Here's how it went, in pictures.
I started from the trail-head around 6:50. It was still early when I got to the first overlook on the flank of Puzzle Mt, with dramatic clouds (remnants from yesterday's heavy rains) still hanging low in the notch.
The summit of Puzzle Mt was completely locked in cloud. I'm sure it would have had lovely views. The summit was slightly confusing, with two cairns seemingly heading in different directions, but no trail sign. I thought one way might be the Woodsum Spur Trail leading back down Puzzle Mt, but I found that meeting up with the trail further on. Anyway, it was useful to take a compass bearing to ensure I left the summit heading north.
The trail down Puzzle Mt. was wet from rain, and I soon came to the first of many gushing stream crossings.
As I approached Long Mt. I moved through an old timber cut, filled with verdant undergrowth and some late raspberries.
Long Mt's summit is forested and not interesting (distinguished only by a sign along a fairly flat ridge trail), but it did present this gorgeous view via a short spur trail.
Coming down from Long Mt. I got lost for pretty much the only time on the whole route (the way is excellently blazed, with only a few exceptions). Where the trail makes a hard left turn off an old timber road, I somehow walked right past a sign and a makeshift barrier of birch branches into this meadow. There was just enough of a treadway through the undergrowth to make me think I was still going somewhere. Lining the way were hordes of delicious raspberries, to which I helped myself. After exploring down past this meadow in a couple different directions I eventually realized my mistake.
In the valley between Long Mt and Baldpate, the trail parallels a stream (Wight Brook, I think) for the better part of a mile. It would be hard to pick just one scene of sylvan beauty that was particularly memorable over the course of the hike, but the laughing companionship of this stream as it rushed white and frothing down from the high peaks of the notch's East wall was particularly magical. I lunched at the Knoll Campsite turnoff, overlooking the stream, and was very happy.
Another shot of Wight Brook.
By the time I reached the main ascent of East Baldpate, I was feeling both drowsy and physically tired (having only got 4.5 hours of sleep in my eagerness to make an early start). I puffed my way up the flank of the mountain, determined not to rest until I got to the summit. I had planned my route with a "fast and light" mentality, but when putting my pack together I failed to deliver on the "light" part. Some rookie mistakes that I remember doing better on my last overnight, plus the fact that overnight temperatures in the 40s had encouraged me to bring my sleeping bag (which is huge and heavy, and has "Base Camp" stitched into the outer lining).
Anyway, I needed to shake off my doze for a few steep bits, such as the Via Ferrata stretch above. But for the most part there were no views to excite or inspire on the way up Baldpate from the East. Given the name I felt a wee bit cheated...
until I got to the summit! Amazing views to the N, S, and W. In the distance you can see a line of windmills turning in the breeze. I laid down and snoozed for a quarter hour in the sun, trying to replenish my energy reserves.
This whole time, about 17 miles worth of hiking, I had seen exactly two groups, a troop of boys way out in the forest between Long Mt and Puzzle Mt, and another female hiking troop just leaving the Baldpate summit as I arrived. Once on Baldpate however, the situation changed, as there were many people hiking this stretch of the AT.
Looking toward West Baldpate.
Hikers can be seen in the distance, navigating the trail up to W. Baldpate. I caught this group later on my way down to the Notch.
A look back up-trail on the dramatic, ledgy descent down from East Baldpate.
And a look down-slope. Baldpate lives up to its name after all.
In a dell between East and West Baldpate I replenished my water for the first time, filling up from a little stream running through a hemlock grove. The water was cold and not murky with particulates, but a slightly funny burnt orange color (from the tannins in the hemlocks, I assume). At around 3400 feet it was "high water" --by Maine standards anyway--but I treated it anyway with my a new electronic gadget (steripen).
Above is the beautiful scramble up West Baldpate.
I was pretty fagged out at this point and stopped taking pictures. I even bypassed the Table Rock overlook, which is supposed to be beautiful. The next shot is of ME 26 in the north end of Grafton Notch, as I finally made it down off Baldpate.
I hiked a quarter mile up the other side of the notch, stopping as the way became steep and moving off trail to find a bivouac site. Camping is not allowed in Grafton Notch State Park (sorry!) I felt what I was doing--essentially pulling up a tree--was so low impact that it would be difficult to complain about it, though.
Getting my contacts out, and then back in the next morning, was quite a trick. I washed off my hands with sterilized water from my bottle, and then licked them clear of FOD. It wasn't perfect, but I managed it.
You can't really see from the bivouac site above, but I was perched on the edge of a sharp declivity that flanked the South side of the Eyebrow, which is a great cliff on the shoulder of Old Speck. I could just see it through the trees, looming above me as I settled in. A cascade spilled down the side closest to me, and I drifted off to sleep with its sound murmuring in my ears.
I slept pretty well, waking occasionally, but otherwise unmolested by wildlife or anything else--even mosquitoes were scarce in the cool evening. There's no real dawn under the dense forest canopy that rose above me, but I blinked awake early enough to see the tenebrous murk slowly lift, the cracks of light between the leaves brightening until the whole scene became morning.
I dragged myself out of bed around 6, moderately sore, my achilles (both of them!) hurting, but not badly enough to make me want to abort. After I stretched out, they felt better. The trail food I had brought--mainly GORP, PB&J sandwiches, and candy bars, had long since lost its appeal, but I made myself eat what seemed an adequate amount of calories, and then got my stuff together to head out.
I was heartened by the knowledge that I would get the main ascent of the day done early, up to the summit of Old Speck, one of the highest mountains in Maine. In addition, my mileage would only be around 17, down from 21 the previous day.
When I at last made it to the crest at the top of the Eyebrow, I could see the actual summit of Old Speck, still quite far away.
When I finally made it to the summit around 8:30 in the morning, I was treated to a beautiful sight: lakes of low clouds lapping the peaks in every direction.
Above is the viewing tower at the top of Old Speck. The ladder up is not for the afraid of heights, but the views in every direction are well worth it. Hats off to the people who soldered this thing together up here!
Descending from Old Speck, I stopped at the Bull Run campsite turnoff to replenish my water supplies. It was another mountain stream of rare beauty (which I totally failed to capture with my camera), but the water it provided was perfectly clear, sweet-tasting and icy cold--elixir that bouyed me up for the rest of the trip.
After a long walk through wild woodlands, I began to ascend Sunday River Whitecap. Above, a view back toward Old Speck.
...and down into the Notch.
The trail up to the summit was almost bizarrely well constructed, given the comparative rarity with which this mountain must get climbed. The peak can only be approached via the Grafton Loop Trail, with a long journey from either end to reach it. Moreover, I didn't see a living soul the entire time I was on the West section of the trail.
Still, I'm not going to complain about such handy climbing aids.
The approach up to the summit was bare of trees and crowded with blueberries. The views were stupendous (above, looking toward Mt. Washington), and the peak wild and very isolated-feeling, despite the meticulously constructed boardwalks put in by the AMC crews. I ended up feeling like this summit was my special treat for doing the loop trail, as there is virtually no other way to climb it except by thru-hiking the western section of the loop. If this mountain were closer to a trailhead it would be getting thousands of hikers every season!
Another view back from Sunday River Whitecap toward Old Speck.
In hiking the Loop, you will spend a lot of time off the ridges and peaks, moving through wild Maine forest. There were many scenes of great beauty, like the one above--more subtle and difficult to capture with a lens, but just as affecting in their way as the majestic views from higher elevations.
I saw virtually no wildlife--not even insects bothered me, particularly--but check out this dead bird!
I continued on from Sunday River Whitecap, entertaining myself with the time-honored hiking game of imagining all the delicious hot meals I would eat when back off the mountain. The way continued quite pretty, although the descent down into the Notch was strenuous. I miscalculated my position and came to expect to see ME 26 at any second, until I ran into the Bald Mt Campsite turnoff, informing me in no uncertain terms that I still had two miles to go! It was just as well, as I was better able to enjoy the final descent off Bald Mt (a largely insignificant prominence, with no views despite its name) which parallels another mountain stream as it rushes down to join the Bear River.
The homestretch takes you through private land and is bit confusing--the blue blazes of the Grafton Loop Trail cease, and you must be on the lookout for yellow plastic signs, not all of which are obvious coming from the CCW direction.
To get back to the road you cross this beautiful meadow.
And this awesome suspension bridge.