Today we've got one of my so-called "redux" hike outings - a re-attempt of something that didn't go so well the first time (or second, or third, as the case may be) around. In this case, that original outing was a winter attempt with my friend and work colleague Chris Hatko, on one of the best hikes in the northeast: a traverse of the best part of Franconia Ridge in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Back then, conditions had been rather icy, and a lost nut while configuring crampons saw us having to turn back partway along the beautiful, exposed ridgeline. I called that outing "Nut-less on Franconia Ridge
". It made for a nice title, but it left Chris wanting -- for another, more successful attempt.
Lafayette Campground Parking
Chris and I had been talking about a redo of this hike for a few years now, and today's outing ended up being a very last-minute decision. The day before, I noticed that the weather forecast for the western White Mountains was looking pretty good. Nice, clear, calm conditions for most of the day, and -- apart from a cold morning -- mid-day temperatures were pretty reasonable for mid-February. I was still feeling burnt by the solid two months of cloudy weekends we'd had earlier this winter, so I really wanted to make this hike happen. We made a few inquiries around for possible other joiners, but in the end, it was just myself along with Chris and his wife, Gillian.
The western White Mountains is pretty much at the limit of what one can manage as a reasonable drive-and-back in a day from Ottawa, as it is a near-five hour drive each way. We arrived at the Lafayette Campground trailhead around 9:30 a.m., with brilliant blue skies and pristine white snow on the peaks on either side of Franconia Notch.
As I alluded to above, Franconia Notch is one of the premiere hikes in the eastern half of the U.S. It is a prominent north-south ridgeline that connects several 4000-footer White Mountain peaks on the eastern side of Franconia Notch. A particularly great section of ridgeline, higher, narrower, and entirely above treeline, is the real gem of the ridge, and was the part we wanted to do on this hike. Like my last attempt of this route with Chris, we were going to do this as a loop, heading up one way, hiking north along the ridgeline for a while, and coming back down a different way.
With all of our winter gear properly in place (layers of clothes, head and face and hand protection, crampons, microspikes, axes, snowshoes), we headed off along the pedestrian underpass to get to the Old Bridal Path trailhead, which will give us access to both the ascent and descent routes for our intended loop itinerary.
Although sunny and still, it was very cold this morning - about -23C (-10F). Normally this would be of concern, since that would foretell an even colder temperature along the very exposed and often windy open Franconia Ridgeline, but I had looked closely at the hourly forecast and determined that the temperature was slated to rise sharply over the course of the day, such that by the time we got to treeline, things should be at least 10 to 15 degrees warmer.
We chose to leave the snowshoes off to see what it felt like to hike along the clearly beaten out track of the Old Bridal Path. We could tell that most people had chosen to bareboot the track, although it was of a consistency that you always felt like it would be nice to have a touch more firmness. Within a few minutes we arrived at the Old Bridal Path / Falling Waters trail junction, and we decided that it might be nice to continue on in snowshoes (so we donned them).
It was a wonderfully beautiful morning in the low-altitude deciduous forest here. Still and crisp and with a nice blanket of fresh, white snow. I was trying to balance the frigid morning temperatures with body heat from the uphill hiking, looking to get to that point where I'm not quite sweating but also not cold. So far, so good.
We were all in good spirits, invigorated by the beautiful morning and the anticipation of the superb scenery that we knew awaited us above. The going was easy here, as the trail rose slightly, then traversed along on the level and then slightly downhill into the drainage of Dry Brook. Here, the trail turned uphill and started to follow Dry Brook.
The track, now steeper, headed up alongside the snowed-in and frozen creekbed. We began to encounter steep steps as we arrived at the short waterfalls that give this trail its "Falling Waters" label. With the heavy snows and cold temps of mid-winter, the waterfalls were mostly (but not completely) frozen over. We were glad we had put the snowshoes on for these sections, as the increased traction and heel lifters allowed us to make short and easy work of the steep parts.
Following the track up Dry Brook was fun: it winds up and around and back and forth, choosing the path of least resistance as it gains elevation. In places small open patches are encountered, giving us a brilliant splash of warm sun and a glimpse of a view, and in other places it led under the shady overhanging crags of low cliffs. We stopped shortly before 11 a.m. for a short snack break in one of those open sunny areas. In the sheltered confines of the brook, this open spot felt genuinely warm.
As nice as the pleasant wandering up Dry Brook was, we needed to start making better progress (elevation-wise), for there was still a lot of elevation to gain. The Falling Waters trail tops out at the summit of Little Haystack Mountain, and to achieve that goal, it abruptly turned right and began traversing more steeply, angling up and across a rounded shoulder of the mountain. The trees were mostly thin and coniferous along this stretch.
With the steeper, more continuous climbing, we initiated the patented "Quarter-K" break system, stopping for brief pauses every 250-feet of elevation gain. We continued thusly, following the mildly-switchbacking trail. We made slow but steady progress, all the way up to the 4500-foot level, where the tree heights started to diminish. The tips of trees here had bulbous cauliflower-like growths of snow on them, something I like to call "popcorn snow".
It's well after noon by the time we near the treeline, just below the summit of Little Haystack Mountain. Excellent views begin to appear to the west, back to the Franconia Notch area, towards Cannon Mountain and its huge slabby cliff face. The clear and cold winter day accentuates the view tremendously - everything is white and crisp and clear, with a deep cobalt-blue sky above.
The White Mountains have a well-deserved reputation for harsh weather and high winds, and I was thinking, as we approached tree-line, that we should stop and add a few layers before we walked out into the open. Indeed, there were already hints down here in the sub-alpine that there would be at least a bit of wind. And although it had indeed warmed up a fair bit from our low of -23C (-10F), it was still well below freezing. It's much more comfortable to put on your extra clothes in relative calmness than to be forced to do it in the blowing and cold wind in the open.