On Sunday August 10 my husband and I did a nostalgic loop hike to Lonesome Lake in Franconia Notch, New Hampshire. I say “nostalgic” because we have done this hike many times, but the last time was probably at least ten years ago. When our children were young we made many camping trips to the White Mountains, and almost always we stayed in the Lafayette Campground in Franconia Notch. It’s a fabulous location because it’s so close to so many amazing hikes in the White Mountains. The campground, which is run by the Forest Service, is clean and modern, with a bath house with flush toilets and coin-operated hot showers. There is a ranger information center which offers nature talks and walks and various activities that are kid- and family-centered. The biggest downside is it’s popularity. In high season in the summertime, the campground fills up very quickly and by the afternoon there are usually no sites available. This is not a place for a quiet get-away, but kids appreciate the many sights and sounds. and occasional commotion.
Our favorite site was always #67. It abuts the Pemigawasset River (which is more like a stream) and is very large and level. It was perfect for our pop-up camper, yet there was still plenty of room for a campfire, hanging wet towels on a hastily strung laundry line between the trees, and a picnic table and screen room (against the bugs). It’s near a water tap for refilling canteens and washing dishes, not too far from the bathrooms (but not so close that you hear the door swinging shut in the middle of the night), and right next to the Pemigewasset Trail. Because we’d always leave our home town on a Saturday night, we’d get to New Hampshire around 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and just our luck, that seemed to be when people would pull out of the campground and vacate their campsites. It seemed that site #67 was just meant to be; despite the high demand we were able to claim it year after year.
During our stay there, we would always try different hikes, but the trek to Lonesome Lake was always on our annual bucket list. It’s a short, steep hike – – by the time the kids complained that they couldn’t walk another step, they were there and soon forgot any expended efforts – and the beautiful, cold lake with stunning mountain views was an instant reward.
In most of the boggy places, boards were placed over the trail so getting muddy was kept to a minimum.
Plus, the AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club) maintains a “hut” there, for hikers who wish to stay there overnight.
Besides a night’s sleep on a rather basic bunk in dormitory-style bunkhouses, the “croo” (crew), made up of college students having a summer adventure working for the AMC, cooks hearty breakfast and dinner for the overnight guests (not kosher, obviously).
A partial view of Lonesome Lake Hut, which overlooks Lonesome Lake and has beautiful views of the lake and surrounding mountains. This picture is of some of the dorm-like accommodations.
From the inside of the dining hall, views overlook the lake
Communal dining tables have beautiful views
A good overview of the main part of the hut, which shows the open kitchen and part of the dining hall.
The “croo” does all the cooking and organizing and ordering of supplies.
The way food and other supplies get to the “hut” is a story in itself, since it’s on top of a mountain with no road access. The “croo” members literally pack everything up the mountain – – huge crates weighing 40 – 80 lbs go on their backs in specially built packboards that turn these young people into human beasts of burden. They deliver these supplies on a daily basis.
This is the specially-designed packboard for carrying heavy crates of supplies by “croo” members to the hut.
As I said, the hike up to Lonesome Lake is steep but short – – but there are other “huts” throughout the White Mountains in New Hampshire where the hikes can be 5 – 8 miles of pure ascent – – imagine carrying up to 80 lbs of supplies every single day, no matter what the weather! Needless to say, the “croo” are in amazing physical shape by the end of summer when hut season ends. The croo’s duties extend beyond deliveries – – they must cook, clean, and maintain the huts throughout the summer; they must be goodwill ambassadors for the Appalachian Mountain Club, welcoming to paying guests, and founts of information about hiking trails, wildlife, and any other questions visitors might have. The pay is negligible (under $8/hr). Yet the competition to be a “croo” member is stiff: for every 6 – 16 yearly openings there are 150 – 200 applications! Most “croo” members return to work the huts year after year during their college years, in the summer months.
The bugs were finally gone (hooray!) and the weather was gorgeous with a predicted high of 82. We got to Lafayette Campground around 9 a.m. and set out for Lonesome Lake. Although we did a great deal of huffing and puffing, we reached the lake and hut in good spirits. Our dog was happy to cool off and take a nice, long drink in the clear water (but all water in the White Mountains, no matter how clean or pure it looks, should be filtered for human consumption due to the threat of the giardia parasite).
We sat on the porch of the hut for a lunch of cheese and crackers, fruit and nuts.
My spouse and our dog take a lunch break.
Before we continued onwards I decided to make use of the bathroom.
The bathroom at Lonesome Lake
Now ordinarily I would not regale you with bathroom stories, but this one is worth talking about. The Lonesome Lake bathroom is a large structure that houses both a women’s and men’s bathroom (toilets and sinks – – no showers) but what makes it unusual is that it’s a composting toilet system. For the uninitiated, what that means is that it doesn’t use water and there is no flushing involved. Yes, you are eliminating into a hole in the ground, which sounds gross, but unlike the typical outhouse, with composting toilets, there is NO bad smell, and the toilets themselves look like everyday toilets similar to what you’d find in your own bathroom at home. It’s especially amazing that it’s odorless, considering that on a peak weekend, the toilets could be used by 200 people per day!
As a person who is extremely fastidious about washing my hands after I use the bathroom (and completely grossed out by the thought of so many people who don’t wash their hands!), I got a good chuckle from the specialized ‘no-touch” door handle installed on the exit doors. Such a simple idea for a public restroom – – whoever thought of it is surely going to get rich!
A simple yet genius idea, but the fact that something like this is even necessary because some people don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom, is more than I want to think about!
Another cool thing about the Lonesome Lake Hut’s bathroom was the fascinating story that was pasted to the side of the stall. It tells the tale of mountain woman Emily Klug. In the 1930s she traveled and hiked solo throughout the White Mountains. Besides a small rucksack, she would carry several weeks of supplies and everything she needed by rolling her skirt up around her middle and placing her possessions inside.
Now that we were rested from our climb, we decided that rather than going back down the mountain the same way we’d come up, we’d take the Basin Cascades Trail down to the Basin, and from there go back to the campground via the Pemigewasset Trail, for a total loop hike of 6.5 miles.
More than 15 years ago, my husband, my older daughter, then a teenager, and I had hiked from Lonesome Lake to Cannon Mountain. This is an extremely challenging hike due to a ridiculously steep climb. At one point, the only way up is a metal rung ladder that one must climb up a steep rock ledge. When we finally got to the summit of Cannon Mountain, we were situated right next to a disembarking ski gondola. A tourist who had ridden the gondola up Cannon Mountain looked me up and down very carefully.
“Lady,” he said in a thick New York accent, “Did you just climb this mountain?”
“Yes!” I said, still feeling proud and excited by my accomplishment.
“Lady,” he said, “You need a psychiatrist!”
To which I answered, “This is what keeps me from needing a psychiatrist!”
Alas, we decided not to do the Cannon Mountain hike this time around: we were feeling old and tired and not in good enough shape, plus we had our dog with us and couldn’t envision carrying him up the ladder to the top of the ledge.
Instead we started making our way down the Basin Cascades trail. This is not a difficult trail, and in our case, it was all downhill; but for 75% of the time, one must navigate over boulders that become extremely tiresome for old knees and weak ankles. I was really glad I had my hiking poles as well as hiking boots that gave me lots of balanace and support.
The bouder-strewn trail on the Basin-Cascades trail wasn’t difficult, but it was tiresome stepping up and down over the rocks.
The trail has beautiful cascades and waterfalls at every turn.
Kinsman Falls, along the Basin-Cascades Trail
The Cascades, along the Basin-Cascades Trail in Franconia Notch
The Basin is a series of pools and flumes carved out of the giant boulders by crystal-clear water. It is easily accessible by car with a minimal amount of walking, and is a very popular tourist spot in the summer.
Unfortunately, due to a heavy storm in 2013, the bridge was out at one juncture and hadn’t yet been replaced (there were signs warning of this at the beginning of the hike). Since it hadn’t rained in a few days, I wasn’t overly worried about a high water crossing and indeed, with our Goretex-lined (waterproof) hiking boots, the ankle-high water was not a problem with some careful rock-hopping (again the poles helped us with balance).
Shortly after we crossed and stopped for a drink of water, a 50-ish woman hiking alone came to the crossing but was not so lucky. She took a small spill but the only injury she suffered was to her pride.
“I can’t believe I always fall when there are other people around. It’s so embarrassing!” she said.
We assured her that the only important thing was that she wasn’t hurt. We got to talking, and she had a most amazing story to tell. Linda, or “Heartwood” as was her “trail name,” was a thru-hiker. For the uninitiated, this is someone who chooses to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine, without stopping. “Heartwood” had been hiking since March, when she started in Georgia, and had walked 1,812 miles so far! She had lost 40 lbs in the process and gone through 4 pairs of hiking boots. She hoped to reach the end of the Appalachian Trail in Maine in 6 weeks’ time, for a total of 2, 168 miles hiked!
I asked her what she had done to train for this momentous hike.
“Nothing,” she claimed, “I just got up off the couch and decided to go!” She told us it had been a life-transforming journey in so many ways. Because she had been so out of shape, the beginning was “a killer. I would get chest pains and think I was having a heart attack,” she said. “But I never rushed it. I see some younger guys on the trail and they do 25 – 35 miles a day. I am taking it nice and slow, about 10 – 15 miles a day,” she said. “And one of the things I’ve liked best is that I’ve met the most incredibly kind and generous people all along the way,” she added. What an inspiring person!
We hoped we would see her again to find out more about her journey, so we offered to pick her up later in the week when she reached the Maine-NH border and the last point on the NH part of the trail. We told her she could look forward to a hearty meal and hot shower before we’d drive her back to the trail head, so she took our information and said she would try to be in touch. We said our goodbyes as she followed the white blaze (the Appalachian trail marker) and we followed the blue blaze in a different direction, down to the Basin.
We returned to Lafayette Campground via the gentle Pemigewasset Trail, where the composted pine needles made a nice cushion for my now-tired feet.
How fitting that the end of the trail took us directly past campsite #67, our old stomping grounds! I took a picture so I could send it to our kids (who probably don’t have as fond childhood memories of camping as we do, since as adults their idea of “camping” is a 3 star hotel).
Our favorite campsite #67 at Lafayette Campground in Franconia Notch State Park.
When we got home, we broke out the beer – – and the epsom salt. There is nothing like a nice, hot, long soak in the tub after a full day of hiking – – 6.5 miles total. Woohoo!
P.S. Sadly, late one night later in the week, we got the terrible news that our son’s father-in-law passed away in Detroit. We left the very next day from Maine to drive to our hometown, so we could take care of our granddaughters while my son and daughter-in-law spent the week in Detroit for the funeral and the initial period of mourning. As we drove to our home town, we got a chipper call from Linda/”Heartwood,” the Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, saying she would like to take us up on our offer to meet with her at the trailhead. Unfortunately, due to the tragic circumstances, we explained apologetically that we were on our way out of Maine and would not be able to make good on our promise of a meal and hot shower and some companionship. She was most gracious and understanding.