Sunday, October 27, 2013

Backpacking the Mahoosuc Range

The Mahoosuc Range is not as well known as other mountain ranges in New England.  They are not as tall as the lofty peaks of the Presidential Range in New Hampshire or Katahdin in Maine.  Perhaps the Mahoosucs are best known to Appalachian Trail thru hikers.  They are often considered the most challenging mountain range along the entire trail.  Having hiked the entire AT myself, I will agree that the Mahoosucs are among the most challenging sections of the trail.

With the exception of an ascent of Old Speck at the eastern end of the range, I have not hiked the Mahoosucs since my AT thru hike in 1999.  I was eager to revisit the area.  With cold weather reaching northern New England, time was running out for a backpacking trip in the area.  I made a somewhat last minute decision to hike the range before winter conditions set in on the mountains.  On Thursday, I left work early and headed to Gorham, New Hampshire to hike the entire range.  I was flying solo.

My trip followed the Mahoosuc Trail starting in Gorham to Old Speck Mountain in Maine.  From Old Speck, I followed the Old Speck Trail to Grafton Notch at Maine Route 26.  With the exception of the first several miles, my route shared the same path as the Appalachian Trail.  With a couple of short side trips, the length of the trip would be about 32 miles.  It's not the distance that makes the Mahoosuc Range a challenge.  The hike gains 11000 feet of elevation in those 32 miles as it traverses the range.  Adding to the challenge, the trip goes through the Mahoosuc Notch, often considered the toughest mile on the entire Appalachian Trail.

I arrived at the trailhead in Gorham, New Hampshire a little after 4PM on Thursday. A few sprinkles fell as I neared Gorham.  As I got to the trailhead, the sprinkles turned to flurries.  From the parking lot along RT 16, a short jaunt takes you to the official start of the Mahoosuc Trail.

The trail begins climbing immediately.  The first summit, Mt Hayes, is about 3 miles from the start.  The views were obscured by snow on Mt Hayes, although I could see Gorham below in the valley.  Approaching the summit of Cascade, it began to get dark.  A large creature ran into the woods ahead of me.  I only caught a glimpse of it, but because of its size and color, it was either a black bear or a moose. I didn't see any other signs of the beast.   I didn't have a set destination the first night.  My goal was to hike until dark and find an appropriate spot to camp.  It eventually became dark enough I had to put on my headlamp to continue.  I hiked about 40 minutes in the dark by the light of headlamp until I reached Trident Col Tentsite.

Gorham from Mt Hayes as flurries fall

I arrived at the tentsite about 645PM. I covered over 6 miles and got further than anticipated.  I set up my tent and called Puma to let her know I was alive and well before turning in early.  Despite a brief period of starry skies, I could hear light snow fall on the tent periodically through the night.

I began hiking around 8AM on Friday.  Light flurries fell most of the morning.  The hiking was relatively easy with a few easy ups and downs.  The most difficult part of the hike was seeing the trail.  In the lower elevations, fallen leaves covered the trail, making it blend in with the rest of the forest.  The trail passed several ponds and stayed relatively low for the first 6 miles of the day.

Page Pond

Bog bridges with a little snow

More bog bridges

Mt. Success is the first formidable peak that the trail traverses.  As I approached Mt Success, I could see the mountain was covered in snow and rime.  The trail climbed somewhat steeply up Success.  Mt Success has a long open summit mixed with low scrubby growth and alpine meadow.  The entire summit was covered in rime.  Light flurries fell on the summit obscuring the visibility somewhat but not diminishing the fine views in all directions.  Only the lofty Presidential Range, which was socked in the clouds, was completely obscured.  The summit was chilly.  The tube of my Camelbak froze as I crossed the summit.  A steady, brisk wind added to the chill.

The first traces of rime on Mt Success

View from Mt Success

Alpine stretch on Mt Success

Frosty summit of Mt Success

After descending Mt Success, I left New Hampshire and crossed into Maine.  After a short break for a snack and to refill my water in the sheltered Carlo Col,  I began to tackle the peaks in Maine.  The first mountain climbed is Mt Carlo.  Mt. Carlo is about the same height as Success but doesn't have nearly as much exposed alpine area.

Leaving New Hampshire and entering Maine

Beyond Mt Carlo, the trail reaches the Goose Eyes.  The trail passes over the West, East, and North Peaks of Goose Eye Mountain.  The West Peak is the highest of the three and the first one that is reached.  The approach to Goose Eye is impressive.  The trail ascend through open alpine meadow with great views as it approaches the summit.  Just below the summit, the trail climbs small cliffs.  Iron rungs and wooden ladders are in place to tackle the steepest sections.  The entire mountain was covered in rime with similar conditions to Mt Success.  A few stretches of the trail had substantial ice on the rocks making for tricky footing in places.  A very short side trail takes you to the true summit, a tenth of a mile out of the way.  From the summit, much of the Mahoosucs are visible including the Mahoosuc Notch, Mahoosuc Arm, and Old Speck.

The Goose Eyes from Mt Carlo

Looking south from Goose Eye

Icy section on Goose Eye

Looking over Mt Carlo towards the Carter Range

The peaks of the northern White Mountains

West and East Goose Eye

Rungs climbing Goose Eye

Ladder on Goose Eye

View over Mt Carlo

Looking toward the Mahoosuc Notch

Close up of Mahoosuc Notch

Carter Range in the distance

View towards East Peak of Goose Eye

Another view from Goose Eye

The East and North Peaks are just as impressive as the taller West Peak of Goose Eye Mountain.  After a small drop, the East Peak is climbed.  Much of the trail to the North Peak passes over alpine meadow with far flung views.  The descent from the East Peak was particularly tricky as there was numerous icy sections on steep rock.  The trail traveled several exposed miles with only brief sections sheltered in the trees.  The temperature at this elevation was below freezing and I would guess the windchill to be in the single digits.  Light flurries periodically fell as well.

Looking back to West Peak of Goose Eye

The steps on the snowy bog bridges made life easier as the trail descended 

Lots of rime 

After dropping down from the North Peak of Goose Eye, the trail immediately climbs the South Peak of Fulling Mill Mountain.  Fulling Mill had a small area of open scrub but was not nearly as scenic as the Goose Eyes or Success.  From Fulling Mill, the trail dropped steeply to the head of the Mahoosuc Notch.

The Mahoosuc Notch is notorious among Appalachian Trail thru hikers.  It is often cited as the most difficult mile of the AT.  The trail covers one mile as it passes through the Notch.  The Notch is a steep ravine between Mahoosuc and Fulling Mill Mountains.  The Notch is choked with giant rocks that must be climbed over and crawled under.  Numerous caves are passed through along the way.  It is slow going at best and a real challenge with a full backpack as it often gets caught up in the tighter squeezes.  It's not uncommon to hear stories of people taking as long as three hours to pass the one mile through the Mahoosuc Notch.

Wall of the Mahoosuc Notch

Arrows directing hikers in the Notch

Typical view in the Notch

A tight spot in the Notch

Another cave in the Notch

More rocks to traverse

Yet another tight spot

More arrows showing the way through caves in the Notch

Looking down the last cave in the Notch

I certainly have less than fond memories of the Mahoosuc Notch from my AT thru hike.  On my thru hike in 1999, I passed through the Notch with a fellow hiker.  We made it through in an hour or so.  Then the fun began.  We stopped for a break after the notch.  I had a snack and Vee Dub (other hiker) stepped into the woods to take care of some business.  I didn't wait for him and continued on the trail.  I noted on the map a feature called Notch 2.  As I hiked, I thought that the Notch 2 was just as hard as the Mahoosuc Notch.  After struggling through the Notch 2 for a while, I reached a sign.  It was the sign at the beginning of the first notch.  I hiked the wrong direction.  I hiked almost 2000 miles from Georgia and this was when I got turned around, on the hardest mile of trail.  After consulting my map, I realized there was no way to get around the Notch.  So for a third time in less than three hours, I went through the Mahoosuc Notch.  Angry with myself for my mistake, I hurried through the Notch the third time with little concern for my body.  By the end of the day my knees were quite sore from the fiasco.

This time, my experience with the Mahoosuc Notch was much better.  I made my way through the mile of trail uneventfully in just under an hour.  Is the Mahoosuc Notch the toughest mile on the AT?  I would say probably not, although it's the slowest mile for sure.  I would say the hardest thing about the Mahoosuc Notch is that it is followed by a climb of the Mahoosuc Arm.

After the Notch, the trail climbs Mahoosuc Arm.  After hiking 17 miles with a full pack and just passing through the Notch, I would say the last mile of the Mahoosuc Arm is the toughest mile on the AT.  The climb up Mahoosuc Arm is steep and relentless.  The trail only goes one way, up.  To make it even tougher, I was battling daylight as well as the mountain.  I became quite hot and sweaty climbing the Mahoosuc Arm.  As I broke into the scrubby trees near the summit, I was chilled by the wind.

I made it to the summit of Mahoosuc Arm with only the faintest light remaining.  Fortunately, I had less than a mile downhill to Speck Pond Campsite.  I put on my headlamp and covered the remaining trail in the dark.  Along the way I slipped on an icy bog bridge and submerged my foot in mud but otherwise made it to the campsite safely.

A group of three was already at the campsite.  This was a welcome sight as they had a fire.  I was chilly from sweating on my climb and the fire helped me warm up quickly.  In addition to the fire, the trio had a cauldron of chicken ala king cooking.  They had far more cooking than they could eat themselves and were more than happy to offer me some.  I was planning on a cold dinner.  The hot meal hit the spot.  We sat by the fire for a little while and chatted.  To the trio at Speck Pond Campsite, thank you for the hot meal and fire.

Speck Pond has a lean-to.  The idea of crashing in the lean-to seemed better than setting up my tent.  Speck Pond, at 3400 feet is one of the highest ponds in Maine.  At that elevation it was quite chilly at night and I was glad I brought my 5 degree F sleeping bag.  By morning the remaining water in my Camelbak and bottle froze solid.  My shoe that was submerged in the mud the night before was also frozen stiff.

My second day was challenging.  With side trips, I covered 20 miles and gained 7250 vertical feet.  On the rugged terrain with a full pack, very short hours of daylight, and subfreezing temperatures most of the day, I was tired.

On my final day, I had less than five miles to cover before reaching the end of my hike.  I had 1000 feet of climbing and a mile and a half of hiking to the summit of Old Speck Mountain.  At 4170 feet, this was the high point of the trip.  Although the summit of Old Speck is wooded, an observation tower provides views in all directions.  Climbing the tower was a little hairy as the upper rungs of the ladder to the observation platform were covered in rime ice.  I took in the views and snapped some photos before descending the final four miles to Grafton Notch.

Old Speck coming into sight

Looking down Old Speck

The Presidential Range briefly breaking out of the clouds

Looking back over the Mahoosucs toward the Presidentials

Mahoosuc Notch from Old Speck

Close up of Mahoosuc Notch

Freshly blown snow at Sunday River

Sunday River White Cap

Endless mountains in western Maine

The Goose Eyes with white caps and the Carter Range beyond

Looking down Grafton Notch

Old Speck's observation tower

Looking up the tower's ladder

Waterfall along Old Speck Trail

My car was in Gorham.  I planned on hitching to Gorham but after nearly a half hour, not a single car passed.  Another hiker that I passed on the way down the mountain reached the parking lot.  I kindly asked him if he minded giving me a ride.  He was more than happy to help out a fellow hiker.  Not only did he give me a ride, but he was passing through Gorham and took me back to my car.  We swapped tales of our hikes throughout New England along the way.  Thank you very much Charlie.

Despite the cold weather, I'm glad I made this trip.  After 14 years passed since my last trip through the Mahoosucs, I didn't remember them very well.  With several open and exposed peaks, the scenery is impressive.  Features like the Mahoosuc Notch add to appeal of the range.  The weather was chilly, but the winter like conditions enhanced the scenery with ice covered summits.  The ice did lead to a few close calls however.  I have to agree that the Mahoosucs are one of the most challenging mountain ranges to hike in the east.

With the exception of Old Speck, the Mahoosucs aren't as crowded as other mountain ranges in New England.  The biggest users of the Mahoosucs are long distance backpackers and AT thru hikers.  Since I was in the off season, I didn't see anybody the first 26 miles of hiking until I reached Speck Pond.  A handful of people were climbing Old Speck near the end of my trip.  To anyone looking for a challenging backpacking trip without the big crowds, I recommend this trip.


  1. Great read. I am a little familiar with the mountains. Thank you

  2. Thank you ; the write up is wonderful

  3. Thank you so much for this - your descriptions are great & your pics stunning. My 18 year old daughter is backpacking this very route with 9 others - part of an Outdoor Leadership Program she is taking at Greenfield Community College (MA). They left 11/4 & are returning 11/11/13. It's so nice for us at home to have such a complete description.

  4. Thanks for the very interesting and awe-inspiring account. I was very glad to meet you and doubly glad that I was passing back through Gorham. Happy trails. - Charlie