike up some summits in the Northeast, but like you said I might want some hikes a little easier than Lafayette…