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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.