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Hiking the High Peaks of New Hampshire’s White Mountains

There’s a popular misconception in American hiking circles that the only “real” mountains in the U.S. are found out west. I’ve been guilty of it myself, looking to the Sierras and the Rockies for adventure and ignoring—here in my column, anyway—the joys and challenges of the Northeast. That’s an oversight I’ll put behind me this month.

Peter Potterfield, who writes about New Hampshire’s White Mountains in his excellent book, Classic Hikes of the World, says that these peaks have “been the comeuppance of many an arrogant hiker from outside New England.” He’s right. They’ve humbled quite a few native New Englanders, too.

Though the state’s highest peak, Mount Washington, might look like a foothill compared to some of the tallest summits in the West, it’s also home to the most ferocious weather on the planet, with recorded wind speeds over 200 miles an hour. The surrounding peaks are similarly rugged and, more importantly, boast some of the best wilderness views in the country. In short, they’re tall enough to be challenging and scenic enough to be worth the effort.

The White Mountains are just a few hours north of Boston, my hometown, and they’re like a comfortable old friend to me—home to the trails where I cut my teeth as a hiker and where I return again and again to train for more far-flung adventures. They’ve always been a place for day hikes and the occasional long weekend, so it’s taken a while for me to see them for what they really are: the best hiking on the East Coast.

Easy to reach, impossible to forget

Though Potterfield focuses on the White Mountain Traverse—a six-day, 53-mile hike that takes in some of the most impressive parts of the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail—my favorite hike is a shorter “highlights” version that can be done by a strong hiker in just a day or two.

This route, called the Bridle Path Loop, takes in both the Lincoln and Lafayette peaks, and starts at a trailhead just yards from the Franconia Notch Parkway/Interstate 93—a major highway that’s a straight shot from Boston’s Logan Airport, about three hours away. Trailhead parking is available at or across from Lafayette Campground. Don’t be discouraged by the trail’s proximity to the highway; it quickly leaves the road behind.

The nine-mile Bridle Path Loop features all the best elements of hiking in the Northeast: an extended traverse along the exposed top of the Franconia Ridge, a series of waterfalls that roar in the spring and trickle gently in the fall, breathtaking views of the Presidentials and Pemigewasset Wilderness all the way to Mount Washington, and access to the European-style Appalachian Mountain Club hut system.

After leaving the trailhead, there are two ways to approach the loop: clockwise up the Old Bridle Path or counterclockwise up the Falling Waters trail. Here it’s a matter of personal preference. I like taking Falling Waters up because it’s the more scenic of the two choices, and I’d rather enjoy it as a reward on the way up than rush down it when I’m tired at the end of the day.

Falling Waters features three impressive waterfalls: Cloudland, Swiftwater, and Stairs Falls. The trail climbs, steeply and steadily, over exposed rocks and up through a forest of beech, birch, and maple to the knife’s edge of rocks and windswept ledges that is Franconia Ridge. Here, the hike goes from memorable to unforgettable.

There you stand, a mile high, with the world spread before you and nothing between you and the next peak but a narrow, undulating ridge. The next mile and a half is all ups and downs, all jagged rocks and tumbled boulders, with every step of the way punctuated by loose rubble, patches of dwarf pines, and vast stretches of hardy alpine scrub.

In the spring, when there’s still snow on the trails, you’ll often find the alpine vegetation coated with an inch or more of crystallized frost along the 5,000-foot-high ridge. In the summer, the highlight is the swelling sea of green foothills to either side. But the best time to make the hike is in the fall, when the air is perfectly New England-crisp and those distant hills become a sweeping, sloping patchwork of autumn colors.

Once you’ve completed the Franconia Ridge portion of the hike, it’s time to descend via the Old Bridle Path, which jackknifes down the cliff from the top of Lafayette before dipping and climbing briefly again to the AMC’s Greenleaf Hut. There you can spend the night during prime hiking season (roughly mid-May through mid-October, and reservations are recommended) or just drop in for a look around this well-kept, European-style hiker hut.

The Old Bridle Path, so called because it was once frequented by burros and ponies, continues on, steeply down in some stretches, leisurely in others, before meeting up with Falling Waters again about a quarter mile from the starting point.

Where to stay

New Hampshire is small enough that you could stay just about anywhere in the Granite State and still manage the Bridle Path Loop as a day trip. I’ve done it as part of a long day from Boston, too. Still, there are two nearby hotels I can recommend from personal experience.

The first is the Darby Field Bed & Breakfast Inn in the Mount Washington Valley. This inn “right in the middle of nowhere” represents the best of rural New Hampshire: a cozy atmosphere with crackling fireplaces, evening carriage rides, and fine dining. Rooms start at $140 a night, and there are usually last-minute specials that bring the cost down.

A second option is the stately Mount Washington Resort at Bretton Woods. This National Historic Landmark, now more than 100 years old, features 200 rooms and the grandest dining hall in New England. The resort rests in the shadow of Mount Washington and is a destination on its own, but it also makes for a nice place to come back to and relax after a long day of activity in the mountains. Rooms start at $99 a night. The White Mountains Tourism Bureau is another good resource for choosing accommodations and planning your trip.

The Darby Field Inn and the Mount Washington Resort mirror, in many ways, the White Mountains themselves. The inn is comfortable and inviting; the resort is grand and inspiring. There’s really no better way to describe the surrounding mountains, either.

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