GRAFTON LOOP TRAIL 39.4M Hike, Newry, Maine
Elevation Gain:  12,897'          Scrolling Photos 

July 1-3, 2015 - This roughly 40-mile trail runs through some of the most scenic and rustic areas of Maine. Nestled in the state's western mountains, the tall peaks offer amazingly scenic vistas for hundreds of miles around. Being a loop trail, one can easily finish exactly where they started from at either of the two crossings of Rt 26. The trail leaves Route 26 and continues 17.1 miles to the summit of East Baldpate where it intersects with the Appalachian Trail. It is 4 miles from there, south on the AT back to Route 26 and the large trailhead parking lot in Grafton Notch State Park. In doing the trail counter clockwise from Newry, Maine, at the southern end of the trail the path rises sharply onto Puzzle Mountain. This is a solid 3000 ft peak and a difficult hike. In 2011, a new 1.8-mile side trail off the GLT was opened. The Woodsum Spur traverses the open ledges around the summit of Puzzle before returning to the GLT. From there, the trail goes down and back up fairly gradually through a beautiful notch with pristine slow moving brooks and old back country logging roads. The next climb is fairly gradual up Long Mountain, another 3000 footer and once skirting the summit, the trail begins to wind in and out, up and down past many established campsites and through some fast moving large brooks. Near the half way point, the trail climbs steeply up Baldpate (aka Saddleback) Mountain and through the saddle between the two peaks. East Baldpate Peak stands at near 3800ft and shows a great 360 degree vista. Once off the west summit, the trail continues down Baldpate and into Grafton Notch and Rt 26. Once safely in Grafton Notch, the trail climbs incredibly steeply up to the highest summit in the area, Old Speck at near 4200 ft. The tower atop the peak affords another incredible 360 degree vista. Mount Washington and the full Presidential Range are in full view as well as Maine's Mount Blue, Sugarloaf, and the Bigelow Range. This is the highest point on the trail, and the hike down into Miles Notch is a gradual one. The last major climb on the trail is the 2730 ft Sunday River Whitecap and it is one of only two places on the entire length of it where one is above treeline. Unique trail structures were designed and built on Sunday River Whitecap to protect fragile plants unique to the area. The beautiful alpine zone of this mountain is an experience all on its own. After the steep climb off of Whitecap, the trail evens out as it descends back to meet up with Rt 26 back in Newry.

NINE SUMMITS: Bald Mountain, Puzzle Mountain, Long Mountain, Lightning Ledge, Old Speck, West Baldpate, East Baldpate, Miles Notch, Sunday River Whitecap

The above is perhaps the best desciption one can make as a brief summary for such a remarkable
trail.  The file photos and accounts I encountered in my research did not quite prepare me for the
challenge and awesome beauty and variety of this backcountry Maine experience.  This adventure
left me both surprised and happy that I made such a fortuitous choice for backpacking in Maine.

My narrative begins with meeting with Charlie Gadol in Bethel the night before for a last minute
check of our plan and gear, and a much-needed shower at his B&B before driving to the trailhead
to get a good night's sleep in my chariot.  The weather forecast was not good - 100% chance of
precip to begin our journey, followed by two days of mostly sunshine.  Sometimes you take what
you can get, especially here in precipitous Maine.

Donning our rain gear from the get-go we headed out by 0700 in rather balmy conditions, with temps
in the mid-sixties.  It was sweaty going for the first ascent toward Puzzle Mountain.  Before it began to
rain in earnest we stripped to t-shirts to stay cool during the arduous, humid climb.  Puzzle Mountain
is capped by plates of old igneous outcroppings, a part of the ancient Canadian Shield.  Add the 
effects of rain and mist and it makes for slippery climbing.  Ever so carefully we negotiated our way
to the windy top, using every handhold available to avoid a slip and a fall that could result in
egregious injury at nearly every step.


The strong gales pushing the storm our way were upwards of perhaps 30 knots.  We re-donned our
already soaked rain gear over our chilling bodies and soaked t-shirts to avoid hypothermia on top.
I had pondered to Charlie as to why this rockpile was named Puzzle before discovering the answer
in an all too poignant manner.  Once on top we could not find where the trail exited and continued
west.  We knew where the trail should be but could not locate it.  It took most of 45 minutes of up and
down and a couple reconaissance ventures without a pack before discovering how to follow the twists
and turns of the cairns that had mostly seemed random to this point.  The convoluted pattern of the
cairns proved, at least to me, how this mountain earned its name.  Bordering on the edge of going
into survival mode, we were deivered from serious hypothermia and able to continue on our way as
the rains began to come down more steadily.  Both of us just shy of shivering, we were glad to be
back in motion.


The lush undergrowth of big-leaf green vegetation is testament to the amount of precipitation that
Maine receives.  I expected mosquitoes to be our greatest nemesis - instead, it was rain; even the
mosquitoes didn't stand a chance.  Charlie even picked up a leach on his leg, which shows just how
wet it is here.  That's something I've never had happen on a backpacking trip.  He peeled it off to see
a fair sized hole in his leg where the beast had begun to feast.

On day one of a backpacking venture we were both strong and high on confidence, regardless of the
weather challenge.  Nonetheless, it was discouraging to lose our way for most of an hour on a grassy
right-of-way in the seeming middle of nowhere.  It was my own damn fault for not paying attention to
an obvious turn in the trail; I still talk too much and can't walk well and talk at the same time.  Getting
back on track we continued in the all-day pouring rain, crossing thigh-high water in stream after
stream as the trail braided its way from bank to bank.  At some point we assessed our situation and
the slow-going slog through the rain forest and decided we would stop at the first campsite available
(and there weren't many to choose from), set tents, and seek some shelter for the night, knowing the
following day would deliver better conditions.

As fortune would have it, the first opportunity was atop a knob, well off the creek - high and "dry" - and,
as if the univeerse were in sympathy with our plight, the rain stopped long enough for us to set up our
tents, get settled in, cook dinner without getting soaked, and find some reprieve in our own little
coccoons in the wilderness... before the rains returned.  It was a great campsite, and left us in good
spirits.  Charlie figured out how to use all of his new gear in short order and all was well until he took
on perhaps the greatest challenge of the entire day - three-bean chili.  Sure glad he didn't share.  My
Katmandu Curry left me fat and happy.  It didn't matter that my sleeping bag as well as everything in
my backpack was wet - at least I didn't have to get up twice to shit in the rain.  Great story for a first-
time backpacking adventure.


The morrow would be a better day.  I didn't sleep much in my cold, wet bag, but it is not the first time 
I have had to wait out the dawn's early light in moderate misery.  At least I got off my feet for awhile.
Sometime around 0200 (guessing, because I don't use a watch) the moon's light foretold the transition
into fairer weather.  The rain was over.  The winds of a changed weather pattern blew the rain off the
leaves of both the trees and the abundant undergrowth that we would be wading through for half the
day.  Everything above ground was dry - even the tents.  The ground, however, was black, ankle-deep
sqwoogie mud to the n-th degree.  Every step without a rock under it would literally suck.


With more stream crossings at the start of the day we headed out into a completely changed world.
After a nasty face dive off a slippery rock into a little stream, Charlie rose with bloodied lip to 
hammer with me up Baldpate Mountain through a beautiful sub-alpine fir forest.  While we saw plenty
of fresh moose tracks in the muck, some even very large, and occasional piles of moose droppings,
we were not fortunate enough to see any of the strange beasts. Just as well.  No bears, or sign either.

Baldpate is an incredible cap of rocks, with few patches of vegetation between its endless plates.
There was little muck on top or coming off this massive edifice.  It's slope swept down without
interruption to a brief col before we bumped up over its lesser twin on our way down, down, down to
the road crossing of Highway 26, where Charlie's car was staged for snacks or contingencies.  The
descent was a tentative one-mile-an-hour lesson in how not to fall and really get hurt on wet rocks.
Treacherously steep in places, there were at least trees along the way to hang on to and swing down 
to progress safely.  With so much rain the day before, it was a virtual stream.  Climbers coming up for
the day from below kept the atmosphere light with their friendly exchanges.  

My dogs were tired and toes were sore from the mile-after-mile pounding, so it was with great relief
that I was able to remove my pack and put my feet up in the warm sunshine for awhile as I snacked 
generously and rehydrated at the parking lot.  Charlie's concern for his facial injuries led him to 
abandon the balance of the hike so that he could seek some medical attention.  It was 1500 hours
when we bid adieu for the day - me to continue the climb up Old Speck on the second half of the
loop, and Charlie to find a clinic.

I had 2700 feet or more of straight up climbing to do in 3.8 miles to summit the highest point of the
hike... and daylight was on the wain.  I not only had to hustle up the mountain on weary legs, but
would then need to scurry down the other side to find a place to camp that would be out of the wind
and warmer than the thirty or forty degree temperatures that the top would achieve at night.  With the
sky clear, there was no blanket of clouds to keep the night air warm, so I had to lose at least a couple
thousand feet and find a warm cove off a ridge to stay warm in a summer bag that was wet the last
time I spent the night in it.

The climb went well.  I was strong.  Muscles were revived from yogurt raisens.  Perhaps thirty young
people coming off the summit at the end of the day kept me positive with their playful interchanges.
I made the top in well less than three hours, enjoyed the panoramic views momentarily, and pointed
my legs downhill to pull back another three miles at least before dark.  The slope was gradual, well
maintained, and afforded a healthy, solid stride of at least two-miles an hour.  The sun was still up when
I stopped near the Slide Mountain campsite.  In that it was off the main trail by 700 yards I opted to
bivouac right on the trail to avoid the extra effort going off trail.

It takes me but five minutes to set up camp anymore - a good thing.  I had the water boiling in no time
and veggie lasagna getting ready to eat as I stretched out on my bag in the tent, enjoying the beauty of
letting my stinky feet dry out after a long day's slog.  Such mucky wet conditions make for some nasty
smelling shoes, socks, and feet.  You just live with it until the end.  The food was very reviving and I was
happy as a stinky hiker can be.  My body was tired, but I felt strong and fit and ready to hammer out the
final ten miles the next day.

Sleeping better I arose to hit the trail by 0530, much of my stuff having dried out over night.  I felt good.
The air was crisper than the previous morning, but humidity was way down, and I was pointed down 
hill to start the day.  The only remaining climb would be up Sunday River Whitecap.  While it was not
the most severe climb, it would prove to me, at least, to be perhaps my favorite.  A pristine alpine
environment, it reminded me of western venues.  The surrounding vistas were worthy of taking time to
enjoy.  I could have lingered longer, but my legs had momentum and pulled me along.  


The final miles are among the steepest along the entire route.  Fortunately they are also among the
best maintained miles of the loop.  One incline is so sleep that seven ladders in sequence are used
via ferrata to negotiate the descent safely.  Incredibly steep.  This was true exposure within a major
pine forest.  The trail back had a few bumps along the way, but was very pleasant, especially as it
approached the bottom along a braided path back and forth over a rambunctious frothing stream.  I
couldn't help but slow down to enjoy it longer.  It was still morning and I had plenty of time to make it
back to my car.

After following some snowmobile trails through flat grassy fields over private property back to the road,
Charlie just happened to be where the trail met the road.  Had I been a couple minutes later I would
have missed him.  The univere was looking out for us.  He got a good report on his injuries and had
returned in the morning to run up Old Speck.  After retrieving my car we stopped at the Sunday River
Brewing Company for some trail repast.  Real food tastes so much better after time on the trail, 
especially when washed down with some craft beer.  I had to take a growler with me of a tasty variety
called Maiboch.

It was an unexpectedly challenging and enjoyable hike, marred only by Charlie's fall.  No other injuries
of note and the rain really wasn't that bad in perspective.  I wouldn't run this trail.  There were too many
blow downs and unmaintained sections.  It would be a serious engagement to run it in a day.  Maybe
in the next life.  I've got enough to chase after in this one.  On to the Pemi Loop in the Whites of NH.