If there was ever a candidate for a national park in New Hampshire, Franconia Notch State Park would be it. I consider it the crown jewel of the park system, not only for it’s stunning beauty, but also for the diversity of things to do. The Flume, Echo Lake, Artist’s Point, The Basin, Cannon Mountain Tramway, waterfalls, bike paths – there are just so many things to choose from! You could easily spend a week or more here and not get tired.
I’ve only visited the park twice so far this year but I’ve been here so often in the past that it’s OK to cut this one short. I chose two hikes, one towards the east and one towards the west, to be a representative sample – and because it’s been a long time since I last did them. The state’s hiking guide for the park lists a few more good ones as well.
The first was to Lonesome Lake from Lafayette Campground, returning via The Basin. It’s an easy hike as Notch standards go, and going via The Basin, one of my favorite spots, makes it special. Since it only rises a thousand feet or so, it’s more kid-friendly than most. At the lake there’s an AMC hut where you can stop and regroup and maybe even get some water or a snack. The lake’s great for a swim, too!
The hike down Cascade Brook was unusual as Hurricane Irene had really cleaned off all the rocks last summer. Normally streamside rocks are covered with moss and lichen, but conditions were such that Cascade Brook really took a beating, washing out one of the bridges and causing some trail detours. The streambed was filled with good-sized rocks and boulders, all carried downstream by the deluge. It was amazing to see what the storm did in just a few hours. It would have been even more amazing (and frightening) to have been there while it was happening!
Once you’ve gotten to The Basin, it’s an easy walk up the bike path back to Lafayette Campground.
The other hike was the iconic Mt. Lafayette-Franconia Ridge loop. I say iconic because so many hiking guides use a picture of the ridgeline trail on their cover that you definitely have a sense of deja vu when you get there. I used the biodiversity map as a guide (note the photo there too), which was a good choice. Basically I was going to hike the ridgeline visible along the top of my photo above of Lonesome Lake. Of course it was necessary to start from Lafayette Campground again. I ascended using the Falling Waters Trail up to Little Haystack Mtn., followed the ridgeline to Mt. Lafayette, and descended the Old Bridle Path past Greenleaf Hut and back down Agony Ridge to the campground.
OK, technically this trail is not entirely within the state park. The peaks are within the White Mountain National Forest. But who’s counting? It’s one of the many great things you can do while you’re here visiting the park.
Once you reach the top of Little Haystack, you’re above the trees and have marvelous views in every direction. If you’re lucky like I was, you’ll find the mountaintops in bloom.
In bad weather, which is pretty frequent, this can be a challenge. I last hiked Mt. Lafayette over 15 years ago and that time it was so foggy and stormy that you could only see 20-30 feet ahead. Maybe I had paid my dues, because this time it was spectacular!
There’s even an old foundation on the top of Mt. Lafayette, which is handy if you need to get out of the wind. Last time it was so cloudy I walked right past it without knowing it was even there! I can’t imagine the amount of effort it must have taken to get this built in the 1800’s without power equipment.
Descending Mt. Lafayette brings you by another AMC hut, Greenleaf Hut, where once again you can get some water and maybe some food if you need it. It’s just nice to feel a little civilization before starting the final descent down the Old Bridle Path. How they led horses up this path I’ll never know. Maybe there was more soil back then. My other hiking guide describes this as “moderate but requires stamina”. I’d put it firmly in the difficult category for the 3500 foot elevation gain. For something more child-friendly, you might consider just the start of the loop to the 3 waterfalls.
So I haven’t even touched on the other things to do in this wonderful park. Fortunately there’s a nice little brochure that can give you some ideas. Happy travels!