There are no mindless miles in the Mahoosuc Range. You will crane your neck upward to take in the incline and crawl on your hands and knees to chip away at the distance. Hikers say each section of the Appalachian Trail has its own personality. Well, this section is contradictory: stubborn but forgiving, ambitious yet unassuming. Its dual nature adds to its mystery.
Although it predates the Appalachian Trail by seven years, the Mahoosuc Trail now accounts for the last 13.1 miles of the AT in New Hampshire and the first 12.8 in Maine. Separated from the bulk of the White Mountain National Forest by a state line, the Mahoosuc Range—and the primary trail running through it—falls within the forest’s borders, even if some locals don’t realize it.
Count me among them. While I grew up in New Hampshire, hiking in the White Mountains, I hadn’t stepped foot in the Mahoosucs—which meant I was primed to underestimate them. But for the trail’s 100th birthday, a 2018 milestone it shares with the White Mountain National Forest, I was keen to backpack its 26 miles. It would prove to be like no other place I have hiked.
GETTING OVER THE FIRST HUMP
The source of the name “Mahoosuc” is up for debate. When officially approving it on March 26, 1918, AMC’s Committee on Nomenclature noted, “It was a name with a sonorous quality…a name to conjure with.” The council didn’t mention the trail’s likely indigenous roots, but Mahoosuc might come from an Abenaki word meaning “home of hungry animals,” or it might derive from a Natick word for “pinnacle.” (I lean toward the latter now, having experienced its heights.)
In planning our route, my partner, Jon, and I decide to hike the trail southbound over three days and two nights, starting from its northern terminus, at Maine’s Grafton Notch. We like that there’s ample AMC-maintained camping along the way (an estimated 4,500 people used the tent sites between Gentian and Speck ponds last year), with a shelter every 5 miles or so. We’ll spend the first night at Full Goose Shelter, just past the infamous Mahoosuc Notch.
Having recently wrapped a four-day backpacking trip in California’s 10,000-foot-plus peaks, I’m feeling cocky. The highest summit in the Mahoosuc Range, also its most northern, will be our first: Old Speck Mountain, at 4,180 feet in elevation. No other summit crests 4,000 feet, so I figure we’ll check off the most challenging peak early on day 1 and then enjoy the stroll.
As we set out from the Grafton Notch trailhead, I have the thought that hiking is a lot like climbing into a time machine. According to the 1921 edition of AMC’s White Mountain Guide, “The Mahoosuc Range Trail was cleared by the Department of Trails in the years 1918–1921 from Shelburne to Old Speck.” How simple the job sounds, as read from a guidebook. And 5 miles in, on my first-day legs, I can envision the trail cutting being a relatively easy feat.
By 1918, many trails in the western White Mountains had already been cut and the year marked the federal designation of the national forest. In New Hampshire, systems were in place, and land managers had an understanding of the terrain.
The Mahoosucs were another story entirely.
At Speck Pond, Jon and I bump into a northbound AT thru-hiker taking a breather on a log. As he reaches into his bag of fruit chews, I ask the weathered backpacker, “Are you thinking about the future?”
I mean his plans post-hike, but he answers, “Each mile is better than the last.” Since he has made it through the nerve-jangling Mahoosuc Notch and across the open ridgeline of Mahoosuc Arm, I choose to interpret his comment optimistically—a strategic decision on my part.
In preparation for our hike, Jon and I had read up on the storied notch, the so-called longest mile of the AT. In the June 1918 issue of AMC’s Appalachia journal, Arthur Stanley Pease wrote, “for the well-girt climber,” completing the mile should be “a matter of about one and a half to two hours.” Pease went on: “This will always be a region for the active rather than the leisurely tramper.”
“Active” is the key word. Earlier in the day, Jon and I had bumped into another thru-hiker who was practically skipping down the rocky path in hiking sandals, his feet dark with dirt. We inquire how long it had taken him to complete the boulder-strewn mile: “45 minutes,” he says. Then, just before entering the notch, we meet a thru-
hiking couple our own age. It took them three hours.
We don’t know what to expect.
As we continue on, we gain a better understanding of the unpredictable topography. The mountain range is the result of geologic uplift, but the rugged and inconsistent terrain draws much of its character from cliff faces carved by glacial activity. Talus slopes, or piles of rocks, formed as these cliffs were exposed to weather extremes over the years. The piles accumulated then crumbled, creating boulder fields between the mountains. As Pease described it: “Mahoosuc Notch is not quite like any other White Mountain valley…the narrow space between is choked with large rocks fallen, some of them recently, from high aloft on the dripping cliffs.”
The descent from Mahoosuc Arm leaves Jon and I fatigued, our quadriceps burning with every step. By now the sun has lowered in the sky and, beneath the tree canopy, everything is even darker. It’s also cooler, with the streams that run under the boulders producing natural air conditioning. Backpackers have found ice and snow here in the height of summer. We’re determined to exit the notch before dark since, even with headlamps on, the unsteady footing makes night-hiking dangerous.
At the midpoint of our laborious mile, we run into two northbound thru-hikers, both women in their 20s. We hear them before we see them, coaching each other through a narrow cave of rocks. “There’s life in the notch!” they exclaim when they see us. It has been slow going, they say, with one of them uncomfortable in tight spaces. They’ve lost sense of the distance they’ve covered and joke about the number of times they’ve thought they were halfway. We wish them luck and squeeze through the cave ourselves. We can hear their laughter on the other side as they press on.
At this point, I’m using my arms as often as my legs to pull my body and backpack up and through. After an hour and a half, we make it out of the notch just in time for the last light to leave the sky. A heavy fog fills the air. We make a spur-of-the-moment decision to camp well off the trail. We’re short of our intended stop at Full Goose Campsite, but we’re more than ready for a dinner of warm soba noodles. Our headlamps illuminate the soft rain as we settle in for the evening.
FIGURING OUT WHERE TO PUT IT
I wake up the next morning excited. Day 2 will bring the Maine–New Hampshire border, a marker I’ve never before reached by foot. Once I have my pack on and we start gaining elevation, I’m even more grateful we stopped short of our goal the night before. It’s a steep trek to Full Goose.
On the slog, I ponder what this trail’s cutters had been thinking, so many years ago. Drawn by a view of Mahoosuc Notch visible from Mount Washington, members of Randolph Mountain Club first cleared and marked Mahoosuc Notch Trail in 1916, encouraging AMC to further extend the path from Gorham to Grafton Notch.
That work began in earnest in 1918, after an unsuccessful attempt the season prior. AMC’s trail crew was understaffed due to World War I, but two journeymen and a novice plugged away. With good weather and some luck, they opened the trail from the southwest end of Mahoosuc Notch to what is now known as Old Speck. The next year they carried that line farther east, from the notch to Fulling Mill Mountain (south peak, 3,395 feet) and on to Goose Eye Mountain (west peak, 3,870 feet)—the exact path I’m hiking now.
In a region as populated as New England, it’s difficult to imagine a landscape as uncultivated as the Mahoosuc Range still is today. On foot, I find it even more difficult to imagine how the crew first decided where to site the trail back in 1918.
Zack Urgese, AMC’s trail supervisor, currently oversees all 362 miles of AMC-maintained trails within the White Mountain region, including the Mahoosuc Trail. He personally assesses routes for accessibility, safety, and longevity and, in discussing this work, he emphasizes that his is a subjective art. Long after I finish my hike, I ask him a question that burned in my mind throughout my three days on the trail: “Do you think, if the trail was built today, it would follow a similar path?”
Urgese’s answer calls to mind the dual nature of the Mahoosucs: yes and no. “I can’t imagine trying to lay out 26 to 30 miles on that type of terrain,” he stresses. “I give the people who originally cut it a ton of credit. What an undertaking it must have been.”
By today’s standards of sustainability and design, though, the trail’s placement is less than ideal. It follows a fall line, Urgese explains, meaning the path often goes straight up or straight down—also the direction water travels, which leads to erosion. If he were to redesign it, Urgese would have the trail trace the mountains’ contours, allowing for a gentler grade, if a longer route. And yet, given the cliffs and the ledges and the bedrock, that’s not always possible. The terrain calls for compromise.
After pumping water at Full Goose Campsite, Jon and I continue along the wet path. We spend much of the day on or just below the ridgeline, popping up to claim quick, unnamed high points, as well as the summits of Goose Eye and Mount Carlo (3,565 feet). We have a distinct sense of being higher than we actually are, with the trail opening up every now and then to a big view. I especially love the wooden planks protecting subalpine bogs from erosion. For me, these humble footbridges provide quick, confident steps—a respite from keeping my eyes downcast for constant foot-finding. But for AMC, they’re far from an afterthought. The planks cover a whopping 29,000 feet of the Mahoosuc Trail, with replacement logs flown in via airlift.
Day 2’s highlight comes in midafternoon, when we reach the border of my home state. More than halfway through the trail, it’s not a hard decision to push on 5 more miles to New Hampshire. By Mount Success (3,565 feet), the terrain is more what I expect from a sub-4,000-footer. After 11 long miles on foot, we gratefully settle into Gentian Pond Shelter.
FEEDING A GROWING OBSESSION
We wake to another foggy morning. As I take in the subtle beauty of Gentian Pond, I think about how the weather had been fast-moving and varied our whole trip: sunny the first day, rain at night, clouds in the morning that later burn off. The vegetation mirrors the weather: Certain sections of the trail look like rainforest, with damp, electric-green moss; other areas are bone-dry, the bedrock almost slippery with dirt.
But the quick-change drama is behind us. This day, our last, will be our easiest. Although we have 11 miles to cover, the two remaining peaks don’t crest 3,000 feet. When we break for lunch near Trident Col tent site, I can’t help but notice the satisfyingly light weight of our packs. After more than two days in the backcountry, we’ve eaten most of our provisions, and each sip of water lessens our load.
Five miles from the trail’s southern terminus, we bump into a woman headed north, eager to chat. She had hiked the AT to celebrate her 60th birthday 12 years prior, and now she’s redlining all of the trails in the White Mountains. On her original thru-hike, she had skipped the stretch between the Mahoosuc and Trident Col tent sites, so now she’s hiking a 16-mile-plus round trip to fill in a gap of less than a quarter mile. As we wish her luck, I marvel at her dedication: Each fraction of a mile counts toward her goal. I wonder whether those who broke the trail 100 years ago envisioned this level of fervor from its future devotees. By now, I count myself among them.
When we hit Mount Hayes (2,555 feet), the lowest and southernmost summit in the Mahoosuc Range, we’re loping. But even as our pace quickens, I release the trail with reluctance.