We had been tentatively planning a multi-day hiking trip in the White Mountains for this summer but hadn’t made any decisions when or where. In February things came together. It so happened that the AMC trip that my daughter chose happened to start the day before Seek The Peak and left from Pinkham. She’d be gone 7 days before we picked her back up there. Perfect! We drop her off, do STP and then tack on a few more days while we were there. Since we had such a good time doing the huts across the Presidentials last summer we figured we do a similar hut hike in a different location. We’ve been trying to get to doing Franconia Ridge for several years and this seemed like a perfect way to do it. So the plans were made. STP on Saturday, then Franconia Ridge to Greenleaf Hut on Sunday followed by Greenleaf to Galehead to Zealand and ending at Highland center on Wednesday. Just in time to pick our daughter up on Thursday. Couldn’t ask for better logistics!
As the date of the hike approached we began to wonder if we’d bitten off a bit too much. We’ve done some long days with significant elevation gain but we’d never done Mt Washington before and backing STP up with a couple of long steep days might be a challenge – particularly if the weather didn’t cooperate. Not to mention that we didn’t have our “hiking legs” yet since we hadn’t done anything bigger than Monadnock and Camden Hills so far this summer. If you haven’t figured it out by now I do way too much worrying and overanalyze almost everything I do. Fortunately my wife doesn’t worry about anything so we balance each other out.
Driving up to NH on Thursday in torrential rain didn’t do anything to make me feel better but the longer term forecast (thanks Brian) was pretty good. As it turned out it couldn’t have been better. Our Friday “STP warmup” (add link) and STP itself (add link) were absolutely fantastic. Perfect weather, great hikes, not overly tired (although my knees did take a bit of a beating coming down Tucks). Turned in early Saturday night so that we could get an early start for Franconia Ridge Sunday. Weather forecast was for “scattered or isolated showers and thunderstorms” – the standard daily July forecast.
When we watched the weather on Sunday morning the forecast was for possible thunderstorms by noon. Crap! Right about the time we’d be on the ridge. Oh well, there’s always the Old Bridle Path bailout option if it looks bad.
Left the car at Lafayette Campground and got to the trailhead by 8:00. The ranger talked to us on the way by and when I mentioned the thunderstorm forecast he said “nah, don’t worry about it – we never get anything before later in the afternoon”. OK, let’s give it a go. Enough of the lead in – now to the hikes...
Day 1 - Franconia Ridge to Greenleaf Hut
Headed up the Falling Waters trail and it was simply beautiful. All the recent rain had the falls at max flow. It also had the brooks high and the trails muddy. Stream crossings (five of them) were interesting but we kept our feet dry and the muddy trails and slippery ledges around the falls weren’t a big issue.
Reached Little Haystack by just after 11:00 and the skies were still mostly clear. Maybe I can relax a bit now (but there’s still a couple of hours to go on the ridge). The first view of the ridge from the top of Little Haystack made me realize why I’d wanted to be up there since I’d first seen the pictures from other hikers. The pictures can’t possibly do it justice. There are a bunch of “wow” spots climbing Mt Washington, going across the Presidentials as well as many other places in the Whites, but I don’t think any of them top this.
The next 2 hours walking across the ridge were nothing short of amazing. We had lunch on Lincoln and then traversed the so-called Mt Truman. Pretty cool to be standing on a mountain with your name on it (even if not officially). Lafayette summit was a bit busy so we hung out for only a short time and made friends with a couple of the canine hikers there then headed down to the hut which we reached at about 2:30.
The weather held all day, the hike was beautiful and my knees had held up fine. Dinner was going to taste good tonight. Plenty of time to relax at the hut and worry about the hike to Galehead tomorrow. Did I mention that I worry too much? We had talked to several people in the last couple of days that said that the hike from Greenleaf to Galehead was one of the toughest that they had ever done (a bit stronger than the warning in the AMCWMG). The stay at the hut was excellent (as expected) and the croo was great (one of the best I’ve seen). We haven’t stayed at a hut or AMC lodge yet that we haven’t loved.
Beautiful cascades with the high water on the Falling Waters trail
One of five slightly tricky stream crossings
Little Haystack summit and Mt Lincoln summit in a cloud
Like walking the Great Wall of China
Amazing rock formations on the ridge
So-called Mt Truman in front of Lafayette
Me on Mt Truman
The Pemigewassett Wilderness spread out below Lafayette
Descending Lafayette to the hut (visible on the ridge in front of Cannon Cliffs)
Home for the night – Greenleaf Hut (Lafayette in the background)
Day 2 - Greenleaf to Galehead
Monday morning dawned with blue skies and a few clouds (mostly drifting through the valleys below us). Forecast was for possible showers and thunderstorms in the afternoon which was fine since we’d be below treeline long before then. There were 5 or 6 groups from the hut headed to Galehead that day (and a couple with the same 4 day itinerary as us) so we’d have company on the trail and someone to trade war stories with each night. We got started right after breakfast to give ourselves maximum time. I figured that we would plan on 9 hours and if it took 10 we’d still be in time for dinner.
The hike back up Lafayette seemed shorter than it had going down the day before. Seemed like we were getting out trail legs now. One other group from the hut was on the summit so we swapped cameras for summit shots and then headed down Garfield ridge. As beautiful as Franconia Ridge was yesterday this was maybe even more so. Clouds floating below us in the valleys, amazing rock formations, incredible views in the Pemigewassett Wilderness. Descending off the ridge below treeline the forest was beautiful and the views along the way into the Pemi were amazing.
By noon we were starting the climb up Mt Garfield which wound up feeling longer than it was. In about another hour we were on the summit and hung out on the ledges to eat out lunch with the whole Pemi spread out at our feet. As we finished eating the first raindrops of the day started falling – perfect timing. Got the pack covers on but skipped the rain gear since it we pretty warm and the rain just cooled us down.
Descending Garfield we reached the spot that the WMG calls “a tricky climb down wet ledges”. I’d seen some pictures of this in another trip report which said that it was “hiking down the middle of a waterfall and took an hour” – which turned out to be quite an exaggeration. Basically a jumble of ledge and sharp boulders with a stream running through the middle of it. Only problem was that on the second or third step down I put my front foot down below a rock which had the stream flowing out from it and it proceeded to fill my boot. It was basically a choice of a wet foot or falling off the ledge. Who needs dry boots anyway. Overall the rocks weren’t overly steep or slippery and with a bit of caution we were at the bottom in 20 minutes.
Should be easy from here on, right? It’s just 2:00 and we’ve only got 2.2 miles to go. But wait, this are the infamous “section with numerous minor elevation gains and losses that make the route more difficult than the distance and elevation would indicate”. The rain was still falling lightly on and off and we proceeded up one “hump” and down the next for the next 1.6 miles to the next trail junction. Many ups and downs indeed but nothing bad and were thoroughly enjoyed the trek.
We arrived at the hut at 4:00 – an reasonable 8 hour day. We thought that we were the first from Greenleaf to arrive but found some familiar faces on the porch – a family with two kids – who had left Greenleaf about 1/2 hour before us and said that they had been at the hut for almost 2 hours! I did a check but I couldn’t find any evidence of them having wings. ;-) The rest of the groups from Greenleaf rolled in over the next hour, many looking very worn out. In the end I think this was one of my favorite days of the trip. While I felt good I didn’t feel the need to make the extra short climb to bag Galehead after dinner. Could have had another 4K in the books but it just didn’t seem important.
Another great hut stay with a fill-in croo – several of whom had been regular croo members 30+ years ago. They were fantastic. We also met our first AT thruhiker here – Piperhiker – who was a very interesting guy. Had retired early (I’m guessing just over 60) so that he could do the AT and had been out there since February 19th. Great philosophy. “You get up and no matter whether it’s sunny or rainy or snowy you go hike. At the end of the day you eat, you sleep and then you do it again the next day.” This is one guy that was totally enjoying the ride and there was no doubt that he was going to make it.
Sunrise over Layayette and Garfield Ridge
Interesting morning skit by the hut croo
Walking above the clouds on Lafayette
Through the clouds on Garfield Ridge
On Garfield Ridge with Garfield in the distance
Back below treeline in the “tangled col” as the WMG describes it
Over Owl’s Head and the Pemi
Garfield summit from ledges just below with foundation of old fire tower visible at top
Descending the “section of tricky wet ledge” – a.k.a. stream
Back into the beautiful forest
What the “minor elevation gains and losses” were like for most of the last 2 miles to the hut
View into valley from porch of the hut
Relaxing at the hut after a long day
Sunset behind Galehead Mountain
Day 3 - Galehead to Zealand
Tuesday morning we awoke in the clouds and fog - could barely see into the valley. After a good breakfast we got a leisurely start since this was an easier day and figured maybe a bit of a delayed start would let the fog clear. It took us about an hour to get to the top of South Twin. Pretty steep climb at 1100' in 0.8 miles. This was supposed to be one of the best 360 degree views out there but the summit was totally fogged in with only about 100' of visibility. Oh, well - there will be more summits.
Pushed on for another 2 hours or so before we got to the summit of Guyot. In between we went through some interesting fir waves - first time I'd actually been in one looking out. By this time the fog was lifting and the views into the Pemi were opening up. By the time we reached the summit of Guyot the sky was getting blue again and the views were fantastic. We didn't stop at the summit because we thought it was further ahead and by the time we realize we decided to just push on.
About another hour brought us to the summit of Zealand Mountain. The sign for the summit spur said just 0.1 miles so the urge to bag another 4k here was irresistible. The summit was spectacular! About a 40' circle in the trees with a sign saying "Zealand" nailed to a tree and a cairn to mark the summit - that's it. At least it was only a short detour. I was pretty sure that the real reward was just ahead.
About another 1/2 hour of walking through beautiful woods and bogs brought us to the indication that the payoff was near - a small sign pointing to the right that simply said "View". Two minutes later we were walking out onto the ledges at Zeacliff and the panorama was indescribable. As the view began to open through the trees walking onto the ledge it literally looked like Whitewall Mountain was coming across the valley and standing in front of us. Across Zealand Notch there were layer after layer of mountain peaks jumbled together for as far as the eye could see. We sat there with our jaws hanging down for a long time trying to absorb the incredible view. Another one that pictures simply cannot begin to convey. Soon some other hikers from Zealand Hut joined us on the cliffs and we packed up and left the views to them.
Another easy hour of mostly downhill hiking brought us to the hut just after 3:00. We spent the hours before dinner hanging out on the porch and watching the clouds drift over Zealand Notch and soaking up the sun on the warm rocks on Zealand Falls. Perfect way to end the day. Another great hut stay with several croo members that we had met in other huts last year. After dinner we resumed the cloud watching from the porch until sunset. See my other post for the amazing cloudscapes HERE
After dinner a southbound thru hiker (Bearwalker) came in after hiking from Lakes Hut that morning. Another nice guy who was tearing up Maine and New Hampshire with 20 mile days. His plan for the next day was to make it to North Woodstock - basically all that we had done in the previous 3 days combined with a couple of extra miles for Little Haystack to Liberty. Yikes! The next morning he did his work-for-stay gig and did't get on the trail until after 9:00. We gave him the left over peanut butter, pretzels and cheese that were our daily lunches since this was our last day and he was going to need it WAY more than us. I checked his online trail journal when we got home to see how he'd done. He actually made it all the way to the summit of Lincoln (walking all of Franconia Ridge by headlight) and stealth camped (he sleeps in a hammock) above tree line near the summit. There was a thunder storm that night and he dodged a bullet with no lightning on the ridge. Not sure if he knew that he could have just hiked down from Lafayette 1 mile and done another work for stay at Greenleaf and had a safe, dry night inside. All's well that ends well I suppose.
Slippery ledges to start the day up South Twin
Not much of a view from South Twin summit today
Views into the Pemi from inside a fir wave
Skies clear as we approach summit of Guyot
Crossing summit of Guyot
Summit of Zealand Mountain - what a view!!!
Nothing but wilderness as far as the eye can see
Sometimes you need to believe the signs. This one points to Zeacliff.
This is about 1/3 of the view. Should have taken a panorama
Sitting on the edge of the world
View into Zealand Notch from the porch on the hut. Whitewall Mountain on the left
Soaking up some sun on Zealand Falls before dinner
Field of Fireweed in back of the hut
Day 4 - Zealand to Highland Center
Our final day was supposed to take us down to Crawford Notch via the AtoZ and Avalon trails and we had planned to hit Mt Field to get another 4k and then Avalon for one of our favorite views in the Whites. The plan was to stay at Highland Center that night and then get the hiker shuttle back to Lafayette Campground to get the car the next morning. We changed our minds at the last minute though and decided to hike out Zealand Trail to the end of Zealand Road which is a shuttle stop and get our car that afternoon so we would have all our stuff and not have to deal with the shuttle in the morning. We figured that we could do another day hike from Highland the next morning to make up for the short day. Book time for this hike is only 1-1/2 hours and the shuttle was at 12:55 so there was lots of time to kill. We hung out at the hut for a while and then took a leisurely stroll out.
It was a really excellent hike and a great way to end the trip. Zealand trail is wonderfully scenic going by multiple bogs, beaver ponds, streams, and countless flowers (and blueberry bushes which were covered with berries - at least before we got there). We caught the shuttle, picked up the car and were back to Highland Center by 2:30. Plenty of time to take a long needed hot shower and celebrate with a victory beer (or two) on the terrace while soaking in the beautiful views. Highland Center is one of our favorite places and weâ€™ve stayed there many times now in all seasons. We got to hang out with a number of the folks that weâ€™d hiked with the last few days and swap our final stories. Great end to a great week.
Breakfast and the morning report from the croo
Descending from the hut - one of the only sections not flat on the Zealand Trail
Beautiful marshes and beaver ponds
Another beaver pond
Beaver dam (but no dam beavers)
Can anyone ID this one? Many of these lining the trails near the ponds.
Final break by the stream
The next morning we awoke to violent thunderstorms and pouring rain. No day hike today! We had a huge breakfast and then hung out in the great room reading back issues of Appalachia most of the morning. We took off late morning and headed over to North Conway for an awesome lunch at Moat Mountain Brewery (thanks for the tip Rex). Picked our daughter up a few hours later and heard her gush for hours about how great the backpacking trip was (although after she saw some of our pictures she vowed that next year she's doing STP with us and we're taking her to some huts). All's right with the world!
Going back home and returning to the real world on Friday was one of the hardest things that I've ever done. For the second year in a row we've managed to have a multi-day above treeline hike in the White Mountains with nearly perfect weather and conditions. The hiking gods are surely smiling on us and we truly feel blessed. Can't wait for next summer to do it all again! In the mean time there's only 2 weeks left till camping, hiking, biking and paddling in Acadia. This should hold off the "mountain separation anxiety" for at least a while...
Complete photo albums are here:
Zealand to Highland CenterGalehead to Zealand
Greenleaf to Galehead
Franconia Ridge to Greenleaf