The guidebook describes the Baldface Circle Trail as “a strenuous trip not to be underestimated,” but I didn’t remember it as so.
I first hiked this 9.8 mile loop with my husband back in 1997 in early November. Then, I had great fun pulling myself up the steep rock ledges. The 1.2-mile walk from the summit of 3570-foot South Baldface over the open ridge to 3610-foot North Baldface was exhilarating. On the final leg, we walked a couple of miles through a tunnel of golden beech trees.
At the day’s end, I must have been tired. But I was in my mid-30s, and “exhausted” doesn’t stand out in my mind as an adjective to describe that day.
Fast-forward almost 20 years. I’d had my eye on a return to Baldfaces, this time to introduce my son to the trail. Over the next few years, I want to show him the “greatest hits of New England” hiking before he is off to college. And he’s more or less game, as long as the hiking happens in moderation.
For several years now, we have made an annual pilgrimage to a small cabin at Cold River Camps, just across the street from the Baldface trailhead, and have thoroughly explored Evans Notch, on the Maine-New Hampshire border. I love this valley because it lies within striking distance for a day trip, but feels remote and off the beaten bath. When hordes flock to Franconia and Pinkham Notches on gorgeous fall weekends, Evans Notch remains quiet. We see hikers on the trail, but rarely more than a few parties.
This year, when a September Sunday promised a perfect day for hiking, we rose early and headed north. When we arrived at the Baldface parking area on Route 113 around 9:30 a.m., plenty of spaces remained available.
The Baldface Circle hike begins with a 2.5 mile steady uphill walk on an old logging road to the base of the ledges, which begin just past the Baldface Shelter, a popular destination for an easy overnight. We met many hikers coming down the trail, including a family with young kids, most of whom had spent the night at the shelter or the tent platforms. By the time we reached the shelter, however, it had emptied out, and we enjoyed a snack there before taking on the ledges.
The ledges were much as I recalled them – straight up. We gained about 1,000 feet of elevation in just over a half-mile, pulling ourselves up and over rocks and boulders, and walking on granite slabs at what feel like a 60% grade (but was probably was more like 20%).
As I did years ago, I felt exhilarated to reach South Baldface. But I also felt totally wasted, and was grateful for the sunny warmth that allowed me to stretch out on the rocks and recover. I could hear my husband talking to another party of hikers. After a few minutes he asked if I was okay.
“I will be,” I told him. “I just need a few minutes.”
Back in 1936, South Baldface and the other mountains along the Maine-New Hampshire border were eyed for development as a ski resort. The Borderline Resort proposed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) called for the creation of hike-up/ski-down trails on South Baldface and other mountains, including Mount Meader, and West Royce, East Royce, and Speckled Mountains, with a phase 2 to include, on the opposite side of the Notch, Caribou, Elizabeth, Haystack, Peabody, and Pickett Henry Mountains. AMC proposed that its seasonal Cold River Camps could serve as the base area for a mega-resort that eventually would encompass all of the mountains in the Notch.
It’s almost unfathomable to imagine this wild valley (much of it now designated as federal wilderness) as home to a sprawling resort. Today, in the winter, one off-season cabin at Cold River Camps is the only place to stay for many miles.
The Borderline Resort plan never gained momentum, probably in part due to extensive damage in the forest caused by Great New England Hurricane of 1938. Also, maybe somebody realized that promoting skiing on the icy ledges of South Baldface wasn’t the greatest idea.
Thank goodness – I enjoy skiing, but I’m glad that this scenic valley isn’t so different from when a handful of hardy families settled here in the early 1800s. Yes, a road exists now (built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s), and electricity runs to the few homes along the road, but as in bygone days, I’m guessing that the few year-round residents hunker down during winter storms, when the valley feels truly remote. (The upper end of Route 113 closes to automobiles in winter and becomes part of a popular snowmobile route).
After a long rest on South Baldface, we continued hiking on the open ridge towards North Baldface. The mountains stretched all around us.
When we reached the junction for the Bicknell Ridge Trail, which reduces the hike by a third of a mile, I was more than game for the shortcut. Besides, as we picked our way down the granite and the rocks, we found that Bicknell Ridge also offers plenty of great views.
Eventually, we dropped down to a green tunnel of beech trees. The last two miles felt like a trudge, and I wondered if I would hike the Baldface Circle Trail again. Perhaps twice in a lifetime is enough.
I had plenty of time to think as I pounded down the trail. Did I still have it in me to hike the Appalachian Trail? How long will my hiking career last? What will take its place when hiking is no longer an option? Oh sure, I have many years left, but some day….
Thinking about these questions might seem depressing, but I’m a glass half-full kind of person. If this was my final trip to Baldface, I wanted to soak it in and appreciate the green forest, even if I couldn’t wait to get back to the car. At the very least, I had to come back for a dip in the Emerald Pool, a swimming hole tucked off the trail about a half-mile from the road.
They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’m not sure if that’s true for me on the Baldface Circle Trail. But by mid-week, when my collapse on South Baldface was fading to a distant memory, I was looking at the weather and planning my next hike, to 4000-footer Mount Waumbek.
Sources and resources
“Borderline.” Maine Cancelled Ski Areas. New England Ski History. Updated November 26, 2012.
Trail distances, elevation and other information from the White Mountain Guide, 28th edition (2007), published by the Appalachian Mountain Club. A newer edition now available, and recommended.
For more on hikes in Evans Notch:
My post, “Five great family hikes in Maine,” includes a short review of the wonderful Blueberry Mountain hike in Evans Notch.
The Basin Trail is another great trail at the northern end of the notch, in the Wild River Valley; see “In the Wild River Valley, a November blizzard, deep snow, and a man who preservers to save his cat.”
And for another tale about a nearby Maine ski area, big dreams and failed schemes, see “White Elephant in a Green Valley.”
Finally, if you want to read more about the hike on Mount Waumbek, see my post, “Gray jays, great day: A fall hike on Mount Waumbek.”