When Sunday River is mentioned, I suspect most people think of the ski resort. Not me. Instead, the mountain Sunday River Whitecap immediately comes to mind.
Sunday River Whitecap is not part of the collection of mountains that constitute the ski resort. Rather, it is located on the opposite side of Sunday River Valley about three miles north on the southeastern end of the Mahoosuc Range. At an elevation of 3,337 feet, it is not a particularly high peak but its barren summit offers unique and exceptional 360 degree views of the Mahoosuc Range and the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Grafton Notch Loop Trail provides access to the summit from Route 26 in North Newry. An over fourteen-mile out and back hike that includes ascending Stowe Mountain, it is an arduous winter trek. My Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society (PPCS) friends and I have been climbing a shorter alternative route for many years.
The Grafton Notch area has some of the finest mountain hiking in Maine. The Appalachian Trail journeys over Goose Eye, Mahoosuc Arm, Old Speck, West and East Baldpate Mountains. The relatively new Grafton Notch Loop Trail is 38.6 miles long. Beginning on the east side of Route 26, it traverses north over Puzzle, Long and the Baldpates before dropping down to Grafton Notch. Ascending Old Speck, it turns southeast and climbs Slide Mountain, Sunday River Whitecap and Stowe Mountain before returning to the North Newry Trailhead.
I recently proposed a PPCS hike on Sunday River Whitecap. Most of the usual suspects were unavailable but my friend Pete Rowland signed on. A new peak for him, he assumed what appeared to be the obvious; we’d ascend the Grafton Notch Loop Trail. Although he may have been somewhat skeptical of my proposed itinerary, Pete is always ready for an adventure.
From the junction of Routes 2 and 26 in Newry, we traveled north on 26 past the Grafton Notch Loop Trail. Less than a mile beyond the turnoff for Screw Auger Falls, our trek began at a gated dirt road on the left. A GPS enthusiast, Pete endeavored to measure the distance of our excursion.
The snow was hard-packed at the trailhead. Lacking information on what we’d encounter at higher elevations, we added snowshoes and micro spikes to our packs. Just beyond the gate, we connected with Snowmobile Route 82 ITS. Caution needs to be exercised whenever hiking, skiing or biking on snowmobile trails. My advice, when you hear them coming, get completely off the trail.
Turning left, we had easy hiking on the packed snowmobile trail. It was precisely .93 hundredths of a mile from the starting point to a path on the right. Not an obvious trail, rather an attenuated bushwhack, we climbed steadily south joining Grafton Notch Loop Trail in the saddle between Slide Mountain and Sunday River Whitecap.
Following the loop trail southeast, we began ascending more steeply on the shoulder of Whitecap. After about a half mile, we approached the lower end of the mountain’s extensive alpine zone. Trail workers have made extraordinary efforts to protect the fragile alpine ecosystem clearly marking the trail and constructing wooden walkways in several sections. Navigating through a maze of stunted mountain scrub for a short distance, we climbed a precipitous, icy ledge and arrived at the foot of the summit cone. Donning parkas for protection against brisk winds out of the northeast, we had excellent views of the Mahoosucs to the north and Puzzle Mountain behind us.
Following cairns with a combination of ice, hard-packed snow and bare rocks on the remaining ascent to the summit, there was no correct choice for foot gear. Standing at the top with remarkable views of the ski slopes and White Mountains beyond, the distance from Route 26 was 2.98 miles. Based on my prehistoric imprecise math, it’s a six mile roundtrip trek.
Dropping off the west side of the summit for protection from the wind, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch while savoring truly exceptional vistas facing west. Having carried snowshoes to the summit, we resolved to use them on our return. Descending at a rapid pace, we were back to the snowmobile trail without ever stopping to put them on. The added weight provided for a better workout, right?
At that point, we hadn’t seen a solitary person during the hike. Part way back to the Route 26 trailhead, we met a large group of boys with a couple of leaders resting in the snow just off the trail on what appeared to be an overnight expedition. Having matured beyond frigid nights in windswept tents, I was ready for a warm toasty evening at home with pleasant memories of a most excellent day on the mountain.