Length of stay: 4 days
Visited: September 2018
As the largest of the New England states, Maine offers a wide variety of hiking opportunities and options through diverse terrain. There are two popular hiking areas. The first is within Acadia National Park, located in the northeast along the rugged coast of the Atlantic Ocean. The second is along a 452km (or 281 mile) stretch of the mountainous Appalachian Trail. We’ve been to Acadia twice before (in the spring and last fall), so we opted for the latter.
We initially planned a four-day backpacking excursion along the Grafton Notch Loop. While the distance itself was not particularly daunting (60km over four days), one thing we (foolishly) did not factor in was the substantial change in elevation. Being located in the White Mountains (key word being mountains) should have tipped us off. Needless to say, we had to re-examine our (not-so) well-thought-out plans.
Day 1: Grafton Notch State Park
Grafton Notch State Park is nestled in western Maine in the White Mountains bordering New Hampshire. We arrived at the park shortly before lunch and were ready to embark on our four-day hike along the Grafton Notch Loop. The trail spans 62.1km (or 38.6 miles), but the real challenge isn’t the distance: it’s the change in elevation. Besides a couple of trips to Algonquin, this would mark our first backcountry experience where our main mode of transportation was our feet (rather than a canoe). And boy did we severely over-estimate our abilities.
We set off shortly after 11a.m with a pocketful of dreams (or rather a pack full of way too much stuff). After a couple of hours (of much complaining and many breaks along the way), we made it to the first campsite along the trail at Baldplate Shelter, which was roughly 3km into the trail. While we were taking (another) break at the lean-to shelter, we came to the realization that if we continued, our bodies would likely still be up in the mountains. The decision was hard (not really though, let’s be real), but we decided to cut our losses short and turn it around. Best decision ever. We were inadequately prepared: both physically (and probably mentally) and gear-wise. We could have easily shed extra weight (and we should have) if we packed less and lighter food. Live and let learn.
We were a little concerned about finding accommodations on such short notice with it being the Labour Day long weekend and all. But luckily not a lot of people venture over to this part in Maine (likely because the hiking is pretty intense here) and were able to find an available campsite for two nights at the first campground we passed by: Grafton Notch Campground.
After setting up our tent we ventured out again to check out some of the attractions in the area that didn’t require much effort (i.e. hiking) to get to. We first stopped at Screw Auger Falls and took a short stroll to the 23-foot waterfall (featured in the below picture). From there it’s another short drive to get to Mother Walker Falls, but spoiler alert: it’s not so much of a falls as it is much more of a gorge.
Day 2: Old Spec
We had a nice and leisurely start to our day. After eating some breakfast, we headed over to the Step Falls Preserve and followed a short path that weaves alongside a series of cascading pools.
From there we took another short detour to Moose Cave, which is a 600-foot-long gorge carved by glacial meltwater. It was named after a moose that fell within it.
After finishing up these roadside attractions, we were ready for more of a challenge. While we might have failed at hiking up and down a bunch of mountains for four days straight, we figured we could at least hike up and down one mountain: Old Spec (12.2km roundtrip or 7.6 miles). And Old Speck Mountain isn’t just any mountain, at 4,170 ft (or 1,270 m) it is the fourth highest peak in Maine. And we needed a win.
The trail up Old Spec follows along the Appalachian Trail. We started shortly before 11a.m and got to business right away. If you’re expecting any flat sections, well, there aren’t any. The first portion of the hike probably had the steepest incline. How’s that for warming up. But it was worth it. Much of the ground was covered in this thick green moss that gave the illusion that we were hiking in an enchanted forest.
Mid-way through the trail it levels off and features a series of rolling ups and downs. There’s one final steep push at the end before nearing the summit. At the peak there’s a tower hikers can climb up that offers sweeping views of the Notch.
And now for the worst part of the hike: the descent. We took a few breaks along the way to give our legs a rest every so often. Nearing the end of our trail we came across a couple of thru hikers, H & G, who have been hiking along the Appalachian Trail since April 1st. They were planning on hitting up a grocery store to replenish their supplies and book a room in a hotel for the night. We offered to give them a ride and to let them stay at our campsite. They accepted our invitation. And to be honest, I’m not sure who was more grateful. It was fun listening to their stories from hiking along the Appalachian Trail while sitting around the campfire and eating s’mores.
Day 3: More of the Appalachian Trail
After we checked out of our campground we dropped H & G off along the Appalachian Trail so they could resume their journey. We then drove to Rangeley Lake State Park based on the recommendation from our campground host. Turns out there is no hiking in this park. It just features a campground and a grassy “beach”. Instead we decided to do some more hiking along the Appalachian Trail.
We turned off at the parking lot along Route 4 and hiked up to Piazza Rock (4.8km roundtrip or 2.8 miles). The trail was a real treat and featured many flat sections, which we were thankful for after our strenuous hike from the day before.
The Appalachian Trail comes to a fork. We followed the series of blue blazes up to Piazza Rock, which is really just an enormous overhanging boulder. The trail extends a bit further leading up to the very top of the rock.
We followed the path back towards the Appalachian Trail, but decided to make another detour as there was an additional sign for caves which were located only 100m away. It actually took us more time because we missed the initial turnoff and just continued meandering along the Appalachian Trail. But whatever. It’s not like we had anywhere else to be today. After finding the proper trail, we followed a series of blue blazes painted on rocks and trees that lead you under, over, through, and around these massive boulders. Rock scrambles are the best.
From there we hiked back to our car to eat some lunch. Afterwards we hiked along Cascade Stream Gorge Trail since it was in the nearby area (also located off Route 4). The trail is relatively short (1.6km roundtrip or 1 mile) and follows beside a stream to a steep rocky gorge up to a waterfall and series of cascading pools.
We then drove over to Mountain Blue State Park and snagged one of the walk-in campsites they had available. We set up our tent, made some dinner, and sat around the campfire for the remainder of the evening.
Day 4: Mountain Blue State Park
It became abundantly clear the next morning as to why there were still campsites available over the long weekend. The hiking options ranged from climbing up a strenuous mountain to climbing up an even more strenuous mountain.
We ate some breakfast, packed up our gear, and checked out of the campground. We first stopped by Webb Lake to check out the beach area before embarking on our hike (up and down a mountain).
Based on the recommendation of the lady who signed us in at the campground yesterday, we planned to hike up Little Jackson Mountain (9.2km roundtrip of 5.7 miles). The dirt road leading up to the trailhead was quite narrow and a little sketchy to the point where we were seriously contemplating whether to turn around because we probably made a wrong turn somewhere, but then we found the parking lot.
A few trails originate in or around the parking area here. We followed the signs for Little Jackson Mountain, which runs along the same path as Parker Ridge Trail for the first few miles or so. The trail itself is nothing special and requires careful manoeuvring around rocks and roots – that is until you gain some serious elevation and get out of the tree line. From this point the vegetation is more sparse and barren and the trail involves scrambling up large granite rocks. This is where the real fun begins. And this was where the wind picked up. It was a hot day and the breeze was glorious.
Heading back down was where the fun ended. Descents are the worst.
We wrapped up our hike in the early afternoon. After eating a quick lunch, we were ready to hit the road and start the drive back to Boston. Even though our plan to hike the Grafton Notch Loop didn’t pan out as initially intended, we managed to find other great hiking opportunities (and accommodations) in the area and took advantage of the nice weather and spending time in the outdoors.
L & K