Grafton Loop Trail–One Day Adventure

The Grafton Loop Trail, in the Mahoosucs Range of Western Maine, is one of the newest major trails to be built in New England. Thanks to the AMC and the Grafton Loop Trail Coalition, 30 miles of new trails were built since 2002. The complete circumnavigation of Grafton Notch includes 34 miles of the Grafton Loop Trail, of which four miles overlaps with the Appalachian Trail, plus another four mile section of the AT/Old Speck Trail.

This past Sunday, Debbie, Matt Schomburg, and I completed a one day assault of the full 38 mile loop. The real objective of the day was to climb Old Speck, one of the six remaining New England 4000 foot mountains that we haven’t climbed. There are 67 total. After Old Speck, our remaining five are also all in Western Maine in the Rangeley Lakes region. There is an outside chance we can get them all in one long day, but more likely, it will take two. Peak bagging can be fun, and for us, it is another fun way to see more of the outdoors.

Old Speck pretty much has to be climbed on its own because there are no other 4000 footers in “same day walking distance.” We decided to make the trip more interesting by running/hiking the entire loop. The new trail was designed to create a multi-day backpacking opportunity. Most people would do it in two, three, or four days, but we figured it would be more fun in one.

Debbie and I had planned this trip well in advance since it was going to be a rare opportunity for a childless adventure. We figured that it would be great training for the busy fall season. She has several ultramarathon trail races between now and December. I plan to join her for a couple of the 50km events, plus I’ve got some long distance cycling races on my agenda. A full day in the mountains was intended to do both of us some good, and we figured we would soften up our legs in the process!

On Saturday, our twosome became a threesome. We had sent an e-mail to Matt Schomburg, a good friend from Milan, New Hampshire. Most of the year, Matt is a United States Forest Service Backcountry Ranger stationed in the White Mountains. Last year, in the off-season, he worked as a contractor for the US government doing carpentry and other odd jobs at the South Pole in Antarctica. He has thru-hiked both the AT and the Long Trail. He has climbed all of the 4000 footers, and then some. Earlier this year, following his Antarctic adventure, he spent a month hiking in New Zealand. He has even won the Nipmuck Trail Marathon and has several top 25 finishes at the Mount Washington Road Race. He is the consummate definition of an Über-hiker.

The plan was to run as much of the route as we could. We were going light, opting for trail running sneakers, and going with just the necessary emergency gear and food in our hydration packs. We planned to treat and replenish our water supply on the route. My quick math (in the head) figured we could do it in nine hours. We planned to push it and I would only carry a little point and shoot camera. This little gizmo was inferior to my regular set up, but a heck of a lot lighter. I tried to get the elevation gain/loss information prior to the hike, but the only map available had just the basic information. Our estimated time was based on the assumption that my legs would hold up.

Well, they did…but only for six hours. Then, I had to walk…a lot. My bad patch came between hours six and nine. I spent most of the day in between Deb (in the lead) and Matt (in his usual sweep role). Fortunately, I recovered a bit and we ran some more between hours eight and 12, but then I cracked again as the sun set. We had started at 7:00 A.M. on the dot and ran down the final stretch of trail into the parking lot at 8:26 P.M, for a total time of 13 hours and 26 minutes.

Debbie was super strong. She led most of the day and would have easily shaved a couple of hours off the time if given the opportunity to run ahead. Nine hours may have been a little aggressive, but is probably doable under the right circumstances. The weather was perfect, so that didn’t slow us. It was mainly my fitness that was suspect. We probably spent 90 minutes resting, eating, taking pictures, and treating water. It is safe to say that Matt would have kept up with Debbie had she decided to drop the hammer on me. I’m pretty sure that the ranger wouldn’t have left me out there alone! There were times when I was huffing and puffing, trotting along, only to look back and see Matt simply walking at a brisk pace. I was running. He was walking. That’s Matt.

Unless you are a trail runner, long distance hiker, or endurance athlete, it is hard to understand what 38 miles feels like. And 38 is nothing for some ultra runners, but at least for me, it hurts. The quadriceps are stiff, the muscles aren’t firing properly, the knees are achy, the back is sore. Still, it is all worth it. I may destroy muscle cells, but I think I actually grow brain cells when I’m really out there like we were this past weekend. My GPS battery ran out of juice before we could complete the loop. If we met our goal, it would have tracked the whole way. The data shows that when it quit just as we were starting up Old Speck after 10 hours and 46 minutes, we had gone 31+ miles and climbed more than 11,700 feet of cumulative elevation and descended 10,300 feet. It is safe to say that we climbed another 1500 feet for a total of 13,200+ feet up and an equal amount down. That’s a lot for 38 miles.

Going into the trip, I was concerned about my feet. I haven’t done a lot of running since April, and I haven’t done any hiking at all. I opted to go with my old standard Montrail’s and a new pair of Darn Tough socks. I was inspired to find a pair of Darn Tough’s in the bottom of my sock drawer after reading Sherpa John’s review. I’m glad I saw his post last week because these socks are money. My only regret is that I don’t have a knee height pair and that is probably why it took me so long to use them. The pair I have would seem more suited for a tennis match! Debbie can’t stand it when I where my knee-highs, but I love them. However, these Darn Tough’s were the perfect height for her.

The Mahoosucs are fairly remote. We saw one moose, three grouse, lots of toads, and only three people. One highlight of the trip were all of the wild blueberries near the summits. We crested seven named peaks, some above the Alpine Zone, and the berries were tasty. The summit of Sunday River Whitecap mountain was particularly noteworthy for other reasons. It had great views in all directions. Some might consider the rock work and cairns excessive, especially for a summit, but we appreciated it. The trail builders did a great job on the entire Grafton Loop Trail and deserve much of the credit for our enjoyable time. So, the next time you want to run/hike 38 miles, I’ll hook you up with Debbie and Matt. They would be happy to join you. I’ll help you pack.

Another interesting note: Matt had ridden over from Milan on his motorcycle at 5:30 in the morning. He saw four moose on the way. He had his gear in his backpack, including his single five foot long hiking pole. It was a sight to see. Even better was the sight of him getting back on his iron-horse at 9:00 at night so that he could head back up Route 26 on his way home.

Additional Grafton Loop Trail info:

Maine Appalachian Trail Club

Sun Journal story

Coda: Of course, 38 miles in a day is nothing to brag about. Karl Meltzer continues his journey to Georgia and has been knocking off 40+ mile days again. Debbie and I had a funny episode when we spent Saturday night at the Grafton Notch Campground. We were registering in the office/house of the owner and noticed one last whereskarl bumper sticker next to all the promotional maps and brochures. We told the fellow who was signing us in that we saw Karl two weeks earlier. He wasn’t phased by some dude running the AT. He said, “Yeah, they stayed here.”

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@trailrunningmom finished the 100 kilometer #metacomettrail in about 14 hours and 21 minutes. We think she got the #fastestknowntime by about three minutes but her GPS watch died so we have to do the math and build the evidence package. She really worked for this one. Now she is ready for @hardrock100run in July. Little and ran with her on the last mile on Orchard and that was crucial.
@trailrunningmom came through 56 miles of the #metacomettrail in 12 hours and 46 minutes. She was running strong. About six to go! Little D’s pacing inspired her to pick up the pace. She is getting @ctforestandparkassociation Trails Day Weekend started in style.
@trailrunningmom is crushing the Metacomet Ultra Traverse (MUT). Thanks to @dfyc38 and @laurab_312 for their support. Deb has about eight miles to go at the 12 hour and 30 minute mark.
Helping out our neighbors: the kids are playing “farmer” this weekend. 🐓 🐐
Pumped to be back at the @newenglandairmuseum for Women Take Flight 2022. I brought Little D to help!
Little D says my artistic ability is lacking and that I’m better at business and cycling. Even still, we had a great afternoon @thefirestonect and then at the library. Florence was lovely company at our cafe table. The librarian pointed out a book option and then I reminded all within earshot that you can’t judge a book by its cover! #art #painting
Well that was pretty incredible. Congrats to @trailrunningmom Congrats to ALL the participants whether they finished or not. Mahalo to ALL of the volunteers. More will be written about this ohana when we get home.
@trailrunningmom was holding steady as she departed Nu’uanu for the last time at 92.5 miles. Shepard is having fun but it’s all business now. There is a pitched battle for second place and if they keep pushing, it’s a threat to Debbie’s lead. I’m doing the mental math and she has to keep pushing too. Anna and Mele left the aid station together and are throwing down.

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