AT Section Hike: Grafton Notch to Gentian Pond

Grafton Notch

I just got back from the hardest hiking I've done in the past year, hiking southbound on the notorious Mahoosuc trail section of the Appalachian Trail, from Grafton Notch in Maine to Gentian Pond in New Hampshire. This section ranks right up there in difficulty with the northern section of the Long Trail in Vermont.

Day to Day Mileage looked like this:

Day 1: Grafton Notch to Old Speck Pond Campsite (5.5 miles)

Day 2: Old Speck Pond Campsite to Carlo Carlo Col Shelter (9 miles)

Day 3: Carlo Col Shelter to Gentian Pond Shelter (5.2 miles) and Austin Brook Trail (3.5 miles)

Day 1

I got a late start on the first day of this trip, arriving at Gorham, New Hampshire, by about 9:00, after a 3.5 hour drive up from the Boston Area. I parked my car at the Rattle River Trailhead just off Rt 2, outside of Gorham, NH, and waited for my ride up to the trail head in Grafton Notch about 35 miles north.

My friend Marc picked me up about 15 minutes later, but not until after two other vehicles had stopped to offer me rides. The AT Thru-Hikers have started trickling through town and the people of Gorham are very hiker friendly. I got chatting with one couple that stopped and included a fellow who told me that he'd just hiked over Baldplate Mountain from Grafton Notch heading north on the AT. He's been section hiking the AT since 1994 and just has Maine and the Smokies left.

Marc and I had never been to Grafton Notch before and we were very impressed. Old Speck Mountain faces the notch from the south and Baldplate from the north, both rising 3,000 feet to their summits with shear cliffs. The view is very impressive and enhanced by the remoteness of the location. There is nothing else out here and there are very few people around. It's quite a change from the White Mountains to the south which are overrun in summer.

Marc dropped me off at about 10:45 AM and I started climbing Old Speck Mountain (4,190 ft) which ascends over 3,000 feet in 3.5 miles. The weather was very humid and I was soon dripping wet. So much so, that the sweat was pouring from my hat in a steady stream when I bent over from my waist. I kept up a good pace though and reached the peak by about 1:45. From there, I could see bad weather blowing in from the south and I started hearing high altitude thunder in the distance.

From the summit, I had 1.1 miles to get to Old Speck Pond shelter over an exposed ridge. So I made a beeline for it, just before a heavy thunderstorm hit, complete with lightning strikes on the mountain above. Ever since last summer I've grown increasingly cautious about lightning since I was caught in a thunder storm on Breadloaf Mountain while hiking the Long Trail in Vermont. That incident scared the be-jesus out of me.

 Old Speck Pond - Highest Pond in Maine, Appalachian Trail

After the storm passed, I decided to set up my tarp and hang out at the shelter for the rest of the day despite the early hour. If I were to continue, I'd need to hike 5 more miles down the Mahoosuc Arm, through the famous Mahoosuc Notch, and up Fulling Mill Mountain to get to Full Goose Shelter in the remaining 4 hours before dark. This same route took me 7 hours the following morning. Waiting was a good call, seconded by a another heavy shower and lightning strikes to the south where I would have been hiking if I had continued.

Day 2

The next morning I woke up at 4:30 AM and broke camp at 6:00. Given the pattern of afternoon thunderstorms, my strategy was to hike as many hours in the morning as possible, before daytime convection heated the clouds and caused rain.

Mahoosic Notch from Mahoosic Arm, Appalachian Trail

After leaving Old Speck Pond, I had to hike for a mile over the exposed Mahoosuc Arm and then descend 1,500 feet in one mile to the east end of the Notch Trail. That was one heck of a descent, down wet, exposed slab that had water streaming over it. But the best was yet to come: hiking through the Mahoosuc Notch.  

Mahoosic Notch Trail, Appalachian Trail

The Mahoosuc Notch is a narrow ravine situated between the vertical cliffs of Fulling Mill Mountain and the Southern Peak of Mahoosuc Mountain. It is one mile long and filled with car sized boulders that you have to scramble up, over, through, and under. It took me 2 hours to hike this one mile and it required every rock climbing trick I know, wearing a full pack no less. The trail weaves in and out of several caves and I encountered snow and ice along my route in multiple locations: we're talking late June.

 Goose Eye Mountain, Appalachian Trail

Once through the notch, I ascended 1,000 feet up Fulling Mill Mountain and gave myself a long rest at Full Goose Shelter. It is an exceptionally long, 3-sided shelter, probably capable of sleeping 15 or 20 people. I ate a big lunch, filtered some water, and headed south over the north and east peaks of Goose Eye Mountain.

During this entire trip, I was totally unprepared for the amount of exposure I encountered along the Maine section of the Mahoosuc Trail. That coupled with the heavy thunderstorm activity from the previous day had left me feeling a little paranoid. Most of the summits I was traversing were bald and had long boggy, alpine plateaus to cross, despite being under 3500 ft in elevation, which is normally below treeline.

Goose Eye Mountain, Appalachian Trail

I kept my eye on the weather and the wind the whole time. The weather up here usually comes from the west over Vermont, but I could see and hear a very dark thunderstorm system with heavy rain about 30-40 miles south over Gorham, NH, just north of Mt Madison and Adams in the North Presidentials. The wind felt like it was blowing lightly from the northwest where it was partly sunny with cumulus clouds, a sign of potential rain later in the day. Looking up at the clouds above me, I couldn't detect any discernible movement from the wind, so it was hard to determine whether the wind I was feeling was truly coming from the direction I thought or not. It turned out that it wasn't.

With one eye to the storm down south, I decided to try to reach the east peak of Goose Eye Mountain (above) and get over it into the trees before the storm from the south hit. It would be a close thing and I couldn't stay where I was, on top of the north peak, fully exposed.

So, I took off and race walked across the alpine meadow separating the two peaks, passing through some krumholz along the way and mini cols where I could potentially hide out if lightning hit. When I got to the base of the east peak, the path veered north and circled the summit bald through a series of ladders and boardwalks, taking me out of the direct path of the thunderstorm, which had now grown purple in color and was slowly heading my way. I could see sheets of rain underneath this storm and the squall line approaching me.

I continued my ascent and reached the last of the krumholz below the summit when the whiteout hit. Peaking through the trees, I could see mist drift over the alpine garden separating the north and east peaks which I had traversed a short while back. It started to rain lightly, so I put on my full rain gear, covered my pack and decided to sit it out for a while until the brunt of the storm passed or it became clear that I needed to backtrack to a safer location with taller trees.

Goose Eye Mountain from the South, Appalachian Trail

In the end, I lucked out. The storm just skirted East and North Goose but hit the Mahoosuc Notch and old Speck Mountain dead on. Leaving from the shelter early turned out to have been a good move. After a 20 minute delay, I sumitted the east peak of Goose, carefully threading my way between the cairns on the top and back down the other side in low visibility, misty conditions. I kept my rain gear on for the rest of the day, and the day after that because it rained nearly continuously from there on out, and I got to practice all of the hypothermia prevention skills I learned last summer on the Long Trail.

Proceeding, I climbed Mt Carlo, purportedly named after a dog, and reach the Carlo Col Shelter by about 6:30 PM. Speedwise, I had walked about 9 miles in just under 11 hours, which gives you some idea about the difficultly of this trail (my normal pace over rough terrain is 1.5 miles per hour.) The shelter was small and crowded so I pitched my tarp on one  of the tent platforms, cooked dinner and crashed. Everyone else at the shelter was asleep before I closed my eyes at about 7:30.

 Tarping on the Mahoosuc Trail

Sleeping in a tarp on a platform is non-optimal, but I learned a few tricks this weekend to make the experience better. First off, bring a groundsheet if you don't already use a waterproof bivy. When rain hits platform, it will seep along the boards towards your gear, regardless if the platform is tilted slightly. A groundsheet, like the Gossamer Gear polycro is lightweight and big enough to give you ample protection. Also, leave one of the long edges of your tarp hanging off the side of the platform, so that rain water falls to the ground and not onto the platform itself. You'll stay drier.

The other thing I experienced with using a tarp this weekend was rain splatter. On both nights this weekend, we had torrential night rains. That was what I was told at least; I seemed to have slept right through them. When I woke up each morning, I had some condensation and splatter on the footbox area of my sleeping bag. It seems like there are two options to combat this: either sealing the ends of the tap into a V using velco or investing in a half bivy bag. Stay tuned for more experiments.

More gear notes: the new stay in my Gossamer Gear Mariposa Plus performed fantastically, making the pack much easier to carry with a 25 pound load, including food and water. However, I still managed to rip a hole in the packs external mesh, butt sliding down wet slabs. I also holed my Golite Reed Rain pants at the knee which are repairable, but a bummer. These pants were the star of the trip and were invaluable in keeping me warm in the rain.

Day 3

Sunny, a northbound thru-hiker and I were the first to leave camp the next day at 6:20 AM. My game plan was to hike the next 5 miles over Success Mountain to the Gentian Pond Shelter by noon and then assess what I wanted to do next: hike out on the Austin Brook Trail or continue another 10 miles on the AT to the Androscoggin River.

The weather still sucked and the black flies were out again with a vengance. After hiking up from the shelter and rejoining the AT, I met my first challenge of the day, a rocky scramble up a cliff face. It took me about 5 minutes to figure out if it was even possible to scale this obstacle. My quads were already burning from the previous day's exertions as I scrambled up this face, lifting my pack over my head before climbing up several cracks. My advice is not to hike the Mahoosucs southbound. It's nuts.

Trail conditions had been impacted by the previous nights rain and I found myself walking through down a narrow trail flanked by sopping wet leaves and dwarf pines. Hypothermia was on my mind and I was wearing full rain gear to stay warm. The trail was muddy too, but not quite as muddy as the Long Trail. Still, I managed to sink below my ankles on a few occasions.

I climbed the southern slope of Mt Success easily and carefully walked over it in the mist, following cairns and bog bridges. I'd say that visibility was about 25 yards. A helicopter had obviously dropped piles of bog bridge building supplies on the summit which appeared in the mist as I passed them.

I finally came to the north face of Mt Success: Sunny had warned me about it the previous evening because it descends just under 1,000 feet in a mile. While steep, there were a lot of pine trees to grab onto and I got down the wet slab ok. Throughout this entire trip, I kept thinking about how fun this section would be to do wearing crampons in winter.

After descending Success, it was an easy walk to the Gentian Pond Shelter, and I passed an AMC trail crew that I had heard was working in the area. Word is that someone earmarked a large donation specifically for the Mahoosuc section which has been neglected over the years in favor of trail maintenance in the popular Presidentials to the south. 

Judging by their gear, it looked like the trail crew was hiking in for the day instead of camping at Gentian Pond. This isn't as bad as it sounds, since it's just a two mile walk up to the shelter from a nearby road.

Moose Skeleton, Mahoosuc Trail, Appalachian Trail

After passing the trail crew, I came along a huge amount of fur on the trail, like some animal had died on the spot. Investigating further, I saw a large jaw bone by the trail with it's teeth intact, a sack of feces and other entrails, and then a full rib cage off the trail aways. Judging by the size of the skeleton (above), it looked like a moose had died here.

A Misty View of Gentian Pond

Shortly afterward, I came to the Gentian Pond Shelter, which is situated in a really nice spot. I had a long break and ate a big lunch. I was pretty beat after just 5 miles and considered my options. In the end, I decided to hike out to Shelburne where my car was parked, down the Austin Brook Trail which meets the AT at the shelter. This turned out to be a very nice trail and I think I'll come back up this way when I hike the last 10 mile section of the Mahoosuc Trail later this year. I have a friend who wants to get into backpacking, and this will be a good one-night section for get her started.

I made good time and soon came to the trail head where the AMC trail maintenance crews had parked their vans. Shortly thereafter, I got a ride, from a guy in a truck who was visiting the area from Pennsylvania, back to my car about 5 miles away. Thank god for trail magic. It was pouring rain (still) and I didn't even have to hitch to get this ride. This guy was just driving up the dirt road I was walking on and offered me a lift. I'd have been creeped out except that his truck was full of hiking and camping gear. Four hours later I was munching on a large pizza at home and hanging my wet gear up to dry.

Most Popular Searches

  • gentian pond
  • appalachian trail mahoosuc notch
  • mahoosuc notch

, , , , , , , , , ,

26 Responses to AT Section Hike: Grafton Notch to Gentian Pond

  1. John Haley June 29, 2009 at 8:17 am #

    Great report on an equally great section of trail. My grandson is doing the same section NOBO in August and I think he will have a different perspective on hiking after doing it. Up until now his trail hiking has been relatively flat and civilized. Glad to see that your MLD Grace tarp is serving you well.

  2. PhilT June 29, 2009 at 11:29 am #

    Sounds like a superb trip, I've been equally impressed with the Golite Reed trousers, and actually surprised at their resilience. The colours in the sixth photo look phenomenal, really makes a bit of rain worthwhile.

  3. Earlylite June 29, 2009 at 11:37 am #

    I was surprised how well that photo came out myself, considering that I was running between the two peaks to avoid being zapped when I took it. :-)

  4. Townie June 29, 2009 at 4:29 pm #

    Thank you for the excellent play by play, it sounds like a great adventure, albeit a wet and exhaustive one. Congratulations on the completion of that difficult section.

  5. Earlylite June 29, 2009 at 4:38 pm #

    Some good tandori food and a ginger basil gimlet have restored me. I'm missing it already.

  6. Tom Hadley June 29, 2009 at 5:05 pm #

    Nice photos & description. I went up the Speck Pond Trail on Saturday, 6/27,stayed overnight in my Contrail on a platform at Speck Pond and went out through the Notch and Notch Trail Sunday morning. Don't bother to wear my Golite Reed pants as rain protection weather much anymore as I've found them pretty useless in anything beyond a heavy dew. Do carry them as wind pants though.

  7. Earlylite June 29, 2009 at 6:15 pm #

    I missed you by a day. I find the Reeds indispensable for staying warm when wet. Nothing will keep you dry though except staying at home.

  8. Earlylite June 29, 2009 at 6:35 pm #

    Quoddy – you surprise me all the time. Didn't know you had a grandson. The apple obviously doesn't fall far from the tree.

  9. Jolly-Green-Giant June 30, 2009 at 4:34 am #

    Excellent trip report, really great. You must carry some really long guylines to set your tarp up like you did in the picture. Good call on that.

    I have a Gossamer Gear SpinnTwinn which I had modified with extra Spinn fabric after experiencing a ton of rain splatter over the course of 2 days on the AT here in Virginia. I usually use a Pertex bivy from BPL, so I wasn't worried about my quilt getting wet, but it was extremely distracting to keep getting splatter on my face. Because of my height (6'6") I couldn't scoot down far enough under the tarp to mitigate it, hence the need for the modification. The modification made the tarp longer by 40" and allowed me to pull down a triangle for additional coverage (like Ray Jardine), but the overall craftsmanship left a lot to be desired and there is loose fabric when I set it up in the standard position. As a result, I worry about it becoming a windsock in heavier winds or filtering rain in a weird way. It also increased the weight from 9 oz to 12 which I wasn't thrilled about.

    Did you use any head netting or anything to keep the bugs at bay? If it was wet more often than not, this probably helped out with this fact – a reason that I actually like hiking in the rain and damp conditions. Rain also makes a nice uniform sound at night which helps my imagination stay unoccupied.

  10. Earlylite June 30, 2009 at 4:58 am #

    I use 9 ft guy lines on the ridgeline and it makes all the difference when hitching to trees positioned around the platforms.

    I'm using a MLD bug bivy which fully encompasses my sleeping bag. It's a great piece of gear but doesn't hold off the rain splatter very well. I'm not exactly sure what I'm going to do about that yet. I was just checking out some eVent Bivies, but they are so damn expensive. I really wish I could find just a half or a third bivy to cover the foot box area and I'm tempted to contact one of the cottage guys and have them sew one up for me.

    Alternatively, it would be great if MLD made a combo bug bivy and footbox shield for this exact purpose and I was going to contact Ron to see if that's on his radar. They just have such a huge backlog every summer on new gear.

    I remember looking at the GG SpinnTwin (did it used to be called the Patrol?) before buying the MLD Grace Duo. The beak is just what I need. Now I get it. :-)

  11. Deb Lauman June 30, 2009 at 10:18 am #

    Great trip report and photos, Phillip. Mahoosuc Notch really kicked my butt, even after hiking all the way there from Georgia. And we had similar weather when hiking through in August, 2000, often trying to out-hike the thunderstorms. Such a beautiful area, though.

  12. Earlylite June 30, 2009 at 10:50 am #

    I can't believe how hard the hiking was – my quads are actually sore which never happens to me. When I was walking over Mt Success, I met an AMC trail crew chief who was scouting the trail. He came out of nowhere in the mist and scared the heck out of me, with an axe poking out the back of his pack! He said that the weather has always been like that on the Mahoosuc's, all the years he's worked up there. It's hard to explain what it's like unless you've been there – sort of like The Lost World.

  13. Sally Naser September 3, 2009 at 4:33 pm #

    As the former AT Boundary Program Manager, I had to chuckle when you said hiking southbound on the AT from the Carlos Col Shelter side trail was nuts. My crew and I have worked 2+months since fall lf 2005 on vital AT Corridor boundary survey line reclamation in the Mahoosucs and I cannot even tell you how many times I've hiked back and forth on the AT between Carlos Col and Gentian Pond Shelter! Check out our blog at http://www.atcboundary.blogspot.com for the Fall 2007 posts if you want to see what the corridor boundary conditions are like along the surveyed boundary lines of the NPS corridor lands that buffer the AT between the ME/NH line and NH Lead Mine SF. You can also find the article I wrote for the Jan/Feb 2008 "AT Journeys" magazine called "Walk on the Wild Side" about our Mahoosuc boundary adventures on both MATC's website and ATC's website

  14. Earlylite September 3, 2009 at 6:39 pm #

    Sally – your name is familiar. I contacted the ATC a few years ago to learn about becoming a boundary monitor, and I wonder if we exchanged email or if I just read you name somewhere. Anyway, thanks for the link. I enjoyed reading about your Mahoosic adventures and looking at your great photos. I have a moose too. :-) His name is Basil.

  15. Sally Naser September 3, 2009 at 8:13 pm #

    Your name sounds familiar as well. Glad you enjoyed the Mahoosuc boundary write ups and pictures. Unfortunately for the future protection of the AT Corridor lands, the future is not looking too bright these days! I was "involuntarily separated" from my 4+ year tenure with the ATC back in June as the lone Boundary Program Manager for the entire AT Corridor stretched out between southwest VA and Baxter SP in ME. Apparentlty the current mgmt. at ATC felt it was necessary to "kill the messenger" as more and more sections of overlooked boundary sections (like the Mahoosucs) revealed themselves!

  16. Earlylite September 4, 2009 at 2:48 am #

    I'm very,very sorry to hear that. People don't realize what a complex and necessary job it is to manage landowner permissions and protect the trail from deliberate or unintentional "invasion" from people who want some of the natural resources on AT designated land. Landowner relations and access negotiation is a delicate and complex job, and I don't think you can necessarily rely on Volunteers to coordinate the giant patchwork of land parcels that are over 1,000 miles long, in addition to marking the sections clearly to prevent spontaneous enroachments by people yielding chain saws.

  17. Sally Naser September 4, 2009 at 5:54 am #

    You said a mouthful there my friend and you couldn't be more spot on. Apparently the new management of the Appalachian Trail CONSERVANCY in their ongoing efforts to function more as a "business" instead of an organization dedicated to the core values of preserving and protecting the Appalachian National Scenic Trail for generations to come felt threatened by my "fair & honest" reporting of the existing conditions of the AT corridor (all 1,376 miles of it). Check out their website on the employment page. Their new business plan solution is to take EVERYTHING that I was responsible for managing (along my spring and fall seasonal field crew of one employee) and EVERYTHING that the Lands & Resources Coordinator did (responsible for the management of all of the ATC Land Trust fee properties & easements spread out between GA & ME) and make one person do both jobs. Oh, and it's an office based position based out of Harpers Ferry?! I know from first-hand, personal experience that the newly restructured job description ATC has developed since I was let go for a Land Protection Manger cannot be done by a single person, unless of course they can hire Superman or perhaps Harry Potter. I do know an amazing young man, age 13, by the name of Benton MacKaye Schwartz that's was one my star boundary volunteers I had the honor of training and working with from AMC-Delaware Valley that looks a lot like Harry Potter, but no. Thanks again for the vote of support & if yiu feel so inclined, don't hesitate to share your concerns for the future protection of the AT and its corridor lands directly to the NPS Appalachian Trail Park Office. Feel free to email the Park Superintendant for the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (Pamela_Underhill@nps.gov). Keep enjoying the AT and in the meantime, I'll keep doing all I can do to protect it as a volunteer boundary steward. I'm headed up to NH in late Sept. to get out with my DOC volunteer compadres up on Smarts Mt. The boundary line up there isn't quite as extreme as the line in the Mahoosucs or the 100 Mile Wilderness, but a close second for sure and just the same that's it's now been 20+ years since the original survey. What ATC has been trying to keep hidden for years from volunteers and the general trail community is the fact that boundary maintenance is a non-delegated function (i,e. the volunteer trail maintaining clubs are NOT required to do boundary maintenance. Their only requirement is to do corridor monitoring, keep a watchful eye out for encroachments, and submit an annual summary report to. However, the volunteers can't effectively do those required tasks if they themselves can't locate the actual boundary line and/or point it out to an encroaching trail neighbor, timbering operation, or a land developer. Like I said, ATC "killed the messenger" by taking me out of the equation, but the dedicated boundary volunteers and members of the Trail community like yourself have the power to stand up and make the truth be known to whoever will listen, but ultimately the responsibility for the A.T. Corridor lands lies on the shoulders of NPS. If you're still interested in getting involved as a volunteer boundary maintainer and/or corridor monitor for the AT, feel free to contact me, and I can point you in the right direction. Thanks!

  18. Earlylite September 4, 2009 at 7:35 am #

    Benton MacKaye Schwartz – classic! Interesting info. I thought that some of the regional clubs like the GMC were a little more active in boundary monitoring and less tied into ATC dictums. Take the RMC for instance. They appear to be extremely indepedent.

  19. Sally Naser September 25, 2009 at 8:41 am #

    Thought you might want to read a nice piece written by Benton McKay on AT Boundary work.

  20. Craig Jones February 15, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

    I was on the TFC crew you passed, hope you liked it!

  21. Earlylite February 15, 2011 at 1:25 pm #

    That was a great section but a bit foggy. I remember passing by a pile of boardwalk planks that had been helicoptered in, I think. Were you working on that project? Do you remember seeing that moose carcass?

    Thanks for the trail maintenance. Keeps us all on the trail and protects the habitat.

  22. Chris March 1, 2011 at 9:42 am #

    I did this trip last year. Had perfect weather, saw moose everywhere, and smelled the forest fires that were burning in Canada. The smell was so strong at times, we feared a fire might have been sneaking up behind us. All around, this was one of my favorites trips out. God this planet is beautiful!

  23. Johnny Angel August 28, 2011 at 6:04 pm #

    Man oh man–I did the very same hike in the very same increments in 1969!!!

    I was 13.

    What's different now is that Old Speck has a new path–it used to be the Firewarden's Trail, which was allegedly the steepest path on the AT, 3000 feet up in a mile and change!

    Never forget how steep Mahoosuc Arm was down, through that notch (3 hours) and up Fulling Mill.

    Best hike I ever did and I've done them all over the US.

  24. Ed September 29, 2012 at 11:53 am #

    I found this section hiker website and wondered if you have done the Maine section between Route 4 and 27 and have yet to publish your journal. This was my first section hike in Maine the summer of 2012.

    • Earlylite October 1, 2012 at 9:57 am #

      If that includes the section between Grafton notch and Rangley – not yet. I meant to complete it this year but family obligations prevented it.

  25. Ed October 1, 2012 at 11:08 am #

    also, the section between rangeley and stratton, maine

Leave a Reply