Warning: If you’re planning on heading out from Greater Portland to take part in this adventure you better rise, shine and hit the road early. This one’s gonna take all day.
Grafton Notch State Park near Newry may not be specifically listed among “26 of Maine’s most beautiful places (to see before you die)”, but two of its most-visited spots – Screw Auger Falls and Table Rock – are.
Amazing views are everywhere in the notch, but to get to the best of them, you have to trek up to the top of Old Speck. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.
You’ll find the trailhead for Old Speck, one of Maine’s 4,000-footers, near the Maine-New Hampshire border. Trail guides will tell you the hike is a 7.6-mile round-trip. I will tell you it’s longer than that. But as long as you don’t mind spending five to six hours on the trail, you’ll be fine.
The trail leaves the parking area off Route 26 on the Appalachian Trail. You’ll follow the white blaze markings along Cascade Brook, with views of a small waterfall and several photo ops for nearly 3 miles before rising up through the trees for great views of the notch.
Just 0.3 miles from the summit, the Appalachian Trail branches to the right for another mile to the Old Speck campsite. You want to head left because you’re almost to the promised land. Reach the peak and you’ll see an observation tower. Catch your breath and climb on up for some super satisfying 360-degree views.
If Old Speck seems a bit much, there are two other options leaving from the same parking lot.
Try the Eyebrow Loop Trail, which also follows the Appalachian Trail briefly before turning to the right and heading off for a 2.2-mile round-trip. It’s a shorter hike, but still an advanced one, with some sections featuring ladders and steel rungs.
Choose the more moderate Table Rock Loop Trail, and you’ll cross Route 26 to follow the Appalachian Trail northbound. Choose the orange blaze trail for a tougher challenge over boulders or the blue blazes for an easier climb. Table Rock, a flat, open space perfect for a picnic, offers great views of nearby Old Speck.
MORE TO SEE
As previously mentioned, there are other notable sights in Grafton Notch State Park. You’ll pass three of them before you arrive at the Old Speck trailhead.
First up is Screw Auger Falls, which pours into a small gorge within steps from the road. You can walk out onto the rocks or stay safely behind the wooden barriers. And on toasty days you can put your feet – or a lot more of you – in the pool that funnels water to the falls. It’s a great spot for a picnic or just a few photos.
You’ll also drive by Mother Walker Falls, which is not nearly as impressive as Screw Auger. So if you’ve had your fill of water, drive on. In not, check out the falls, which are maybe better described as cascades through a boulder-filled stream.
Moose Cave, which is a 0.4-mile easy walk (round trip) from its parking lot. The cave, named for a very unfortunate moose, is located within a 45-foot-deep canyon. As the story goes, a moose fell in and couldn’t get out, and you’ll see why if you visit.
PIZZA AND BREWS
Bethel has no shortage of good places for food and local beer. If you’re in town, try Crossroads Diner, where you can get breakfast until 11:30 and plenty of comfort food like chicken pot pie or a grilled meatloaf sandwich after that.
If you’ve just come out of the notch, one of the first spots you’ll pass is Sunday River Brewing Co. Do not drive by. Pull into the parking lot and either head to the bar, where there’s probably a Red Sox game on at least one of the TVs, or ask for a table on the huge outdoor deck.
After all that hiking, you deserve a beer. I can vouch for the Redstone Ale and the Right Side Wheat.
The menu’s filled with pub food, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We went for pizza with every meat we could imagine. Delish. And the onion rings were big, thick and hot. The burgers looked plenty hearty enough to help you recover from all that mileage, and there’s a big variety of baskets and sandwich options.
Before heading back in whichever direction you came, make one last stop to see a little bit of history. Head toward Sunday River Ski Resort and hang a right when you see the sign for the historic bridge. There, you’ll find the Sunday River Bridge, also known as the Artists Bridge because it is so frequently painted and photographed.
According to the town website, the original bridge was built in 1811. It was wiped out by a flood in 1869 and rebuilt in 1872.
The bridge, built from rich, dark wood, is a quaint and quiet spot for a stroll, a view of the river or a romantic moment. And everybody can use a few of those. Even when you’re still a little sweaty.