Just because it’s a holiday weekend doesn’t mean you can’t be spontaneous and get out of town for an outdoor adventure. When it comes to camping, not all sites can be booked online or ahead of time. First-come, first-serve campsites are available at many of the White Forest National Forest campgrounds in New Hampshire, just a short drive over the Maine border.
To ensure you have at least a couple of campsite options, get to the area around noon.
This strategy worked well when a friend and I decided on a last-minute camping and hiking trip over the Fourth of July holiday weekend.
With a two-night, three-day stay in the White Mountains, choosing hikes based on what appeals to you (mountain summits, waterfalls or both) and that suits your fitness level takes a bit more planning.
There are many hiking options to choose from in the areas between Crawford and Franconia notches, but if you’re in need of recommendations, you can just do what we did on our recent three-day trip.
Choose an easy hike on the first day to warm up, take on a tough climb for the second day and go for a moderate option before driving home.
Check out the Pemigewasset Ranger District area of the Forest Service’s website for camping options near Crawford and Franconia notches, which are closest to the hiking trails mentioned below.
After a campsite set-up, you might only have a few hours before sunset to squeeze in a hike. If your campsite is in the Pemigewasset Ranger District (Sugarloaf I and II or Zealand campgrounds), you won’t be far from the Zealand Trail and the Appalachian Mountain Club hut (it’s open to the public during daylight hours). This 5.6 mile hike (round-trip) is packed gravel on fairly level ground with a great boardwalk that meanders through a lovely valley view. There is a small trail spur to see the base of the waterfall before the main trail takes you up the steep (but short) climb to the AMC Zealand Falls Hut. You’ll get a satisfying view for the effort.
TRAIL NAME: Zealand Trail to the AMC Zealand Falls Hut
DISTANCE: 2.8 miles one way
ELEVATION GAIN: 650 feet
TRAILHEAD PARKING COORDS: 44.2249, -71.4783; off Route 302, follow Zealand Road until it ends at the trailhead.
With an early start, you can drive to Franconia Notch State Park to hike Mount Lafayette, with a plan to stop at the AMC Greenleaf Hut on the way. The ascent on the Bridle Path is a steady climb for 2.9 miles with 2,450-foot elevation gain to the hut and might be a serious challenge if you don’t hike very often.
To get to the summit of Mount Lafayette from the hut, it’s another 1.1 miles and an additional 1,150-foot elevation gain. If you’re not up for that additional elevation to the summit, the AMC hut is a fine destination. You’re likely to find a delicious baked good at the hut (there are often baked goods in the late morning/early afternoons with a small donation request – we had a delicious cookie bar when we visited in July) to accompany your packed lunch.
The huts aren’t just for overnight guests, they are open to the public for (free) water refills (great for keeping your pack light on the way up!), bathrooms and tables to sit at for lunch. There can be a lot of activity in and around the hut and that makes for some fun conversations with hikers about the weather, gear and all sorts of other topics if you’re feeling chatty.
TRAIL NAME: Old Bridal Path to AMC Greenleaf Hut and Mount Lafayette
DISTANCE: 5.8 miles round-trip to the hut, 8 miles round-trip to the summit
ELEVATION GAIN: 2,450 feet to hut; 3,600 feet to summit
TRAILHEAD PARKING COORDS: 44.1429, -71.6824; off I-93 at Lafayette Place. Parking is available on both sides of the road with an underground tunnel to get to the trail.
With packing up the campsite and knowing you have to drive home, a hike to a waterfall can be just the right option for your last day in the mountains. But since roadside waterfalls are very popular (especially on holiday weekends), you’ll want to choose one that includes a bit of effort in hopes it is less crowded.
Arethusa Falls in Crawford Notch State Park is still a busy place but with a hike of about 1.4 miles (one-way) on the Arethusa Falls Trail and an elevation gain of about 750 feet, it takes some effort to get there. That elevation gain puts this in the moderate hike category, so be prepared for the workout. (Although after the Old Bridal Path the day before, you’ll think this one is easy!) The waterfall, the second tallest in New Hampshire, cascades over a wide rock cliff. It’s an impressively large display and during the summer you can do a bit of rock jumping to find a place to hang out on either side of the river.
TRAIL NAME: Arethusa Falls Trail
DISTANCE: About 2.7 miles round-trip
ELEVATION GAIN: 750 feet
TRAILHEAD PARKING COORDS: 44.1482, -71.3660; on Route 302, the trailhead is about a half-mile south of the Dry River Campground