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Exploring the Grafton Loop Trail
The Grafton Loop Trail is a 38-mile hike through the Grafton Notch and Mahoosuc Mountain ranges.
We invite you to join our reporter on a tour of the 38-mile Grafton Loop Trail through the first of a three-part feature story. She will bring you along from beginning to end.
First, taking a look at the preparation and resourcefulness that makes the sport of hiking so popular.
Second, we'll look at the resource of the trail, how close to home it is and what exploration it provides even the novice day hiker.
And lastly, we will take a closer look at the trail itself. What went into its creation, how it's maintained and who is responsible for it.
Our hope is that you will find this series of interest, enough so, that you want to venture out and explore the beautiful Maine mountains that are in such close proximity to our every day lives.
REGION- Located in Newry and Grafton Notch and extending in to the Mahoosuc Mountain range; the Grafton Loop Trail (GLT) is only a 30-minute ride from Rumford, and offers a pleasant mix of rugged and rolling terrain for the day or overnight hiker to experience.
Access to the trail heads is well-marked on historic Route 26; for this road has been used for decades to transport sportsmen from all over the world to Grafton Notch, Lake Umbagog and north to the Rangeley and Richardson Lakes.
There is much to see and do in the area, and for those of you that are looking to get off the beaten path, lose touch with the constant demand of your cell phone and regain a sense of adventure in the wild; you have come to the right place.
When I set out to prepare for this expedition, I wanted to be sure to get the most and best information I could in order to have a successful and enjoyable time. Thus, I called on my former soccer coach and Peru School Outing Club guide; Bill Hine and his wife Cathy Hazelton of Peru.
They have been hiking for years, they maintain part of the GLT and make weekly summer excursions with their church youth groups over the Appalachian, Mahoosuc and White Mountain ranges. They have been a pleasure to work with from the start.
Most of us natives, including myself, live on a budget and can't afford to go out and purchase new equipment to hike with. I started out by getting a list of gear that Bill and Cathy recommended for the four days.
The clothing list included things like a comfortable pair of hiking boots (as Bill noted, “There's nothing that will ruin a nice hike faster than if you're feet aren't comfortable,”) sneakers or sandals, wool socks, nylon liner socks (cotton will absorb and hold the moisture next to your feet and could cause trench foot), shorts, wind-resistant pants, a long-sleeved quick-dry undershirt, short-sleeved shirts, a long-sleeved shirt, a medium-weight sweater or sweatshirt, a rain/wind-resistant jacket, a knit cap, a small towel and a pair of gloves or mittens.
All these things come in handy to relieve you of hot, rainy or cold weather fronts; be prepared for anything during the days you plan to be out.
The list of gear consisted of: a toilet kit, a tent with ground cloth (the tent should be your heaviest item at 5 pounds), backpack with lash straps, sleeping bag with stuff sack, sleeping pad, mess kit, insect repellent, flashlight with batteries, large plastic bags (to protect gear from rain), first-aid kit, toilet paper in a zip-loc bag, cook stove with fuel, matches, cookware, cord with clothes pins, a utility knife and optional walking poles.
I didn't want to purchase anything I didn't have to, so I set out to talk to my friends and family for items I could borrow. Thanks to them and Bill and Cathy, I came up with a wool blanket, a tent and bed roll, a backpack and walking poles. Bill and Cathy were kind enough to allow use of their stove, cookware and water filter while on the trek.
Next, you need to consider your food for the trip. I was told by Cathy to be sure to have a bag for your food, as most campsites have bear-proof boxes for overnight storage. “You can hang your food from a tree, away from your tent,” laughed Cathy. “But, I never seemed to have mastered that technique and would prefer to see the boxes at the campsites.”
Since you have no way of refrigerating items; you need to pack items, such as nuts, dried fruit, granola, oatmeal and crackers. Most hikers journeying five to 10-miles a day burn anywhere from three to 6,000 calories a day.
Due to this statistic, you need not worry about finding things that are low in calories; you will need every replenishing calorie you can get. It's suggested to pack two liters of water and with the use of the water filter; refill at the campsites. Where, in this case, all have great natural water sources.
Other items, such as your camera or journal, go without mention to be packed in order to document the experience. You never know what thoughts may creep into your mind and are worthy of paper, to never be forgotten.
As Calvin Bradbury, Bill, Cathy and I met for our pre-hike planning, Bill and Cathy shared their knowledge of the trail and which route would be best to maximize mileage per day and photo opportunities along the way.
Calvin and I assured Bill and Cathy that we had been participating in the Peak-a-Week hikes and were up for the challenge. Thus, our route was planned to with the goal of completion being four days and three nights.
On Wednesday, August 18 we would depart the parking lot at Eddy Road in Newry at 8 a.m. and set out toward our first days' destination of Puzzle Mountain and Long Mountain. I was assured there would be excellent photo opportunities; I could hardly wait. We planned to overnight in Town Corner Campsite (10.4miles).
On Thursday, August 19 we would depart Town Corner Campsite no later than 8 a.m. for the days hike toward our destination of Lightning Ledge and the Baldpates, with an overnight in the Baldpate Lean-to Campsite (9.1miles).
On Friday, August 20, the plan was to depart Baldpate Lean-to for Old Speck Mountain/Fire Tower; where we would cross Route 26 in Grafton Notch at the parking lot, for our third and final overnight at Slide Mtn. Campsite (9-10miles).
Then, on Saturday, August 21, we would depart Slide Mtn. Campsite and make our final push toward our destination of Sunday River Whitecap, Stowe Mtn. and back to Eddy Road parking lot to finish the four-day excursion.
It all looked good on paper, but how would it really turn out? I was excited to see the mountains, experience what it was going to take to hike for four days, not to mention the three nights in a tent without my brave husband by my side.
This was going to be a true test of what I could physically handle and never have I been more anxious for a challenge.
As we travel Route 26 North in Newry, we notice the mountains on both sides. Rising from the horizon like giants; Puzzle, Long, the Baldpates, Old Speck, Sunday River Whitecap and Stowe Mountains all saluting our adventure to come.
Not until recently, when I made plans to hike the 38-mile trail, did I ever think about the trail system that connects these majestic structures.
On Wednesday, August 18 as Calvin Bradbury and I were dropped off at the Eddy Road parking lot in Newry to begin our adventure, the atmosphere was filled with nervous excitement and a little trepidation for what lay ahead of us.
A little before 8 a.m.; Bill Hine, Cathy Hazelton, Calvin and I had taken a couple pictures and I was called out to set the morning pace up Puzzle Mountain; what a gorgeous morning for a hike.
The trek to the summit of Puzzle is laid out like someone drew it with a pencil. The ground is very stable with rocks set in place for steps over wet, muddy or steep sections and blue markers on trees to correspond with the trail.
It was steep in places, winding through pines, birches and popplers, and due to the dry summer, we crossed waterless stream beds. With a quick stop for a photo break at the ledges (2.4 miles), we continued on up the granite landscape to the summit, which was still another .8 miles away.
As we traversed the side of the mountain, I came to a line of rocks and stepped over them. Then the trail disappeared.
Cathy laughed, “Uh oh, Cherri, you just failed the first test. That was our rock wall telling hikers to stop.”
Cathy and Bill maintain the Puzzle Mountain trail and built walls and cairns to direct hikers over the ledge. I did not make that mistake again.
Upon reaching the 3080 ft. summit of Puzzle Mountain around 10:45, we took our packs off and enjoyed a snack, some photo opportunities and marveled at the view.
Down in the valley, we could see Route 26 carving its way in to Grafton Notch. In the distance, directly west was Sunday River ski trails and to the south, the Androscoggin River and Route 2. The views and photo opportunities were endless. It was clear enough a day, that we could see the silhouette of Mt. Washington in the distance, absolutely amazing.
It was there, that Bill pointed out where we were headed for the next few days; there was Long Mountain, Lightning Ledges, the Baldpates, Old Speck and Sunday River Whitecap.
I remember thinking how spectacular it was going to be; to be able to experience the trails and say that I hiked all of those mountains. I was so excited to move on, after all, we had a mission ahead of us and we had to accomplish it. We set out for Long Mountain.
In the next hour we took a snack and water break at Stewart Campsite (of which there is a privy and a rather long walk to the stream bed, but we were all set with water and didn't need to make the trek). We met one gentleman, hiking alone.
Moving on from there, we traversed Long Mountain through hills winding up and down the trails lined with blackberries and raspberries; as we were on the outskirts of former clear cuts that had grown up.
Long Mountain proved to live up to its name, as it was without view until we reached its overlook at approximately 4:15 that afternoon. But, when we climbed to the viewing point, it was breathtaking. Well worth the climb on achy feet that had already made their way over ledge, through moose muck, across a stream (where drinking water was pumped) and overturned trees that had notches cut through them for steps. There was a bench at the top for hikers to rest and take in the scenery.
At that point, my knee was paining me and my pack was getting a little heavy; after all, we had already been hiking more than six hours. Hiking, not walking. There is a difference, as Calvin and I are now well aware.
Throughout the day, Calvin would joke with Bill and Cathy, “Are we there, yet?” And the answer would be, “Do you want me to lie to you or do you want the truth?” We were tired and ready for the end of the day to come.
Upon reaching the Town Corner Campsite around 5:30; Calvin and I had worse than expected aches and pains after the full day of hiking and reaching our goal of 10.4 miles. We set up our tents in the spacious area that looked like nobody had been there before us. After all, the rule is to carry in, carry out and leave no mark.
Following a delicious dinner of minestrone soup prepared by Cathy, we ventured to the outskirts of the site to hang our food in a tree. With empty water bottles; Bill, (with Calvin and I hobbling) made our way to the nearby brook to filter water before darkness fell.
As there are no campfires permitted at the sites, there was no reason for us to remain awake as the sun set. Thus, came the end of our first day in the mountains. Sleep would surely come easy.
Not so much. As I wrote in my journal, I could hear Calvin in his tent attempting to defeat the cramps that were trying to creep into his muscles. Thankful that my legs were relaxed, I shut out my light and settled in, only to be snatched from my sleep by paralyzing leg cramps. After climbing out of my wilderness nest and stretching, I was able to go back to sleep.
With only a curious chipmunk, the night was unusually quiet and still.
Before we knew it, the sun was up and we were packing our things for the second day of our adventure. By 7:45, our packs hoisted on to our backs, our legs stiff from the day before; we were on our way down the trail. The sun was gorgeous, shining through the towering oaks. With the giant leaves of the Hobblebush (viburnum) invading the trails, it felt as though we were in the jungle. I commented that we were making our way through the rain forest of Maine.
We passed Knoll Campsite and then made a short snack and photo break at a section of Wight's Brook. With the sun's reflection on the moss-covered rocks, the brook sparkled with life; there is nothing more peaceful than a rest near a babbling brook.
Moving on, we traveled to Lane Campsite, where there was another section of Wight's Brook. We took the opportunity to filter water, then for a dip in the coolness. Bill and Cathy braved a full-body dunk, while I settled to drench my shirt and Calvin opted out all together.
As we continued on, we came to Lightning Ledge Knob, where we enjoyed lunch and gazed back along the route we had hiked since the morning before. Beautiful, breathtaking photo opportunities.
Calvin went to rest in the shade and joked that he could just jump from there. Cathy laughed, “Calvin, no..don't do it. Don't jump!”
Even though the terrain was challenging our bodies for all they had, we remained inspired by one another and kept our sense of humor in tact. After all, I wasn't about to give in before Calvin and he wasn't going to let me show him up. It was all in good fun.
As we continued on toward the Baldpates, we climbed iron steps, wooden ladders and extremely steep sections of trail that led to a rest every five minutes. In fact, it was on the eastern slope of East Baldpate, that Calvin began unwrapping his eight pounds of food and throwing it out for the wild creatures.
Cathy offered to re-adjust the weight of the food, noting, “The thru-hikers would love to have it. Don't throw it out.”
After a good laugh, we continued on toward East Baldpate summit. It was a steep, wooded climb, with an occasional opening in the vegetation; teasing us of higher ground and great views. Again, Calvin, with his “Are we there yet?” Bill and Cathy assured us that when we did reach the summit, we would literally come out of the trees and be on top of the granite ledge.
With sweat rolling, packs heavy and body parts aching; we finally reached the 3812 ft. summit of East Baldpate Mountain a little after 3 p.m. What an amazing view! It resembled the top of the Andover/Rumford Whitecap with a 360 degree view of the landscape.
We identified Roxbury Pond, Lake Umbagog, the Richardson Lakes and miles and miles of mountains in the distance. It was absolutely breathtaking. With a nice breeze; it was a great place to take a rest, have a snack and appreciate the distance we had traveled.
By the way, I tried my cell phone at that point and had three bars. I dialed a number, said hello and lost service. Go figure.
Now, at that point, we could see the trail over to West Baldpate that we had to travel. The sign at the top said it was 1.7 miles to the Baldpate Lean To. For both Calvin and myself, it was going to be the toughest mileage yet. My knee was hurting pretty badly on the downhills and Calvin had some serious back and hip pain on the way up.
We headed slalom-like down over the steep wall of East Baldpate, up over West Baldpate and came across thru-hikers, Barley and Legend of the Fall. It was there that Calvin's eight pounds of food was a saving grace. The two were trying to make it another six miles to Andover for supplies before night fall.
They mentioned that they had a friend coming along behind them that had no food left and would love to have some. Further up the trail, we ran into Boo Boo; sweat rolling off him and thankful for the nourishment, he moved on down the trail to catch up with his buddies that by now looked like little ants crawling up the ledges of East Baldpate.
We had mentioned to Boo Boo that we were on day two of our hike and were about to complete almost 20 miles. He was very impressed with us, as he had taken five days to complete 30 miles when he first began the 2174 mile Georgia to Maine trek in April.
It was great talking to these guys who had traveled all the way from Georgia. It takes the average hiker six months to complete the entire Appalachian Trail, so we were seeing them toward the end of their long journey. Talk about a fascinating story. But, I digress, that will have to wait for another time.
I have to say, from that point on, was the longest, most arduous part of the trail. As we began to descend (remember, my knee wasn't happy going down hill), we found the trail to be heavily eroded. There were deep crevices between rock and soil, places that you had to climb around on banking that had not yet given way. It was slow going and very painful, as I was having trouble bending and putting pressure on my knee. I could hardly walk.
We were about .6 miles away from the lean to and stopped for a break. We could see where a new section of trail was being built to take the place of the severely eroded one. Bill noted that it would probably be a year or more before that one was ready for use. (I will touch more on trail maintenance in next week's issue.) At that point, Bill graciously re-adjusted the weight in my pack. We made it to camp around 6:30.
Finally making it to camp, the pain in my knee and the blisters on Calvin's feet reaffirmed our decision earlier in the day to peel off from our four-day adventure the next day as we crossed Route 26 in Grafton Notch.
It was at the Baldpate Lean To that we had the pleasure of talking with El Jefey from Colorado. He was a 59-year-old retiree from the state forest service and had been fascinated with the idea of hiking a trail that extended from Georgia to Maine since he was seven years old.
We had been fortunate to have beautiful weather during our first two days, but that night got slammed with thunder and lightning as pounding rain came down for about half an hour. The wind swirled throughout the night and as morning came, it was rather surreal.
I made a comment to the group that this was how Don Fendler got lost on a mountain in Maine. As we made our final 2.2-mile journey to Route 26, the fog made us keep close proximity to the person in front, for it was pretty thick at times.
The closer we got to the sound of traffic, the warmer it got and then the sun shone through the trees. We were coming back in to civilization.
Two days of challenging terrain, working through the pain of muscles we didn't know we had and the inspiring views made the trip well worth it. Although, I was bummed out for having to stop earlier than planned, I was scared that I may have done something to my knee that would prohibit further exercise. I knew I had to be smart. It was a great accomplishment, just under 22 miles in two days and two hours.
Bill and Cathy continued on for the next two days under gorgeous skies and Calvin and I walked down Route 26 for less than a mile, when a friend came along and picked us up.
This was an experience that I will never forget, however, I did learn that I like my bed way too much to want to spend another night on an inch-thick bed roll again.
The Grafton Loop Trail (GLT) spans 38 miles through Newry and Grafton Notch. It began as a dream of Robert Stewart when he purchased Puzzle Mountain in 1993. The eastern and western sides of the loop were finished and open to the public in 2003 and 2007, respectively.
“I had lots of trails up there,” noted Stewart. “One day I was sitting on the mountain and thought it might be a nice place for a major trail system. It seemed like a fun thing to do, but definitely a wild idea.”
Thus, the Grafton Loop Trail Coalition was born and work began to build the first major trail since the 1976 inception of the Centennial Trail through the Mahoosuc Mountains.
During my recent hike of the 22-mile eastern side of the GLT, I saw the workmanship that went into the creation of this trail system.
Fortunately, I had the pleasure of hiking with Bill Hine and his wife Cathy Hazelton, who maintain the Puzzle Mountain trail. They were very informative in pointing out certain features that make that trail so unique.
From the first moments you step onto the Grafton Loop Trail at Eddy Road parking lot, the Puzzle Mountain trail has noticeable trademarks of the extensive work that went into making the trail accessible, safe and enjoyable.
From the widely-groomed trails, the water bars, the granite steps and bridges; all these are placed in an effort to prevent erosion of the land below, safe access and a relatively easy way up the steep slopes.
During the first day of our hike, Cathy noted, “Bill and I were hiking one day and noticed some pretty bad parts of the trail and that it wasn't being maintained regularly. I told him we needed to adopt it and we did.”
From the rock-lined trail markers and the cairns across the granite slope to the blue (GLT) markers on the rocks and trees; the trail is highly visible and easily maneuverable.
Now, when I say easily maneuverable, I mean to say that you can see it and not get lost even in the thickest of underbrush. If there's one thing I learned on this trip, is that multi-day hikers require training just like a runner, skier or any other sport.
In a recent interview with Robert Stewart, owner of 500-plus acres of land through the GLT area, “We wanted to build a trail with to the highest of standards. It's accessible for anyone, even families with small children can go up there for the day and explore. Our volunteers are highly skilled in how to maintain the trail, I'm very pleased with their efforts.”
Traveling the GLT, you follow the blue markers and as you approach the Appalachian Trail (AT) at the Baldpates, you begin to see the white marks of the AT. One would think that there would be a distinction between the trails. Either through the maintenance or a bright, blinking sign saying, “Welcome to the Appalachian Trail.” After all, it is known world-wide for its distance spanning from Georgia to Maine.
I'm happy to report that there are no flashing lights, no billboards and no change in level of maintenance. The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) volunteers treat the entire area with regard to safety, beauty and accessibility.
At the top of East Baldpate, it resembles the top of Andover/Rumford Whitecap. There are very few trees there, so there are white markers painted on the granite, cairns to guide you and a rock road to follow.
Cathy noted that the while the rock-lined road and cairns are neat for photo opportunities and their guidance, they're also highly useful in low visibility situations.
For instance, on the third morning when we departed the Baldpate Lean To, it was very foggy and I had made a comment about being glad that we weren't on the top of East Baldpate.
Cathy informed me that when hikers are up there, it's good to have two people so that one can stay at a cairn and allow the other to travel to the next, while keeping vocal contact. “At least you still have a voice to follow and you're not up there walking blindly,” stated Cathy.
After seeing how steep the terrain is up there, I would not want to be up there in fog or rain, as the rock becomes very slippery. If I were to volunteer my time, I think the first thing I would want to do is install the iron ladders on the side of East Baldpate, they really did make you feel safer being able to hold on to them.
Now, if you recall, on our second afternoon, we had to descend half-way down West Baldpate through a badly eroded trail. Due to its steep terrain and straight up design, the rain water over the last few years has washed away all the soil around the ledge that lies beneath.
As we stopped to take a break, Bill noticed on the side that there was a pile of brush and new markers for the trail the AMC is building. The brush was placed there on purpose, to deter hikers from following it. As it takes a lot of manpower, that trail will not be ready for at least another year or so.
I will be interested in taking a trip up there during there work to see the process first-hand, as there are some enormous boulders that will need to be moved. As heavy equipment is not allowed on the protected mountain sides, Bill noted that it's all done with a pulley system, “You need to be sure that whatever you want moved is uphill of you and that you're not trying to lift it from below.”
During the last hours of our hike, as we approached Route 26 in Grafton Notch, there were some wetlands and I was able to see more of the raised bridges that are built to keep hikers from walking through the mud or having to cross the stream beds.
These bridges are throughout the GLT and AT, mostly built of a split log, but often times you will see them made from milled boards, too. After all, they need to be sturdy enough to hold an average of 250 pounds, between the hiker and their 30-plus pound pack.
I will honestly say that the experience of hiking the 22 miles in two days proved to be most enlightening. Not only for what I was physically capable of, but to see the natural resources used in creating a trail that attracts people from all over the world.
I want to thank Bill Hine and Cathy Hazelton for their informative, insightful and enthusiastic approach in my introduction to multi-day hiking. Also, a job well done to Calvin Bradbury of Bradbury's Market in Carthage for pushing the edges of his comfort zone and joining us on this adventure.
I will look forward to hiking the other half some other day, but for now, I need to get back in to training mode for the Dempsey Challenge 10K in October.
Anyone interested in learning more about volunteer opportunities on the Grafton Loop Trail or the Appalachian Trail, visit the Appalachian Mountain Club at www.outdoors.org.