Backpacking Old Speck Mtn and the West Grafton Loop

Old Speck Mountain and Grafton Notch in Southwestern Maine
Old Speck Mountain (4170′) and Grafton Notch in Southwestern Maine

Grafton Notch is a magnificent mountain pass in Southwestern Maine, a short drive from Gorham, NH, the last major trail town that Appalachian Trail thru-hikers visit before leaving New Hampshire. Crowned by towering Old Speck Mountain, which has a viewing tower at its peak, Grafton Notch rivals Franconia Notch, Crawford Notch, and great White Mountain passes to its south in beauty. While the surrounding mountains aren’t as high, the hiking and backpacking is absolutely first-rate, and tough, given its proximity to the Mahoosuc Trail section of the Appalachian Trail and famous Mahoosuc Notch, on the south side of Old Speck.

I started my hike at the Grafton Notch hiker’s parking lot off Rt 26 and started climbing Old Speck on the Eyebrow Trail, a steep side trail which is not recommended for descent. It isn’t that steep, but there are places on the route where trail maintainers have decided to install metal hand holds and even a cable so you can pull yourself up some of the steeper slopes. Being the Labor Day weekend, there were a fair number of people climbing Old Speck at the same time as me, but they went up the Old Speck Trail, which coincides with the Appalachian Trail. I was completely alone on the Eyebrow Trail, which rejoins the Old Speck Tr and the AT 1.2 miles and 1050 ft. uphill.

This wasn’t my first ascent of Old Speck. I’d climbed the peak back in 2009 when I section hiked this part of the Appalachian Trail, starting in Grafton Notch and hiking south to Gentian Pond, passing through famous Mahoosuc Notch, the hardest mile of the AT. Funny thing was, I couldn’t remember a thing about that section hike last weekend. Nothing. It was very odd. Old Speck is a very strenuous climb, gaining 2850 feet in 3.8 miles. Perhaps that’s why my mind lost the memory.

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View of Grafton Notch from the Eyebrow Trail Cliff
View of Grafton Notch from the Eyebrow Trail Cliff

The weather was absolutely ideal for backpacking and bagging a Maine 4000 footer though, with temperature in the 50’s and bright sunshine. Summer and this year’s regional drought have been hellacious in New England with record high temperatures and excessive humidity; it was a relief to hike in cool dry air for a change without having to take a bath in my clothing from perspiration.

I saw many AT thru-hikers hiking down Old Speck as I climbed up it, that I recognized from the backpacking trip I’d done just prior to this one, a bit south on the AT over Goose Eye Mountain. They recognized me and were very surprised to see me hiking southbound after running into me headed north, just one day prior! You have to hand it to those thru-hikers. Southern Maine is insanely difficult to hike and they were cranking out 15 miles days, which is impressive given the rocky, perpendicular terrain. Hiking through the White Mountains is just a warmup for hiking the Maine Appalachian Trail.

Grafton Loop West Side
Grafton Loop West Side – Click for Downloadable/Printable PDF – Track Collected with Gaia/iPhone

The Grafton Loop Trail (West Section)

The Grafton Loop Trail is a new trail completed in 2007 that is designed to help take some of the pressure off the nearby section of the Appalachian Trail and the Speck Pond campsite which receive very heavy use. It connects an eight mile section of the Appalachian Trail with thirty miles of new trail, forming a loop hike in Grafton Notch that crosses Maine Rt 26 close to its half-way point. A complete history of the trail and a turn-by-turn trail description of the western section is provided in the 29th edition of The White Mountain Guide. A full description of the entire loop can be found in the AMC’s Maine Mountain Guide.

Be forewarned when trying to sort out descriptions and maps of the Grafton Loop:

  1. The mileage listed in the guide books don’t always match the trail signs you find on the ground, however they’re tolerably close.
  2. The Appalachian Trail section of the Grafton Loop (38 miles long) is different from the Grafton Loop Trail (30 miles long). For example, you need to climb Old Speck Mountain which is on the Appalachian Trail (8 miles long) in order to reach the northern end of the western section of the Grafton Loop Trail. The naming scheme can be confusing to keep straight. Double check your assumptions on a map if planning to hike this route.
  3. While a free AMC map of the complete Grafton Loop does exist, it’s missing at least one tent site and provides less detail about water sources than maps published by the USGS and available for free on Caltopo.com. I deliberately tracked my route in Gaia (a phone-based GPS app) so I could publish it in this trip report and annotate it with up-to-date tent site and water source information.
The Grafton Loop Trail starts after you climb Old Speck
The Grafton Loop Trail starts after you climb Old Speck

With those preliminaries behind us….I didn’t have time to hike the entire 38 mile Grafton Loop  on this trip, so I finished the western section of the Grafton Loop Trail after climbing Old Speck Mountain, bringing my total mileage on this trip to about 17 miles. Hiking the western section of the Grafton Loop is a good distance for a one night backpacking trip, which is what I was looking for.

While I chose to climb Old Speck first and then hike south along the Grafton Loop Trail, you could just as easily start at southern end of the section and hike north toward Old Speck. The reason I picked the direction I did is because I planned to hitchhike the 7.5 miles along Rt 26 from the southern end back to the Grafton Notch parking lot where I’d left my car.

After the arduous climb up Old Speck, I expected much the same on the south side of the peak. To my surprise, the top of the Grafton Loop Trail was a gentle spruce-needle covered trail, with nary a rock to be seen. I motored down the slope at a fast clip eager to find a water source, thinking about calling it an early day and hanging out in camp for a few hours before dark to enjoy the cool evening weather.

The Grafton Loop Trail passes through lovely forest with dense vegetation on either side of the trail
The Grafton Loop Trail passes through lovely forest with dense vegetation on either side of the trail.

This section of the Grafton Loop trail passes through privately held land that owners have made accessible to hikers. The area’s clearly been logged judging by the amount of understory growth growing along the trail. There are also parts of the trail where the vegetation should be brushed out a bit.

A blue blaze is used to mark the trail but it is used sparingly, although the trail’s tread is easy to follow and reasonably well signed. While there are four campsites on the west side of the loop, situated near water sources, water availability at the two southernmost sites – Sargent Brook and Bald Mountain – was quite poor when I hiked through (early September, 2016). I attribute this to the bad regional drought we’ve been experiencing this summer. Think about carrying extra water when hiking through this section.

I quickly arrived at the Bull Brook tent site which has an excellent water source, a bountiful stream with a nice pour-over convenient for filling a platypus reservoir. Unfortunately, the campsite had been taken over by a group of college kids, obviously a college orientation trip, and they were whooping it up when I arrived. I wanted peace and quiet, so I beat feet, and hoped the next tent site would be more serene.

On the way out, I met a fellow traveler who’d also decided to move on. We had a nice chat about hiking on The Long Trail, the Catskills, Adirondacks, and Whites. He was obviously a very experienced backpacker and we chatted while I filtered a few liters of cold water with my Sawyer Point One Filter and he munched on cheese sticks and a pack of tuna.

Setting up camp at the Slide Mtn tentsite on the Grafton Loop Trail
Setting up camp at the Slide Mtn tent site on the Grafton Loop Trail

We parted and I headed down the trail another mile, arriving at the Slide Mtn campsite around 4:30 pm. I’d gotten a late start that morning, only starting Old Speck at 10:30 am because I’d hiked the 4.4 mile Notch (Mahoosuc Notch) Trail earlier in that morning. I had the campsite to myself – just like I like it – and proceeded to set up camp for the night.

I was soon joined by another backpacker named Kate, who started hiking the western section from the south end and was headed up to Old Speck the next day. We quickly realized that we had a very good friend in common and that we’d corresponded by email the previous year about hiking together in the north country. Small, small world.

She set up camp on the tent pad closest to me and we had dinner together chatting away about Hiking all the trails in the Whites, a crazy pursuit where you hike all 1440 miles/608 (non-contiguous) trails that are listed in the AMC White Mountain Guide. She’s about 55% done, while I’m quickly approaching the 90% point. Only 32 people have completed hiking all the trails in The WMG since people started keeping track in 1991. The WMG has been around since 1907 and is on its 29th edition.

I was exhausted and crashed immediately after dinner, even before sunset. The next morning, we were both up at 6:15 am getting ready for the day, when Kate asked whether I’d like to shuttle her car from the southern Grafton Loop Trail parking lot back up to where she would finish the trail and where my car was parked. I couldn’t turn that down, because it meant I wouldn’t have to hitch or race to finish the trail in order have time to get a ride before dark. Like I said, we have a very good mutual friend, and I’m not hard to find on the Internet, Facebook, and my web site. She knew she could trust me.

The Bald Summit of Sunday River Whitecap Mtn
The bald Summit of Sunday River Whitecap Mtn

I broke camp first and took off hiking south looking forward to my next destination, a bald mountain called Sunday River Whitecap which has marvelous 360 degree views of Grafton Notch and the entire Mahoosuc Range. It’s not a super tall peak, but the views from it are remarkable and I could pick out dozens of peaks by name in the clear crisp weather, all the way down south in the Northern Presidentials. I sat down and hung out for a while, soaking in the views.

Onward. As I headed south the trail gradually became rougher, more like other Mahoosuc region trails. I soon arrived at the Sargent Brook tent site, which had a very small creek for a water source with a tiny trickle of water. It’s clearly been affected by the drought and not one that I’d advise counting on until we get some soaking rains in the region.

One of seven steep ladders on the south side of Stowe Mtn on the Grafton Loop Trail.
One of seven steep, back-to-back wooden ladders on the south side of Stowe Mtn on the Grafton Loop Trail.

The next viewless bump was Stowe Mountain, interesting for the steep rocks stairs and seven wooden ladders that descend its southern flank. I couldn’t help thinking about the art and skill that goes into making these ladders using found materials, axes, and cross-cut saws. The precision in which the long logs are notched and the boards shaped and pegged in place is very impressive, especially when you consider the how difficult it must be to do it with hand tools alone.

Once past Stowe Mtn, the trail becomes quite mellow passing through open forest along a long brook bed. Unfortunately, the brook bed is essentially dry at the Bald Mountain tent site, just 2.2 miles from the trail’s end at Rt 26. I did managed to scoop some water out of a standing pool and filter the guppies out of it with my Sawyer, but held it in reserve since I was running low. The flow improves significantly as you get closer to Rt 26, so get your water farther south.

Trail's End - south end of western section of the Grafton Loop Trail
Trail’s End – south end of western section of the Grafton Loop Trail.

Nearing Rt 26, the Grafton Loop Trail crosses the Bear River over a snowmobile bridge, before passing through several hay fields, finally terminating at a farm gate. Kate’s car was at the lot 0.6 miles north along Rt 26 at the trailhead to the eastern section of the trail, a short road walk on gravel and tarmac.

Just as I was about to get into Kate’s car a hiker approached me, coming out of the trees at the trail head. He asked, “Excuse me sir. I was with a group and had to bail. I have a friend coming to pick me up. Can you tell me where the nearest coffee shop is.” I was speechless for a moment before replying, “About 25 miles away. You’re in the middle of nowhere.” He looked crestfallen. “Do you know the address here?”, he asked clutching his cell phone in hand. “You’re in the town of Newry, Maine,” I replied, rolling my eyes. Have we all lost our ability to read maps?

My advice – do your homework before hiking the Grafton Loop and bring a good map or two with you, even if you’re not leading a hike. It’s a lovely trail but a new one and off the beaten track for many New England hikers who are used to the well documented trails in the White Mountains or along the Appalachian Trail. What about the east half of the loop? It’s moved up on my to-do list, that’s for sure.

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