Every summer, the great wave of northeastern urbanites fleeing for the hills flows first over New York's Catskills and Adirondacks, then through the Berkshires in Massachusetts, and finally crashes against New Hampshire's Whites, frothing up and over the high peaks of the Presidential Range. But those seeking an oasis far from the maddening crowd find their way to the Mahoosucs.
Guy Waterman, who with his wife, Laura, wrote the definitive history of
hiking in the Northeast, called the Mahoosuc Range "a rambling and rugged spine of middling-sized peaks." Give thanks for such faint praise, for it has helped damn these mountains to blessed obscurity.
The Mahoosucs ramble from the Androscoggin River in northeast New Hampshire to the southwest edge of Maine. The length of the range is traversed by the 31-mile Mahoosuc Trail, a segment of the Appalachian Trail (AT). Its loftiest point is an unimpressive 4,180 feet, but hike the trail from west to east and you'll climb close to 10,000 feet (total) over 10 peaks. Despite those impressive statistics, only one aspect of the Mahoosuc Range has earned it real notoriety, especially among AT thru-hikers. Somewhere along the way, someone dubbed the mile-long ravine known as Mahoosuc Notch "the hardest mile on the AT," and many thru-hikers anticipate its challenges all the way from Georgia.
I hiked the Mahoosucs from east to west last Labor Day weekend, when you'd expect any backcountry destination within a day's drive of Washington and Boston to be completely overrun with urban escapees. Not the Mahoosucs. The only traffic I encountered was a handful of fast-moving AT thru-hikers and a few weekend enthusiasts.
When I arrived at Speck Pond on Friday night, the tent platforms were nearly full, and a persistent drizzle was falling. I pitched my little hoop tent, then ambled down to the shelter to see what the thru-hikers who'd just tackled The Notch had to say about the so-called hardest mile.
Their answers were as varied as their trail names. "Some parts were kinda scary," said Three Gaited Mule, "but it's not the hardest mile." Diamond Doug added that it was "cool to be airborne several times, jumping from boulder to boulder." But Split P wanted none of it. She hated the Notch: "I can't wait to get back to the big mileage days when I can just walk. It took me 41/2 hours to get through there. It was awful."
The one thing they agreed on was Diamond Doug's summation: "I don't know that it was the hardest mile, but it sure was the slowest."
Mahoosuc Notch is a glacier-carved gash winding through precipitous granite cliffs. For added drama, it's filled halfway with immense blocks of schist cleaved from the walls above by countless freeze-and-thaw cycles. Tree roots snake through the clefts and crevices. Water gurgles somewhere beneath the boulders but is seldom seen. Even on blindingly sunny days, it remains a chilly, Gothic place hiding pockets of snow and ice.
In the best conditions, the route is still so challenging that backpackers consider it a point of honor to keep their packs on while clambering up or shimmying under the gargantuan boulders. Be forewarned: The Notch is a graveyard of Nalgene bottles, trekking poles, and anything else not securely stashed inside a pack. Rain covers, knuckles, and nerves often emerge a bit more ragged on the other side.
The rest of the trail is ample reward for the slow deliberation of The Notch. Even when low-flying clouds obscure the numerous stunning views, the alpine zones are miraculous, enveloping you in the Christmasy smells of balsam firs, the granite path carving through heath-shrubs and blueberry, low and dense against the wind. Green and orange grasses and auburn and lime moss light up the bog walks. Alongside burbling creeks, pale white Indian pipes and tiny red mushrooms scatter into a lilliputian glade like a fairy trail.
Later in the weekend, having passed another half-handful of thru-hikers heading north, I reached the summit of Goose Eye Mountain and found my first crowd. There, among the rocks and fog, milled a covey of spruce grouse. Clucking nervously, they materialized in and out of the whiteness, then vanished into the thickets, leaving me once again alone with the silence.
MAHOOSUC RANGE, NH/ME
Getting there: The easiest access from the west is at the Centennial/AT trailhead on US 2, about 2 miles east of Gorham, New Hampshire. The eastern trailhead is in Grafton Notch State Park, Maine, where the AT crosses ME 26. Both locations are about 180 miles from Boston.
Route: The 31-mile Mahoosuc Trail travels along the spine of the range from Gorham to Grafton Notch State Park, with a new parallel trail in the works. Numerous side trails allow for several excellent weekend loops of varying difficulty.
Fees: A caretaker at the Speck Pond Campsite from June 1
to October 15 collects the $6 per night fee.
Guides: The best topo is Map 1 (Grafton Notch to Androscoggin Valley) of the official AT maps for New Hampshire and Vermont (Appalachian Trail Conference, 304-535-6331; www.atctrailstore.org; $12.95 for NH/VT set). The trail is described (with distances and estimated hiking times) in the Maine Mountain Guide, 8th edition, by AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club, 617-523-0636; $18.95.