We needed a vacation. Sure, we travel all around the Tennessee Valley and take all-too-short trips to visit our family out of state, but it has been over four years since Ruth and I took a week off for a grand adventure with just the two of us. Neither of us have experienced a New England autumn, so we’ve been planning for months to go up north to peep at the leaves. After some consideration, we chose Franconia, New Hampshire as our base of operations. It’s in the White Mountains in the northern part of the state, so we knew we’d get mountain scenery. Ruth also has ancestral connections with the town stretching back to 1773. There were plenty of hiking options too, with a national forest and several state parks nearby.
After taking a day to settle in, we headed a few minutes south to Franconia Notch State Park, where I had mapped out an approximately 6-mile loop hike. Franconia Notch is a gap in the Franconia Range of the White Mountains, through which I-93 winds. It was a treat to be on an interstate that has exits to campgrounds — not exits leading to roads to campgrounds, but exits that lead to the parking lots for campgrounds. Our first trail, the Lonesome Lake trail, leaves from the Lafayette Place campground, on the west side of the interstate. This is a popular place for hikers, as several trails begin here, including hikes on the east side of the interstate (there’s a tunnel leading to the other side). We were hiking on a Tuesday morning and had no trouble finding parking near the trailhead. As a side note, we passed that exit on a Saturday morning, and people were parking about a mile away from the campground, on the shoulder of the interstate.
The yellow-blazed Lonesome Lake trail wasted no time in putting on a show. Immediately after leaving the trailhead from the parking lot, the trail crosses the Pemigewasset River on a wooden bridge. A deep blue sky was reflected in the quiet waters, with puffy white clouds drifting about. It was a cool day with no rain in the forecast, and we quickly warmed up as we headed up the mountain. After a short walk through a flat stretch of woods with a carpet of fallen birch and maple leaves, we crossed a campground road and the Pemi trail and shortly after that reached another more elaborate trailhead sign. I’m not sure what is officially the trailhead, but after passing this sign we entered the woods for good and began gaining elevation.
As the trail began to gain the roughly 1,000 feet in elevation over the next mile or so, it began to reveal its charms, such as a wooden stairsteps and rocky waterbars, a tree straddling a rock, and a tiny footbridge. But it also showed its teeth, as a portion of the first .4 miles up to the junction with the Hi-Cannon trail was a wide but rocky channel.
Despite the rugged terrain, this is a superbly engineered trail, with several impressive rock staircases to handle some of the switchback turns, and occasional footlogs over the rare muddy patches. Though the grade was relatively steep, there were a few switchbacks to make the climb reasonable. It must be said that long stretches of the trail require stepping from rock to rock, so keeping an eye on our footing was a priority. That said, it took us a smidge over an hour to make the climb to the edge of Lonesome Lake.
Lonesome Lake is a glacial lake around 12 acres in size, with an average depth of 4-8 feet. It sits in a basin, with Cannon Mountain and the Cannon Balls (two smaller peaks on the same range) providing runoff to fill the lake. A nice couple snapped a photo of us on the eastern shore of the lake. Trails loop around the lake, so we headed northwest to take the loop counterclockwise. It’s a longer distance to get to the opposite side of the lake, but we had heard that it had great views of Cannon Mountain and a marshy area.
Going counterclockwise, the trail runs .8 miles through a marsh, nearly always on elevated footlogs. It was here that I saw the only wildflower in bloom, a bedraggled New England aster, but we also spotted black chokeberry and a tree we didn’t know festooned with bright red berries. We later found out this is the mountain ash tree, which isn’t really an ash (it’s actually in the rose family).
The views of the marsh and the lake and the mountain were as promised. We zigzagged along the north and western sides of Lonesome Lake, eventually reaching a dock where we stopped for a quick lunch. Afterwards, we took the spur trail to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Lonesome Lake Hut. This is our first visit to an AMC hut, and this one was really impressive, with two bunkhouses that can sleep 48 people and a dining hall that serves up tasty hot meals (they had turkey soup and pot roast on the menu, as well as a selection of baked goods). It has bathrooms accessible to day hikers. We were catching them near the end of the fully staffed season, though the hut stays open year round. The main building has solar-powered electricity and a wood stove for heating, and the entire complex is off the grid. We had a chat with one of the croo (they spell it that way), who noticed Ruth’s LeConte Lodge shirt and mentioned that one of his AMC comrades at a nearby hut is the winter caretaker at LeConte.
After a brief break at the hut, we continued on around the lake until we reached the intersection with the Cascade Brook trail. Cascade Brook spills from Lonesome Lake and makes its way down the mountain to join the Pemigewasset River about two miles south of Lafayette Place. The Cascade Brook trail is also a section of the Appalachian Trail, so we were going to get to hike about 1.3 miles of the AT in the White Mountains. We noticed kind of an odd wooden marker on a tree at the trail junction, but also spotted the familiar white blazes disappearing into the woods next to the brook.
If you Google “most difficult sections of the Appalachian Trail,” guess what comes up as number one on a lot of lists? Yep, it’s the White Mountains. This particular little piece isn’t one of the worst miles in the White Mountains, but it had some typical features: narrow, rooty pathways; trail sections that were literally creekbeds; and sections that were just rocky channels — and most of it steeply uphill or downhill. Maintaining the AT is a challenge, what with all the foot traffic, but it seems the AMC has hit upon a sustainable approach in Whites: reduce wear on the trail by removing all the dirt and replacing it with granite boulders. It was a tough descent for about half a mile, though views of the brook, the occasional footlog, the smell of the balsams, and the glorious leaves made it more bearable.
Between .5 and .8 miles from the lake, the trail leveled out a bit and ran closer to the brook, which had small cascade after cascade. We passed occasional mossy boulders tossed down from heights and stands of bunchberry in its fall foliage. On this stretch we met a hiker coming up from below, who warned us that the Basin Cascade trail, which we were planning on taking, was badly overgrown and scarcely marked, and that she had thrashed her way uphill and was relieved to come upon the Cascade Brook trail. This was sobering news, as it would add almost two miles to take an alternate route, but we pressed on.
Back at the lake when we first turned onto the Cascade Brook trail, there was a warning about a bridge being out. We came to the brook crossing, which required some rock hopping, but it was very manageable. It didn’t hurt that the view downstream was none too shabby!
After the crossing, the trail splits, with the blue-blazed Basin Cascade trail heading left and the AT/Cascade Brook trail heading right. The first few blazes on Basin Cascade had been chipped away by natural damage or miscreants, but we were able to follow the trail until we saw better defined blazes. We think this may be what confused the hiker we had met earlier, because we found the trail fairly easy to follow. Almost immediately, we heard the sound of rushing water, and followed the trail into a small ravine to view Rocky Glen Falls. It’s a three-tiered waterfall, but the best views are of the lower tier. The total drop is 37 feet.
After the waterfall, the trail continues along Cascade Brook, with some steep and rooty sections. There were more hardwoods at this elevation, and the maples and birches framed the many cascades. There’s another brook crossing shortly after Rocky Glen Falls, but again with a little rock hopping it’s not that difficult. A wooden sign on the other side of the brook points to the trail, which is again a rocky footbed as it parallels the creek to the north.
Half a mile from Rocky Glen Falls, another waterfall comes into view. Kinsman Falls is a narrow 22-footer where the brook drops through a narrow channel into a plunge pool.
This little brook just keeps on giving. After Kinsman Falls, the slope of the brook increases dramatically and the water slides rapidly down the mountain in a series of near-plunges. It would make a terrific water slide, except that you’d probably reach escape velocity by the time you reached the bottom!
About half a mile from Kinsman Falls, the Basin Cascade trail tees into the Pemi trail. We turned north, following the Pemi trail signs, and came to a confusing jumble of paved and gravel trails. A natural feature known as The Basin is found here. The Pemi River splits just upstream, and one channel flows into a deeply eroded pothole. It’s a pretty cool little pool — it even has its own exit on the interstate, with a parking lot and pit toilets.
Though the Pemi trail had a trail sign near The Basin, we thrashed around and couldn’t find the actual trail. The Pemi trail runs northward along the west side of the Pemi River, but since we couldn’t find it we did the next best thing and hiked two miles up the paved multi-use trail on the east side of the river. The relatively long distance and struggles with the rocky footbeds had taken a toll on Ruth, so we were happy to walk something a lot less challenging back to Lafayette Place.
The GPS track said this was a 6.5 mile loop, and it took us 6.5 hours. The going was pretty slow, even on the downhill sections, but we also took some long breaks at the hut and the waterfalls. This was a challenging hike for us, but it exceeded all expectations. What a great start to hiking in New Hampshire!