2020 Grafton Loop Trail Family Adventure

Last weekend, Debbie and I returned to the Grafton Loop Trail for the first time in 12 years. Over that time, we have been to the Sunday River region and Mahoosuc Range on a few occasions, including a family wedding in 2019, but it had been a while since we spent any time in Grafton Notch.

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Back in 2008, she and I were joined by our friend Matt Schomburg when we became the first to complete the loop (new at the time) in one day. That wasn’t the specific goal, but it seemed like something fun to do. Matt is a White Mountain National Forest ranger and he has bigtime backcountry credentials. The Appalachian Mountain Club had just finished new sections of trail during the prior summer in 2007. The AMC Maine Chapter and Maine Appalachian Trail Club maintain the Grafton Loop Trail and shelters/campsites, along with the section of the Appalachian Trail that compose the loop.

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The 2008 trip was one of our classic adventures, and I wrote about it a the time. Debbie, Matt, and I enjoyed the run/hike despite it being a damp and humid day with limited views. We weren’t aiming for a Fastest Known Time (FKT), but just by running the runable sections and pushing it on the steep sections, we were able to establish a time that was orders of magnitude quicker than backpacking it in two, three, or four days. Back then, we started at the state park at the northern end of the notch where the trail crosses Route 26, and went clockwise finishing with the ascent/descent of 4,170 foot Old Speck Mountain. In 2014, Adam Wilcox and Ryan Welts discovered the loop and created the official route that appears on the FKT site. They chose to start at the southern road crossing parking lot on Rt. 26 and go counter-clockwise. Now that we have experienced both routes in both directions, we believe that the route they chose is the faster version.

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This time, we didn’t run the loop, but rather, we backpacked it. The best part about this latest adventure is that we did it as a family. We’ve been wanting to bring our kids on this loop and thanks to the cancellation of other summer plans, we finally made it happen. We think this worked out for the best. With our beloved AMC Huts closed for the year and New Hampshire trails seeing a surge of activity, we chose the “less-loved” Maine  end of the White Mountains, and had an awesome time.

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As a refresher, the route is about 39 miles long. The AMC site has a good description:

The Grafton Loop Trail (GTL) is located on both sides of Route 26 and links with the AT on Baldpate Mountain and on Old Speck. The eastern half of the GLT consists of a 21-mile arc that leaves Route 26 in Newry, Maine, and returns to the road in Grafton Notch State Park via four miles on Appalachian Trail (AT). Seventeen miles were newly constructed trail in 2007, which traverse four mountain peaks and include five primitive campsites. Approximately two-thirds of the trail’s length is on private lands with the remainder located on public lands managed by the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands. Construction of the 2007 leg of the trail involved many individuals and organizations, including the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School, the Maine Conservation Corps and the AMC.

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The western half is a 13 mile stretch, beginning on Route 26, south of the eastern half’s trailhead. Traversing the Bear River, Sunday River-Whitecap and Miles Notch, this part of the trail ends on the summit of Old Speck Mountain at its junction with the Mahoosuc Trail/AT. This section includes three primitive campsites.

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With side trips to viewpoints, waterfalls, water sources/streams, and campsites, you can’t really hike this loop without walking several extra miles. We likely did 41 or 42, but who is counting?

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Well, our kids were counting! This was a big hike for them. With nearly 13,000 feet of elevation gain on rugged (rocks and roots) trails in extraordinary summer heat, this was not easy. We hiked about 10 miles each day.

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On Day 1, we drove from Connecticut and didn’t get on the trail until noon. We hiked until nearly 8:00 P.M. tackling Puzzle Mountain and Long Mountain on the way. Everyone was tired when we reached the Town Corner Campsite. We spent the night there after making dinner, which mostly consisted of Maine-made GOOD TO-GO dehydrated food.

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We find that the first night on a trip is usually a rough night for sleep and that proved to be the case. The four of us were tired and groggy on the morning of Day 2, but we got on trail shortly after 8:00 A.M. We stopped mid-morning and hiked a spur trail to the Lane Campsite. From there we continued to the swimming hole and waterfall that are just below the site. We had a fantastic “swim” frolicking in the chilly waters. It was a nice oasis and we will return!

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The trail took us over Lightning Ledge, East Baldpate, and West Baldpate. They were all long climbs and the viewpoints were fantastic. We finished the day at the Baldpate Lean-to. The lean-to is technically closed, and we had packed our two-person and three-person Big Agnes tents anyway, so we used a clearing to pitch camp. Dinner was more dehydrated food and was followed by our best night of sleep. We could hear a babbling brook beyond our campsite. That allowed us to fill all of our water bladders and bottles.

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Day 3 was a tough one. We got a late start shortly after 8:00 A.M. and made the long descent to the northern end of the notch. From there, we spent the better part of the hot day climbing Old Speck. The view from the top of the fire tower was spectacular and we earned it. We had a modest descent to the Bull Run Campsite where we loaded up on water. We pushed a little farther to the Slide Mountain Campsite where we stopped for the night.

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We ended the day a bit early but that was OK. The next site was miles away and we had all pushed hard enough. Slide was our favorite site. We had our final dehydrated meal of the trip and made use of the bear box as extra precaution. We had carried our BearVault and made good use of it on the previous nights. Inside the canister, we stored all of our food, our trash, and all toiletries/body health stuff that might attract a critter.

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Speaking of critters, we saw a fair amount of wildlife on the trail. We saw lots of birds, toads, chipmunks, and squirrels. Within the bird category, we saw several grouse. Another hiker we ran into referred to a grouse as a “mountain chicken,” which is something I had never heard before. We got a good chuckle out of the concept. We saw tons of moose poop but never saw a moose.

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The trail conditions were rough. Given the pandemic and the late start (or no start) to this year’s trail maintenance program, there was lots of blowdown and overgrowth. Two sections on the Grafton Trail (in particular) were “jungle-like” with so much overgrowth that you couldn’t see the trail or your feet. There were many trees to climb over or under. It’s going to take a lot of work to whip the trail back into shape. The Appalachian Trail section gets more traffic and more maintenance so it was was easier to traverse.

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We are so very appreciative of the dedicated volunteers who look after these trails. We did bump into a fellow AMC volunteer by the name of Bill who we have met before. He was doing trail work on the slopes of Old Speck and we had a fantastic conversation with him. Our son is very interested in trail crew, so it was neat to chat with Bill.

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The more remote sections of trail were very quiet, especially on Thursday and Friday. On the weekend and on the AT, it was a bit more busy. There were more day hikers on Old Speck and the Eyebrow loop. We only saw a handful of backpackers doing the entire loop. One neat thing, and probably due to the extreme heat, is that the wild blueberries were already ripe. I remember picking blueberries on Labor Day Weekend in 2008, so it was odd to be picking them on the last weekend in July in 2020. That demonstrates how much has changed in a dozen years.

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After our decent night of sleep at Slide, we got an earlier start for the final day. The goal was to get down to the notch by 2:00 P.M. so that we could manage the drive home and have it not be too late. I had an early workday on Monday. We were on the trail before 7:00 A.M. and met our goal, reaching the parking lot by 1:30 P.M. The last bit of trail was gradually downhill, but very windy. The last 0.7 of a mile was on Rt. 26 and is quite ugly. The kids were fried by then and the mid-day heat didn’t help. Everyone was in a sour mood by the time we got rolling back towards Connecticut.

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This was definitely a case where we were suffering in the moment and not ready to look back and recognize how great of a time we had together on a lovely trail. We made a quick stop for food in Newry as we had to ration what was left on the final day. We were all hungry. After some debate, we decided to take the slower, but more scenic route across New Hampshire and then south through Vermont. We made a pitstop in Chatham to visit our longtime friends Ann and Rich Fargo. They were so kind to host us. We got to swim in Lower Kimball Pond and tour their lovely home. I wish we had more time, but it was getting late. After another quick stop in North Conway for take out pizza at Flatbread, we really got rolling. It was a long drive across the Kancamagus Highway and then over to Interstate 91. By the time we pulled into the garage, it was past 10:00 P.M. We were all cranky.

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Looking back, everyone learned something. We helped the kids continue to hone their mountain skills. They also built their endurance. I don’t think Debbie and I need any more endurance training, at least not in 2020. All of our gear worked out great. We now all have Osprey brand packs and they were fantastic. Debbie, Shepard, and I wore Lone Peak Mid “light hikers” and Dahlia used a pair of kids lightweight boots from L.L. Bean. We used our Katadyn BeFrde water filter.

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This trip merely wet our appetite for more hiking. We’ve had the kids out several times in 2020 and they are getting stronger by the day. Learning how to deal with the elements, fend for yourself, and navigate are just a handful of tools needed to venture into the wild. They come with practice.

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Grafton Loop Trail Map

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2 Responses to “2020 Grafton Loop Trail Family Adventure”


  1. 1 Eric Jaeger 8 August 2020 at 6:17 pm

    Thanks so much for your awesome trip report. I just completed the Western half of the loop in two nights three days (Wed/Thurs/Fri) starting at the southern end. I am impressed that you and your family completed the entire loop in four days. A few notes that may help others:
    The trail overall is in good condition. Few wet spots. Multiple blow downs that are easy to navigate around. I encountered almost no other people on the trail. Lots of cobwebs encountered. All of the campsites appear to have bearboxes, outhouses and usable water sources. I used my Garmin to track mileages (which seem to differ at times from the AMC signage):
    Day 1: Rt. 26 to Bald Mt Campsite 1.68 mi https://www.strava.com/activities/3870759583
    Day 2: 8.5 mi
    Bald Mt Campsite to Sargent Mt Campsite 3.4 mi
    https://www.strava.com/activities/3873658635
    Sargent Mt Campsite to Sunday River Whitecap Mt 1.0 mi
    https://www.strava.com/activities/3878368520
    Sunday River Whitecap Mt. to Slide Mt Campsite 3.1 mi
    https://www.strava.com/activities/3878370921
    Slide Mt Campsite to Bull Run Campsite 1.0 mi
    https://www.strava.com/activities/3878371495
    Day 3: 5.1 mi
    Bull Run Campsite to Old Speck Mt 1.6 mi
    https://www.strava.com/activities/3878372815
    Old Speck Mt to Eyebrow Trail 2.4 mi
    https://www.strava.com/activities/3878374720
    Eyebrow Trail to Grafton Notch AT Parking 1.1 mi
    https://www.strava.com/activities/3879624057


  1. 1 Moosilauke Hike | Life Adventures Trackback on 8 September 2020 at 5:39 pm

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