An Up and Over on “The Greatest Mountain”

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The Gateway to Tablelands on Mount Katahdin

Mount Katahdin is the highest mountain in Maine at 5,267 feet and the heart of Baxter State Park, located near Millinocket and the Hundred-Mile Wilderness.  Named Katahdin meaning “The Greatest Mountain” by the Penobscot Indians, Katahdin is a laccolith formed by a granite intrusion and glaciers, and the arête along the Knife Edge looks like a big, steep pile of rocks.  Katahdin consists of several peaks, the highest being Baxter Peak, named after former Maine Governor Percival P. Baxter, which is about a 4,000 foot climb from the base. As the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, through-hikers celebrate the completion of their journey here – which doesn’t really end yet because they have to hike back down the mountain.  As there are many options, they can hike down either to Roaring Brook Campground at the opposite end of the mountain via the Helon-Taylor or Saddle and Chimney Pond or Cathedral and Chimney Pond trails, or they can return to Katahdin Stream Campground via the AT Hunt Trail.  Many through-hikers camp and slackpack up and are greeted by family members happy to share the achievement when they come back down safe and sound. This hike is for experienced hikers with some climbing ability as there are areas on the Hunt and Knife Edge trails that require some careful maneuvering up and around boulders. Most of the time you can find an alternate route around an obstacle, but there are a couple of places where’s there’s no turning back.

The Journey

On our day in August 2014 we were fortunate to have transportation at both campground access points – it’s about an hour by car from one side to the other and shuttle service is not provided. Getting through the Togue Pond Gatehouse, confirming our permit reservations, and hitting the trail around 6:45AM, we trekked an absolutely awesome “up and over” starting from Katahdin Stream, taking the Hunt Trail to Baxter Peak, picking our way across the Knife Edge (top to bottom), and lumbering down the Helon Taylor trail, traversing about 10 miles in 12 hours (including many stops for pictures and videos). The Knife Edge is really a technical non-technical trail due mostly to the steep part between Chimney and Pamola Peaks, where the trail goes vertical. Being tall gives you an advantage to reach the handholds and foot placements, but is not a requirement. Be sure to stay focused during the whole trek, as one mistake can cost an ankle, a knee, or your life. I would not recommend doing this hike in wet or very windy conditions and the park authority closes Knife Edge during bad weather. We were blessed with a beautiful day, with clouds in and out. The views were amazing. If you don’t get vertigo, can handle lots of rock scrambling and some non-technical free-climbing, and really enjoy a long, challenging hike with lots of elevation change and fabulous views, this one is for you. I highly recommend it… here’s our play by play:

Stage 1 – The Hunt Trail, last northern segment of the Appalachian Trail

The Hunt trail, or northernmost section of the Appalachian Trail and marked with the traditional white blaze, is the longest trail up the mountain to Baxter Peak. The beginning mile and a half is not that steep and takes you through woods and along mountain streams and waterfalls, most notably to Katahdin Stream Falls [some of the rangers do the 2.4 mile RT falls hike daily]. From there the trail pushes through dense tree thickets, gradually steepens and gets rocky, with the rocks getting bigger. As we reached the tree line we encountered a boulder field known as the Hunt Spur. These giant rocks are difficult to traverse. Hikers must use the metal bars secured in the rock in a couple of key places to reach the smoother Gateway ascent. This section of the trail is considered a difficult climb and the sparsely placed steel rungs are not easy but manageable. From here, the easier Gateway traverses up to a plateau called Tableland which gently ascends for roughly 1.5 miles to the summit.  We were covered in fog at times during this stretch as cloud banks rolled through, giving us a surreal experience similar to mists in Lord of the Rings.  We stopped briefly at the Thoreau Spring to sit, rest and survey the landscape but were anxious to reach the top, so moved on, and after 5 hours and twenty minutes, reached Baxter Peak – 5.2 miles one-way, Elevation gain 4,188 ft. The summit was not crowded when we got there, but a few groups showed up from the Saddle Trail before we left. After a brief rest, Gatorade and a snack, the clouds opened up and the views were absolutely spectacular, notably the view to Chimney Pond giving us the feeling we were on top of the world.

Stage 2 – The Knife Edge

The Knife Edge is the trail that connects Baxter Peak to Pamola Peak (descending). It is 1.1 miles in length and the most notable feature of Katahdin, featuring sharp pink and lichen covered granite rocks, surrounded on both sides by steep cliffs; the side toward Chimney Pond is sheerer. In sections it is only three feet wide and is the dangerous part of the mountain accounting for the most deaths. The Baxter State Park Authority closes the trail during any windy or rainy weather and only recommends the trail be hiked in the best of conditions.  The trail blaze is Carolina blue.

The trail descends from Baxter Peak 365 ft, but due to the down and up Chimney section to Pamola Peak, the total elevation change is about 600 feet.

This route is completely exposed and several people have died or have been seriously injured while attempting a traverse in inclement weather and/or high winds. Do not attempt to leave the ridge once you have started, and hiking Knife Edge across and back is not recommended due to its difficulty and the amount of time it adds to the hike – it takes approximately 1½ hrs. one way. While there are a couple of scary spots, there are also a couple of low side alternate routes less exposed, but all of these routes are dangerous and you should take proper cautions.  Once I had descended the Chimney, there was no choice but to climb up the other side – there are points along this trail where you will say it’s easier to move on than to turn around and re-trace your steps. While not purely technical, it’s about as close to technical without ropes that you’ll ever face. Each tedious step must be carefully placed between rocks and each handhold tested – the best part is the views and experience are thrilling so you hardly realize what you were able to do until you look back on it in wonder.

Stage 3 – The Helon Taylor Trail

Once we ascended Pamola Peak from the Chimney, Helon Taylor Trail on the east side of the mountain descends 3.2 miles to Roaring Brook. The trail is named after a longtime park supervisor from 1950-1967, and is 3.2 miles with a 3,413 ft. descent.  This blaze is also Carolina blue.  This trail takes a direct route to the Roaring Brook trailhead from Pamola Peak. It is an extremely exposed trail so plan for the weather and after the first two stages it can tax the knees going down. The trail finally goes below tree line and goes quite a ways through the woods until you reach the junction with Chimney Pond with 0.1 miles to Roaring Brook Campground.  At this point after 10 miles, 12 hours and around 4,400 feet up and down we were hungry and exhausted and relieved that we had conquered the Greatest Mountain.  With a great sense of accomplishment, this hike was “boomin’!”  Definitely one to add to your bucket list and many call this a life changing experience.

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Tired but accomplished hikers

Additional Tips

This is a very strenuous and advanced hike along a steep loose rock pile with sheer cliffs, with bouldering and some climbing at the tree line and along the Knife Edge.  It takes planning, is a tough hike that you should be in shape for and I recommend some pre-hike training.

Plan for a long hike … we went about 9.6 miles in 10 hours; don’t let the distance fool you. The Hunt Trail is challenging, the Knife Edge is very rugged in places – the Chimney is almost a technical climb, and Helon Taylor a steep descent. The Baxter Peak side of the Knife Edge is a boulder scramble. The gap between Pamola and Chimney peaks can be very challenging because it is steep and many of the rocks you have to climb lean in towards the gap. These can be very dangerous in wet weather. Proper equipment and experience are a requirement. This hike should not be taken lightly and you should listen to the rangers prior to making the climb. There is not much help around if you run into trouble. The most difficult and time consuming portions of the hike are exposed and above treeline.

Do not do this hike if you are scared of heights, out of shape or not good at climbing.  Bring proper gear – that means sturdy shoes, water, sun screen, food for energy and hiking poles (which you may put away when traversing the Knife Edge).

Several people have died or have been seriously injured while attempting a traverse in inclement weather and/or high winds. Do not attempt to leave the ridge once you have started. Hiking Knife Edge across and back is not recommended due to its difficulty and the amount of time it adds to the hike – it takes approximately 1.5 hrs. one way. At the bottom, Rangers will allow vehicle pick up from the camping parking areas (without a parking permit) if after about 3PM. There is no water on this trail. Trailhead Parking Lots: Roaring Brook Campground, Abol Campground, or Katahdin Stream Campground.

Also note rangers REQUIRE you to carry a flashlight or headlamp.

Baxter State Park Headquarters address is 64 Balsam Drive, Millinocket, Maine 04462. Headquarters is 18 miles from the South Park Entrance at Togue Pond Gate and over 60 miles from the North Entrance at Matagamon Gate. Directions to the Togue Pond Gatehouse (south entrance to Baxter State Park): Travel I-95 to Exit 244; turn west on Route 157 and travel through Medway, East Millinocket and Millinocket. Proceed through both traffic lights in Millinocket. Bear right at the three-way intersection after the second traffic light in downtown Millinocket. Bear left at the next Y intersection, staying on the main road (Rt. 157 ends in Millinocket, and the road to the park is unnumbered- the road has several names, Baxter State Park Road, Lake Road, or Millinocket Lake Road). Eight miles from Millinocket, pass buildings and Northwoods Trading Post on the right. Continue another 8 miles on the blacktop road to Togue Pond Gatehouse. (Park Headquarters is right behind the McDonalds at the first traffic light in Millinocket).

Easier Path to the Baxter Peak Summit

Note that the easiest path to the top of Baxter Peak is via the Chimney Pond and Saddle trails, still demanding and much less dangerous… start at the Roaring Springs Campground.

Where to stay and eat

There a few places to stay and eat.  We stayed at the Baxter Park Inn (no frills) and ate at Ruthie’s Hotel Terrace Restaurant (home cooking).  Other options include the Katahdin Inn and Suites, and the Appalachian Trail Café which are good bets.  You can Google more.

Day Use Parking Reservations

You’ll need to make a Reservation to hike Katahdin (both Day Use and Camping):

These Reservations are for Katahdin access trailhead parking lots only. A must have for summer days and most weekends if you want to climb Katahdin.

Facilities include restrooms near trailheads, 10 campgrounds, a Visitor Center, and many picnic shelters/areas.

For more information, Baxter State Park Website

The more you read on this website, the more excited you’ll get.  Happy Hiking!

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