Burnt Mill Brook, Royces & Haystack Notch | 6/14/23
Evan’s Notch is a redliner’s dream when it comes to car spots. Despite its flanking of two different wilderness areas, the Caribou-Speckled, and the Wild River, its accessibility and lack of 4Ks make it a quiet yet explore-worthy destination for adventurous hikers looking to cover a lot of ground in a straight shot. Its unique characteristics, in solitude, yet profound beauty is what keeps bringing me back despite its long drive and absence of cell service. This past Wednesday, Ryan and I changed plans from the Davis Path to a unique dip into Evan’s Notch from Wild River Road, up East Royce, and back to Bethel, ME via Haystack Notch. By a combination of an artist’s trail to an explorer’s trail, we both enjoyed the traverse in its 12.3-mile glory, with about 3000 feet of elevation gain.
Our alarm rang at a modest hour on Wednesday morning in our discount room at the Eastern Slope Inn. Having not initially booked two consecutive nights, we fully moved out and jumped into our cars towards the eastern trailhead of Haystack Notch. It was difficult to plug this location into the GPS, for the AllTrails started from the west, the coordinates didn’t respond well, and Merrill Road is not recognized as a real place by Apple Maps. I ended up plugging Tyler Road, the road before Merrill Road, into Apple Maps, then switching my Apple Car Play over to the Gaia app to gain the rest of the dirt road into the trailhead.
This trailhead was pretty tight, maybe fitting 4 well-parked cars, but I can’t imagine there’d ever be that many cars here. It was… OUT THERE. Having made note of the local traffic-only sign, not like a tow truck could get in there anyways, we decided to leave my NH-plated car there as a peace offering opposed to Ryan’s MA plates. I hopped into the Jeep and we drove back up Tyler Road, down Flat, and rode Route 2 until we got to Evan’s Notch. 113 was in stellar shape, as was Wild River Road towards the Burnt Mill Brook trailhead where we departed from.
Burnt Mill Brook exceeded our expectations as its gradual gain alongside a series of plunging and multi-step waterfalls were both unexpected. Had these several falls been anywhere else, they each would have had their own roadside pull-off with a fine gravel path towards them. Many of them rivaled miniature versions of Glen Ellis or even Sabbaday Falls- they were all spectacular. By the time you move further right of the brook, with one thought-provoking water crossing, the trail finally starts to feel like it’s gaining, and no matter how many times I checked the GPS through here, we did not get that much closer to the ridge. I imagine that if it hadn’t been raining yet also humid, this would not have felt so long towards the end. At the Royce Trail intersection, the fog lowered towards us and the trail consisted of puddle after puddle as we moved towards East Royce.
For some time, the trail was mostly flat as we moved through the col between the two Royces, yet we dropped just enough to make the 0.5-mile climb to East Royce quite worthy. In this 0.5, one gains about 500 feet of elevation over terrain that was highly reminiscent of the steeper sections of climbing Old Speck from Grafton Notch. Unfortunately, we were completely socked in but exposed in a way that I have to return for the views sometime. There were a couple of slow sections due to the wet rock, but nothing particularly scary even after many days of moisture. Towards the top of the East Royce trail, a man and his dog showed up and we had a good laugh as the dog went into “protect my dad mode” but went by the name “Sweetie.” That’s the kind of irony I like to see.
The rocks at the summit were warm enough that I started to suspect the sun might come out, which it did... as soon as we were out of range for views. Typical. In a quick mile from the trail junction, we dropped steeply towards the height of land in Evan’s Notch alongside the Cold River, which also had its fair share of cascading moments. The trail required a slower pace to manage the steepness but was never difficult for us. Another beauty!
At the base of the Royce Mountain trail, we filtered water from the Cold River, had a bite, and changed socks to be dry for the road walk, even though we knew we’d be soaked again early into Haystack. The road walk was uneventful, around a mile, and didn’t pass any trailheads until we got to Haystack Notch. With a fateful fist bump, Ryan and I began up Haystack Notch as my anxiety from earlier in the day reawoke as I remembered bikecamphikegirl’s trail report of raging water crossings from last week.
Yet, as we kept walking, my worries eased tremendously. The first mile-ish before the wilderness boundary was well kept, had two hoppable crossings (they were wide though), and was blazed often enough that it could be hiked haphazardly. Along this portion, we dissected the likelihood of technological and environmental mismanagement resulting in our society becoming similar to that depicted in the Disney Pixar movie WALL-E. Wilderness trails are the best for such discussions. By the time we finished talking about the human race, we were at the height of land, which afforded some restricted views towards the cliffs of Haystack Mountain, along with the many boulders that had tumbled off of it throughout history. Even though this height of land lacked conventional notch views, the area was nevertheless incredible.
The wilderness boundary had made a difference in the state of the trail, which we had assumed would carry towards the end, however, it felt like a lot more people hiked to the height of land from Evan’s Notch than from the east side, making for a rougher trail as we moved further east. Even as such, we could see the wear in moss patches atop rocks and mainly used this method to follow the trail until it reached its ickiest moments out of the wilderness boundary on the east. At least, once the trail got so boggy we couldn’t see a footpath, there were faint yellow blazes to help us out now that we had exited the wilderness. Most of the mud patches were short-lived, but all of them were big shoe suckers.
The four notable crossings of the West Branch Pleasant River went as such. The first was a rock hop, the second not so deep, but with incredible current as the water filtered its way around an island of grass in the middle, the third a knee toucher, and the fourth a mid-quad dip into the water. It was here, where I had grabbed a tree to duck under where a spider must have gotten a ride across the river with me, against my knowledge. It wasn’t until I was taking a landscape video of the fast-moving river and panned my phone to the right, and saw the beast on my right shoulder. I screamed bloody murder, probably flung it off me, but wasn’t sure, and took most of my clothes off right then and there on the bank of that river to make sure. I had never seen a spider that big before in my life. Maybe all that talk about young women not hiking alone was because of these spiders the whole time... just kidding. Note the sarcasm and side eye.
After the last crossing, it was smooth sailing to the grassy meadow, which I could envision being hard to get through had we approached the notch from this direction. We surprisingly ran into a trail runner here, who we pointed in the right way towards Haystack. I meant to ask her if she was on Croo since she reminded me of one of the girls I worked with last summer but was so caught up in her surprise we weren’t moose that I forgot.
Getting back to the car felt extra good this time, we were there just before the rain started, only heard one thunder rumble at the very end, and had massively succeeded in something I’d been really worried about that morning. Another one checked off.
1 bird walking down the trail