The Route and Records
Distance: 8.9 miles
Fastest known time: 1:45:13 (Kevin Tilton)
Elevation gain: about 4,000 feet
Normal runner time: between 2:20 and 4:30
Access: Lafayette Place Trailhead off of Route 93. It’s just north of the trailhead for the Basin, and if you are coming from the south, there will be a sign for the Falling Waters Trail and Old Bridle Path right at the turn for the trailhead. From the parking lot, head up the short paved path. The trail heads into the woods just after the bathrooms. The official FKT route starts here.
With its beautiful cascades, 5,000-foot peaks, and challenging climbs, the 8.9-mile Franconia Ridge Loop is a wonderful way to spend a day. But it’s also a fun and challenging half-day run, and a great introduction to running in the White Mountains.
Some of the fastest times on the loop have been run in winter, including the current record for the loop, which Kevin Tilton set in March 2014 (1:45:13). Although the loop can be run in either direction, most of the attempts listed on the fastest known time website have been in the counter-clockwise direction (for good reason, as discussed below).
The Normal Runner
I’ve run this route twice so far this year, once in each direction, and it is one of my favorite routes in the Whites. All-day adventures are great, but when you don’t have the time—or just don’t want to spend that much time—it’s nice to be able to get in great views, lots of elevation gain, and some fast downhill all in just a few hours.
Of course, fun doesn’t mean easy, and this route is definitely not easy, especially the climb up to Little Haystack. I’ll describe the route in the counter-clockwise direction, as that’s definitely the direction I would recommend traveling.
First, a little more info about me for the sake of estimating how your own experience and times might compare. I tend to finish in the front half of the middle of the pack—far behind the leaders but (usually) well ahead of the median time. At the 2014 7 Sisters Trail Race, for example, I finished in 2:37, which put me 71st out of 433 runners. The median time was 3:17, with the winner crossing the line in 1:54. (For more examples, you can check my finishes on the ultrarunner’s stalking service, aka Ultrasignup.com.
I got a fairly early start on this particular morning, leaving the trailhead just after 7:00. If you’re feeling a little groggy as you get going, the Falling Waters Trail will quickly wake you up. The first stretch isn’t too bad, but soon it gets steep and rugged, and it never really lets up. You’ll climb over rocks and roots, cross a stream several times, and make your way carefully over lots of wet rocks. There’s a brief break about 1.5 miles up the trail, with a nice level stretch that allows for running, but I was hiking almost the entire way, with very little running.
The water crossings are beautiful, and on a more leisurely trip they’re a great place to stop for a snack or to cool off, but they also make for some treacherous footing. Even on dry days, this trail is pretty wet.
Finally, after three miles on the Falling Waters Trail, you see light through the trees ahead and you step onto open rocks. The trail doesn’t really open up until you’re just about at the summit of Little Haystack, but once you’re there you’re treated to beautiful views of the Pemigewasset Wilderness and big peaks in all directions.
Kevin Tilton somehow managed to get up Little Haystack in 50:28, and it looks like Ben Nephew made it to this point of the route a couple of minutes faster than that when he set a record in 2012. I find those times ridiculous and, frankly, offensive. I was hoping to make it to the ridgeline in about 1:10, but it ended up taking 1:15, and I’m not sure I could make it any faster. The climb is tough. The estimate for hiking the trail in the AMC White Mountain Guide (book time) is 3:05.
Then comes the reward for all that climbing. From Little Haystack, follow the Franconia Ridge Trail (also the Appalachian Trail at this point) north for 1.7 miles to the summit of Mount Lafayette (5,260 feet), crossing Mount Lincoln (5,089 feet) along the way. It’s one of the most beautiful sections of trail around, and after three miles trudging through the woods, it’s a lot of fun to be running along such a beautiful ridgeline.
The trail drops a bit from Little Haystack before ascending Mount Lincoln, and then it drops again before beginning the climb up Lafayette. The climbs aren’t too bad, and much of the trail is runnable. Plus, there are the views. On the day I ran the loop, I was in the clouds the whole way up, and it was a humid, stifling day. But right as I hit Little Haystack, I found myself above the clouds, and although it was still hazy, there was a nice breeze that made for much more pleasant running.
It took me 30 minutes to get to the summit of Lafayette, for a total running time of 1:45. Tilton traversed the ridge in about 22 minutes, arriving at 1:12:30 total time. Book time for the section from Little Haystack to Lafayette is 1:10.
From Lafayette, you can see the ridgeline continue north toward Mount Garfield. And, in fact, I came across a couple of guys on their way north to do the entire Pemi Loop. I was a little jealous that they’d be spending all day out there, but also excited that I had four miles of downhill coming up rather than another 20 miles or so of tough trail.
From Lafayette, turn west to take the Greenleaf Trail down to the AMC’s Greenleaf Hut. The trail has some loose rock, and I found myself taking it somewhat easy, but it’s still very runnable, and most of it isn’t too steep. Depending on the time of day, you’ll probably start to pass more hikers on their way up from the hut, so it’s also worth slowing down a bit to avoid for them, as it can be startling to be trudging uphill under the weight of a heavy pack only to have a runner come hurtling down the hill straight at you.
It took me about 20 minutes to make it the 1.1 miles from the summit to the hut. I definitely could have cut a few minutes off that time, but I took the descent pretty easy. After a quick stop at the hut, I started the 2.9-mile descent down the Old Bridle Path.
The Old Bridle Path isn’t exactly flat, but it’s less treacherous than the Falling Waters Trail, and there are a few really fun and fast sections over rocks near the edge of the ridge that takes you down from the hut. The first mile was pretty wet on the day I ran it, but without feeling like I was pushing it safety-wise, I made it down from the hut in about 43 minutes, for a total moving time of 2:47. With a few stops along the way, including talking to the runners doing the Pemi Loop and eating a much-needed slice of pumpkin bread at Greenleaf Hut, the loop took me just under three hours. I could probably push the descent a little faster, especially on a drier day, but realistically, I’m not sure how much faster I’d be able to go. I like to think I could cut a few minutes off the climb up Falling Waters, but I don’t think it would be more than a few minutes, even on a cooler, less humid day.
Is It Worth It?
Definitely. This is a great loop. Taking all day for a Presidential Traverse or other long trek is fun, but when you don’t have that much time, or just don’t feel like taking that much time, this is a great option.
A Few Tips
- The loop can be run in either direction, but having run both ways, I strongly recommend ascending Falling Waters Trail and descending Old Bridle Path. If you do choose to descend Falling Waters, the first mile from Little Haystack is pretty steep, with a lot of loose rock, and after that you start coming across a lot of wet rocks. The cascades and swimming holes are a great way to end a run, but you don’t have to very far from the intersection of Falling Waters and Old Bridle Path to find good spots along the stream, so even after finishing the loop, you can always go back up Falling Waters to find a good spot to soak your feet.
- I’d be curious to try this loop on a nice day in winter and see how my time compares. Tilton ran the four miles from the summit of Lafayette to the end of the loop in just under 33 minutes. I’m sure I wouldn’t be anywhere close to that, but if the snow conditions were perfect, it could be a lot of fun to fly down the descent on Microspikes.
Elevation profile and map: