Hikers, extreme weather leaving their mark on one of the White Mountains most famous trails
On most days, the rugged alpine peaks of Franconia Ridge in the White Mountains are visible from the trailhead parking lot. But on a recent Tuesday, an eerie haze descended into the notch, blocking the view.
“That's the wildfire smoke from Canada,” says Alex DeLucia, director of trails for the Appalachian Mountain Club. “Really wild.”
Somewhere in the smoke is a walking path, traversed by Indigenous people for thousands of years and then first formally blazed in 1826. The Old Bridle Path to the north and Falling Waters Trail to the south, connect hikers to one of the most stunning ridge lines in the northeast. The trails cross the peaks of Mount Lafayette, Mount Lincoln and Little Haystack, linking a strenuous 8.9 mile loop that reaches 5,260 feet in elevation, well above treeline.
“The Franconia Loop Trail is rated, like, best loop hike in the country,” says DeLucia. “It's been featured in Backpacker magazine. I mean, it is phenomenal.”
The trail’s beauty, however, comes with a price.
A surge in use during the pandemic means that up to 1,000 hikers a day pass through this sensitive alpine zone on a summer weekend, putting the mountain’s ecology under severe pressure. Add in the effects of climate change, including heavier, more frequent rainfall, and you have a recipe for erosion, washouts and overall trail degradation.
Trail systems and national parks around the country are facing these same dual pressures of crowds and changing weather. To counteract those, wilderness managers are looking to harden hiking trails to new conditions, making them more sustainable. DeLucia is helping to lead an ambitious five-year project that will overhaul every foot of the Franconia Ridge trail. The federal government, along with private foundations, the World Trails Network and AMC are spending about $1.8 million on the effort.
Exposed rocks and mud
Start walking up the Old Bridle Path, which passes through pristine hardwood forest on its way up to Mount Lafayette, and hikers will see a degraded trail. DeLucia points out exposed rocks in the middle of the path that at one point served as stairs but are now more like vertebrae that hikers walk around instead of over due to erosion. Other sections are muddy and not draining properly, or are showing feet of soil loss. Following devastating washouts caused by Hurricane Irene in 2011, new sections of trail were hastily constructed but remain prone to storm damage.
This summer has seen its own share of trail-damaging weather.
“It had water running down the middle of it and kind of washing away material,” says Annie Dumais with the Trail Fixing Collective, pointing to a section of trail she’s restoring as part of the project.
On her hands and knees with a sledge hammer, Dumais is pounding crushed stone around some rocks quarried from the nearby slope. She’s laying in a wider, more gradual set of stone stairs than what was here before.
DeLucia, who previously worked on trail crews, says the practice of trail design and building is evolving. It has to.
“Long gone are the days of just, like, rolling rocks around in the woods for fun,” he says. “This is trade work now.”
Some stretches of this trail are being repositioned to follow natural contours, which helps with drainage. It will add a bit of length to the hike, but even regulars here won’t notice much of a difference, Dumais says.
“Sustainable trails tend to be longer because they switch back and forth a lot,” says Dumais. “They don't shoot straight up the mountain.”
Patagonia-clad purists will no doubt shake their heads at all this human intervention, but Stan Carte with the U.S. Forest Service, a partner in the trail restoration effort, said these kinds of changes aren’t a choice at this point.
“If we don't do something, that environment's not going to be up there for generations to see,” he says.
After visiting DeLucia’s AMC trail crew at a worksite farther up the ridge, a drum roll of thunder sends us back down the mountain. As the dirt turns to mud, we again pass by Annie Dumais and her team on the descent. Rain falling around her, she’s down on all fours, as the dirt turns to mud, positioning stones one by one.
“A lot of feet have tread this path,” she says. “So it feels really cool to be hopefully just investing a lot of my own energy and my crewmates energy into something that will last that long.”