Sunday, September 20, 2015

Grafton Loop Backpack - At Last!

Dates: August 28-30, 2015
Peaks: Old Speck (4170', NE4K), Sunday River Whitecap (3335'), Stowe Mountain (2700'), Bald Mountain (2085'), SW Puzzle Mountain (3060'), Long Mountain (3062'), Lightning Ledge Knob (2620'), East Baldpate (3780', NE100), West Baldpate (3662')
Day 1 Stats: Eyebrow Trail, Old Speck Trail, Grafton Loop Trail, Campsite Spurs - 11.7mi, 4750' gain, 6hr 35min taken
Day 2 Stats: Grafton Loop Trail, Campsite Spurs - 16.8mi, 4950' gain, 10hr 10min taken
Day 3 Stats: Grafton Loop Trail, Campsite Spurs, Appalachian Trail - 11.6mi, 3250' gain, 7hr 5min taken

This hike has been on the to-do list for 12 years now, and especially the last 3-4 years, but somehow it still never happened until now. In 2003, I spent 3.5 days at Sargent Brook Campsite, long before the site was finished and before the West side of the trail was open, heck they hadn't even finished cutting the trail up to Old Speck from Miles Notch yet! With an AMC group, we spent the days rolling rocks around on the summit of Sunday River Whitecap building most of the scree wall that is up there today. While we worked, the pro (paid) crew was also at work drilling and installing the elevated wooden walkways that get so much mention when this mountain comes up. The best part of the week, aside from getting to feel partly responsible for building this trail, was the last day up top, when we picked a whole liter of alpine blueberries on the summit that went into the morning pancakes the next day. Since spending that time up there, I had wanted to come back once the trail was open (well, the East side opened that year, but the West side didn't until 2007 or thereabouts) and hike the whole loop.

So finally, after years of saying I'd someday hike the whole loop, I finally scheduled it and did it! This was nearly a last-minute decision, as I decided to try for it less than 2 weeks before, got one day off from work, and the weather looked great for all 3 days! Given only 3 days to work with, and a 40-mile loop, day 2 came out rather long on mileage (nearly 17), but there are plenty of campsites on both sides of the loop should one have more time, and I would  suggest at least 4 days to really enjoy it.

I set off on a counter-clockwise loop from the AT parking lot, a bit later than intended (almost 11AM!), ascending the steep, but scenic, Eyebrow Trail. Yea, with a full pack, the first full pack I've shouldered in over 2 years, right off the bat, straight up the steep ledges and rocks of that trail. Maybe that wasn't the smartest idea, but I used those posts on the cable handrail to my benefit, hauling myself up with them through the steepest spot. As with my prior trip on this trail, I saw no one on the Eyebrow Trail, but the views were much nicer this time around from the top of the namesake cliffs. It was slow, and I mean really slow, at times, but I got up it. Once back on the AT there were some dayhikers and NOBO thru-hikers passing through, but as it was a Friday, it was fairly quiet overall. Eventually reaching Old Speck's summit, I took in the views and had a nice break before starting the descent.

The cable handrail up the Eyebrow Trail

View from the ledge crossing on the Eyebrow Trail

Ledge Crossing on the Eyebrow Trail - not that bad when dry, though trickier with a heavy pack

Old Speck from the Eyebrow

West and East (L) Baldpate

Table Rock on the other side of Grafton Notch

Looking down Grafton Notch

Pano from the Eyebrow

Sunday River Whitecap, the destination later in the day

View over towards Success Pond from near the Mahoosuc Trail junction.

Goose Eye and most of the rest of the Mahoosuc Range from Old Speck.

Mahoosuc Notch

Looking ahead to Sunday River Whitecap.

The Baldpates, due up in roughly 2 days.

The Kilkenny Range in the distance: Waumbek/The Weeks, the 3-bumped Terrace Mountain, Cabot/The Bulge/The Horn, Rogers Ledge, and more (L->R).

Sunday River Ski Area.

Old Speck's summit tower, complete with near-vertical ladder.
I'll be honest, I was expecting rough, rocky terrain as there is throughout the White Mountains, but I was pleasantly surprised with a mostly soft trail all the way to the final ascent of Sunday River Whitecap. Pine needles carpeted much of the trail, and while steady, it never seemed steep. While passing through, I took both campsite spurs (Bull Run and Slide Mountain) to check out those sites, even though I wasn't staying there. The West side of this loop and the campsite spurs are in the White Mountain Guide and thus count for redlining, so leave no stragglers! The final ascent up Sunday River Whitecap was steep but as you pop out onto the ledges, the scenery is terrific (as good as I remembered!), which allows for lots of picture breaks, and there are nice 360-degree views from the top. It was just over a mile from there down to camp for the night at Sargent Brook, so after hanging out for a little while and reminiscing, I headed down to make camp.

Here we go!

A peek ahead to Sunday River Whitecap.

Awesome footing on much of this stretch.
The awesome woods walking continues!
Climbing towards Sunday River Whitecap.
Grafton Notch from below Sunday River Whitecap. Old Speck on left, the Baldpates on right.
Some cool elevated walkways on the way up to Sunday River Whitecap.
Looking towards much of the East side of the loop.

The Baldpates from Sunday River Whitecap

Ledgy Goodness

I was there when these planks were installed in 2003!

Long (L) and Puzzle (R) Mountains, up for tomorrow afternoon.

Looking towards New Hampshire. Hey, is that Mount Washington without a cloud on it?!

Home for the first night.
The next morning I got an early start, opting to only grab a quick snack and stop later to cook breakfast at the Bald Mountain Campsite 4 miles (and mostly downhill) away. The water source at Sargent Brook was a pretty slow trickle, and without a pump (I just used a Sawyer Mini filter) it had been a pain to fill up on water, so I was glad to find a much bigger stream at Bald Mountain that was much easier to fill up in. There was only one tent set up on one of the 2 tent platforms when I stopped in to check things out before returning to the stream near the trail to fill up and cook breakfast. I reached the road, walked up to the parking lot for the Grafton Loop Trail (there is no parking at the Southern end of the West side), and began the long, 2500-foot ascent up to Puzzle Mountain.

Day 2: The great walking continues over to Stowe Mountain

Ladders descending the steeps (I think off Stowe Mountain, but it may have been Bald Mountain).

A friend along the trail

Snowmobile bridge over Bear River.
It was a tough ascent for me, still carrying a full pack, with the heat of the day building as I reached the steeper stretches, but once again the top had great views from all kinds of ledges. This is apparently a popular day-hike destination, as I saw TONS of day hikers, but zero backpackers. From the summit it is a short descent to the Stewart Campsite, but I had 5.5 more miles to go to set myself up for a reasonable hour of finish on Sunday, so I had to get going. It is a long 1500 or so foot descent to the col, followed by immediately climbing right back that same amount to Long Mountain. The descent was fairly mild and easy going, but the ascent, predictably, was different. This went slow, I was tired, and the viewpoint near the summit (the only viewpoint on this mountain) was mediocre at best. But camp was only a mile away, and once I had made it to the summit I knew the hard part of the day was over. I dropped down into the Town Corner Campsite where I enjoyed a nice quiet night with one other couple that arrived 30 minutes after I did (they were doing an overnight of the East side of the loop and had started from the North in the morning so they gave me some helpful information on what was to come). The highlight of the night was a Barred Owl that decided to hoot away for 5-10 minutes at 2am, and I'm pretty sure it was only a few trees away from my tent at best!

View from a ledge below Puzzle Mountain, looking up the notch.

Once again, the Baldpates, this time from the East side of the notch

Old Speck

5.5 miles to go on day 2. 1500 foot climb ahead after a 1500ft descent off Puzzle Mountain.

Long Mountain, almost there!

Puzzle Mountain from the Long Mountain viewpoint.

Sunday River Whitecap and Bald Mountain (and the ski area behind) from Long Mountain.

The "town corner"

The main clearing at the Town Corner Campsite. Only part of it is shown here, and there are lots of tent areas scattered around it (one straight ahead).
Day 3 was the "easy" day, but visiting all the campsites along the way added a mile of extra hiking. Finding the waterfall and nice swimming hole below the Lane Campsite was well worth it though (hint: go into the campsite, and there is a sign pointing to a "scenic waterfall")! There were only a couple short ups and downs for the most part to the East Baldpate Campsite, with occasionally muddy and/or rocky footing, but not bad overall. There was also the occasional old blowdown hiding the trail, with well-established herd paths around them; clearly maintenance has been light on this section in recent years. After the final campsite it was a steep 1500-foot climb up to the awesome East Baldpate summit. Too bad it was rather hazy, but it was still enjoyable. The ascent was littered with tons of old blowdowns, but there was a MATC fellow chopping through them all, trying to clean up the mess recent winters left. Once on East Baldpate the hiker traffic picked up (mostly thru-hikers going in both directions). After a break I made the descent down one of my favorite spots, the ledges of East Baldpate to the col, and I made my way out fairly quickly thereafter, ready to head home after a great weekend!

There were some nice potential swimming holes between the Knoll and Lane Campsites.

Waterfall at the end of the path marked "Scenic Waterfall" inside Lane Campsite.

Closer to Lane Campsite, a smaller cascade and swimming hole.

Pano from Lightning Ledge. Sunday River Whitecap dead center.

Sunday River Whitecap

Looking South down the notch towards were I crossed a day before.

Moss or blaze? Who will win?

Iron ladder rungs up part of the East Baldpate ascent.

Grafton Loop Trail - complete! Now 4 miles on the AT back to the car.

East Baldpate

Long Mountain (center), Puzzle Mountain (R) from East Baldpate.

Ledgy Goodness all over here!

This is definitely a place to revisit, on a gorgeous late summer weekend I saw only a few small groups and a pair of large ones (and most groups going the other direction) once off the AT and Puzzle Mountain. And the scenery, well, it's a mix of great woods walking and nice views (most views on the East side, but Sunday River Whitecap is tremendous).

Down I go!

Looking ahead to West Baldpate, with Old Speck in the background

Looking back up. I love this section.

East Baldpate from the East-West Baldpate col

According to the White Mountain Guide Online, this was 40.1 miles, and 12,950ft of elevation gain.  
 Even more pictures can be found here.

A few camping notes about the campsites (note that this trip was during a very dry stretch of weather, so the noted weak water sources may be better in wetter times, but the East side had much more and much better water sources than the West side overall):
  • West side: all sites have outhouses, cooking areas, and bear boxes to put all smellables in at the end of the night.
    • Bull Run: great, flowing stream for water, wooden tent platforms
    • Slide Mountain: light trickle for a water source, dirt tent pads
    • Sargent Brook: light trickle for a water source, scattered dirt pads of various sizes (a couple smaller and private ones)
    • Bald Mountain: 2 wooden platforms, decent flowing stream for water
  • East side: all sites have outhouses, semi-established cooking areas, NO bear boxes (hang all food or use a bear canister)
    • Stewart: the water source looked poor but I didn't explore it much, and only one tiny clearing that I saw
    • Town Corner: decent stream for water, one large clearing with several tent pads tucked into the woods around it too
    • Knoll: officially closed now, but no signage on the trail to indicate this (the spur trail sign is missing, but there is a Grafton Loop Trail sign there). Good water source, couple small dirt pads, the privy has been removed
    • Lane Campsite: huge campsite with tons of dirt pads all around, and terrific water source options (and a couple swimming holes downstream)
    • East Baldpate: good water source (though a bit of a walk to get there), and tons of dirt pads scattered around


  1. Excellent report and photos, plus great tips! I forgot about this great backpacking trip, even though I've been on portions of it here and there. I'll have to see if my husband is interested in it next summer. ;)


    1. Summerset, you'll love this! And of course you've already done about 8 miles of it, being that it is on the AT. It was much quieter off the AT and some awesome walking with some really nice viewpoints mixed in. Looking forward to the trip report next summer ;)