Monday, September 5, 2011

#58 Old Speck Mountain, Maine September 3, 2011

Old Speck via Old Speck trail,  September 3, 2011.   

Mileage:  7.6 miles (RT)

Elevation gain:  3,073'

Trailhead: Bethel, Maine, follow Rt 2 for 6 miles to Newry. Turn left and follow ME26 to Grafton Notch State Park (12 miles). The AT parking area is on the left side of the road and is large and well-signed. There is a $2 per person park fee. 

The plan for Labor Day weekend was to relax; I had no plans to hike.  But my friend Eileen was planning to hike Zealand Mountain and I wanted to tag along. 

It was not to be. Damage from Hurricane Irene (which arrived as a tropical storm) had closed Zealand Road.  Most of the Whites were in rough shape.

I was psyched to do Zealand and the cancelled plans left me empty.  After looking at the options, I chose Old Speck Mountain via the AT (Old Speck trail).

Old Speck is in Grafton Notch State Park in Maine. I called the park ranger earlier in the week to ask about storm damage and he said that the roads and the trails were just fine! 

I had heard nice things about Old Speck, needed it for my New England 4k list, and it wasn't too far away.  Old Speck is the lone four thousand footer in the park, which is also home to one peak on the New England Hundred Highest list - Baldpate Mountain. Rich wanted me to find something closer to our home.  With parts of Route 302 and the Kangamagus Highway closed due to flooding, we had few options.  Besides, I wanted to see AT thru-hikers!

By 8:30 a.m. Saturday, I had convinced him to hike Old Speck.  Since we had not planned on it, nothing was done to prepare for our trip. Our packs are always ready (except for water and lunch), so we threw on clothing, and threw boots, poles and packs in the car and off we went.

Turns out Grafton Notch State Park is no further from our home in Stratham than Crawford Notch in NH (give or take 15 minutes). Traffic was thick on I-95 north but we arrived at the trailhead in no time (after picking up a few sandwiches at the I-95 rest stop near Wells).  We started our hike at 11:20 a.m. with blue skies and warm, humid temps.

When we got there, two former AT hikers were in the parking lot spreading some trail magic: boiling lobsters and corn for lucky thru-hikers.  As we passed the group I could hear one hiker (lying on her pad) saying, "I am SO full!" 

We head up the trail, which was wet from a recent shower. The ascent started immediately, with several easy water crossings.  A very beautiful waterfall to the right follows us for the first mile or so. It provides a bit of cool and a bit of breeze.  We pass the start of the Eyebrow trail, a steep cliff trail that meets up with our trail further on.

The trail follows this delicate waterfall.
I am tired and the humidity and heat are slowing me down. We started this hike very late and in the heat of the day.  Surprisingly, we make very good time, and find we were hiking our usual pace. The alternating steeps and flats make for a very comfortable ascent overall.  Your blood gets pumping, breathing is heavy and then reward!  Ten to twenty yards of flat terrain.  This pattern continues to the summit.

The trail is completely wooded with rock steps, wooden stairs, and many rock slabs with good footholds.  Most of the slabs are what I call "sticky rocks," a rough surface that provided security even when wet.

At about 2500' we come to a fabulous vista of the Notch, though a bit hazy.  This is the last view we have as we soon hike into a thick cloud. 
Right side view from a vista.
We reach where the Eyebrow Trail meets back up with the Old Speck Trail and can hear voices from the cliffs of the steep Eyebrow Trail. We would soon meet those hikers at the summit.

Trail junction Eyebrow Trail
Once we got to the ridge, the steepness levels off and the trail becomes rolling terrain.  We stop and have lunch at one of the many pleasant flat spots (this one would have had partial views if not for the misty cloud we were in).  We reach a false summit and a dip down before we are back ascending.  Just before the true summit the trail turns and brings you into another open area where you must feel like you are on top of the world!  We saw only clouds. We reach the true summit, sock in with mist.

On the summit with the Eyebrow hikers!
The summit marker is on a large rock opposite the lookout tower. I climb up the tower ladder to the lookout platform but don't spend any time up there as it was damp, cold and windy with not a bit of view!

An AT thru-hiker arrives (the summit is actually a side trail from the AT). He is wearing his rainpants and looks like he has spent a few wet days on the trail.

As it was cool and viewless that day, we start down from the summit soon after we arrived.  The woods are dark from the mist. The descent is unremarkable; the wet rock slabs very sticky, making for a good pace.  On the way down Rich takes a photo of the open area close to the top. 

No view here today!
We see several AT thru-hikers on our descent and when we reach the junction of the Eyebrow Trail I hike down it a bit to see if I could see the cliff our friends from the summit hiked up (they did not recommend hiking down it as conditions were wet!). 

We get down to the parking lot at 5 p.m. to many more thru-hikers enjoying the lobsters and corn.  7.4 miles RT, about 2600' elevation gain.

Hiking on the AT this time of year is particularly fun as you meet thru-hikers of all ages; most headed to Katahdin.  The lobster feed in the parking lot had such a festive atmosphere; everyone was happy!  We gave two thru-hikers a ride on the way to our beer in Bethel (brew pub).  Scribbles is a former IBM worker in her mid fifties; SloGoing is retired (mid-sixties). Both had many stories to tell and we enjoyed hearing what it is like on the trail.

This was a beautiful hike and I would recommend it to anyone, including families. It was completely wooded with fine views along the trail (and I am assuming on the summit). Footing is fine and there is no scrambling, at least not on the Old Speck trail.  Adventure seekers can take the Eyebrow trail portion of the hike and meet up with the rest of the group at the junction. The trip had something for everyone!

Lessons learned.  1. Hiking a mountain in Maine does not have to mean a 3+ hour trip in the car to get to the trailhead. We were home in a few hours and found the ride on Route 26 quite pleasant.  2. The turkey sandwiches we got at the I-95 rest area were delicious! Who knew!

This is #58 of my New England Four Thousand footers and my most likely my last NE 4k for the 2011 season.