The Franconia Ridge Loop hike in Franconia Notch is a gorgeous 8.5 mile loop that takes you over four mountains including two AMC 4000 footers. It’s an understatement to say this is a popular hike. The fact that it is on National Geographic’s list of 10 best hikes in the world and that fact that the trailhead is located on Route 93 makes this beautiful hike well-known and well accessible to the masses. Due to it’s popularity, location and beauty the hike appeals to serious hikers, inexperienced new hikers, and completely unprepared non-hikers. This hike offers a little of everything; grand waterfalls, an exhilarating ridge walk above treeline, a snack stop in an AMC hut, 4000 footers, endless views and a great sense of accomplishment. It’s a challenging hike but it is worth every winded, tricky step.
With so much going for this hike it’s hard to imagine that there would be any drawbacks. Other than slippery rocks and steep inclines (which arguably could be a pro for some), the hike being too popular is the biggest drawback. If you enjoy winter hiking this is a good one to save for February when you just might find the trail to yourself. Conversely, if you choose to hike this trail during the Summer or Fall especially on a weekend not only will you not have the trail to yourself, you will find yourself in a conga line heel to heel with other hikers. Parking at Falling Waters Trailhead fills up early and if you arrive after 8AM you will most likely have to park on Route 93. On a typical sunny Saturday during the summer it is not uncommon to find a mile long line of cars parked on both sides of the interstate highway.
The issue has been open to much debate. It doesn’t appear that cars have been ticketed yet for parking on the highway. There is question amongst hikers whether this stretch is a State Parkway or an Interstate Highway and who has the jurisdiction. The Dept. of Transportation, AMC, New Hampshire State Parks and Plymouth State University put out a survey requesting information from hikers regarding options. The main option explored is likelihood of hikers using an offsite parking lot and shuttling to and from the trailhead.
The Parking Debate
Regular hikers of the mountains in this area have a lot to say about the issue.
- Some think that expanding the parking lot is a good option. There are drawbacks to this solution. How big does the lot need to be? How much of the forest needs to be destroyed to make room for enough cars that line the highway for miles? Is it worth the loss to alleviate the mostly weekend Summer/Fall problem?
- Others wonder if it is a problem at all. If all four tires are off the pavement then perhaps, lower the speed limit in the area and leave well enough alone. However, the fact remains that parking on an Interstate Highway is illegal.
- Some hikers believe parking regulations should be enforced on the highway. ‘No Parking’ signs should be posted. Get to the trailhead early or don’t hike the Franconia Ridge Loop.
- An option that is also often discussed is instating a permitting system much like Baxter State Park. The obvious problem here being enforcement of the system. A fellow hiker asks ‘what’s to stop someone from parking in your spot?’.
- Some think that offsite parking and shuttling is a good option. It’s possible that this is the direction the State is leaning and hopes to have in place by Memorial Day after sending out a request for information. Drawbacks to this option are the possible expenses to the hiker and the hours it would need to run. No one wants to arrive back at the trailhead later than expected to find all shuttles have stopped running.
Is Lack of Parking the Real Problem?
There’s plenty of discussion, debate and even arguing about this topic. Understandably some local residents even feel they should have favor over out-of-staters. I’m sure I would feel the same way if I were lucky enough to live in the Franconia Notch neighborhood. One thing that is clear though and maybe not discussed enough is the actual foot traffic on the trail. With hundreds of cars parked along the highway and assuming most cars carried more than one person to the trail, the conga line on the trail is a big problem environmentally.
The first and most visually obvious problem is the lack of proper ‘Leave No Trace’ etiquette along the lower parts of the trail perhaps by the inexperienced visitors to the trail. They may not have the proper training or information to understand the rules of LNT. Toilet paper and snack wrappers can be found on Falling Waters Trail where the inexperienced hike a bit and then turn back before they hit Little Haystack Mountain. Walking off-trail is another issue with the ‘heel to heel’ hiking. When I hiked this beauty as I was emerging out of tree cover and headed towards Little Haystack there were hikers sitting in the middle of the trail forcing the flow of people to go off trail to hike past them. Instead of finding an off trail rock to sit on to take a break they forced a constant flow of people to step onto the fragile alpine environment to hike past them.
Hundreds of people hike this trail on a good day. Overall, the impacts environmentally are;
- vegetation loss
- soil compaction
- exposure of plant roots
- wildlife habits
To learn a bit more about reducing your own environmental impact while hiking, click here.
In short, limiting parking at this trailhead will limit the environmental impact. It’s a beautiful hike but needing to wait to get in line to continue hiking after taking a break isn’t ideal. Needing to warn the line of people behind you that you’re stepping off the trail to take a break isn’t ideal. Not having a quiet peaceful spot to enjoy the beauty until somewhere on the ridgeline is not ideal. There are simply too many people hiking this trail some days. Admittedly I was part of this problem the day I hiked the Francoinia Ridge Loop and parked on Rt. 93. I do plan to hike it again but wouldn’t be upset to see the numbers limited for all good reasons.
Last modified: February 12, 2018