The view west from the Old Speck observation tower ranges from Mahoosuc Notch to Mt. Washington. Carey Kish photo

Old Speck rises nearly 2,700 feet above Grafton Notch, topping out at a lofty elevation of 4,170 feet. The mountain, situated in Grafton Township 3 miles east of the New Hampshire state line in Oxford County, is the highest point in the wild Mahoosuc Range and the fifth-highest peak in Maine, after Katahdin, Hamlin Peak, Sugarloaf and North Crocker Mountain.

The 12-mile drive along Route 26 from Newry to Old Speck, part of the Grafton Notch Scenic Byway, is one of the prettiest in Maine. Winding through old farmlands along the Bear River, the road climbs by numerous waterfalls before cresting at the notch in the heart of Grafton Notch State Park. Pulling into the hiker parking lot, one can only be awed by the steep mountain walls towering above, especially the massive Eyebrow Cliff.

The Old Speck Trail, also the route of the Appalachian Trail, climbs for 3.5 miles before turning onto the Mahoosuc Trail for the final jaunt through gnarled conifers to the summit. The 36-foot observation tower gets you way above the trees for a huge 360-degree vista, the reward for the sweaty effort to reach the top.

The climb up Old Speck at first is a series of switchbacks next to tumbling Cascade Brook, which was an uncharacteristic trickle when I last visited in late September. The trail eventually arrives at some ledges with good looks at the upper reaches of the mountain and the large alternating swaths of exposed rock and tree cover from many slides over the ages.

The vista south through Grafton Notch from the rim of the Eyebrow Cliff is a stunner. Carey Kish photo

This speckled appearance is the source of the mountain’s moniker, tweaked a little perhaps to distinguish it from other similarly named mountains in the general vicinity, like Speckled Mountain in Evans Notch and Speckled Mountain astride the Sumner-Peru town lines. The wavy metamorphic bedrock of Old Speck, incredibly, is estimated to be 420 million years old.

The Old Speck Trail levels off on the southwestern edge of the Eyebrow before circling around to the south at a mostly moderate grade over a series of wooded knobs. By the time I reached the apex of Old Speck, the day’s wonderfully blue skies had vanished and dreary gray rain squalls began sweeping over the stunted trees surrounding the clearing.

Ducking into the semi-shelter of the thick woods for a snack, I almost immediately had the company of a trio of persistent Canada jays, infamous denizens of this and other boreal forest environments. After nearly losing my tuna sandwich in a brazen surprise attack, I unleashed a scattering of chips and gorp to satisfy the little beasts and gain a few moments of peace.

The misty rains abated enough to make climbing the tower worthwhile. Looking westerly, I could see right into the defile of Mahoosuc Notch, famously known as the most difficult mile on the entire 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail. Beyond, I could identify the monotone profiles from Mahoosuc Arm, Fulling Mill Mountain and Goose Eye as far as the Carters, Wildcat and Mt. Washington and its northern Presidential neighbors. Casting an eye down the U-shaped Grafton Notch, there was Sunday River Whitecap, Puzzle Mountain and West and East Baldpate.

The 3,200 acres of Grafton Notch State Park include the namesake notch and much of its east and west slopes, roughly from Table Rock to the peak of Old Speck. Surrounding the park are the Mahoosuc Public Lands, which range from Carlo Col near the New Hampshire border northeast to the Cataracts close to East B Hill Road in Andover North Surplus township.

A 36-foot observation tower adorns the summit of Old Speck and provides 360-degree views. Carey Kish photo

The 31,800-acre unit features some extraordinary Alpine terrain, the highest body of water in the state – Speck Pond at 3,400 feet – and many miles of scenic trails, including two dozen miles of the AT and a chunk of the 38-mile Grafton Loop Trail. Roughly 10,000 acres of the Mahoosuc Public Lands is specially designated as an ecological reserve.

On the descent, before tackling iron rungs, ladders and cables on the last 1,000 feet to the valley floor, I stood (carefully) for a long while on the rim of Eyebrow Cliff, considering the raw beauty of the Mahoosucs and what a recreation bonanza this place is year-round. The fall colors may be gone and the winter winds already blowing, but well-equipped hikers and backpackers can still enjoy plenty of adventuring in these rugged mountains in the months ahead.

Carey Kish of Mount Desert Island is the author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast and editor of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide. Follow Carey’s adventures on Facebook @CareyKish


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