Hikes & Trails

The Ultimate Grafton Loop Trail Experience

POSTED ON January 22, 2020 BY Ralph S.


Introduction

Nestled in the heart of Maine’s Grafton Notch State Park, the Grafton Loop Trail beckons adventurers to embark on a transformative journey through pristine wilderness. This 38-mile trail, carefully etched against the backdrop of the Appalachian Mountains, offers a harmonious blend of rugged terrains, panoramic vistas, and ecological wonders.

Established in 2007 through a collaborative effort involving the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), Maine Appalachian Trail Club (MATC), and various conservation entities, the Grafton Loop Trail has become a haven for hikers seeking a challenging yet rewarding experience.

With its rocky ascents, lush forests, and the crown jewel of Old Speck Mountain, this trail not only tests the mettle of outdoor enthusiasts but also unveils the captivating story of conservation, collaboration, and the enduring allure of the Maine wilderness.

Join us as we go on a virtual expedition, uncovering the secrets and splendors that make the Grafton Loop Trail a must-explore gem for nature lovers and trail aficionados alike.

Silverlight Socks Medium Crew Black


  • FREE SHIPPING

  • LIFETIME GUARANTEE

SILVERLIGHT HIKING SOCKS

stars 627 reviews

History

Grafton Notch State Park

Nestled within the rugged beauty of Maine’s Grafton Notch State Park, the Grafton Loop Trail (GLT) weaves through pristine wilderness, offering hikers a challenging yet rewarding experience. The beginning of this loop can be traced back to the collaborative efforts of various organizations, individuals, and entities.

The vision for this trail started with a collective aspiration to elevate Maine’s status as a premier hiking destination while conserving its natural landscapes. Historically, the Appalachian Trail served as the backbone of the region’s trekking paths. Emerging from this iconic trail is the Grafton Loop Trail, whose development began earnestly in the late 1990s.

The Maine Appalachian Trail Club, known for its stewardship of the Appalachian Trail in Maine, played a pivotal role in orchestrating the creation of the Loop. Their efforts were bolstered by the Appalachian Mountain Club, which recognized the trail’s potential to enhance the Appalachian range’s network of paths.

The conception and realization of the trail were also heavily influenced by the conservation initiative from the state’s Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund. They, along with the Maine Conservation Corps and the Maine Natural Areas Program, were instrumental in ensuring that the Grafton Loop Trail would not only serve adventurers but also protect and monitor the ecological integrity of the region. The conservation work within the designated Maine State Ecological Reserves was a cornerstone of this process.

Key agreements with several timber management companies, the contributions of other private landowners, and financial assistance from various private donors acted as an aggregate force that gave life to the trail.

In the early 2000s, the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), in partnership with the Maine Appalachian Trail Club (MATC) and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), envisioned expanding the trail network in the region. Recognizing the potential for a spectacular loop, the idea for the Grafton Loop Trail was born.

In 2003, the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund backed by the Maine Conservation Corps, injected crucial funding into the project. This financial boost, combined with support from private donors, enabled the acquisition of lands from private landowners and the realization of the trail’s development. This marked the fruition of a concerted effort spanning several years and involving a coalition of devoted nature advocates and organizations.

Over the years, the Maine State Ecological Reserves, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the Grafton Loop Trail Coalition, and the Maine Natural Areas Program’s involvement ensured that the trail’s construction and maintenance adhered to strict environmental standards. Timber management companies and private landowners played a pivotal role, allowing the trail to traverse through their lands and providing access to diverse ecosystems.

The Grafton Loop Trail officially opened in 2007, a testament to the collaborative spirit that brought it to life. Since then, it has become a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, attracting hikers eager to explore the splendors of the Maine wilderness.

Key Facts about the Grafton Loop Trail

View from Puzzle Mountain - glacial striations

  • Location: Grafton Notch State Park, western Maine
  • Total Length: about 38.6 miles (62 km)
  • Time to Hike: Typically 2 to 4 days, depending on hiker experience and pace.
  • Trailhead(s): Old Speck Trailhead, Route 26 near Eddy Road and Route 2
  • Difficulty Level: moderate to strenuous, with steep ascents and descents, rocky terrain, and varying elevations.
  • Established on: Officially opened in 2007
  • Total Elevation Gain: Over 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) over the entire loop
  • Best Time or Season to Hike: Late spring through early fall (May to October)
  • Lowest Point: Approximately 760 feet (231 meters) at the Bear River crossing (location)
  • Highest Point: the summit of Old Speck Mountain (location), at 4,170 feet (1,271 meters) above sea level

Trail Overview: Difficulty Levels and Route Options

Grafton Loop Trail

Nestled in the heart of western Maine, the Grafton Loop Trail presents an enthralling adventure for hikers seeking to immerse themselves in the raw beauty of Grafton Notch State Park and the peripheral landscape.

Here’s how to navigate the enticing route, highlighting the difficulty levels, key sections, and the intrinsic bond between the Appalachian Trail and the loop.

Route Options

Starting from the southern trailhead near the Sunday River Ski Resort, the Grafton Loop unfurls into two segments. Heading up the west side, through Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund-protected lands, hikers encounter the serene Stewart Campsite, with tent sites offering respite amidst the greenery. The trail then crosses into private lands, where timber management companies have collaborated to permit access, enhancing Maine’s storied tradition of public-private land stewardship.

The eastern half of the loop, beginning at the northern trailhead, winds through the Lane Tent Site area, up to East Baldpate (direction) and its stunning open summit, then down into the comforting seclusion of Sargent Brook Campsite. Old Speck looms as the pinnacle achievement, presenting hikers with an observation tower on an open ledge, showcasing panoramic vistas of the White Mountains. Here is the entire trail direction to take.

Difficulty Levels and Popular Sections

Summit area of West Peak Baldpate Mountain, on the AT in Maine.

The Grafton Loop is a journey of moderate to strenuous intensity that challenges even seasoned hikers.

  • The eastern half, encompassing Old Speck Mountain and Baldpate Mountain, offers challenging ascents and descents.
  • The trail’s western half features an ascent up formidable peaks like Puzzle Mountain, Baldpate Mountain, and Old Speck Mountain (direction), their steep, rocky faces demanding sturdy resolve and ample stamina.
  • As you traverse from the low-lying Bear River Valley, brace yourself for over 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) of elevation gain, with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy‘s blue blazes guiding the way.

Notable sections include the southern trail head near Sunday River Ski Resort and the northern trailhead, where the trail emerges at Eddy Road.

Trail Highlights

Summit, West Peak Baldpate Mountain with view of East Peak, on the AT in Maine.

As the trail crosses both public and private lands, hikers traverse landscapes carefully preserved by the Maine Conservation Corps, Maine State Ecological Reserves, and the Maine Natural Areas Program’s commitment to monitor and sustain natural ecosystems.

  • The picturesque Slide Mountain (map) is perfect for mountain biking enthusiasts.
  • Near the eastern Baldpate Lean-to, aligned with the Appalachian Mountain Club‘s vision, the trail crosses the quiet Bear River, then snakes up towards the lofty heights of Sunday River White Cap and Speck Mountain.
  • Puzzle Mountain and Long Mountain (direction) call to those eager to unravel the mysteries of their trails and, for the astute naturalist, the varied ecosystems monitored by the Maine Natural Areas Program.
  • The western section introduces the captivating Puzzle Mountain, Bull Run Campsite, and Sunday River White Cap.
  • On the eastern part, the trail passes through the iconic Old Speck, Baldpate Mountain, and the Bear River Valley. Highlights include open ledges with panoramic views, designated campsites like Stewart Campsite and Sargent Brook Campsite, and the mesmerizing Hurricane Island Fire Tower.
  • Meanwhile, the eastern section of the loop, less trodden, unveils a quiet, long mountain vista and baldpate shelter, nestling hikers within the incredible expansiveness of nature.

Seasonal Considerations: Best Times to Hike and Weather Conditions

Grafton Notch State Park

The Grafton Loop Trail is best hiked during late spring, summer, and early fall (May to October). During this time, the trail offers ample water sources, comfortable temperatures, and moderate weather conditions. However, hikers should still be prepared for changing weather at higher elevations.

Here’s what to expect in each season:

Spring (March-May)

Spring on the Grafton Loop Trail ushers in milder temperatures that average from -1°C to 18°C (30°F to 65°F) as the snow begins to melt at the southern trailhead and along the lower elevations. This season is characterized by frequent rainfall and rapidly changing conditions.

The trails, notably around East Baldpate and the western part, can be wet and muddy. When heading south towards the parking lot at Miles Notch or the northern end, hikers should be prepared for lingering snow patches and icy conditions, especially at higher elevations such as Bald Mountain and the Sunday River White Cap.

Summer (June-August)

Summer at Grafton Notch State Park offers warm and comfortable hiking weather, with average temperatures ranging from 10°C to 27°C (50°F to 80°F). During these months, hikers can enjoy the full splendor of the trail, with open ledges offering expansive views and wildflowers in bloom.

When starting from the southern trailhead and covering the short distance to Stowe Mountain or West Peak, the lush green canopy provides respite from the sun. Hikers should note, however, that the weather can be unpredictable and afternoon thunderstorms are common, prompting the need for caution on exposed ridgelines like those around Sunday River Whitecap and East Baldpate.

Fall (September-November)

Autumn is a celebrated time for hiking the Grafton Loop Trail, with average temperatures ranging between -1°C and 21°C (30°F to 70°F). The changing foliage provides a spectacular backdrop for the trail, especially in the western part around Old Speck or the descent to the northern end of Grafton Notch State Park.

The southern trailhead and Sunday River Whitecap, however, experience mild daytime temperatures of 10°C to 20°C (50°F to 68°F), while higher elevations like Stowe Mountain in the western part may see cooler weather.

With clear skies, the weather generally remains stable, but temperatures can drop sharply after sunset. The Sunday River ski area, a short distance away, begins to prepare for the upcoming season, while campsites like those near the private land along the trail welcome fewer visitors.

Winter (December-February)

Winter on the trail brings a blanket of snow and a profound silence. Average temperatures can fluctuate from -5°C to -15°C (23°F to 5°F). The southern trailhead, near the Sunday River Ski Resort, signals the start of a winter wonderland, with thick snow often covering the trail up to West Peak and Miles Notch.

The trail, particularly in the eastern section towards East Baldpate, requires special winter gear to navigate safely. Higher elevations, including Bald Mountain, see more severe cold, providing a snowy haven for winter enthusiasts.

Hikers should be wary of harsh conditions, such as blizzards and freezing temperatures, when planning their trip and consider the daylight hours necessary to account for slower progress through the snow.

It is essential for hikers to check current weather conditions and forecasts from government sources, such as the National Weather Service, before setting out on their adventure.

Essential Gear and Equipment

Looking at Sunday River ski area

Embarking on an adventure along the Grafton Loop Trail calls for meticulous planning and appropriate gear to ensure a safe and enjoyable journey. The right equipment can make the difference between a challenging and rewarding experience, especially in remote areas like the ascent to East Peak.

Silverlight Socks Medium Crew Black


  • FREE SHIPPING

  • LIFETIME GUARANTEE

SILVERLIGHT HIKING SOCKS

stars 627 reviews

  • Footwear: Opt for hiking boots or trail runners, depending on the season, ensuring comfort throughout the journey.
  • Clothing: Adopt the layering approach to deal with fluctuating temperatures. Start with moisture-wicking base layers, add insulating mid-layers such as fleece, and top it off with a waterproof and windproof shell jacket and pants.
  • Navigation: Though the Grafton Loop Trail is well-marked, a reliable map and compass are indispensable. In the digital age, a GPS device is also highly recommendable, and one should always ensure that devices are fully charged for optimal battery life. Backpack: Choose a backpack that suits the length of your hike. For day hikers, a smaller pack may suffice, but overnight treks will require a larger pack with compartments for food, water, and gear.
  • Shelter and Sleeping: For multi-day hikers, a lightweight tent or hammock, a sleeping bag rated for the lowest temperatures expected, and an insulated sleeping pad are crucial for restful nights in the wilderness.
  • Food and Water: Always carry an ample supply of water and remember to stay hydrated throughout the trek. Plan for nutritious, high-energy meals, such as trail mix and energy bars, to keep you fueled.
  • Emergency Supplies: In case of any unforeseen circumstances, bring a first-aid kit, a signaling device like a whistle or mirror, and an emergency shelter like an emergency blanket.
  • Bear Box: When camping, use bear boxes provided at designated campsites to store food securely.
  • Other Essentials: Other items that should not be forgotten include a headlamp or flashlight with extra batteries, sun protection like sunglasses and sunscreen, and trekking poles for added stability and support.

Remember to break in new gear before the hike and pack light to reduce strain on your body. For more tips on choosing the right gear for your next hiking trip, check out Silverlight’s hiking gear and hiking tips blog posts for expert advice and recommendations.

Navigating the Grafton Loop Trail: Maps, Markers and Permits

Trail sign at the junction of the Appalachian Trail and Grafton Loop Trail

Before setting out on the Grafton Loop Trail, proper planning is crucial to ensuring a safe and enjoyable adventure, whether you’re embarking on a day hike or a multi-day expedition.

Permits

While there are no permits required for day hiking, permits are necessary for designated campsites if you plan to camp. Check with Grafton Notch Campground or the Maine Appalachian Trail Club for specific permit requirements. They can provide valuable information regarding camping regulations and permits along the Appalachian Trail.

Maps and Markers

Accurate maps are indispensable for navigating the trail. The Maine Appalachian Trail Club and the Appalachian Mountain Club offer detailed maps of the Grafton Loop Trail, which are invaluable for planning your trek ahead of time. Look for trail markers, typically blue blazes, to stay on course. These organizations also provide up-to-date trail information, ensuring a smooth journey.

Markers along the trail, such as blazes and signs, are there to guide hikers on the correct path. The Grafton Loop Trail is well-marked, with official blue blazes indicating the trail route and signs at key junctions.

Adherence to the marked trail is necessary as it crosses both public lands managed by Grafton Notch State Park and private lands with specific hiker expectations to respect the landowners’ property.

The Silverlight app provides detailed trail maps and can be used to navigate the trail.

Itinerary: 2 Days along the Grafton Loop Trail

Grafton Notch State Park

Day 1: Puzzle Mountain to Stewart Campsite via East Peaks (21.1 miles, strenuous)

Kick off your trek at the southern trailhead, setting out early to conquer the formidable Puzzle Mountain. As you ascend, you will notice panoramic views of the Bear River Valley. Before reaching the mountain’s summit, take the right fork onto the Woodsum Spur trail for a scenic detour.

Continue to Stewart Campsite, navigating through the rolling terrain of Long Mountain and beside the tranquil waters of Chase Hill Brook. The path becomes increasingly rugged as it traces the border between Andover and Newry, discovering the path less traveled through private land. Your resolve is rewarded with a midday rest at Wight Brook.

With two campsites nestled approximately 1.3 miles (2.1 km) apart in this region, settle in for the night at either one after a thrilling segment of the journey. Set up your shelter under the East Peak of Baldpate and recharge for the next leg, where you’ll join the Appalachian Trail for a while before a smooth return to ME Route 26.

Select from the five designated campsites and revel in the seclusion they offer.

Day 2: A.T. Junction to Bear River via West Peaks (17.5 miles, strenuous)

After a restorative night, start west of ME Route 26 for a less traveled but equally exhilarating hike. Immediately delve along the A.T., with Cascade Brook. Climbing Old Speck unveils the rich forestry and wildlife, showcasing a dramatic view of Grafton Notch.

As you diverge from the A.T., the Grafton Loop heads south, where you’ll find a welcoming campsite approximately 2 miles (3.2 km) beyond Old Speck’s summit. Post-summit, your path spirals downward through Slide Mountain, leading to the serene Miles Notch. Climbing once more, the ascent to the Sunday River Whitecap infuses fresh energy into weary limbs.

From the heights of Whitecap, you will gradually descend to a campsite framed by the formidable Sargent Mountain, then sweep past Bald Mountain.

Finally, a carefully placed sequence of rock steps leads to a campsite before greeting the Bear River, marking the trail’s end a mere half mile south of the southern trailhead. Enjoy the last of the four permissible campsites on this leg of your journey, respecting the ban on fires to protect this pristine wilderness.

Accommodation, Camping, and Overnight Stays near the GLT

Slide Mountain campsite

Finding a comfortable place to stay is essential for a fulfilling hiking experience. Along the trail, several backcountry-designated sites are strategically placed for hikers’ use.

You can view the designated campsite locations on the official trail map here.

  • The trail offers a range of designated sites for backcountry camping, with Grafton Notch Campground being a prominent option. It provides full-service campsites and is located just a short drive from the GLT, making it a convenient base for accessing the trail. You can find permit and reservation information on their official website.
  • Stewart Campsite, approximately 7 miles (11 km) from the southern trailhead, offers a rustic and immersive outdoor experience. Similarly, Town Corner Campsite, located near the western part of the trail, offers a rustic camping experience. Reservations for these sites are not required, but it’s important to arrive early during peak season to secure a spot.
  • Lane Campsite and East Baldpate Campsite, found 6 and 10 miles (9.6 and 16 km) from the trail’s northern end, respectively, are known for their scenic vistas and trailside convenience. East Baldpate Campground is a popular stop for hikers tackling the eastern section of the trail. Meanwhile, farther along the path, the Speck Pond Campsite, Bull Run Campsite, and Slide Mountain Campsite offer tranquil settings to recharge after a day of strenuous hiking.
  • Advanced campers looking for seclusion may opt for Sargent Brook Campsite or Bald Mountain Campsite. These require a bit more hiking effort to reach, but reward you with solitude and direct contact with the Appalachian wilderness.

Other Accommodations

Besides designated sites, additional accommodation includes local motels, inns, and lodges in nearby towns like Bethel and Newry.

Hikers can consider the Bethel Inn Resort, about 16 miles (25 km) from the southern trailhead, known for its comfortable lodging and amenities. Other options include River View Resort and the Sunday River Resort, which cater to diverse traveler preferences.

For up-to-date information and necessary permits for camping along the GLT, be sure to check the Maine Appalachian Trail Club’s resource page.

Regulations

Regulations are enforced to protect the trail and surrounding areas.

  • Campfires, for example, are often prohibited outside of designated fire rings in established campsites to minimize human impact. It is pertinent to check the trail regulations at the Grafton Notch State Park site and adhere to Leave No Trace principles.
  • Bear safety is important in this region. Some campsites along the trail are equipped with bear boxes, which should be used to store food and scented items securely. If bear boxes are not available, proper food storage techniques should be employed. Additional information on bear safety can be found through the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.

Getting There: Directions and Transportation Options

Portland International Jetport

Reaching the Grafton Loop Trail (GLT) starts with your journey to Maine. Here’s a comprehensive overview of how to get there and navigate the surrounding area:

The nearest airports to the Grafton Loop Trail are:

  • Portland International Jetport (PWM): Located approximately 84 miles (135 km) southwest of the trailhead, Portland International Jetport serves as a major airport hub for the region.
  • Bangor International Airport (BGR): Situated roughly 145 miles (233 km) northeast of the trailhead, Bangor International Airport offers additional options for travelers arriving from afar.

Getting from the Airport to the Trail:

Upon arrival at PWM, you have a few options to reach the trailhead:

  • Portland International Jetport (PWM):
    • Rental Cars: From the airport, travelers can take I-95 north to Route 26, which leads directly to Grafton Notch State Park.
    • Shuttle Services: Several shuttle companies operate in the Portland area, offering transportation to destinations across Maine. Research shuttle options in advance and arrange for a ride to the trailhead.
  • Bangor International Airport (BGR):
    • Rental Cars: Similar to Portland International Jetport, rental car options are available at Bangor International Airport. Travelers can take I-95 south to Route 2, which provides access to Grafton Notch State Park.
    • Bus Services: Some bus companies offer routes between Bangor and nearby towns like Bethel. From Bethel, travelers can arrange for transportation to the trailhead.
    • Taxi or Ridesharing: Taxi and ridesharing platforms can provide direct transport to the trail, though this may be a more costly alternative.

Getting Around the Area

Once at the trailhead, you can park your vehicle in designated areas. For those who prefer to travel by bus, the Concord Coach Lines can take you as far as Bethel, about 16 miles from the southern trailhead. From there, a pre-arranged shuttle or taxi is necessary to reach the trail.

It’s important to note that while getting to the trailhead is straightforward, there are no looping transportation systems at the trail’s end. So, if you are planning a one-way hike, be sure to arrange for pick-up at your trail’s endpoint or consider a car shuttle arrangement with local hikers or services.

Conclusion

The Grafton Loop Trail awaits all who seek to immerse themselves in its splendor. It promises not just a hike but an odyssey of self-discovery and a deepened appreciation for Maine’s majestic outdoors.

So lace up your boots, shoulder your pack, and set forth into the embrace of the Grafton Loop Trail, your slice of paradise in the great expanse of wilderness.

Whether Maine hiking is a new venture or a familiar return, the journey along the GLT is sure to be an indelible experience that resonates with the adventurer in us all.

Interested in exploring more breathtaking trails in the U.S.? Head over to our Hikes & Trails archive page and start planning your next nature adventure today


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

Discover our Bestselling Hiking Socks

Shop Nowx

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *