Grafton Loop Trail

May 28-29, 2016

To avoid the Memorial Day crowds we decided to head up to Maine and hike the Grafton Loop Trail. It’s a 38.6 mile loop going over Bald Mountain, Stowe Mountain, Sunday River Whitecap and Old Speck on the western side of the loop and going over West Baldpate, East Baldpate, Long and Puzzle mountains on the east side. It’s a lightly travelled loop and we saw about 30 hikers the entire weekend of which most were on Sunday River Whitecap and Old Speck mountains.

We had an early start on Day 1 and soon were huffing and puffing up Bald Mountain. The scenery was lush and pretty and the trail wasn’t too rough but the unexpected heat combined with the exertion of climbing rather steeply near the summit made me feel pretty miserable and slightly nauseaous. After making a conscious effort to hydrate and eat a small snack I started feeling better and we eventually made it up the Sunday River Whitecap. We only saw two other hikers on their way down and two adults and two kids and dogs on the summit. We were wondering how many people would be on Franconia Ridge right now.

The views from the summit were amazing. We enjoyed a nice little break and looked around at what we just hiked and what was up ahead. We could see our entire loop from here.

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On our way down the black flies came out in full force and I hadn’t planned for them. I made do with my fleece lined buff tucked underneath my visor so at least they wouldn’t buzz my ears. In one of the worst sections they were dive bombing my face and I wished we had brought a head net or Deet. Near Slide mountain campsite we met another hiker who offered us Deet and even though I hate the stuff I happily put some on my arms.

We tanked up on water and continued hiking up Old Speck. We were both feeling poorly and low on energy. Greenleaf stopped to snack and drink some more and as a last resort put some music on. I passed him but sat down on the trail not much later. I suddenly felt really miserable. Downing some more water and trying to eat another snack I just sat there for a while hoping not to get nauseous again. When I finally got up I didn’t feel all that much better and even a little shaky but I didn’t have that much climbing left to do and figured I’d stay on the summit until I felt better.

At the summit I found Greenleaf taking a break. It was clouding over a bit but he was still sitting in a semi sunny spot and it was hot. I laid down knowing I should be in the shade but I was too out of it to move. We added Nuun rehydration tablets to our water and ate several electrolyte bites. I  felt some energy coming back but my body still needed to cool down so I finally did what I should have done earlier and moved over to a shady spot. This instantly helped. I didn’t care that I was laying in wet dirt with some possible moose poop. I felt a hundred times better than I did 30 minutes ago. I even felt ready to climb the fire tower but I didn’t feel the views were worth the effort at this time. It had gotten pretty hazy and the view from the last summit had been so amazing it wasn’t really going to add much to our hike. Plus we’d already been up there several times before.

With renewed energy we hiked to the junction with the AT and met a thru hiker on his way down. He started mid February to stay ahead of the crowds and had had a rough time through the Whites. I noticed that he had a PCT patch which prompted me to start up a conversation about the different long distance trails. I love talking trail! Greenleaf and I pulled off for a second to grab some more snacks and I discovered an extra brownie. Now the chase was on! I wanted to give it to the thru hiker. I needed to catch him soon since we were planning on hiking the Eye brow trail instead of the AT. Luckily I caught him just in time. The brownie was successfully handed over and we continued on our separate ways.

The Eye Brow trail was an interesting little trail. It had a few slab sections with rebar and cables and  a steep down hill lined with cables too. It had some nice views along the way but we were glad when we made it to the parking lot and sat down for dinner. It was a buggy spot but we covered up and ate.

We continued going up to the Baldpates with the idea to get over East Baldpate tonight to enjoy the cooler temperatures. Instead of staying on the AT we took the Table Rock side trail which had a short bouldering section. I thought it was fun but Greenleaf was a bit grumpy because it was slow. The view from Table Rock was cool, we could see all the peaks we climbed earlier today.

Making our way back to the AT we concluded that going any further than the Baldpate Lean-to wasn’t in the cards for us tonight. The heat took a lot out of us today and pushing any further would have just been miserable. At the shelter we found the AT hiker fast asleep so we set up our tent and called it a night. It had been a tough hot 20 mile day with over 7000 ft of climbing.

Day 2 was a very different story, we woke up in the clouds and it was so much cooler. We loved it! Sure we didn’t have amazing views but these temperatures were such a relief from yesterday. We climbed easily up to West and East Baldpates to the junction where the AT and the Grafton Loop trail split up.

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This section of the trail was much softer and felt not as well traveled as the other side. There were multiple stream crossings but they were all rock hoppable. At times it felt as if we were hiking in Vermont, it was so green and lush. There was even a nice section where we could totally cruise. I loved it! It was only when we got closer to Puzzle mountain that the temperatures rose and the bugs came out again. They made me very grumpy for a bit but luckily disappeared again and my mood improved. The trail only hits the west peak of Puzzle mountain but it has some decent views. We couldn’t see the tops of the mountains we climbed yesterday but we had that view yesterday from Table Rock. I’m glad we did that little side trip after all.

Descending Puzzle mountain was indeed like a puzzle, following small cairns and occasional blazes we found ourselves descending steep slabs and rocky sections. We were relieved when it mellowed out and we could hit a stride again. After about 18 miles and some 5000 ft of climbing we found ourselves back at the car, eating snacks and planning our next adventure. This was a great loop and besides the near heat exhaustion and annoying bugs we really enjoyed it.

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