Being a Seattle transplant in New York City means that hikes, particularly those with memorable ascents and rewarding panoramas, figure only rarely into my weekend schedule. But after chatting up some Northeast natives, plus a conversation with a hiking hound at the local REI, my husband and I were off planning a memorable three-day adventure in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
These sometimes overlooked White Mountains (Northeasterners often get away to Vermont instead) are rocky, challenging, and simply gorgeous. Moreover, for less experienced hikers, the range is incredibly organized, with campgrounds and the amazing hut system of the Appalachian Mountain Club. Eight mountain huts are situated so that hikers need not descend, but can overnight in bunks and awake to a splendidly hot breakfast, stock up on fresh potable water, and finish the day with dinner served promptly at 6 pm.
Depending on your drive to the White Mountains, a great stop before entering Franconia Notch is the quaint town of Franconia just 10-15 minutes away. Snag a sandwich at Wendle's Deli like the "Robert Frost" with chicken, bacon, alfalfa sprouts, cheddar, and a dollop of New Hampshire maple syrup. Have an hour or so to spare? The Dutch Treat Bar & Grill has crisp and delicious salads like the Cajun Chicken, which went down nicely with a tart Arnold Palmer.
Entering the Notch: Considering it was our first time, we opted for a reasonable two-night itinerary between the Lonesome Lake and Greenleaf huts, which are situated at one end of the AMC chain and face each other across Franconia Notch. Lonesome Lake is the easiest to reach—a great way to get our city legs used to the outdoors—with a 1.75 mile hike from the trailhead. The easy ascent, just less than 1,000 ft elevation gain, is ideal for novices and kids, while the lake itself is stunning and serene. From there, take a walk around the lake before dinner time. Or take a quick dip in the refreshing waters. Be forewarned that some say there are leeches in the lake. We stayed away from marshy edges and didn't see any.
Insider Tip: Be sure to check trail conditions in advance. We parked in the Lafayette Campground parking lot because a bridge along the more scenic Cascades trail was washed out.
Lonesome Lake Hut: This is one of the few huts that stay open year-round. In early fall, the setting was lovely with a lofty view of the lake and some trees just changing their leaves. Plus, hot and delicious meals were served morning and night. (Come winter that service shuts down.) When you consider the limited electricity and services (be prepared for an outhouse), its incredible that our dinner consisted of homemade oat bread, ginger chicken, and fresh, local salad.
The Big Day: A breakfast of oatmeal and pancakes fueled us for the descent back down the 1.75 mile trail. Then we made a stop by our car to pick up water, a couple protein bars, and beef jerky. From there, it was across the notch and up the Falling Waters trail. The trail, which featured 3 waterfalls across an elevation gain of 3,850, was dazzling in its natural beauty, but it was also tricky and difficult, with a steep last third that included rugged terrain, handholds, and slippery red rock (stick to the white rock which offers considerably more grip).
The reward? The summit of Little Haystack perched on the Franconia Ridge, just above the tree line. On a clear day the dreamy view stretches for miles. We stopped to snack on beef jerky, and felt slightly envious of day-trippers who'd brought fresh sandwiches. From there, we followed the Ridge to the summit of Mount Lafayette (about an hour with a few ups and downs). We took in the fresh mountain air before descending down the Old Bridle trail towards the Greenleaf hut situated at about 4,200 ft. Be sure to plan a full day for the 5.9 mile route, as we were warned by friendly hikers at the Lonesome Lake hut. The ascent really eats away at the daylight hours.
Sore and weary, we settled in for a hot bowl of potato soup and vegan brownies made fresh at the Greenleaf hut. Then came dinner, which was (amazingly) a whole roast turkey! The crew (mostly twenty-somethings fresh from college) bring the food up and the trash down the mountain on their backs. We finished the night with an astronomy lesson by the hut's resident nature expert—no lights mean endless stars.
We woke up to clouds and rainy conditions. Not exactly our preference, but it was not a miserable downpour either. Before heading back down, we feasted on oatmeal and frittata before preparing for our descent down Old Bridle Path with expansive open views into the Notch. We had garbage bags ready to slip over our packs if necessary but after descending about 1,000 ft., the sunshine peeked through the clouds while lighting up the residual mist. The scene was magical.
The AMC has a packing list that was quite helpful (and includes some must-haves like a trail map, compass, extra socks, and first aid kit), but some of the items we found particularly useful are highlighted below:
Supportive hiking shoes: Having trekked many trails around the world in running shoes, I've often thought hiking shoes were not always necessary when recommended. For the White Mountains with its rocky terrain, my high-top Asolo Styngers were heaven-sent. The ankle support was wonderful especially on the Falling Waters trail.
Synthetic layers: Especially along Franconia Ridge when temperatures drop considerably because of altitude and exposure, a synthetic long-sleeve layer was a smart insulator. No need to go too fancy, as my long-sleeve athletic top from Joe Fresh, which cost $10 on sale, did just fine. I'm also a big fan of the Prana convertible "Monarch" pants for women, which are super flattering, have a water-repellent finish.
A hat: I brought a baseball hat to shield against the sun, but it also worked well on our last day with the lightly drizzling rain.
Garbage bags: The huts have a "pack it in, pack it out" policy so small garbage bags are great for toting out wrappers and such. We also were glad we packed large garbage bags which we could have easily slipped over our packs or if necessary ourselves to shield against the rain (we also packed ponchos as back up).
Headlamp: With the bunk beds, no electricity, and outhouses, the only way to get around the huts after sunset is with a headlamp.
Photo credits: Freshly prepared breads: Lori Duff, Courtesy of AMC; Greenleaf Hut: Herb Swanson, Courtesy of AMC; Lonesome Lake: Herb Swanson, Courtesy of AMC; Franconia Notch: Herb Swanson, Courtesy of AMC