Last Friday, I craved a shorter hike than what I’ve been doing recently. I’d moved to Portland, Maine, at the end of the summer, which put me very close to the eastern White Mountains and the Mahoosuc Range, so I decided on Puzzle Mountain near Grafton Notch State Park. I’d hiked over Puzzle Mountain four times in the past, while hiking the Grafton Loop Trail, but every time it had been enclosed in dense clouds, so I’ve never had a view from the mountain’s open ledges.
Friday seemed like a guaranteed change to that trend. After a leisurely drive from Portland, including a stop at Hungry Hollow Country Store in West Paris (a place I haven’t been in over a decade, but is every bit as quirky and delightful as I remembered it), I made my way into the woods from the Grafton Loop Trail parking lot.
The Grafton Loop Trail is one of my favorites anywhere. Much of it is quite new, no more than ten years old, so walking the trail still feels like walking on the forest floor, rather than an eroded old track. And as it traverses such a gorgeous set of mountains, the trail quickly finds some great places. The first stop was a wide ledge that looked up Grafton Notch to Old Speck and Baldpate Mountains, morning clouds still clinging to both. Leaves are just beginning to change color, and the early autumn air showed not a hint of haze. Visibility was perfect.
I took the newly-blazed Woodsum Loop to spice things up a bit, walking along a trail so new that much of it was still covered in thick beds of moss and lichen. The loop trail leaves the GLT just below the southwest summit of Puzzle Mountain, and wanders over many open slabs of bedrock with views out to Sunday River ski resort, the Presidential Range, and much of the area near Bethel. My hat is off to whoever came up with the idea of adding that loop to an already fine trail.
Once up top on the southwest peak of Puzzle Mountain, back on the GLT, I had panoramic views all the way from Mount Washington to Sugarloaf Mountain. Best of all, it was still pretty early in the day. I had seen two people just after reaching the summit, but for the next hour I had the peak all to myself. It was one of those rare times where there was absolute silence and sublime views. I stayed put for almost two hours, not wanting to break the spell. After a while, I was joined by a local woman and her dog, and we had a nice chat about the area and its delightful mountains.
A two hour lunch break was enough for one day, so I had a mellow trip back down to the parking lot, not passing a single person on the way down. I stopped about a dozen times during the walk down to just close my eyes, listen to the rustling leaves, and smell the changing of the season. Without trying to make big miles or interact with other hikers, it was the most peaceful four miles of hiking I’ve had in many months. Sometimes I enjoy hiking because I can wear myself out physically and feel wrecked at the end of the day, and sometimes I enjoy it for the pure relaxation. Friday was definitely the latter kind of hiking day.