Saturday, August 27, 2011

Grafton Loop Trail - August 22-23, 2011

The Grafton Loop Trail is a 38.6 mile loop through Grafton Notch with commanding views of the Mahoosuc Range. The first parts of the trail were open in 2003, so it is very new, and I did not have a whole lot of information other than the Grafton Loop Trail Map from the AMC's page about the loop, which was the only map I needed during this trip. The trail passes over Old Speck Mountain, a Maine 4000 footer and Baldpate East, which is one of New England's 100 Highest. The other 3000 footers I'll talk about pack a punch. The trail was beautiful in every unique section, and I recommend it. I went for nearly 20 miles without seeing another person. Most do it as a 2-3 day backpack, but I had so much fun on the trail, I did it overnight...with way too much gear!

Hike Stats
Total Elevation Gain: 10,500ft

Day 1
Grafton Notch AT Parking Lot to Stewart Campsite
Old Speck 4170'
Sunday River Whitecap
Bald Mountain
Puzzle Mountain
22.4 miles

Day 2
Stewart Campsite to Grafton Notch AT Parking Lot
Long Mountain
East Baldpate
West Baldpate
16.2 miles

Without much information to go off of, I chose a counter clock wise route. This would get Old Speck done early, and give me two options for camp...Sargent Brook or Stewart Campsite. I headed up the Old Speck Trail, which is the Appalachian Trail Southbound from this main hub parking lot for the AT. The trail is pretty steep with lots of roots. It was also very wet and muddy at times. The sun was out and the trail passed a beautiful stream flowing off the mountain. I had passed 2 people coming down, to this point. Getting closer to Old Speck, the trail, although tricky already began to show off its beauty with the suns rays and deep green colors. I came to the junction with the Mahoosuc Trail, which takes the AT into NH. I headed on the Grafton Loop Trail towards Old Speck.
Waterfall on Old Speck
Morning rays and lush greenery on Old Speck Trail
The summit was socked in by heavy fast moving clouds. Here I saw the 3rd person on the trip, who was heading in the same direction. I explored the observation tower on my first Maine 4000 footer, Old Speck. Its a steep gradual climb, and on a clear day, I know how beautiful the view would be. After the climb, it was still rewarding to stand on the deck and cool off in the whipping wind. Before I started to freeze thought, I came down, put on my jacket to regulate my temperature and had a snack. I was now off south on the Grafton Loop Trail.
Old Speck Mountain Observation Tower
This next part of the trail was one of the most beautiful on the whole stretch. It descends Old Speck and passes through beautiful mountain woods around the side of Slide Mountain and into Miles Notch. If you hate pointless up and downs, this trail is not for you, its the name of the game here. Except this trail provides some great flat areas with open woods. I was wishing and hoping to see a moose or other wildlife, but I didn't see anything other than a cool caterpillar, a garter snake, bird, and field mice. There was deer poop every quarter mile, but didn't see any, but the scenery never disappointed.
Me on a straight, open woodlands section
After this beautiful stretch of trail, it ascends to Sunday River Whitecap at 3335'. Here I saw two women descending who said the wind was really strong on the summit. I threw on the jacket and my hat because I was wet and headed for the summit. There was lots of great trail work up here to help with the fragile environment. The summit was very impressive for its elevation, including a nice summit marker. The views were fantastic.
View from Sunday River Whitecap
From Sunday River Whitecap, it's 7.1 miles to Route 26, where the trail crosses. This was a very long descent to the road, but and I did it in a little over 3 hours. I ended the 17.5 mile western section by passing a large field on private property and crossing the Bear River Suspension Bridge. It was just before 3pm, and I had a .6 mile walk north on Route 26 to get to the Eddy Road trail head to continue. Then, it would be 5 miles to the Stewart Campsite. I was already committed to getting there because there is no camping except at designated sites, as many of it is private land (although you would never assume it if they didn't tell you).
No problem bringing a stove to experience this trail overnight
So I walked the road to the parking lot and started up towards Puzzle Mountain on the Eastern side of this loop. Puzzle Mountain was a tough 3000 footer. There are several tricky ledges near the top requiring attention (especially with a heavier pack than normal), except several separate sections of ledges afford views backwards towards Sunday River Ski Resort. The trail passes over the summit, and descends into the valley north of the mountain.
View from near the summit of Puzzle Mountain
Yes, it was just after 5pm, and I had less than 2 miles to go to the campsite. I was off down the trail, knowing I would make it in time, before sunset. The Stewart Campsite had an upper and lower section. I pitched my tent on the lower section away from the main section. The brook was rather unreliable, although I could have filtered water through what was there if I had to. I cooked my food and when finished put all of my food items into my bag and hung it up near the upper section of the camp site. The woods were pretty thick, and the slope was tough besides at the site, and you don't want to hang a bag upslope. The sites are raised earth tent pads.
My tent spot at the lower section of Stewart Campsite
I hung my bear bag around 7:45pm, and went down my tent. When I woke up the next morning and broke down camp. I went up to the upper camp to find two tents, a tarp tent and gear for an army. Their several food bags were hung on a line at a height at which an army of bears could grab. My bear bag might been hung sort of in the middle of everything, but it was done right about 15 feet up, not on string next to my tent. I don't even think they saw it. So it was like 8:30am, and everyone was sound asleep as I quietly untied my bag and lowered it into my hands. I went up the trail a bit to cook my hot granola breakfast and instant coffee. I couldn't believe it; it was rather funny to wake up to, I heard not heard a thing during the night, I have no idea what time they arrived.

After the Stewart Campsite, the trail straightens out and makes a very long and tiring ascent up Long Mountain through varying terrain. Its so long it, at times it doesn't feel like you're ascending a mountain. The trail was often overgrown here. Although overgrown, the path is well laid out through all of the overgrowth. There were sections like this in every quarter of this loop, which makes it a great experience. Despite this, there was not a worry about getting lost. The trail is so well marked, you could save the weight of the map.
The trail parallels the edge of a cleared section on way to Long Mtn.
I hadn't taken the spurs to the campsites along the way, but it was recommended to me on Old Speck to take the spur for the view on Long Mountain. After I finally made it there, I dropped the pack and bolted up the spur. There was a bench at the top overlooking the mountains. It was a great closed in, unique spot in the wilderness.
Water break at Long Mountain view point
After Long Mountain, the terrain was beautiful again. I was hiking and crossing more streams, a couple of which I re-filled at. (click link to see video) The trail passes along several great rock formations along this section, as well as some great alpine-like sections on the ascent up the side of Baldpate. On the way is Lightning Ledge, a viewpoint from which you can see exactly how far you've come.
View from Lightning Ledge, Grafton Loop Trail
Large blow down blocking trail
Lightning Ledge is still more than 2 miles before East Baldpate, so there was more to go. There were very little blow downs throughout the whole trail. However, right before the East Baldpate Campsite, I encountered an enormous group of blow downs blocking the trail at a switchback. There was a well-beaten dead end path that went right about 50 feet, but I finally discovered it went down to the left. There is a rock section with iron rungs to climb. This was not a walk in the park with a heavier pack than normal, especially when you want to turn your head quickly for the view, because it's nice.

I finally made it to the summit of East Baldpate Mountain, realizing I'm nearing the end of this trek in great time for the day, considering I didn't get going until after 8:30am. The summit, one of New England's Hundred Highest has one of the most expansive and impressive views I have seen. The outline of the soaring Presidential's was clearly visible in the background, and the mountains and lakes in all directions make East Baldpate a top peak when it comes to 360 degree views.

Me near the summit of East Baldpate
Here, the Appalachian Trail joined, and the trail followed the wide summit towards the road, and the views become even better as West Baldpate and the cairns marking the descending path ahead came into view. The wind made the descent tricky, but I was locked in and made it a quick descent.

Getting more tired now, I passed over the west peak of Baldpate, which is signed. After that, it's all downhill from here. There are maintained trail steps most of the way down the slopes of West Baldpate all of the way to the AT parking lot, where I was parked. It was tough going down on these, so I took a few breaks, but when I wasn't taking a break, I was letting gravity do most of the work (with careful foot placement). At about 1 mile to go, I passed a couple with a little boy who hurt himself in some way. I offered any assistance, but they said they would be fine. I also passed a couple of groups going up. These were the first people I had seen all day, in about 8 hours. I eventually made it down to road. The trail crosses the street to the trail head bulletin board and parking lot.

This trip was well worth it. I am often less inclined to visit areas that are on private lands, or that have strict rules, like no off-trail camping, but with the Grafton Loop, you wouldn't know you were on private land if they didn't tell you. The variety of terrain and remoteness and ruggedness of the trail make this trail feel like an adventure. Although you can hear the road from the Stewart Campsite and some other portions of the trail, the majority of it is silent beautiful woods. The trail travels through quiet and open woodland areas where you can see large distances through the trees, as well as parts that are tightly closed in. It makes you feel like you're in the middle of nowhere. This trail is well worth the visit if you have not hiked this area.

To view the full album, click on the slide show below.


  1. The picture from Long Mountain viewpoint is very cool! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks Owen, thanks to my JOBY magnetic Gorillapod, I can get quick self-timed shots by attaching my the tripod to limbs or it will stick to rocks on a rocky summit.

  3. How long were you hiking for each day? I will be going with a few friends this weekend and are trying to do the entire loop in two days.

  4. Hi,

    On day one from the parking lot to Stewart Campsite was about 11 hours, and from there to the parking lot on day two was about 8 hours of hiking. The second day was tougher.

  5. I am a former MCC Volunteer and worked on the Loop putting in Rock stairs and the pipe handrails on the first part of Old Speck. Nice seeing photos to bring back memories. I have since moved out west.

    1. Very nice! I read a lot of about the efforts that went into building the trail. After hiking it, it's still so rugged and remote, and I hope it stays just the way it is. It has a little of everything in 40 miles. Hopefully you have a chance to get back there again sometime and enjoy it in remembrance. I know I certainly will visit this loop again. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Your care and consideration to document your trip is wonderful and inspired me to give the trek a try! Thank you!

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  8. Hi, thanks for your detailed trip report! My wife and I will be hiking this trail in September. Based on our itinerary, we won't have time to do the whole loop. We will start in the afternoon, and then camp that night and the next night. We have to be back at the car fairly early on the 3rd day. Since we can't do the whole loop, and instead will hike in a ways and then back out... which direction/section of the Loop do you recommend we do? Thanks, Joe

    1. Hey Joe, thanks for reading my report. Based on your plan, you have a really short hike in, a full day, and a early day on the 3rd day. This one is tough. I would think the first night, you need to start over the Baldpates, camp at East Baldpate, then the full day, take it all the way to Stewart Campsite, then day 3, go to the South ending, and get a ride (or stash a bike) for the couple miles up to your car at Old Speck lot. OR Start in to Stewart on night 1, then take the full day going towards Baldpates, possibly camping before them, and then down Baldpates, hitch back to car at south end. It would be tough to plan an out-and-back with that timeframe, because it would make for tougher short day if you had to re-do Old Speck or the Baldpates on your way out. Given that, you may want to consider starting at either one of the south lots, and hike until you need to to turn around, based on the time it will take for you to hike to your car in the morning. Although this wouldn't get Old Speck or the Baldpates, it would provide you with the most tranquil parts of the trail. Certainly, you should consider whether or not you want Baldpate for 100 highest or Old Speck for a 4K, or you're just looking for some peace and quiet! I hope that helps in some way, and feel free to let me know if you have other questions. Enjoy!

    2. Thanks for the quick answer! We are really just looking for some peace and quiet and nice views. As for the campsites, it looks like there are no open fires allowed. I have been on lots of backpacking trails that say this and then the campsites have fire pits. What was your experience on this one? Thanks again, Joe

    3. You're welcome. That was the case when I was there, no fires. I brought a stove, and I don't recall coming across any fire rings, especially at Stewart. I did not visit every campsite spur, however. You may have read about one at Baldpate Lean-to, but that's right on the AT, and might not be much of a fuss for land-owners on the rest of the trail (plus you could expect it to be full, with through-hikers heading through Maine). Here is a link to the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, which maintains the trail, in case you have not come across it. Once I did the loop, I could understand that rule. It's a beautiful area, enjoy!