Hiking the Speckled Mountain and Haystack Notch Loop
This hike started out as a one night backpacking trip climbing up Speckled Mountain and into the heart of the eastern White Mountains in Maine, down the Red Rock Trail, and looping back through Miles Notch and Haystack Notch, a distance of over 18 miles. I ended up hiking it a lot faster than I expected, even though I was carrying a normal overnight backpacking load. I guess I’m in better shape than I realized.
If these trail names and areas sound unfamiliar to you, it’s because they are way off the beaten path. I must admit that I was intimidated by their remoteness and more than a little worried about meeting up with some of the region’s larger wildlife – moose and bear.
You see, I do a lot of solo hiking and backpacking in the White Mountains because I have a lot more free time than my friends who have j-o-b jobs and because they know that I like hiking the more obscure trails where few people go. With 1440 miles of trails, there are a lot of places in the White Mountains where you can fully immerse yourself in the wilderness and not meet another person for days. This hike was part of a three-day, 45 mile hiking binge I completed recently in the Caribou Speckled Wilderness, where I only saw one other person on the trail the entire time. That’s pretty incredible considering how popular the White Mountains are in summer.
This route consisted of the following trails:
- Bickford Brook Trail to Speckled Mountain – 4.3 miles, 2300′ of elevation gain
- Bickford Slides Loop – 0.6 miles, 200′ of elevation gain
- Red Rock Trail from Speckled Mountain to the Miles Notch Trail – 5.6 miles. 950′ of elevation gain.
- Miles Notch Trail to the Haystack Notch Trail – 2.4 miles, no elevation gain
- Haystack Notch Trail from Miles Notch to Rt 113 – 5.4 miles, 1000′ of elevation gain
Total: 18.3 miles with 4450′ of elevation gain.
Bickford Brook Trail to Speckled Mountain
While I’ve hiked parts of the Bickford Brook Trail in the past, I’d never hiked the entire trail up to Speckled Mountain. But I can now definitively say that the Bickford Brook Trail is the easiest way up to this old fire tower peak, running along an old jeep trail from the Brickett Place Trailhead to the summit. Covered by forest canopy, it’s a pleasant walk out of the sun with a very moderate grade.
I got an early start and hit the trail by 6:45 am. Shortly after starting, I branched off to hike the Bickford Slides Trail which loops around a narrow ravine, full of waterfalls, slides, and pools, at the base of Blueberry Mountain. While the trail alongside the ravine is steep and rocky in places, there are any places along the route where you can access the water on a hot day, although some of the ledges can be quite dangerous if wet and slick.
I hiked the loop and got back on the Bickford Trail a bit south from where I’d left it so I had to rehike part of it. The Bickford Slides Trail is definitely worth the detour however, and a first class destination all by itself.
Following the Bickford Trail again, I headed up to the Speckled Mountain summit, arriving near 10:00 am. The wind was blowing hard at the summit and I had to put on an insulated jacket to stay warm, even though it was mid-summer. The sky was very clear, so the I had great views of Evans Notch, the Wildcat and Carter Range, and Mt Washington in the distance. I also saw pancake shaped lenticular clouds over the Presidential Range, which are often the harbinger of heavy rain. These weren’t, but they’re still a sight to see.
Speckled Mountain to Miles Notch on the Red Rock Trail
I was running low on water, so I stopped at the spring on the Red Rock Trail below Speckled’s summit, where I filtered two liters of water. Restocked, I continued down the trail which runs over a several small mountains before descending to Miles Notch. Largely forested, the trail climbs up each peak, across open summit areas, before plunging again into dense forest. I half expected to run into moose or bear feeding in the head-high ferns and hobble bush along this seldom hiked trail, which the White Mountain Guide says is kept open by the animals that use it as a herd path.
A trail tread was still evident in the forest, while small cairns (called trail ducks) helped guide me across the sections of open ledge. I soon came to the trail junction with the Great Brook Trail, close to the halfway point down the ridge, where I met the one person I saw in three days of hiking in this area. She’d climbed the Great Brook Trail on the way to Speckled Mountain and remarked about the drier weather that day, after a week’s worth of high temperature and high humidity days.
I was low on water again as I approached Miles Notch and was looking forward to refilling at the stream which runs through it. Notches in White Mountain’s parlance are mountain passes or valleys, so this meant dropping down from the Red Rock trail back into thick forest again.
Miles Notch Trail to the Haystack Notch Trail
It was a relief when I reached Miles Brook which had a healthy flow despite the drought we’ve been experiencing this year in neighboring New Hampshire. I think, jokingly of course, that Maine has been stealing all of New Hampshire’s water, because all of the Maine streams and rivers I’ve encountered lately are running much higher. I’m thinking about getting myself a Maine fishing license, to be honest, since I’ve been spending so much time on the border between the two states. It’s hard to keep track of which state you’re in sometimes.
So far, so good I thought. It was 2:30 pm when I reached Miles Notch, the halfway point of my route. Rather than camping overnight, I figured I’d try to make it back to Rt 113 (9 miles distant) before 6:00 pm and hitch back to my car which was 4.3 miles down the road at Brickett Place. Sunset was at 8:30 pm, but the road through Evans Notch is very low traffic and I didn’t want to be on it after 7:00 pm. That section of Rt 113 is a narrow two-lane country road with no room to stand alongside for hitchhiking. The road twists and turns and dense vegetation obscures drivers’ lines of sight. Hitching in good daylight would be challenging at best.
If I didn’t make it in time to safely hitch or I couldn’t get a ride, my plan was to hike back into the forest and set up a backcountry campsite along the Haystack Notch Trail. The next morning I figured I walk 1.4 miles south on Rt 113 to the East Royce Trail parking lot, climb 100o’ up to the Royce Connector Trail and hike down the Royce Trail back to my car, another 4 miles total. Luck was on my side though.
The trail through Miles Notch was easy walking and flat, so I made great time until I came to the area near the Haystack Notch Trail where a recent logging cut required a detour down a grass-filled logging road. A series of wooden arrows helps guide hikers through this section, but they can be a bit difficult to spot.
Haystack Notch Trail to Rt 113
I have a lot of experience following badly marked trails and it came in handy after I spotted the Haystack Notch Trail Junction on the other side of the clear-cut. Call it gut instinct, hyper-awareness, or an intuitive understanding of how White Mountain trails are built and routed, I was able to find and follow the unmarked sections of the Haystack Trail where they’d been obscured by the lumber operation.
I was still relieved when the trail rejoined the Pleasant River, which runs parallel to it back to Rt 113 in Evans Notch. While this section of trail was also difficult to follow due to encroaching hobblebush and mud, I could detect faint traces of the old trail. Worst comes to worse, I knew I could bushwhack my way back to the road, but hiking along a trail, even a poorly maintained trail is faster and easier. There are actually a few yellow blazes painted on the trees along the trail, but only in places where the trail is obvious, not in the places where it’s not. Typical White Mountains blazing!
Despite the navigational challenge, I still made good time down the Haystack Notch Trail, arriving at Rt 113 by 5:30 pm. I hiked up the road about 100 yards south of where the trail comes out, so passing drivers could get a good view of me, I stuck out my thumb to hitchhike, and waited for cars to arrive. Five minutes later, I saw two vehicles round the corner. The first blew past me, but the second stopped! Amazing.
I got in the car and told the driver that I just needed to travel 4 miles down the road. He turned to me and said, “Are you Philip?” It was Gary Munson, the head of community outreach at the AMC’s Cold River Camp in Evans Notch, where I work as a hike leader each summer. We’ve only met in person once, so I was surprised he recognized me. Still, it’s a small small world.
I was back at my car 5 minutes later and headed north to Gorham for a cold beer and a maple-bacon pizza. What a hike! Then back to my campsite to sleep before my next hike in the North Country.
- Backpacking the Royce-Speckled Mountain Loop
- Great Hikes: Speckled Mountain and the Blueberry Ridge Trail
- Cold River Camp in Evans Notch