At the top of Franconia Notch and high above the west side of the Parkway are Bald Mountain and Artist’s Bluff. A hike up one or both make for a wonderful outing with the reward of big mountain views for a modest effort.
Interstate 93 turns into the Franconia Notch Parkway as the road enters the narrow notch. Franconia Notch is just packed with interesting places to see and fun things to do: the Flume Gorge, Cannon Cliff, Lafayette Place Campground, the Old Man of the Mountain historic site, Profile Lake, Cannon Mountain’s Tramway & the New England Ski Museum, Echo Lake and more. These are places every New Hampshirite should visit and take their out of town friends with them too.
Exit 34C is the last Parkway exit at the north end of Franconia Notch and the exit you must take to reach the hiking trails to Artist’s Bluff and Bald Mountain. Turn west on Route 18 to Echo Lake for the east trailhead – 6/10ths of a mile roundtrip to Artist’s Bluff or to Cannon’s Peabody Lodge for the west trailhead – 8/10ths of a mile roundtrip to Bald Mountain. Or make a loop over the two peaks and back to your car is about 2 miles.
I like visiting both peaks and I don’t think it makes much difference whether you choose to hike the loop clockwise or counter clockwise. But one thing I like to do is to park my car where I am planning to end my hike. I prefer to warm up hiking the lower portion of the loop trail first.
This day I parked my car at the Peabody Lodge because I wanted to hike Artist’s Bluff first and then Bald Mountain.
The west trailhead is across from the Cannon Peabody Lodge entrance on the far side of the north parking lot, this is the parking lot that is blocked off to cars during the summer months. There is room for a few cars to park alongside the road at its blocked entrance or and there is plenty of parking at the ski area.
This past mid-May the Trailwrights, a volunteer group of trail maintainers, cleared the trails and did basic spring clean-up. You will find the trails in good condition and well blazed.
I started up the trail and turned right on the Loop Trail, marked with red blazes. The trail goes gently downhill and intersects with the trail that leads up to Artist’s Bluff. This is nicer than walking the road between the two trailheads.
I turned left and headed up the short and steep trail. The steepest sections have nice rock stairways. This is the most popular hike; it may be steep but it is short. The bare cliffs of the bluff are a favorite for early spring rock climbing because they dry out quickly. A couple of groups were rock climbing and taking advantage of this rare sunny dry spring day!
I wasn’t surprised to find dozens of people sitting on top of Artist’s Bluff. A few were eating picnic lunches and others were just relaxing in the sunshine on the bare ledges.
A man asked me to confirm that the big peak to the west was Lafayette. I spent a few minutes with him and his family pointing out and naming the nearby peaks. Another man close by chimed in that he had hiked Lafayette when he was young man.
I hiked back down to the trail and turned right and continued up hill. There are some good wildflowers to see along the way between the peaks. Trilliums were on their way out and the Pink Lady Slippers were just starting to bloom. There are a few rock outcroppings just off the trail that offer grand vistas too.
Up and over and then down until I reached the Bald Mountain spur and I headed up. This trail up to the top is more difficult. This peak is a true mini-mountain. Near the bare ledgy summit you might have to scramble on all fours. Even though the distance is short it truly feels like you reached a big bald mountaintop.
I gather that most people skip visiting this fine peak. While there were dozens and dozens on Artist’s Bluff there were only a few people up here. I find that this is usually the case.
There are still a few iron pieces here and there bolted into the ledge. A reminder from a time long ago when there no cars flying up the parkway, no ski trails on Cannon Mountain and there was a large hotel, the Profile House standing near where the Tramway is today. These iron pieces might have held in place a handrail or a viewing platform to delight the guests of the hotel.
When the Profile House burned, the owners decided not to rebuild but to sell Franconia Notch to the State of New Hampshire. Franconia Notch State Park was born in 1928.
From the top of Bald Mountain this is the best place to study Cannon’s ski trails and to look for bears foraging on its grassy slopes.
When I finished the loop I only had a short walk across the parking lot to get back to my car.