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AT Section Hike: The Mahoosucs and Old Speck Mountain

Ken Scrambles thru Mahoosuc Notch

“Pull on my ankles!”, I shouted to Ken, from under a house-sized rock in Mahoosuc Notch. I’d dropped a water bottle as I scrambled between the giant boulders in what is often referred to as “the hardest mile on the Appalachian Trail” and didn’t want to leave it behind. Situated in a deep chasm, this one mile section of the Mahoosuc Notch “Trail” is a jumble of broken slabs that have fallen from the cliffs above. They make a fun, but slow and formidable scramble, bookended by a steep climb and descent at the ends. Laughing, Ken pulled me out of the hole and we continued on our merry way.

Bridging the White Mountains and Southern Maine, The Mahoosuc Trail is part of a 31 mile section of the Appalachian Trail that runs from Gorham, NH to  Grafton Notch in Maine. This section of the trail is quite rugged hiking, even more strenuous than the Presidential Range in the White Mountains to the south. My buddy Ken and I hiked it from north to south in two and a half days this July, during a pleasant stretch of cool sunny weather. Ken’s a professional mountaineering guide who’s hiked and climbed all over the world. He works out of North Conway, NH and is one of my frequent hiking and fishing companions.

The biggest difference between hiking on the Appalachian Trail in the Mahoosucs and the White Mountains is the amount of slab that you need to climb up and down on trails. What’s slab? It’s less-than-vertical rock face that requires a lot of friction and balance moves to ascend and descend. While it’s short of rock climbing, it’s often slower than normal hiking and more strenuous because it requires a lot of big leg muscle moves and hand holds. Slab hiking also puts much more pressure on your heels, since your feet and ankles are cocked up for extended periods of time when climbing slanted rock. This can lead to painful hotspots or blisters, even if you’re a seasoned hiker and have tough feet.

Climbing Old Speck Mountain (left)
Climbing Old Speck Mountain (left)

Day One: Grafton Notch to Full Goose Shelter

We dropped a car at the Rattle River trailhead off Rt 2 in Gorham, NH and drove north to Grafton Notch State Park in Maine to start our hike southward. While you can hike this route in both directions, going north-to-south gets the hardest parts over sooner while you have fresh legs. We packed three days of food and planned to hike about 10-12 miles per day, which is a fairly aggressive pace for this terrain.

On day one, we started off by climbing Old Speck Mountain, the massive 4000 footer on the south side of Grafton Notch. It’s a steep climb, gaining 2850′ feet in 3.8 miles. While it was sunny, the wind was blowing hard and cold, and I wished I’d brought gloves for the climb. We set a good pace though and were soon at the fire tower on the summit.

Speck Pond
Speck Pond

Next, we hiked down to Speck Pond. The 900′ descent down to the pond is all slab and we were thankful that we had dry conditions for it. Speck Pond (3400′), according to the AMC’s Maine Mountain Guide, is one of the highest elevation ponds in the State of Maine. We visited the new AT shelter, which had been built since my last visit to the pond in 2017.

Mahoosuc Notch runs along the base of these cliffs. Mahoosuc Arm is the rounded peak on the right towering above it.
The Mahoosuc Notch Trail runs along the base of these cliffs. Mahoosuc Arm is the rounded peak on the right towering above it.

From Speck Pond we climbed up the North side of a mountain called Mahoosuc Arm, before descending steeply down its north face to the north end of Mahoosuc Notch, considered the hardest mile on the Appalachian Trail. Most northbound AT thru-hikers have to climb Mahoosuc Arm after they hike through Mahoosuc Notch. While the Notch has a fearsome reputation, thru-hikers are more frightened of the Arm than the Notch. Well they should be, because it’s a steep 1500′ climb up steep slab, that is probably even tougher in wet weather. Ken and I hiked down the Arm headed south, so we were spared this climb, although we had a grueling 1000′ climb after the Notch up to Fulling Mill Mountain.

Once we were down at the base of the Arm, we hiked to the south end of Mahoosuc Notch. The route through the boulders is not as heavily blazed as the rest of the Appalachian Trail, but the steep side walls of the chasm prevent you from wandering off the route. While this section of trail is a long 0.9 mile scramble from rock to rock, under giant boulders and through lemon squeezers, it’s not insurmountable by most hikers. However, I wouldn’t recommend it for dogs, people with very large backpacks, or doing it in the rain, when the rocks are slippery. Some of the transitions are high consequence if you fall the wrong way.

Scrambling through Mahoosuc Notch
Scrambling through Mahoosuc Notch

Ken and I made it through the Notch is about 90 minutes, but we were starting to seriously tire and we still had to climb another 1000′ of elevation up Fulling Mountain though to make it to our next water source and the Full Goose Shelter. Once there, we set up camp, ate, and went to sleep. We’d had a big day, but we’d also put the hardest part of the route behind us.

It's not uncommon to find ice in Mahoosuc Notch, as late as July
It’s not uncommon to find ice in Mahoosuc Notch, as late as July

Day Two: Full Goose Shelter to Dream Lake

While the temperature had gone down to 40 degrees during the night, the sun shone brightly the next morning without a cloud in the sky, perfect conditions for the long stretch of above-treeline hiking we had to do that day. While Mahoosuc Notch gets all the fame along this section of the Appalachian Trail, the open summits south of it are my favorites, including the Goose Eye Mountains, Mount Carlo, and Mount Success, with their miles of sub-alpine boardwalk. We counted our blessings since we were hiking in a clear 3 day weather-window, without rain or thunderstorms to hamper our progress. The last time I’d hiked this stretch of the AT in 2009, I’d been scared witless here by thunder and lightning

Our goal for the day was to hike another 10 miles to the Gentian Pond Shelter and campsite, or time-permitting, past it to a dispersed campsite in the vicinity of Dream Lake. After breakfast, we climbed out of the col where the Full Goose shelter is situated before hiking over slab and boardwalk to the north peak of Goose Eye Mountain, near the head of the Wright Trail, a lovely side trail that leads down toward the Sunday River ski area.

Approaching the Goose Eyes above treeline
Approaching the Goose Eyes above treeline

The views were tremendous on this clear day and we could pick out many mountains over 50 miles away that we’d both climbed before including the Percy Peaks, Cabot, The Horn and the Bulge, Saddleback, Washington, Adams, Madison, Jefferson, and Clay. After summiting the Goose Eyes, we travelled over Mt Carlo, and hiked down to the Carlo Col AT Shelter, just off the main trail to resupply our water.

While the water sources along the Mahoosuc Trail are known to run low in the summer, we had to use every trick in the book to get water out of the shallow and tepid brook. While I carry a pot to cook my dinners, it sure does come in handy when you need to scoop up water from shallow pools along slow creek beds.

New Hampshire - Maine State Line
New Hampshire – Maine State Line

We returned to the main trail and continued south toward Mt Success, crossing the New Hampshire/Maine state line. After passing an AMC trail crew, digging ditches and hoisting rocks to make water bars, we arrived at the Gentian Trail Shelter and Campsite by about 4:00 pm. The shelter had been taken over by a youth camp which had taken all the tent platforms, dispersed campsites, and the shelter, so we decided to press on to Dream Lake instead rather than deal with them.

Despite our fatigue, the trail got much easier to hike after we passed Mt Success, resembling trail conditions in the White Mountains proper, with far less slab. Still we were gassed when we arrived at Dream Lake and found a nice dispersed campsite. I ate the Ritter Bar I’d been saving for desert before dinner, to give me enough energy to make dinner, before hitting the hay.

Sunset on Dream Lake - Mt Washington in the far distance
Sunset on Dream Lake – Mt Washington in the far distance

Day Three: Dream Lake to Rattle River (Gorham, NH)

While the leg from Dream Lake to Rattle River was the easiest on our north-to-south Mahoosuc Traverse, our legs were still pretty smoked when we broke camp the next morning. But we only needed to hike 9 more miles and climb about 1000 feet total to get over Cascade Mountain and Mt Hayes, nothing like the elevation gains of previous two days.

We popped into the Trident Col campsite after two hours to get water and the stream was also running pathetically low. So low, that I started warning the thru-hikers we met on the trail about the lack of water at the shelters. The ascent up Cascade wasn’t bad, but the water source in the col between Cascade and Mt Hayes was a muddy puddle and the thought of drinking the water, even filtered, was off-putting. It was hot enough though that we both resupplied, since it was the last sure water source before Gorham.

The climb up Mt Hayes was fairly benign and we soon made it to the Centennial Trail Junction, which leads downhill to North Road, the Androscoggin River Damn, and the Rattle River Trail junction just down the road. After a quick descent, we shuttled back up to my car in Grafton Notch and were soon sipping beers at the Sunday River Brewery, planning our next adventure.

While many parts of this trip were quite strenuous, it was good to hike the Mahoosucs again and re-experience this portion of the Appalachian Trail. While I remembered many parts, I’d forgotten several parts of the trail and scenery after such a long hiatus. There was a time that I would never have considered re-hiking trails that I’ve hiked before, but my attitude about that has changed in the past few years. It was good refresh my memory of the portions I’d forgotten and to do it with a friend.

Total Mileage: 31 miles with 10,650 feet of elevation gain.

Recommended Trail Guides

Route Map

Grafton Notch to Rattle River - Appalachian Trail USGS
Grafton Notch to Rattle River GeoPDF – Appalachian Trail – Click for Download (Scale 1:100,000)
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12 comments

  1. This post is pretty timely. My friend and I hiked Mahoosuc Notch NB a few years ago. This past weekend we hiked the AT from Madison to Pinkham Notch, and as we were heading down Osgood from Madison she turned to me and said, “Mahoosuc Notch is the hardest mile? And this isn’t?” She had a point. Going down all the rocks on Madison was way more tiring than Mahoosuc had been. What are your thoughts?

    I suppose it’s a tough call, in any case.

    • Hard to say. The osgood trail is pretty challenging.

      • Yeah, I had a breakthrough on the hike, though, where I was mentally *done* long before we were at the end of the hike. This happens to me a lot and I really despise feeling that way because I love hiking so much. On the hike this weekend, I realized that I was just mentally tired but not physically tired, and I know that as a preservation mechanism the brain tries to tell us that we should stop moving before we’re actually spent. So on this hike, when I was sick to death of going down all the rocks on Osgood, knowing that we still had four miles left from the bottom of the GG to get to Pinkham, I just told myself that my brain was trying to trick me and I was perfectly fine to keep moving and we’d be done eventually. It worked. I was thrilled.

        And after getting home I remembered something one of my former adult viola students used to say in lessons: “If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.”

    • Do you have a post about the mental challenge of hiking? If not, I’d love to see one.

  2. When did you do this hike? My friends and I just did it Fri-Sun! It was awesome! Read your last trip report from 2009, surprised you went the same direction this time, since you said going SOBO was “nuts”! We went SOBO as well, despite the warnings about going down the infamous “Arm.” I didn’t think it was that bad, kept waiting for it to get worse. I think it must be a lot tougher to go up, especially after going through the Notch. Very cool hike, challenging, but awesome! Goose Eyes were my favorite part as well, beautiful!

    • We did just last week. I guess it was wednesday-friday.
      It was still a tough hike, but we also had much better weather than I had in 2009.
      Doing it wet, like I think I did in 2009, would have been really bad, especially the Arm and the Notch.
      But I didn’t really find the Notch itself very bad at all this time around.

      • Just missed you! One of these days I hope to run into you. :) I agree, the Notch wasn’t bad, we thought it was fun…a lot of hype. Would definitely not do it in wet/icy conditions. In fact, we changed plans from going this week to last week, to take advantage of good weather. The steep climbs up/down the Arm/Fulling/Success are harder in my opinion, takes a toll. But still a beautiful, wild hike!

    • I have done the Notch and the Arm in both directions and I have to say I liked the NOBO direction better. The Notch also trends up in that direction and I felt less secure going SOBO when a fall could be slightly more harmful. And going down the Arm was very steep. Sure, going up was difficult, but going down was very tiring and hard on the feet.

      But both hikes were great fun. I think the other thing I liked better about the NOBO hike was that we stayed at Speck Pond, which was so incredibly beautiful.

  3. Richard “Peregrine” Judy

    I’ve done this stretch twice, the first time on a 1973 thru-hike and the second about six years ago. The trail had become much more difficult in the interim. Can anyone tell me what’s changed?

    • You’ve gotten older. Just kidding. I did this section 9 years ago and the only thing that’s changed since you did it is the south end in Gorham. It goes up the Centenials Trail instead of the Old AT which followed the Mahoosuc Trail in its entirety. That’s the easy end though, not the hard part.

  4. Wally "Clementine" Towner

    Leaving today for Gorham for this hike with my (10 years now) AT section hiking partners, adult daughter, and my jr high friend and his two recent college grad sons. I am getting older and hope we (I) can do three tens, and your description tells me it might be too aggressive. Thursday, Friday and Saturday is the plan, Sunday is buffer day if nec. This hike almost completes AT NH for us. Been planning it for two years. I have been hiking Monadnock once a week for the past 5 weeks to get ready (post meniscus). I am still not ready! Thank you Brother Philip for your wonderful work for ‘the getting older’ hikers like me. I think I enjoy hiking now more than ever because so few folks approaching sixty, and beyond, get outside and push themselves, see a moose or a bear, or just the morning sun from a mountain top (like Mt. Bond, last year at this time.) And the life long relationships. I am off the AT this summer finishing the Long Trail from Killington to Canada July 15 with Billy, who is celebrating his college graduation by hiking the LT. What a great experience for anyone!

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