From New York, we drove through Vermont’s rolling hills and pretty forests to the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire. After spending two weeks in the sedate Catskills, we were eager to hike bigger mountains.
We expected the Presidential Range — biggest in New England — to impress us. We considered hiking up Mt. Washington, highest in the range, until we learned there’s a road to the 6288-ft (1917-m) summit. So we chose Franconia Ridge, which includes the summits of Mounts Lincoln and Lafayette. At 5260 ft (1604 m), Lafayette is the 7th highest peak in New England. The Franconia Ridge loop is 9 mi (14.5 km) long and entails a 4,000-ft (1219-m) ascent/descent but grants a 1.8-mi (3-km) cruise along the alpine ridgecrest. Apparently this is a scenic bargain here in the tree-clad eastern half of the country.
Approaching the trailhead, we drove through a couple “notches” (passes) and were encouraged to see exposed, rock cliffs. “Ah! Real mountains!” we thought.
Midway up the bouldery, aggressively steep trail, the weather turned grim. Though we were swift, we were in full-on winter conditions by the time we surmounted the ridge. We peered north along the crest into a frigid, windy, snowy, whiteout. The region is notorious for these sudden onslaughts. We considered turning back but were sufficiently equipped that proceeding cautiously did not
seem foolishly risky. We stayed hyper alert about avoiding injury and staying on course.
Losing your way on Franconia Ridge would normally be all but impossible, because the route is occasionally cairned and frequently lined with stones. Many of these markers, however, were buried in snowdrifts that sometimes reached our thighs. So we simply followed the crest of the narrow ridge and kept pushing northward. The temperature was -9°C (about 16° F) not counting wind chill. Conditions rapidly deteriorated into a blizzard. We did, however, glimpse our surroundings a couple times when the clouds briefly parted. Forested valleys and gentle, rolling mountains extended in every direction.
By the time we summitted Lafayette, even the intensity of our effort was not keeping us warm, so we were glad to begin the descent. We were even happier to discover the Greenleaf hut, part way down the descent route, was still open. We gratefully stopped there to refuel.
Resuming the loop, the route steepens markedly below the hut, and we encountered long stretches of treacherous ice. Deliberate foot- and pole-work was necessary to prevent a bone-breaking tumble. Very slow and frustrating.
Lessons learned? The stature of a mountain range and the quality of its trails don’t necessarily correspond. Even a “good” trail in the Whites can be rough. The Canadian Rockies are enormous, yet the trails tend to be gentler under foot, often allowing you to stride. Rockies’ trails also ascend more gradually. And to surmount treeline in the Whites you must, on average, endure twice the ascent necessary in the Rockies.
One hike is not a fair sampling, we know. And visibility during our Franconia outing was poor. Still, we concluded it’s not worthwhile for hikers from the West to devote precious hiking time in the East. A severe shortage of alpine terrain in the East prevents adequate scenic compensation.
In the Canadian Rockies, the North Cascades, or either Canada’s or America’s Glacier National Park, you can spend hours on end traversing glorious, see-forever, alpine slopes and ridges. Even Franconia Ridge, fringed with krummholz, barely qualifies as “alpine.” If it’s constant views you seek, Utah canyon country is unbeatable. If you want to marvel at trees, the grand, ancient, cathedral forests of the North Cascades easily dwarf the oldest, loveliest eastern groves.
We met several hikers in the the Atlantic states and Maritime provinces who said, “Oh, there are lots of great places to hike here.” Some said, “The Adirondacks are much better than the Catskills.” Others said, “Forget the Adirondacks, hike the Whites.” In Quebec, atop the third and final summit of the sentier l’acropoles, in the hautes gorges de la rivière Malbaie dans Charlevoix, we met a hiker from Montreal who said, “This is very nice, but the best hiking in Quebec is in the Chic Chocs, in Parc de le Gaspesie.”
We listened attentively to all of them. We even took notes. But we were too kind to speak our minds…
“You wouldn’t be saying that if you’d ever hiked out west. One good day in the Rockies, the Cascades, or Utah canyon country and you’ll experience a paradigm shift of tectonic-plate proportions.”
The Whites afforded us a vigorous challenge, a strong feeling of accomplishment, and a sense of wilderness. We enjoyed it. We’re very glad we’ve hiked in the East. If we had to live there, we’d still be happy, mountain freaks. But we’d head west at every opportunity.
If you live in eastern Canada or the U.S., we urge you to come west for a hiking vacation. “Awesome” is a threadbare cliche, but where we live, you’ll be hard pressed to think of a more apt adjective to describe the mountain scenery.