Peaks: Red Rock Mountain, Butters Mountain, Durgin Mountain, Speckled Mountain, Spruce Hill
Trails: Rt. 113, Haystack Notch Trail, Miles Notch Trail, Red Rock Trail, herd paths, Bickford Brook Trail, Spruce Hill Trail
Mileage/time: 17.8 miles, 4357' of gain, book time of 11:05, actual time of 7:26
Being in my best interest to NOT hike last week, that's exactly what I did. This, however, left me itching to get out on the trails. Back to the drawing board, so to speak, to figure out something to hit. This loop was appealing to me for many reasons, but mostly because the route took me on trails that are the epitome of "the path less traveled". That, and all but 1.2 miles of it would be new to me!
Following much less sleep that I would have liked, I lifted myself out of bed, and got on the road. As I drove through Evans Notch, the clouds that had dominated my drive up decided to make like a tree, and the sun got busy. I was glad I decided to do the 1.3 mile roadwalk first, and I was fairly warm after the brisk downhill walk. Now it was on!
The Haystack Notch Trail is a rather point to point affair, but travels through some of the nicest areas of hardwood forest I've yet encountered. Leaving the road, there were several stream crossings to deal with, before entering the Caribou-Speckled Mountain Wilderness, where I'd spend a majority of the hike. This particular area is home to an uncommon forest type, an enriched (or rich mesic) forest, which supports a variety of rare plant species. Needless to say, I was not disappointed in my trek through the notch, with wildflowers in bloom, and the understory starting to poke through last years leaf cover. Some glimpses of the cliffs on Haystack Mountain were visible as I passed through the broad floor of the notch, before dropping into the valley of the West Branch of the Pleasant River.
|Haystack Notch Trail|
|Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum)|
|Meandering along a branch of Evans Brook|
|Wild Oat Flower|
|Patch of False Hellebore (Veratrum viride), also known as Indian Poke|
|Red Trillium (Trillium erectum)|
|Cliffs of Haystack Mountain|
|Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)|
Beyond the height of land in the notch, the trail took on a different character. While there had been downed trees on the western half, the eastern half had more. While the western half had been fairly easy to follow, the eastern half was not. The footbed was barely discernible from the surrounding forest floor, and trail markings were basically non-existent, aside from some extremely old, faded blazes. I did come across an old porcelain mile marker, nailed to a tree, that were apparently in use by the Forest Service from the 1930's through the 1950's.
I also had a chance encounter with a Barred Owl, the second such sighting I've had in this Maine portion of the WMNF. Much like my previous encounter, I saw it fly in and land on a branch, a staring contest commenced. Such awesome birds. I had to break my gaze to continue on, leaving me 0 for 2 in owl staring contests.
The crossings on this half of the trail were not as mellow either, and my dry feet ceased to be so, as I had to wade through two of the crossings. At one crossing, there were some links of rusted chain attached to an eyebolt in a boulder, a sure sign of industrialized man. Near its eastern terminus, the trail popped out into a recently logged area, and ends at a large clearing, where it meets Miles Notch Trail. Here there were some views up to the bulk of Caribou Mountain, and toward Miles Notch, where clouds had begun to build.
|Mossy bog-bridging and more False Hellebore|
|Haystack Notch Trail|
|Following the West Branch of the Pleasant River|
|Looking toward Miles Notch|
The Miles Notch Trail started up on a fairly new logging road, and followed along it for quite some distance, it even had a proper bridge! After some soft damp areas of the road, at a small arrow sign, the trail forked right, and narrowed to a footpath. The signage at the junction with Haystack Notch Trail indicated that it was 3.2 miles to the junction with Red Rock Trail, but it passed so quickly that I didn't believe it. Checking the map, the sign is in error, as it is only 2.4 miles to the junction, and 3.2 from the southern end of the trail. Maps and signs never seem to agree! Some logging cuts appeared off to either side of the trail, and I crossed a logging road en route to the junction. At least I'd be reentering the wilderness area, where signage doesn't indicate mileage. I found a small birds nest lying in the middle of the trail, empty, and displaced from somewhere, by something. Reaching the Red Rock Trail, I began the outbound leg of my journey, under increasingly cloudy skies.
|Miles Notch Trail|
Red Rock Trail would take me all the way along the ridgeline extending east from Speckled Mountain, the high point of the day. I had read about this trail being difficult to follow in spots, and my brain took that as a cue to dream the night before about getting lost on it! Thankfully, this was not the case. Climbing fairly steeply, the trail crested the shoulder of Miles Knob, and continued on toward Red Rock Mountain. Keeping an eye out for herd paths, I soon found the one I was looking for. Sadly, I had climbed into the clouds, but the views (and lack of views) I found from the Red Rock cliffs were still very interesting in the blowing mist.
|Red Rock Trail|
|An airy perch|
|South cliffs of Red Rock Mountain|
Returning to the trail, I climbed up to the true summit of Red Rock Mountain, over open ledges, mist swirling around me. As if I needed another reason to return to this area (the un-redlined trails aside), I want to take in the views from this ridge. Dropping into the col with next door Butters Mountain, I saw snow... so much for the MSAP! I saw yet another porcelain Forest Service sign, as I crossed the col, and began the climb up to Butters. One thing is for sure: the lack of use makes for great hiking. The trail was very soft, grassy in spots, never really rocky or root-bound. It makes me look forward to more under-utilized trails.
More ledges, and more herd paths (leading to more ledges) presented themselves, and presented me with no views, so I kept undulating along the ridge. Near the junction with Great Brook Trail was the only real problem area for me, as the trail took an obscure turn, and I was forced to backtrack to get on the trail again. Up and over Durgin Mountain, I began the final steep climb up to Speckled.
|Red Rock Trail|
|The east knob of Butters Mountain|
|Snow in the col|
|More old signage|
|Red Rock Trail|
|Red Rock Trail|
|Misty views near Durgin Mountain|
That final climb really took the wind out of my sails, as it was the steepest sustained pitch I'd encountered all day, and I hadn't really stopped except for pictures and food. These things happen when I'm alone and in the zone. Some vestiges of winter adorned the trail in spots, a sometimes firm, and sometimes crumbling monorail made for some interesting moves. At least it wasn't consistent. I reached the signage just below the summit of Speckled, and climbed the last few feet to the top, the fire tower footings wrapped in cloud, blown in on a stiff southerly breeze.
|All sorts of nothing|
Heading down Bickford Brook Trail, there was more monorail, but it was easily navigated. It felt like a hop, skip, and a jump down to the Blueberry Ridge junction, and before I knew it, I was in the home stretch on Spruce Hill Trail. One final climb commenced, over Spruce Hill itself, which I tagged the summit of via a herd path. Hiking back below the cloud ceiling, I got some views through the trees of the Royce peaks across the notch, and points north. Crossing out of the wilderness, I soon heard a car, the road came into view, and it was in the books!
|Bickford Brook Trail|
|More False Hellebore on Spruce Hill Trail|
While I might have gotten shut out on views, I couldn't have asked for a better day. Complete solitude, with birds singing, the wind whispering, and more animal tracks than human. This eastern corner of the forest grows more special to me with each visit, and there are many more visits to be made.