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4000 Foot Hikes

Cannon Mtn. | 4100 ft | NH

Lonesome Lake Trail to Hi-Cannon Trail

Cannon Mtn. 4100 ft

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After a harder-than-expected hike up Mt. Moosilauke, I had high hopes of Cannon Mountain being relatively easy. This was my first hike-camp-hike two day adventure, and I’m still working at mastering the skill of sleeping in a tent. It’s just… so… quiet. I actually slept in the car on this trip, since the overnight temps dipped into the 30s, but it still wasn’t a great night’s rest. I did make coffee in a French press and ate blueberry oatmeal pancakes with a lot of maple syrup, so at least I was caffeinated and sugared up when I left the site and headed for I-93. 

The Interstate travels through the middle of Franconia Notch State Park and becomes Franconia Notch Parkway for 8 miles as it travels through the notch. This mountain pass reduces to just one lane in each direction, which is unique for a substantially trafficked highway. It is a beautiful drive, dominated by peaks on either side. Franconia Notch is also home to the former site of the Old Man of the Mountain, a famous rock formation that collapsed in 2003. 

I parked at the Lafayette Campground south parking area on the west side of the parkway and headed to the Lonesome Lake Trail trailhead. The Appalachian Mountain Club White Mountain Guide notes Lafayette Place parking lots fill early during the summer and fall, so plan to arrive early to avoid having to leave a car on the side of I-93. 

A large sign marks the Lonesome Lake Trail’s start, after which it crosses the Pemigewasset River on a footbridge and a paved stretch of the Pemi Trail, then travels through the campground and across two more roads before officially entering the woods. After less than a half-mile, I veered right onto the Hi-Cannon Trail and began ascending a series of short switchbacks. The AMC encourages hikers to stay on the trail here and not shortcut the switchbacks. Doing so leads to further erosion. This area also has several old logging roads, and I had to check my map to make sure I hadn’t strayed off onto one of them. 

After Dodge Cutoff enters from the left at the top of a ridge, the Hi-Cannon Trail becomes significantly steeper and rougher. I somehow missed the Cliff House, which AMC references multiple times in the guide. It is a natural rock shelter; the enormous top slab overhangs like a roof. I was likely distracted by the flat section of trail I’d just passed that was full of tree roots doing astounding things. There was an old birch leaning heavily toward the ground, and its roots had formed a jail-like space beneath it. This hike occurred pre-spring leaf explosion, so the gray roots coming out of the white snow and topped with bright green moss were a stunning color combo. 

I didn’t miss the next trail feature, however: a narrow, well-worn ladder leading to a tricky ledge traverse. I wouldn’t try it in rain or ice… or with a dog, unless your pup can be carried (or is a fearless, agile athlete). 

Above the ladder, the wooded trail traverses a series of ledges, and a thin line of trees separates the trail from the cliffs. An occasional break in the growth reveals incredible views of the road below and Lonesome Lake to the south. I considered going through the trees for a better look, but just a few steps made it abundantly clear there was no illusion to the staggering plunge beyond the ledge. The AMC guide warns to use extreme caution here, noting the cliffs “drop off sharply.”

Descending a ladder, seen while hiking Cannon Mountain in the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire
Not for the faint of heart… or dogs

Noted (and observed first hand). 

After the ledge, Hi-Cannon Trail becomes generally moderate. There was still snow on the ground, but the postholing wasn’t as bad as on Moosilauke. At 2 miles, Hi-Cannon intersects Kinsman Ridge Trail, which leads (briefly) toward the summit. A significant intersection of trails come together near a sign marking the National Forest and State Park lands. From this mildly confusing jumble of paths, a gravel trail leads to the summit, where a massive observation tower stands. The tower is in use for some electronic purpose (my research suggests it is a ‘radio repeater’), made obvious by the humming and buzzing. 

Despite some wild wind, I climbed to the top of the tower to check out the views. Nearby Cannon Mountain Ski Area operates an aerial tramway, the original version of which was the first passenger one of these in the country. As far as I can tell, the tram is opening soon for the summer 2021 season. Additional (probably useless) trivia about Cannon: US Olympic skier Bode Miller grew up skiing here. 

After observing the views and nearly being blown off the tower, I hustled down to start my descent. I’d originally planned to take Kinsman Ridge Trail to Lonesome Lake Trail, which would have taken me past Lonesome Lake and the adjacent AMC hut and added 1.6 miles to the hike. This is the route AllTrails wanted me to take (and is reflected in the link in this post)… but I was tired and rain was coming and I had things to buy at REI in North Conway for an upcoming backpacking trip. I was looking for the fastest route back to my car, so I retraced my steps. The hardest part was backing down the ladder. All I could think about was how glad I was I hadn’t brought Luna AND how eager I was to share this very important detail with fellow dog-loving hikers. 

I beat the rain back to the car and happily checked Cannon Mountain off my 4000s list. It was a nice hike and the tower is a big, unique payoff. There was some nostalgia wrapped up in this hike too. I have clear memories of standing on the bank of Profile Lake, just a bit north on the parkway, looking up at the Old Man of the Mountain before he fell. It’s unfortunate that the jagged cliff edge no longer resembles the face of a man. It was a rare and awe-inspiring site formed during the glacial retreat… meaning it had been around for over 12,000 years. In 1850, author Nathanial Hawthorne referred to the face as “a work of Nature in her mood of majestic playfulness”.

View from the tower, seen while hiking Cannon Mountain in the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire
The top of the aerial tramway, seen from the tower

In the 1920s, when the face first started showing signs of stress in the form of fissures, the state used chains and later waterproofing, cement, plastic, and steel rods to keep the rocks in place. The image had become a mascot for New Hampshire, appearing on license plates, coins, and road signs. I understand why they tried to preserve the formation, even if they were acting in futility against nature’s will. 

When the face fell sometime after midnight on May 3, 2003, viewers came to mourn, pay tribute, and leave flowers. The collective sense of loss felt when the Old Man fell is a reminder of how impacted we are by nature. This was a tourist attraction and a site-seeing opportunity, so the actual impact was limited to emotional human responses. If only we could all react with such impassioned sorrow as we watch the ice caps melt, the seas rise, and global weather events turn toward the extreme.

As hiking, climbing, and just being in the woods reminds me repeatedly: nature does what it wants and what it must. It disregards our human feelings and responds to our human actions. Until we collectively choose actions that protect the environment over feelings of sadness about what we’re losing, nature will take whatever path it must and we will continue to lose.

Summit lesson: Nature is constantly urging us to take action in small ways and, more importantly, major ways. We serve ourselves personally and globally when we respond to both.  

Cannon Mtn: Lonesome Lake Trail to Hi-Cannon Trail

Total elevation: 4,100 ftElevation gain: 2,352 ft
Mileage: 5.6 milesAlpine exposure: minor, unless you climb the tower
Terrain: steep sections, rocks, wooded trailChallenges: slippery rocks, drop offs, ladder
View payoff: 360 views at the top of the towerDogs: no, unless they can be carried

Recap: This was a moderately challenging hike made easier by the relatively short distance. It’s suitable for experienced kid-hikers but not for dogs, unless they can be easily carried up a ladder. Anyone who has a serious fear of heights may struggle along the ledges; you’re not in danger of falling unless you walk out onto the cliffs (DON’T!), but the knowledge of just how steep the drop off is could be an anxiety trigger. The tower at the top is amazing and very fun to climb, and it would be worth looking into the Cannon Mountain Ski Area aerial tramway as a potential ascent or descent option, especially for a family trip.

Remember to be safe!

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