Grafton Loop Trail Hike Part 1: Eastern Section

With all the great hiking in Maine, the Grafton Loop Trail is a rarity for the state: a multi-day backpacking loop on the outskirts of the White Mountains. This 38.2-mile circuit is still the new kid in the hiking guidebook; the eastern half was completed and opened in 2003, while the western half began accepting boot traffic in 2007. The Grafton Loop piggybacks the Appalachian Trail for a short distance and crosses Route 26 twice, offering several choices for a starting point and direction. There’s no wrong decision because all paths lead to some of the best hiking in western Maine, highlighted by the gnarly neighbors, Old Speck and Baldpate Mountain.

Note: Printable trail maps are available from the MATC and AMC. The AMC map is more up to date, but the MATC version has trail distances.

The eastern side of Route 26 is the longer (21.1 miles) and more difficult section of the Grafton Loop Trail. There’s parking at each road junction (directions at the bottom), one at the AT parking lot in Grafton Notch State Park, the other near Eddy Road in Newry. My brother Brad and I decided to take the eastern half head-on by starting at the AT lot and ascending Baldpate.

Baldpate Mountain AT Trailhead
The Appalachian Trail opening from the Grafton Notch State Park lot. This way to Baldpate Mountain.

For a mountain that would need to get on its tippy toes to reach 4,000 feet, the four-mile hike to the eastern summit feels much longer. Baldpate swings a knockout punch from the opening bell, gaining around 1,600 feet of elevation over the first mile and a quarter of the rock-studded trail. There’s a mile reprieve in the middle leading to the side trail for the Baldpate Lean-To at the 2.3-mile mark, which is nothing more than the Baldpate version of rope-a-dope, because the ascent of the West Peak (3,662 feet) is a constant barrage of steep.

Baldpate's Rocky AT Climb
The early going on the Baldpate climb is steep and rocky.
Appalachian Trail Blaze on Baldpate Mountain
The trail levels out for about a mile before beginning the steep ascent of the West Peak.

The trail emerges from treeline as it reaches the West Peak, then drops into an open col via a few wooden ladders. The climb to the East Peak, elevation 3,812 feet, is more of a scramble up a steep and open rock face.

Baldpate Mountain Col
We were treated to an overcast, misty morning as we crossed the Baldpate Col.
Baldpate East Peak Climb
Baldpate packs it’s biggest punch at the end, an open rock scramble that can be unforgiving in inclement weather.
Baldpate Grafton Loop Sign
The Grafton Loop Trail exits the Appalachian Trail on the right about twenty yards from the summit of Baldpate’s East Peak.
East Baldpate Summit
We paused on the summit just long enough to snap a photo.

The wear and tear difference between the Appalachian Trail and the Grafton Loop Trail is striking, bringing with it a feeling of further removal from civilization. For a Saturday on Columbus Day weekend, we only saw about ten people on the Grafton Loop portion of the trail, and each encounter came as a surprise.

From the East Peak the Loop Trail descends a ledge via metal rungs, and soon parallels a house-size boulder with a cave in the middle. We looked inside and discovered a multi-day backpack, which we assumed someone stowed for a quick off-trail pit stop, so we didn’t disturb the pack. But then no one came back and our imaginations started coming up with more far-fetched stories. And while we did think of perfectly reasonable explanations, from trail maintenance gear storage to an injured hiker ditching the pack, once our minds went to Texas-chainsaw-style massacre, we couldn’t un-think it. Needless to say, we left the pack alone.

East Baldpate Rungs
Brad carefully makes his way down the metal rungs.
Grafton Loop Boulder Cave
He was also super excited to pose for a picture outside of the cave. This was before we realized we were in peril.
Grafton Loop Trail Forest
The moss-cloaked forest coming off Baldpate was quite enchanting.

The trail eventually breaks into the hardwoods for a long stretch of the hike. There’s one short climb for lightning ledge, but the weather didn’t grant us any views. That said, the abundance of hardwood hiking makes fall a perfect season for hiking the Grafton Loop. There are several brook crossings along this stretch, as well as three campsites in the 7.6-mile stretch from East Baldpate to Long Mountain. Most maps will show four campsites, but the Knoll Campsite was closed in 2013.

First Grafton Loop Brook
The first brook we encountered. It’s a good fill-up option, but there’s plenty of opportunity along the trail.
Second Grafton Loop Brook
The next brook crossing offers a summertime swimming hole.
Grafton Loop Hardwoods
We were a little late on the foliage, but it was a rewarding fall hike nonetheless.
Grafton Loop Brook
This brook crossing is near the Lane Campsite. There’s a spur trail here that leads to a waterfall, but we skipped it.

From the Town Corner Campsite, there’s 5.5 miles to the Stewart Campsite with 3,021-foot Long Mountain in between. The climb up Long Mountain with approximately a 1,000 feet of elevation gain begins immediately after the Town Corner Campsite. There’s one short but relatively steep stint, but overall Long Mountain is a speed bump on the way to Puzzle Mountain.

The trail crosses through some interesting hardwood stands on the opposite side of Long Mountain. It’s also worth noting that a good portion of this segment occurs on private land, even following a dirt road for the better part of a mile at one point, so it’s important to be respectful and stay on the trail.

Long Mountain Summit
The summit of Long Mountain is below treeline, so the view is of, well, trees.
Grafton Loop Woods
The picture doesn’t quite capture how cool this stand of trees looked in person.

At the foot of Puzzle Mountain there’s another brook, from which the water quality seems questionable at best. For anyone looking to hike the 16.2 miles from Route 26 to the Stewart Campsite, you should know that the site is located at least two-thirds of the way up the mountain. That said, the climb is fairly tame with several switchbacks. The site itself offers a few large tenting areas with water, but it’s a trickling stream.

We “enjoyed” an interesting night at the Stewart Campsite. It occurred to us that as the crow flies we weren’t very far from the Frye Notch Lean-To, where Brad and I stayed on our Maine Appalachian Trail section hike. During our night in Frye Notch we were serenaded by a lonely moose. It just so happened that soon after we crawled into our sleeping bags for the night at the Stewart Campsite, the moose calls returned. I at least had the comfort of knowing that Brad, by virtue of his full beard, was the better mating prospect for the moose.

The next morning we made short work of the remaining hike up Puzzle Mountain, and once again the fog and mist prevented what otherwise would have been an outstanding view. For those who have the benefit of a good day, the 1.8-mile Woodsum Spur Trail circles the open ledges of Puzzle Mountain to provide views in all directions. On wet days, plan for some extra time coming down Puzzle Mountain, as there are several areas of open rock that can be slippery. Overall it’s 3.2 miles from the top of Puzzle to the parking lot, and the majority of it is relatively easy hiking.

Puzzle Mountain Summit
The Puzzle Mountain summit cairn. Unfortunately for us, views were not included on this day.
Puzzle Mountain Rocks
The Grafton Loop Trail cuts through a couple split rocks near the summit of Puzzle Mountain.

Check out the western half of the Grafton Loop Trail.

Grafton Loop Trail Directions

From the intersection of Route 2 and Route 26 in Newry, Maine: the Eddy Road parking lot is 4.7 miles up Route 26 on the right; the Appalachian Trail lot is 12 miles on the left.

Posted in
Maine, Maine Trail Reviews, Weekend Warriors
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