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Summit marker on Mount Liberty.

After my early-June hike up to Franconia Ridge, I was eager to get back to the White Mountains and cross another 4000-footer off my list. Luckily, I was able to get a Friday off from work, and on Thursday evening I packed my gear into my car and made the 2.5 hour drive from Freeport to Lafayette Place Campground in Franconia Notch.

It was almost dark when I arrived at the campground, where I’d managed to get a prime spot on the banks of the Pemigewasset River. I quickly set up my tent, got a fire started, and kicked back with a beer. Unlike my last trip, I had my whole hike planned: a straight shot up the Liberty Spring Trail to the 4459′ summit of Mount Liberty.

The weather was nice enough that I was able to sleep without a fly over my tent, and I managed to get up at about the same time as the sun. I broke down camp and enjoyed breakfast to the simple sounds of the Pemi, then headed to the trailhead.

I left my car in trailhead parking just north of the Flume visitor center. There are a few places to park to get to the Liberty Spring Trail – the trail proper actually starts near the midpoint of the multi-use bike path that runs parallel to I-93 from the Flume to the Basin. This meant I had a nice walk through the woods for a little less than a mile before I crossed the Pemi and started climbing.

I didn’t see another soul as the trail climbed gradually from the Pemi up the base of Mount Liberty. After about half a mile the Flume Slide Trail split off from Liberty Spring Trail, and the trail started to gain a little more ground a little more quickly.

After a brook crossing, the trail started to climb – and climb fast. For more than a mile the hike turned into something akin to climbing up a neverending set of stairs. With no outlooks and not much variation in scenery, I had to get into the rhythm of putting one foot in front of another and just making myself go up, up, up.

I put my head down and climbed, and when I raised it again I saw that I had made it to the caretaker’s big canvas tent at the Liberty Spring Tentsite. The 10 or so tent platforms looked downright luxurious, and I took a breather to enjoy the sounds and smells of two or three weekday backpackers preparing their breakfasts. As nice as it was to wake up on the Pemi, it must be exhilerating to open your eyes at 3700-feet.

The tentsite is right at the Liberty Spring itself, so I got a quick refill of my water bottles and headed up the remaining quarter-mile of Liberty Spring Trail to Franconia Ridge.

Ah, the Ridge! While my hike from Little Haystack to Lafayette was all above treeline, here the Ridge Trail dipped into the woods, and it stayed pretty sheltered from this junction almost to the summit of Liberty.

Just before the summit, though, the trail broke out of the trees and offered a spectacular view of the rocky final push.

I was lucky enough to have the whole summit to myself for the half hour I spent there. The temperatures were just starting to rise – it hit 90 before I made it back to Maine – but there was a cool breeze on the exposed summit. It was a clear day, and there were spectacular views of Mount Lincoln, Mount Flume, Cannon, the Sandwich Range and the Pemigewasset Wilderness.

It was a quick descent, and before I made it back to the trailhead I ran into at least a dozen people. I gave everyone the same review – clear as a bell – while quietly relishing the fact that I’d gotten it all to myself. Back at the Pemi, I gave my tired feet a dip in the cool water before hitting the road back to Portland.

Mount Liberty Hike Photos on Google+

 

Franconia Ridge from the summit of Little Haystack.

At the start of June I began a quest that’s been undertaken by many a New Englander – summiting the 4000-footers in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I’ve been an avid hiker since my parents introduced me to Mt. Battie and Maiden’s Cliff at a young age, but I’d never broken the 4,000-foot barrier.

In all honesty, I didn’t exactly plan on breaking the 4,000-foot barrier on this hike. A heat wave was rippling through New England the weekend of June 1st, and after a muggy night at Passaconaway Campground on the Kancamagus, spending the better part of the day in 90+ degree heat and humidity  didn’t sound like a winning proposition. On top of that, I’d forgotten matches and kindling when I rushed out of work the day before, so breakfast was little more than a bag of trail mix.

Poring over my White Mountain Guide in Lincoln as I sipped a convenience store coffee, the Falling Waters Trail in Franconia Notch seemed a good place to bag a short hike and cool off in the cascades. A mile or two up the waterfalls, a quick dip, then back to the trailhead – easy.

Temperatures were still cool when I started around 7 a.m., and once I got into the rhythm of the trail, my desire to call it a short day quickly ebbed. Falling Waters is a gorgeous trail, with brook crossings, cascades, and a few scrambles. Sitting in the cooling mist of the falls, I decided on a new plan – up the rest of the trail to the top of Little Haystack (4760′), then retrace my steps back down.

You don’t break treeline until just before the summit of Little Haystack, so I was unprepared for the unobstructed 360ª views that awaited when I stepped onto the rocky peak. Despite the threat of a humid haze, the sky was clear as glass in every direction. Clear views across the notch, south to Lincoln and the Kanc, east to Crawford and up to Cannon and northern NH. There was also the magnificent Ridge itself, stretching over the rocky summit of Lincoln and winding out of view. Munching on trail mix and taking in the scenery, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to turn around and head back down. I could see the Greenleaf Hut in the distance, on the far side of a loop that would take me back to the trailhead. The Ridge wasn’t going to let me go home without spending some time together.

Between Little Haystack and Mount Lafayette (5.249′), the ridge snakes along for almost two miles, crossing the summit of Mount Lincoln (5,089′) in the middle. I can say, unequivocally, that it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve been in my life. The weather conspired to give me a worry-free hike, with cool breezes keeping the temperatures comfortable and wispy clouds hanging harmlessly in the distance.

I spent more than an hour crossing the ridge before I stopped for a long rest on Lafayette, standing more than 5,200 feet in the air – almost as high as Mount Katahdin, the tallest spot in my home state of Maine.

After a solid stretch of baking, lizard-like, in the sun, I headed down (what a novel concept!) the Greenleaf Trail. Almost 500 feet above the summit of Little Haystack, I spent a lot more time on exposed rock than I had coming up, which let me savor the breeze and the scenery. A mile and a reluctant return to the woods later I arrived at Greenleaf Hut, one of the AMC’s 8 high huts in the White Mountains.

The hut was staffed by the friendly Greenleaf Croo, and their fresh Chocolate Chip and Zucchini cookies were calling my name. The hut was clean, cool and beautiful, and the free water and coffee helped me get ready for the remainder of my hike. I’d played with the idea of planning a hut-to-hut hike this season, and now I’m determined to make that a reality. The cookies weren’t necessarily the deciding factor, but the didn’t hurt.

Away from the exposed ridge and back in the woods, the heat was starting to become oppressive. Thankfully, the well-maintained Old Bridle Path made jogging easy, and I traversed the downward stretch of the loop in about half the time it took me to go up. Descending into the woods, there were a few open spots to look back up at the ridge.

When I got back to the parking lot I was surprised to find it full – while my hike up in the morning had been calm and relatively solitary, the muggy trail would now be packed with hikers. I waited for the hot air in my car to cool down and finished off the rest of my water, thankful that I’d decided to tackle the ridge when I did.

Franconia Ridge Hike Photos on Google+

White Horse Ledge above Echo Lake in Conway, NH

White Horse Ledge above Echo Lake in Conway, NH.

My girlfriend and I went to the White Mountains today for a quick hike and a chance to enjoy all the scenery bathed in fresh snow. Conway, North Conway and the Kancamagus Highway are all just a little more than an hour from Portland, and I find myself returning there more and more. The White Mountains were a staple of summer vacations in my childhood, but I was always more interested in helping Kirby save the world from King Dedede on my Game Boy than I was in being awestruck by the region’s natural beauty. Now there is little I enjoy more in life than getting outside and unplugging for a few days, hours, or even just my lunch break.

On the way back to Portland I queued up the latest episode of PRI’s Living on Earth on my iPod. Living on Earth held a regular place in my earbuds when I was working in a warehouse years ago, a reliable source for an hour of entertaining and informative listening while I moved Box A from Point B to Point C. LoE was absent from MPBN for the last few years, but it’s just recently returned to the lineup, which inspired me to download an episode.

Coming back to reality from my quick mountain getaway, this story in particular piqued my interest. In “The Changing of the Environmental Guard,” host Steve Curwood speaks with Gene Karpinski, President of the League of Conservation Voters, about what could happen to the country’s environmental policies this year with a new Congress and a re-elected President Barack Obama. After an election where environmental issues got barely any mention at all, and the House still looks largely the same, things still look king of grim. After a day like today outdoors in the White Mountains, I hope they get a lot better.