The first time when my dad and I hiked the Presidential Range ridgeline from Mizpah Spring Hut to Mount Washington, we had planned to summit the four peaks visited along the way: Pierce, Eisenhower, Franklin, and Monroe. The initial ragged climb through boreal spruce and twisted krumholz put us squarely on the blustery summit of Pierce, where we could see the ridgeline path beckoning ahead, flanked with tiny alpine wildlfowers. It was such an enchanting walk along the ridge that as we got to the summit cone of Eisenhower—where a junction gave us the option to go over the summit or to curve around it on gentler terrain—we decided to bail on climbing the subsequent mountains, bypassing their summits and sticking to the ridgeline. We were having a wonderful hike. Why ruin it by hauling ass to another mountaintop?
There’s something extremely cool about mountain trails that are more scenically compelling than the mountaintops themselves. Those of you who’ve been reading Mind the Moss since the beginning know that one of the bedrock themes of this newsletter is looking beyond the allure of summit vistas and finding the beauty in other features of the backcountry. And since we’re finally into mountain climbing season, with most of the peaks free of snow and ice (well, maybe not entirely free, given last weekend’s blast of wintery weather up north), I’d like to introduce you to a funny peak in Western Maine called Old Speck. Or rather, a funny trail up Old Speck.
If there’s a more Maine-y mountain name than “Old Speck,” I’ve yet to encounter it. You can practically hear the well-sesoned guy at the bar pulling on his Woolworth coat, chugging the last of his Moosehead lager, and croaking, “Twas but an Old Speck as I glanced in the rearview mirror on my way northeast to Rangeley.” The mountain is best known as the crown jewel of Grafton Notch State Park, a craggy and quiet realm of waterfalls, boulder slides, and seriously rustic woods about 30 minutes northwest of the White Mountains. Old Speck’s summit looms 4,170 feet above sea level and it’s the cathartic reward for Appalachian Trail thru-hikers who make it through the visciously brutal Mahoosuc Range, where roller coaster rock falls make hiking with a heavy backpack especially hellish. From the mountaintop, the AT descends into the forest of Grafton Notch State Park before pushing on.
Most day hikers climb Old Speck by simply following the AT south: a respectable 6.5-mile out-and-back hike with 2,589 feet of vertial elevation gain. (Hopefully you’ve been doing your lunges and calf raises this spring.) It’s the most direct way to the summit, where a fire tower with a very frightening ladder climb amps up the Western Maine vista, and the hike includes plenty of scrabbling and butt-sliding down stone slabs. But there’s another way to experience Old Speck that doesn’t even involve huffing it all the way to the summit and back. You get just as much bang for your buck when it comes to mountain views, and you’ll literally get your hands on thrilling trail elements that don’t appear on most New England hikes.
I’m talking about the Eyebrow Trail.
As you pick up the AT from the Old Speck parking area off Route 26, you’ll soon notice another pathway marked with orange blazes that branches off to the right, heading in the opposite direction of the summit. This is the Eyebrow Trail and when you pair it with a climb up Old Speck, it’s basically a way to make the hike even more punishing. The trail bypasses sheer cliff faces that run along Old Speck’s haunches (you can see these cliffs when looking up from the parking lot) before looping back and rejoining the AT as it continues toward Old Speck’s ridgeline. The Eyebrow Trail is a concentrated adrenaline rush, thanks to the way it negotiates this steep terrain.
You’ll cross some bog bridges and climb the rocky path through groves of birch trees before arriving at the first of three challenge elements that really give the Eyebrow Trail some oomph. As the trail becomes insanely steep, a series of guide wires attached to metal posts make the trail passable. You grab ahold, carefully place your feet, and haul yourself up the trail until it starts to level out a bit more. (You might want to pack leather gloves for this part of the trail if your palms could use some callusing.) It’s very short, distance-wise, but it’s only the beginning…
Leaving the guide wires behind, you’ll immediately arrive at an exposed cliff face and sloped ledge which the Eyebrow Trail crosses. The trail does this with the help of iron ladder rungs that have been installed across the cliff face and sloped ledge horizontally, leading to the woods on the other side. Keeping your hands on these rungs, you gingerly make your way across the sloped ledge before transferring onto another short set of iron rungs (these ones are much closer to the ground.) The new rungs lead you to the foot of a small metal ladder which ascends into the safety of the nearby woods. The dismount and transition from one set of rungs to the next is easily the most hair-raising part of this element: undoubtedly the scariest on the trail.
As you re-enter the forest, leaving the exposed precipice behind, you can breathe a little easier. But one last trail element—the easiest and strangest of them all—will be looming in front of you. A winding trail of iron rungs continues up the wooded and stony slope ahead of you. Presumably these rungs were placed here to keep erosion at a minimum and to prevent any bad spills. (The terrain is still quite steep.) Making your way up these final meandering rungs, you’ll soon arrive at the first of many winding stone stairs that will bring you into boreal woodlands. And then, as the Eyebrow Trail becomes near-level, you’ll be treated with this view of the notch.
In less than 2 miles, the Eyebrow Trail gives you obstacles worth of American Ninja Warrior, and a banger view of the woodlands below and Old Speck’s peak towering ahead. When you reach the junction with the Appalachian Trail, you could press on and summit the mighty mountain, and then return to the parking lot via the AT (this hike would clock in at 6.6 miles.) But you could also just begin the descent back to the parking area via the AT, allowing the trailside cascades to soothe your jangling nerves after negotiating those ladder rungs. Because as cool as it feels to summit any mountaintop, the rest of the trail to Old Speck and even the sumit itself just can’t compare to the intensity of the Eyebrow Trail. The climb is…a comedown.
There are books and films and albums like this, where the opening chapter, scene, or track is so fucking money that the remainder pales in comparison. If you’ve seen From Dusk Till Dawn—in which George Clooney and Quentin Tarantinto play fugitive bank robbers who run afoul of vampires on the US-Mexico border—you know what I mean. The film opens with a heart-stopping gas station robbery that goes from bad to almost cartoonishly nightmarish, with John Hawkes appearing in a cameo and at one point catching on fire while firing a revolver. It hits like a 500 car bullet train and the movie never reaches this zenith again. Not even after the vampires show up!
Half of any great hike is knowing when to turn back, whether the sky is darkening or whether you’ve simply reached the zenith of the trail. Summiting can feel like an obligation. Push through this. Climb the Eyebrow Trail and then bring it back home.
Eyebrow Trail (loop)
Hike distance: 2.1 miles
Elevation gain: 988 feet
CLICK HERE for a trail map
Eyebrow Trail to Old Speck and back (loop)
Hike distance: 6.6 miles
Elevation gain: 2,713 feet
CLICK HERE for a trail map
Since this week’s newsletter is about the art of bailing on a summit, it saddens me to share the news that a hiker from Andover, Massachusetts died this past weekend after being rescued from fierce snowy conditions in the Presidential range. Since we’re still learning more about the events that led to this hiker’s demise, all I’ll say for now is that these mountains can quite easily kill you, and as much as we relish swapping tales of stomach-plunging climbs or close brushes with grim weather, it’s extremely important to listen to your gut when it starts to get agitated mid-hike. The rewards that might await you further along the trail are not worth risking your life for. Whether it’s the Presidential ridgeline or the Eyebrow Trail, don’t beat yourself up for bailing on a hike that’s unexpectedly taken you too far outside of your comfort zone. You’ll be better off for bailing, and the search-and-rescue crew will be better off too.