Foot and Paddle: Spring ascent of Puzzle Mountain

18 mins read

The bear went over the mountain to see what it could see.

There is a line familiar to most of us! Over the past few hiking seasons, I have been extending the scope of my day hikes to see what is on the other side of mountains quite familiar to me. I have spent many a fine day in high peaks and foothills that cluster between the Saddleback Range in Franklin County and the farther reaches of the Bigelow Range which straddles Franklin and Somerset Counties. Over the past year or so I have headed to such viewpoints as those offered by Kibby, Snow, and Whitecap Mountains in the far north; the Kennebec Highlands to the south; and westward in the Mahoosuc Range of northern Oxford County.

So it is that on a bright morning, spring sky a sharp blue, temperatures in the 40’s, that a hiking companion and I head towards the valley of the Bear River below Grafton Notch. Our destination is 3142’ Puzzle Mountain in Newry, the highest point on a jumbled ridge of peaks that hover around the 3000’ mark, southeast of the Notch. I expect fine views in all directions from its open summit, and new perspectives on mountain terrain familiar to me, from the Presidential Range in New Hampshire, to the northeast-rising high peaks of Franklin County – Saddleback, Mt. Abraham, and their neighbor peaks.

Presidential Range from Puzzle Mountain.

The trailhead for Puzzle Mountain is on Maine Highway 26, 3.7 miles north of the intersection of with U.S. Route 2. Here there is a parking area, and trail signage. Important! This route is the Grafton Loop Trail East. This blue-blazed route reaches the highest point on Puzzle Mountain in 3.6 miles. (A similarly-named trail, Grafton Loop Trail West, as the name implies, heads up the west side of the Bear River Valley, to ascend Sunday River Whitecap and Old Speck, eventually reaching Highway 26 in 17.1 miles – a backpacking route, not a day hike.)

Parties equipped and experienced for backpacking (not our plan for this day because we are on a day hike) may continue north on the Grafton Notch Loop Trail East to reach Highway 26 in Grafton Notch in a total of 21.2 miles. There are primitive campsites along the way. (For details on campsite locations I suggest the Maine Mountain Guide, 11th Edition, published by the Appalachian Trail Club.)

Icicles from above, ice on the trail below.

Although fields and woods on both side of the road are free of snow, and has been so for a few weeks, I know that winter conditions linger at high elevations. I anticipate another of those days when my winter kit may come in handy. My gear and clothing include a hooded down parka, wind/rain shell, wool cap, neck warmer, gloves, trekking poles – and flexible boot crampons (not ice-creepers). I wear mid-height hiking boots. Sound like a bit much for a spring day? I will use everything in this kit before this day is over!

On Trail

A signboard with a hand-etched map marks the entrance to the trail, at the northeast corner of the parking area. Here also are a photo and appreciative words for the Stewart Family, whose generosity makes this trail route possible, as it crosses property owned by the family. We pass a massive white pine, enter hardwoods, cross a woods road and snowmobile trail, and make the first of many small stream crossings – all in the first 0.25 miles.

Beech, ash, maple, white birch, and popple (aspen) are abundant, their trunks gleaming in the bright morning light. Because these hardwoods will not leaf out for weeks, the forest is remarkably open, with the appearance of a November day – but with much more light in spring. Fall hunters appreciate what we enjoy today – long looks into the woods, sun playing on the downed leaf cover, rendering it shades of amber and tan.

Guess which way the wind blows!

An old lesson here. No two days in the woods are ever the same. Return in different seasons, even in different weather. Seek to have fresh eyes. New perspectives, new discoveries, await. I look about for trout lilies, purple trillium, coltsfoot. It is a bit early for these first wildflowers to appear, although I have spotted them on walks closer to home, and at lower elevation.

In the course of our hike, we will cross land of the Mahoosuc Land Trust, and private land thoughtfully made available for hiking use by the public. The route zig zags to respect boundary lines, and to avoid log-harvest areas of current and past use. We cross more run-off streams – indication that far above us the snowpack continues to melt. In 40 minutes, we come to a Register Box of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, whose volunteers take care of the trail. The box is freshly supplied with registration cards, and we fill one out. Documenting use helps with securing funds for trail maintenance. A comment section is helpful for identifying sections of trail that need maintenance, or simply to hear from hikers about their experience on this trail.

Looking north towards Old Speck and the twin Baldpates.

In another 40 minutes we pass below an old log landing site that might not be noticeable later in the season when the hardwoods are fully leafed, and the undergrowth is flourishing. The trail makes a sharp turn to the northeast. We skirt a steep ravine on our right, with its clattering and booming brook on a rush toward the distant sea. This is the largest stream we encounter this day, a permanent feature, and not a seasonal brook. True force there, as snowmelt rushes down the mountain side, spring run-off at its height. We hear this nosy brook long before we see it, and well after we have hiked beyond it.

Long, Long, Views

The trail ascends the south side of Puzzle Mountain. I pause for a look westward, through the trees. Striking! With the woods as open as they are, my view extends to the north-lying peaks of the Presidential Range – Mt. Madison, Mt. Adams, Mt. Jefferson – bright white in their enduring snow cover. Mt. Washington itself hidden from this vantage point by the peaks of the Wildcat and Carter Ranges, but that view will open up as we ascend. Much closer, just a handful of raven-fly miles away, the packed ski trails of Sunday River Ski Area glisten in the morning sun, gleaming white contrasting with the adjacent dark spruce and fir that border the trails.

We emerge from the hardwoods to enter the conifer zone on Puzzle Mountain. Conditions underfoot change – dramatically! Gone is the leaf-littered pathway. The trail crosses a short stretch of open ledge, wet and slippery in spots. We enter well-shaded woods. Welcome to the vestiges of winter: hardpacked snow, and ice – lots of ice.

Over the past 3-4 months, winter hikers on snowshoes have packed the trail bed. As the thaw-freeze cycle proceeds in early spring the packed snow becomes ice. Spruce and fir shade the trail bed from the sun. The pathway steepens. Attempting to ascend from this point on wearing hiking boots only, would be treacherous at best. We stop to put on crampons. Without them, we could not continue.

Another open ledge offers a fine spot for a break, offering an impressive view, and the brunt of a chill northwest wind. Out of my pack I pull the parka, the wool hat, and the other cold weather clothing. We eat to refuel for the remainder of the climb – while taking in the dramatic sight of pyramid-shaped Old Speck, the twin peaks of East and West Baldpate, and Puzzle Mountain’s near twin, west across the Bear River Valley, 3335’ Sunday River Whitecap. There is snow on all of these summits.

Far to the west Mt. Washington is now in full view, along with the rest of the Presidential Range, snow-covered (and presumably ice-covered as well). So clear is the day, and bright the sun falling on those heights, that I discern Tuckerman Ravine and Boott Spur on the east wall of the mountain. The contrast of the mass of white against blue sky, dark lower elevation mountains below, is striking. The Presidential Range appears to float on the horizon, as a mirage. But this is no mirage. These are the highest peaks in the northeast USA, still winter-bound, although May is on the calendar.


Replenished with water and food, we continue upward, careful with each foot plant, making our way over ice-covered rock, much of it steeply angled. No speed records here. We pass the junction with the Woodsum Spur, a 1.4 trail that loops east and north circling the highest ground, rejoining the Grafton Notch Loop Trail East at the summit of Puzzle Mountain. The Woodsum Spur loses – and regains – 500’ of elevation over its length. Notices on trail signs advise hikers who opt for Woodsum Spur to hike in a in a clockwise direction, i.e., starting at the summit of Puzzle Mountain – not from this lower junction.

At the Puzzle Mountain summit, we take an extended break. The 360 views are extraordinary. Ski areas are easy to spot: Shawnee Peak at Pleasant Mountain in Bridgeton; Mt. Abram in Locke Mills; Attitash in Bartlett, N.H. Familiar to me from many a hike over the years are the Wildcat and Carter-Moriah Ranges, and the Maine’s rugged Mahoosuc Range: Goose Eye, Fulling Mill, Carlo, among the high peaks of that range.

I turn for the view east and northeast, back toward Franklin County. Quite a view in its own right: Old Blue (not to be confused with Mt. Blue); multi-peaked Bemis Mountain; the Saddleback Range; Spaulding and Sugarloaf; Mt. Abraham (Abram), on and on. Each takes on a slightly new look, from this angle and in this light. More lessons: to see life in a fresh way, change your point of view, literally!

Down-clad, wool hat, and such other winter wear notwithstanding, I am cooling off. Time to move back down the trail. I would like to explore Woodsum Spur, but we are at our designated turn-around time. Ice on the trail has slowed us on the ascent, and will do so for the descent as well. I shall save Woodsum Spur for another day – perhaps for a backpacking trip of the entire Grafton Loop Trail.

We use great care on the way down. Crampons are as essential on the descent, as they were on the way up. My companion slips a time or two on a steep side-slope, but recovers well, with no harm done. Still in the conifers, and working our way down the icy pathway, we meet our first other hikers of the day. The day has become so warm, and they generate so much heart as they work their way upward, that they ascend wearing t-shirts, but wear crampons as we do. They remark that they have been on Puzzle Mountain before, and know to expect ice at this time of year.

As we reach lower elevations, off comes the winter clothing, until we, too, are down to one layer. We leave the confers, return to leaf-strewn trail, long views through the hardwoods, those persistent spring run-off streams, and, finally, the trailhead. What a fine day for my first hike ever on Puzzle Mountain!

Wondering about the story behind the name of this mountain? One story is retold in the book Mountains of Maine: Intriguing Stories Behind Their Names by Steve Pinkham (Down East Books). A Bethel hunter discovered a vein of graphite when bushwhacking on the mountain. When he later made repeated attempts to return to the spot and cash in on his discovery, he could not locate it – hence the name Puzzle Mountain.

Where might your next new hike be?


Trail notes

Are you eager to be on trail, but do not want to contend with ice and snow? There are many low elevation trails in Franklin County that offer fine views of our still snow-topped, highest peaks. A walk on the Sandy River Intervale in Farmington affords a good view of Mt. Abraham (Abram). In Kingfield, I have walked the ATV/snowmobile trail south of town along the Carrabassett River and had a fine look at Abraham, Spaulding, Sugarloaf, and the Bigelow Ranges – all with snow on their highest points. The Mingo Springs Trail Blue Loop in Rangeley has a fine view of the Saddleback Range. The Narrow Gauge Pathway in Carrabassett Valley affords a look at the Bigelow Range from the south end, and of both Sugarloaf and the BIgelows towards the north end, above Campbell Field.

Spring is here!

I hope to see you on trail!

Along the Carrabassett River Trail, Kingfield.
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