One of the things I love about photography is the way a single image has the power to spark a memory. That’s what happened to me today when I saw a picture of Franconia Notch. Its snow covered ridge rising above the vibrant fall foliage was different from the lush summer green that I remembered. Yet it held the same power, and the memory of my climb was as sharp as if it had occurred only yesterday.
At the sound of the alarm I hopped out of bed, being careful not to disturb my sleeping husband. As I slipped into my typical hiking clothes, Rocky, my three year old yorkie’s head popped up. I tapped my leg and he sprang to my side.
In the kitchen, I started breakfast and before long the aroma of bacon, eggs and toast drew my nineteen year-old son out of bed. Once our bellies were full and our gear packed, we climbed into the car and let the GPS lead us along scenic roadways to the Franconia Ridge trailhead.
The trailhead parking area is immediately off interstate 93, but the second my feet met the hard-packed dirt of the trail, the sounds of traffic faded away to a distant memory. I had entered the sanctuary of the forest.
Ferns, saplings and the occasional wildflower hid the ground alongside the trail. Stout maple, lean aspen and rough pine stretched their branches toward the sky, created a canopy of deep green leaves that provided welcome shade along the path. My son marched ahead of me, his long, lean legs carrying him one step for every two of mine. My little yorkie, tugged at his cani-cross leash, his feet scrabbling through the dirt as he tried to catch up with my son, which he does when we reach the intersection of Greenleaf and Falling Waters Trail.
The murmur of a not-so-far-away creek, draws me to the Falling Waters Trail and the tightly packed dirt beneath my feet is replaced with a path of large boulders, as if a giant had tossed them down the mountain to add to the challenge of our ascent. My son is like a six-foot-two Billy goat as he leaps from rock to rock, pausing frequently to wait for me as I chose my steps carefully grasping the trunks of nearby trees to steady my way.
Falling Waters Trail is clearly named for the water that tumbles down the mountain. Its music surrounds me as it bounces and splashes over rocks, twists around corners and cascades down miniature falls. I’m tempted to close my eyes and lose myself in its watery melody, but the threat of tumbling head over heels down the trail persuades me to keep my eyes open.
Before long the cadence of the creek changes from bubbling laughter to a distant roar. I scramble up the bouldered path toward the sound and am not disappointed. Rushing water spills over the top of a semi-circle of step-like ledges, then swirls into a shallow pebbled-bottom pool before it continues its downward journey. It may not be the largest waterfall, but it is beautiful.
I could still hear the sound of the rushing water behind me when I discovered something I’d never seen before. It was a three-legged tree creature, caught mid stride. Only a tree could hold this pose so perfectly.
And I kept a close eye on the trees, hoping to catch one unawares. But tree real estate is tight up here in Franconia Notch, where the trees, rocks and moss have learned to co-exist peacefully. I suppose, living in such a tight space doesn’t allow for much movement.
My fast-moving son waited for me by the sign for Shining Rock. It was a no-brainer that we would go check it out.
Shining Rock doesn’t shine when you’re right next to it, but I image that from other peaks, it is without a doubt a beauty! It’s a completely flat rock face that I’m guessing goes straight up to Franconia Ridge. There is a constant flow of water down its surface and when I stand at the right angle, I catch sight of brief reflections from the sun. Someday I’ll have to investigate which peak to climb so that I can enjoy it in its full splendor.
After a short break, which I spent dissuading my adrenaline-junky climbing partner from attempting to scale Shining Rock, we resumed our upward trek. The path veered away from the water and the rocky trail grew steeper. I pushed on, trying to keep up with the giant billy goat leading the way.
And then he called down to me that he’d reached the ridge. His proclamation of breath-taking views energized my feet and Rocky and I scurried up the last portion of Falling Waters Trail.
When I climbed up over that last rock I stood in awe trying to take in the panoramic views of the White Mountains that surrounded me. It overwhelmed me. The space, the beauty, the realization of how big the earth is and how really, truly small I am in comparison. Franconia Ridge is everything I imagined it to be and more.
I read once that when you reach the summit of a mountain, you’re only half-way through your journey.
The beginning of the ridge trail is hard packed dirt surrounded by low growing brush, moss and alpine flowers resilient enough to withstand the cool, windy climate.
I had tied my sweatshirt around my waist at the beginning of the hike. Now I pulled it up over my head and stepped onto the trail. I looked to the next peak (at the time I thought it was my last peak…NOT) and headed on to traverse Little Haystack Mountain and Mount Lincoln. As I descended the summit of Mount Lincoln I looked ahead to Mount Lafayette and I felt a thrill. The peak was hidden in the clouds. I prayed that the skies wouldn’t clear and I walked faster. I’ve never hiked into the clouds before!
As the elevation increased, so did the size of the rocks beneath my feet and once again I found myself rock-hopping and occasionally scrambling up boulders, which of course delayed my journey to the clouds.
But I made it. I stood on the top surrounded by clouds. It was beautiful and amazing and…..
I turn and face the wind. A cloud rushes toward me like a monstrous white beast. My heart pounds. The cloud looks so solid as it flies toward me that I am tempted to duck. But I stand firm and the monster dissipates into a wave of thick fog that surrounds me. I feel victorious. I have hiked into the clouds and faced them without flinching! It’s a memory I will hold onto forever!
I could have stayed up on that peak indefinitely. Except that I was getting hungry and the 3.8 miles of the Greenleaf Trail seperated me and dinner.
The Greenleaf Trail starts out very steep—like hold onto trees and slide on your butt steep. This steepness slowed me down quite a bit. Of course, it didn’t slow the billy goat down. Where I slid, he jumped. The trail finally eased up some and opened out onto a ledge. The warmth of the sun felt good and I took my time, enjoying the views and letting the sun chase away the last of the mountaintop chill.
And then the trail veered back into the trees and resumed its steepness.
About a mile down, we reached the Greenleaf Hut. It’s a lot more than a hut. You can hang out with other hikers in a large open room (I didn’t get to do this, because there are no dogs allowed inside). There are indoor restrooms with cold, but running water, a few co-ed rooms with bunkbeds and I’ve since read that you can get a hot meal there at specified times. I could have purchased water or a few souvenir like items, if I hadn’t left my wallet in the car. The Greenleaf Hut has officially been added to my list of things I want to do. I think it would be fun to stay for a few days so that I could hike and really explore Franconia Notch.
Knowing I had a 2 ½ hour drive ahead of me after we returned to the trailhead, I didn’t linger here. I’ll admit it. My legs were getting tired. Not so tired that I didn’t enjoy the 2.7 mile remaining miles, but tired enough that when I once again heard the sound of traffic, joy filled my heart and sent a final surge of energy to my legs.
The parking lot was a beautiful sight! I tossed my pack into the back seat, my little yorkie hopped in beside it and immediately curled up into a ball, and I flopped into the driver’s seat, every muscle in my body cheering in relief. We did it!