Dayhiking Welch-Dickey and Franconia Ridge

  all barefoot, of course ...

  The summer of 2019 was already well along, and heading toward high time for me to get myself up some more serious mountains.  I had been out pounding around local parks quite a bit over the spring and early summer, so I felt like I was already in decent hiking condition and up for some grander challenges.  After getting through May/June and the usual batch of events I participate in, July was looking fairly clear for planning some longer-range logistics.  I was also keeping an eye on the local AMC chapter website, to either find outings to directly participate in or at least get ideas for where their trips frequently went to.

The popular White Mountains areas are quite crowded on summer weekends, but I had the fortunate leisure to go for mid-week trips.  I was still concerned that I'd try heading up for a day-trip and find everything full to capacity, with no place to park at trailheads.  The canonical advice seemed to be "arrive before dawn!", and I wasn't exactly into the idea of stumbling out the door at 3am to drive a couple of hours.

Perhaps staying somewhere local would allay this problem.  There seemed to be a lot of unknowns to solve and specifics to figure out.  Either way, I needed to stop being afraid of the whole concept and do *something*.

[Images are linked to larger versions.]
Lafayette campground map It had been a while since I had put the Prius camping rig together and used it, so a local campground seemed like a reasonable and low-cost option.  And you can't get much more local to "big hiking" than the Lafayette Place campground, right in the heart of Franconia Notch with trailheads connected right to it including the exact one I wanted to be near.  I found their website, and was of course pointed toward ReserveAmerica to handle arranging any sort of stay. 

That was a doomed prospect right out of the gate.  It is unfortunate that 1> Reserve America has a strangle-hold on almost every major camping site in the nation, and 2> their web site totally sucks wet moose testicles.  I could barely coerce enough out of it to view Lafayette's per-campsite "reserved" vs "available" grid and try to select something, but any further attempts to interact and proceed from there simply wouldn't respond.


The back-end company is something called "Aspira", which in turn appears to be an arm of SalesForce, so it's no wonder that their site designers probably make way too many assumptions and think the entire world is either Microsoft or needs a custom "app" to get anywhere.  And they're careful to put NO general corporate phone numbers on the website, just per-state ones for their various "contracts", which isn't useful when you're dealing with a centralized website problem.  I dug hard and found some contact info anyway, and eventually reached someone I could describe the problems to.  When part of the conversation goes "are you using Chrome?  We have some support issues with Chrome" and I have to launch into my usual schpiel about general *simplification* being key to cross-browser compatibility regardless of what the client platform is, you know it's pretty hopeless to actually get anything fixed.

Long story shorter, I finally called the campground, and the folks there were able to manually intervene and reserve me a site for a night.  It was during this that I learned that ReserveAmerica already had an "account" for me, indexed by phone number, which must have been leftover data from *years* back so far I don't even remember.  That was pretty creepy, and more proof that corporate Big Data never forgets.


Now I had to figure out what mountains to wrap around that camping stay.  The Lafayette/Lincoln loop over Franconia Ridge seemed like quite a lofty target, but I had already decided that with items like Cardigan and Monadnock and Osceola already in the bag that year, that I was probably ready for this and if anything it would be a nicely rigorous test of my capability.  With the whole preceding day free before I expected to arrive at the campground, throwing something a bit easier in ahead of it seemed perfectly reasonable.  On the AMC website I had spotted a group trip up Welch-Dickey a week or two before, which was waitlisted about five deep so I gave up on trying to get in on that, but having heard good things about that hike in general I settled on it as the warm-up destination to just go do on my own.

So I had my Plan, and more importantly had committed to a schedule for it all by reserving the campsite.  Now there was no room left for indecision, and I could concentrate simply on getting my stuff organized and getting on the road at the right time.

Unwelcoming signs at the Hookset 'Common Man' welcome center A major travel facility along the way is located beyond the tollbooth, of course, and is the recently rebuilt all-in-one Welcome Center and huge state liquor store in Hooksett.  Except that when I walked up to the main door into the northbound-side building, I was faced with some distinctly unwelcome and discriminatory signage.  I had also been at its southbound-side twin a week or so before and found a similar affront, after which I'd started researching and reaching out to get this fixed.
State-affiliated establishments functioning as part of New Hampshire's tourism industry should never be displaying this sort of thing, and their governing institutions now seem to agree with that.  As noted under my Osceola trip, the state "economic development" division had already taken my cue to apply this thinking to the regular rest areas.  Just before this trip, I had introduced the notion to the general manager of the Common Man managed facilities here, who had promised to do the background research and take my removal suggestion seriously.  Here it was only a few days later, though, so no surprise -- there probably hadn't been enough time for him to pursue anything.

Picturesque view of Welch-Dickey from Campton dam Soon after leaving I-93, an almost postcard-picturesque view of my target that day could be seen over the locally-famous Campton dam.

[Temporal reality check: I noticed this scene on the way in, but stopped to find a good position and shoot it on my way back out.] 

Trail sign at Welch-Dickey loop junction Most people who hike this loop do it in the "counterclockwise" direction, reaching Welch Mountain first and proceeding northward to Dickey and back around to the parking.  Here's one reason why: the sign at the loop split points to the right for *everything*, leaving the left fork as some deep mystery.  There is a "Dickey Notch" trail that heads way off to the north, but even though its junction comes later the safest-seeming bet must be to just follow the sign and turn right here.

GPS trace showing short bushwhack I got briefly duped by this too, but realized a short way up the trail that it was not what I wanted -- I intended to do the loop clockwise and ascend the higher peak first.  My GPS track shows the corrective action: once realizing where I was, I backtracked a little way and then simply crossed the stream and bushwhacked my way across to the other trail, aiming roughly as the red arrow points here.

Old roadbed found in between trails It's a little hard to see my position pointer on the phone, but right about between the two documented trails I discovered a strong hint that there's an old roadbed through here, running in about the same direction.

Embedded slab as part of trail Shortly thereafter I found the northern trail and got going for real, finding several places where big embedded slabs form the walking surface.

Trail approach along rocky ledge The northern-ridge trail ascended fairly evenly, eventually running along some very pretty rock ledges.

Open slabs on Dickey west ridge After the trail hopped up over the ledges I realized that they were the back side of the first big open slabs.  Welch-Dickey is similar to Cardigan or Monadnock, with a lot of open slab space all over the top, but not quite as bald.

View to the south As the ridge curved around I could look southward, and see a section of I-93 pointing right at me.

A seam of different rock There were occasional seams of some different rock once in a while, but most of it was the uniform smooth but sandpapery grey slab, very grippy under bare soles.

Wet slanted slabs No slip problem for bare feet
Hiking literature and lore [such as this post] is full of warnings about wet slippery rocks, which this mountain has its share of.  As noted in other sources, they're far less concern for barefooters because we can *feel* exactly what's going on with regard to friction.  That's not to advise against due caution, but for the most part I could blast right over the supposedly-tricky wet spots with absolute confidence that my feet weren't going anywhere but where I intended.  If anything, just the right amount of moisture temporarily increases a foot's grip on the dry rock beyond.
There's precedent for this at Welch-Dickey, according to an article I found from 2015 or so.  Ms. Landry expresses many of the other benefits of barefooting on these mountain outings, and if you think about "happy and child-like" in the context of your own earliest adventures in the woods, it all makes more sense.

View north to Franconia Ridge The trail alternately wandered through woods and slabby open spaces, and in not too long I arrived at the Dickey summit.  From there I could look north, and spot the whole Franconia area!  The Cannon rockslide was obvious, and the pointy peaks of Liberty and Flume.  The main Franconia ridge was a little obscured by delicate wisps of cloud rolling over it.

It was nice to physically see where I'd be the next day!

Staircase formation up to Welch On the start of the ascent to Welch from the short col between the peaks, there's an interestingly layered formation.  Here's one advantage of going clockwise: most people coming down this wouldn't realize how interesting it looks, from a viewpoint above it and the typical lighting angle it gets, unless they look back.  Going up it was sort of like ascending a Mayan pyramid...

Cliff above highway 49 and the Mad River The overlooks at the top of Welch afford nice views of the valley with the Mad River and the road up to Waterville running together through it.  I was counting on a stop at that river on the way out to slosh the worst of the sweat off me, but overall the day wasn't uncomfortable.

Strange reflection gone Strange reflection off something in the valley
While near the Welch summit I noticed something reflecting brilliantly right at me from the valley, bright enough to smear the sensor in the camera a little bit.  After walking slightly off-axis [and letting the sun angle change in the meantime] I could finally tell what it was -- just very flat skylights on some house along Orris Road.  Since I was looking west and heading southward off the Welch summit, these shots are positionally correct as I saw the effect.

In fact, if you "stereogram" these with the divergent-eyes method, you can see the depth of the landscape.  With your eyeballs effectively a couple of hundred feet apart...

Weird footprint holes in the rock? Monster footprints in the rock??  There are quite a few random eroded holes like this here and there.

Trail edge markers made from logs A little down Welch there's a "false summit" overlook, and efforts have been made to protect the plant life and guide hikers along a durable trail, using logs and rocks laid out along the slabs.  I first saw this in the background of someone's trip video, and wondered was up with weird constructs; in real life it becomes obvious.

Mountain bike tracks in an unexpected place As I neared the bottom I noted that people apparently mountain-bike parts of this trail, but I'm sure they aren't riding up some of the steeper scrambles near the top of Welch.

Tree roots resembling bent conduit Looks like runs of neatly bent conduit.  Well, in a way it is, but not placed by human hands.

  I arrived back at the trailhead without incident, having blitzed the loop in about 2 hours actual-moving-time and minimal sitting around.  It was just early afternoon, leaving me plenty of time to head up toward the campground and maybe catch some touristy stuff along the way.

  Into Franconia

It had been years since I'd been up to Franconia Notch, and at the time probably for a single-purpose ski trip over to Loon or something.  Now I had the leisure to poke along and check out some of the other salient points of the area, continuing with my little voyage of discovery.  I wanted to see exactly what all those online info-pages about trailheads, hiker shuttles, local sights, and parking restrictions were really talking about.  The highway right-of-way is so narrow through the stretch that it goes down to one travel lane in each direction, without full interchanges, so to get to an exit on the opposite side one has to to go past it to the next full interchange and double back.  Thus, coming northbound I would necessarily have to go up at least as far as the Cannon tramway exit and turn around, so I decided to stop into everything along the way for a quick lookaround.

Even on a weekday afternoon, the big Flume Gorge visitor center lot was fairly busy and very sun-exposed with no shade to park under, not to mention the fact that visitors are charged stiff fees for a short wander up the walkway into the Gorge to see the waterfalls.  I decided to skip dealing with any of that for the nonce, and continued on to the Basin lot [one of two, there's one on each side of 93].

Water flow in the Basin I pulled in and found fully shaded parking, and took a quick hop through the under-highway tunnel and out a short trail to the Basin itself.  This is simply a stretch where the Pemigewasset River courses down through some rounded rock formations, but tourists always seem to like that sort of thing.  Past a small viewing platform the trail simply runs up along the river, and I could step down into it and play in the swift flow over the slabs.  It felt really nice, although I was probably photo-bombing some number of phone-camera shots in the process.  I didn't stay long, though, there was more stuff to go see.

Traffic control bollards to prevent roadside parking The next stop was one of the spots I was most concerned about: the Lafayette trailhead parking, which has a fairly large lot but is frequently jam-packed full.  The overcrowding has been a sticky problem for years, and this year the park officials began clamping down on parked cars unsafely overflowing onto the shoulders of the highway, as described in this article and others that it points to.  The bollards and rope were part of the interim solution; shuttle service to bring hikers between the larger lots up at Cannon and the trailheads was another part of it.
Regardless, the exact loop I intended to do from here is said to be *the* most popular White Mountains hike.  I pulled off and tooled through the Lafayette lot just to have a look; it was fairly full but not completely.  Of course this was about 3 in the afternoon, after some number of the early-morning hikers had likely come and gone, so it was hard to tell.

I continued onward to said Cannon lot, which is off the next full interchange and the opportunity to turn around.  I wandered through the main lot and saw the little gravel extension pointed to by signs saying "hiker parking" -- making it feel like hikers get treated in a sort of second-class manner, reserving the *nice* parking lot for the lazy tourists who just want to take the tram ride.  See, snobbery can work both ways.

Matching an 'old man' silhouette post to the cliffside Right next to the Cannon lots is the Old Man viewing area, which used to be the spot to see the iconic New Hampshire "Great Stone Face", until it fell off the mountain a few years back.  That caused great consternation for a while, but local groups pulled together and came up with a solution to memorialize the Old Man's presence.  The little viewing park now has structures that re-create the silhouette when viewed from behind, which is rather clever.  Line up the image with the remaining outcrop, and the Face returns.

Assembly of bumps forming great stone face image And it's not just an outline "gobo" attached to a stick, either.  In the original formation, an assembly of rocks at different depths along the cliff face combined to form the image, so the viewing rods do much the same.  With the separate bumps affixed to the south side of the rods, they also re-create how sunlight would have hit parts of the Old Man components at different times of day.

[Pic over-enhanced to bring out features, as it was a bad phone-camera shot with almost no visible detail in the darks.]

  Humans really are wired to try and see faces and body figures in just about everything; it's part of our running recognition firmware.  I remember reflecting on this when roadtripping out through the Black Hills in South Dakota, in the area around Rushmore.  Many of the rock spires look like bodies and limbs and heads, and it was easy to see someone getting inspired to carve faces into those particular hills.  The funny thing is, when you drive around to the back side of Rushmore, a lot of what's around you starts looking like penises.  Streetview it for yourself...

Next stop was the campground, and check-in was all very straightforward since I'd reserved and paid in advance.  I drove around the loop and found my spot, conveniently right next to the river.  A quick wet-rag wipedown therein was a vastly preferable alternative to overpriced pay showers, and with the evening already nicely cooling down I felt amply comfortable for the night's sleep.  I set up the Prius-camping basics and then took a bit of a wander around the grounds, logging my track after noting that my Open Streetmap snapshot from a couple of years ago had fairly wrong data about the campground roads and where the river was.  [Someone appears to have fixed it in the interim.]

View of Mt. Lincoln from Lafayette ramps My stroll took me out by the front entrance, where I could gaze up at the next day's big challenge.  The phone even grabbed a reasonable shot of it.  The peak in the middle is Lincoln; most of Lafayette is hidden behind the shoulder of its own ridge, and I'm not sure which bit toward the right is Little Haystack.

Another thing I observed is that the on/off ramps through this stretch can be total death-traps, as the merge and decel areas are fairly short and most of the single-lane thru-traffic gives *absolutely* no consideration to drivers wanting to exit or enter.  Even with the local speed limit down to 45, navigating around here can be its own kind of exciting.  Assuredly, the Yuppie Button had gotten its share of use that afternoon.

Cozy campsite For how busy and populated it may get in season, the Lafayette campground is really quite lovely.  Heavily wooded and shady, with *paved* access roads which were easier on my feet as I walked around -- I had, after all, put them through some bit of work that day and had to let them rest up for the next big haul, right?  There were also very few bugs around today, even as dusk started to fall.

I found that the previous site occupants had left some quantity of unused firewood next to the ring, along with some bits of discarded paper and cardboard in the ring itself.  It looked like enough to get a modest fire going with, and after collecting a bit more small deadfall in the woods between me and the river I decided to go ahead and entertain myself by burning it all.

I finished configuring the car rig for overnight and ate some equivalent of dinner, while utterly failing to find any whisper of data connectivity available -- no wifi, no cell.  A fellow a couple of sites down had been on his phone earlier, and at one point I asked him what carrier he had.  He said he was local and knew for 100% certain that Verizon was the *only* carrier that had any usable service in the area, so that's what he had.  Even T-Mobile's own coverage-comparison map pretty much shows that, with T-Mo itself distinctly dark through the valley north of Lincoln (view animation) , and there are even posts on T-Mo's "community support forum" site griping about it.  Well, not that I needed to get online anyway, I kind of expected to stay unplugged for a couple of days and that was just fine. 

Tending a fire Tending a fire, even if for no particular purpose than "hiker TV", is a rather zen thing.  Normally I don't bother with campfires, but tonight it was not only convenient, it almost felt ceremonial in a way and brought on a bit of introspection.  Here I would neatly burn up all the available resources I had found, and doing so effectively would require a bit of paying attention.  Tomorrow would be a rite of passage for me, in which I would probably use up a lot of *my* resources going for a significant accomplishment.
Welch-Dickey hadn't been particularly difficult, sure, but what I was about to tackle next is considered on the gnarly end as far as day-hikes in the Whites -- maybe not super-long, but over rather rugged and strenuous trails with a lot of height gain.  The two destinations I'd chosen had a nice relationship in my mind -- similar general layout and loop strategy, but the Franconia loop would be about twice the distance and twice the elevation change as Welch-Dickey.  I could try to imagine doing my first day's hike twice in a row as equivalent to what lay ahead.

A big part of this would be to prove myself to myself, and that was very clearly in my mind as I gazed into my little creation here and pushed parts of it around to keep it going.  If I, my feet as well as the rest of me, could handle the Franconia loop then I was probably ready for whatever else the Whites could throw at me -- in the warmer seasons, anyway.  And it wasn't just the hikes, it was the whole process -- deciding on destinations, arranging for the campsite, getting my shit together in general, in the fairly short timeframe that I'd set for myself.  Not to mention making time to re-acquaint myself with some of the touristy stuff and investigate the real-life parking situations.  I needed to do this in part to convince myself that productively getting up to NH mountains in general wasn't such a big deal after all.  Once I got to know the roads better, I figured the drives would start to at least *feel* shorter as more of them occurred.

The fire eventually consumed itself down to low coals, and it was time to tuck in.  Because as they say, a great hike begins with a great night's sleep!  It felt a little strange being back in the "sleeper berth" after so long, and one minor disadvantage at Lafayette is hearing the traffic on 93.  But other than one or two loud jake-brakes overnight, it wasn't really a problem.

Continue to Part 2: the Big Day

_H*   190721