Mount Katahdin – Baxter State Park

Certain things in life cannot be explained, they have to be experienced. If you asked a sky diver what is it like? They will tell you it was thrilling but words cannot describe the thrill and the excitement the few seconds before you jump out of that plane.

The trip to Katahdin should be classified in the same manner. It cannot be quantified with mere words and I cannot begin to express the feelings that the largest section of wilderness in Maine encompass. If you have hiked with any consistency, you will eventually hear of the Appalachian Trail, and you will hear of its 2169 miles (miles vary depending on your source) from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. My fascination with the AT came after reading AWOL on the Appalachian Trail by David Miller.  Just recently I also started reading A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson which is turning out to be an amazing an insightful read into the history of the Appalachian Trail as he attempts to traverse it.

This trip brought many firsts for me, and I would like to thank my hiking partners whom you will see scattered through the pictures.  They were Chad, Sarah and Stephen.  They took this journey with me and made it a memorable experience that I will not soon forget since this trip brought firsts like camping and partaking in a hike of this magnitude to name just two.

The drive to Katahdin was a grueling 9 hours from NY, and the thought that I drove 9 hours simply to hike, hints at the craziness and dedication I have towards the best mental health partner I have, a big honking and intimidating mountain.  I drove the first 3.5 hours alone up to the meetup point where the gear was consolidated and the rest of the trip was completed.  This was by far the furthest north I have ever been in my life and the expanse that is Maine when you get up past Portland and then Bangor is immense.

I won’t bore you with the camping details, since camping can be done pretty much anywhere.  Since it was my first time, here’s what our campsite looked liked.

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Campsite Before
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Tent After Set Up

Once at the campsite we found out that in order to get into the park you had to reserve a parking space.  No one did this, luckily they accept a number of walk ins per parking lot per day.  The lot we needed to be in, only accepted 7 walk ins per day.  So, we went to bed at the crack of dawn, to wake up at 3:30AM and queue up at the entrance to the park to ensure our 9 hour drive was not in vain.   Upon arriving at the entrance to the park, we were the 5th car in line at close to 4AM.  FIFTH.

Let me stop here and tell you that this was worth it for one simple reason, the sky.  It was a perfectly clear day and I have never in my life seen the stars the way I did this day.  At the entrance to Baxter State Park, there was absolutely no light pollution of any kind and the stars shined so brightly they looked like sparkling christmas lights.  I can’t fathom a way explain it, suffice it to say that even though I was dead tired, I just stood there mesmerized.  Part of me wishing I was already 5269′ up in the air atop of Baxter Peak seeing it from even closer.

Since we were the fifth car in the queue we were able to get in, and take the 20 minute drive from the entrance to the parking lot.  The original plan was to park at the Roaring Brook campground and we did, so we started on the right foot.  The luck ended there.  We planned well for our hike, unfortunately as the saying goes, even the best laid plans do not survive contact with the enemy.  Our plans did not survive.

We started up the Chimney Pond Trail and of the hike started very moderate, alongside Roaring Brook.  The air was chilly, check that, it was outright cold with terrible gusting winds.  After the first two miles and 1000′ of elevation gain, we came upon Basin Pond.  It’s a beautiful sight to see a body of water like this so high up on the mountain.  It’s an even more amazing sight with Katahdin in the backdrop, with its peaks covered in dense cloudy fog.

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Basin Pond

We stood here for a bit, but the wind and the cold made it difficult to just stop and awe at this specific point.  The trails so far were amazingly kept, with the harder areas nicely covered as such… Look at the glaze of clouds at the top of of the peak again in the background.  If you were to just base the hike on the picture below, you’d say it was a walk in the park.

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Stephen en route to Chimney Pond

The Chimney Pond Trail brought us to the Chimney Pond Campground alongside, wait for it…………………….

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……………………….Chimney Pond.  This campground consisted of mainly lean to’s and sits at almost 3000′.  The nights here are cold as well as the days.  The people I spoke to that stayed there, told me the evening temperatures were in the mid 20’s in the middle of SUMMER.  After a quick break and a snack we got up to take a look at the beautiful Chimney Pond before doing our planned hike up the Dudley Trail.

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Chimney Pond

After enjoying the beauty of Chimney Pond situated 2914′ above sea level and 1700′ of elevation gain.  We head off to find the start of the Dudley Trail, here a ranger stops us and asks about our plans.  When we tell her, she says, NOPE, not happening. Here’s what you can do… Every plan we made to tackle this mountain went out the window right here.  The Dudley Trail suffered a rock slide and was permanently closed.  Oddly enough, while I was distraught at the time, this was the best thing that could have happened to us.

At this point we had two options.  We can either take the short/quick Cathedral Trail which was treacherous by Katahdin standards or the Saddle Trail which was just bad.  I pushed hard for the Cathedral Trail and thank god I was outvoted.  The Saddle Trail was hard enough!  The first mile of the Saddle Trail called for over 1400ft of elevation gain in one stinking mile.  The last part of it was loose shell and rock with the small summit so close yet so far.  Pictures can’t provide the depth of perception that it is to look up and realize you might just as well be going STRAIGHT up.

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Chad coming up Saddle Trail

The top though, that top is worth it, and it’s not even the peak, but this flat expanse gives you an amazing 360 degree view of what you are dealing with at 4400′.

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Me taking a Panoramic Shot of Stephen taking a Panoramic Shot

I don’t think any picture can appropriately capture this.  At this point everyone in the group was still fairly sure that the hike was simple thus far and not the worst ever, not the most beautiful ever.  Here Chad made a comment in regards to an amazing hike he did in Colorado which was harder.  We all made stupid comments which right now, I can say were all categorically false and us simple blowing smoke up our own asses.

The end was in sight though.  You could feel the excitement as we traversed this snow encrusted ridge.  Wait what, YES, it snowed the day before and there was quite a bit of snow up there.  The next mile, took us through the amazing Ridge, climbing the final 900′ or so to the top of Baxter Peak aka Katahdin!

Upon arriving at Baxter Peak and seeing Knife’s Edge we questioned looking at it if that was the actual trail and if so, how could it be.  It can’t be the trail.  No it’s not.  They would not do that, that looks well… No, No, No.  The reason we wanted to take the Dudley Trail was to tackle Knife’s Edge on fresh legs, we did NOT do this and dammit this is why.  How can a trail inspire so much fear just by the sight of it.

Let’s put a pin on this:  Here is Katahdin!

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Baxter Peak Group Shot
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Baxter Peak Solo Shot
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Views from Baxter Peak

Ok., now look at Knife’s Edge!!! It’s 1.1 Miles from Baxter Peak at 5267′ to Pamola Peak at 4902′.  That 1.1 Miles took us 3 hours to traverse.  Along the way you have clear goals, South Peak is the easiest to get to, then Chimney Peak and finally Pamola.  With some sections a mere 3 feet wide and a 5000′ drop on either side.  Seriously, I have never in my life been as scared, or questioned my choices as hard as I did at this point.  I would never do Katahdin without doing Knife’s Edge, so I think I may never do Katahdin again.  There were points in this traverse that I questioned my sanity, my manhood, my abilities and my belief in a higher being.

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Knife Edge Seen from Baxter Peak
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Knife Edge en route – Sarah

So the worst part is that as you are nearing Pamola you hit a point where you are like, it can’t get worst than this.  It’s impossible, this must be over.  I don’t know how many times I told this to myself.  This has to be the worst, but this fucking mountain kept saying, worst, HA!… Hold my beer let me show you THIS:

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Knife Edge – Trail, what trail… it’s just rocks!

or this

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The Start of Knife – South Peak on the Right!

or this

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Descending Chimney Peak – Knife Edge

The final blow was the picture above, where, you see Pamola at the end, and Chimney right before it.  Yet, it’s not until you get to Chimney that you realize that you have to descend I really can’t say how many feet STRAIGHT DOWN, just to reclimb them to reach Pamola.  Mind you., I was afraid to take pictures of even worst areas for fear that I would, well, die if I got myself distracted.  Knife’s Edge cannot be explained or shown.  It needs to be experienced, if you think you have been scared. Imagine being stuck trying to get down, not knowing how.  Imagine trying to get down, where even though you are testing the waters trying to figure out where to step and how, a mistake is a drop that will not end in broken anything, it will end in DEATH.  At one point in that final picture Stephen and I are looking at Chad being coached by Sarah on the best way to come down, and with the most serious face in the world and in a totally earnest manner.  Stephen looks at me and says “I don’t think Chad is gonna make it”.  We can laugh about this now, but at the moment you start questioning, WTF are we gonna do if he can’t!  Chad would later state that had we been able to take the Dudley trail instead, he would have turned around at the start of Knife’s Edge, because from this side it looks even worst than from Baxter Peak.  So., leaving the worst for last worked for us here, if not, we would have lost Chad real early in the hike.

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Seriously, This Picture Highlights our phone obsession – credit Stephen for the pic

At this point, we are sitting atop Pamola Peak (everyone on their phones) and took the Helon Taylor Trail to get back to our car and complete the loop.  I jokingly pointed out that it should be a cake walk from here on out.  I failed to realize that we would be descending 3700′ or so in a mere 2.7 miles.

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Starting the final leg – Helon Taylor Trail

As you can see from that picture, it looks simple, yet it was not.  It’s a lot of elevation to lose in very little time.  I would have definitely preferred if we did not lose that much so quickly.  After a while, you wonder how much more can you go down.  The views here were phenomenal but it seriously felt like we would never stop descending.

We finally made it back to the Roaring Brook parking lot after having hiked 12 miles in a little over 10 hours.  3 of those hours used to traverse a tiny 1.1 stretch called Knife’s Edge.

The best part was that we knew we were going back to the campground to a pig roast of epic proportions.  I could not wait to eat and recover at least a little bit of the 5000 active calories burned in this juggernaut of a hike.  Any semblance of idea I once had to become a thru hiker and doing the entirety of the Appalachian Trail went out the window with this hike.  During the pig roast we met a thru hiker that had just finished the Appalachian Trail and in the past years also completed the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.  He said that while the AT is the most historic of the trails, being the first of its kind in the US.  The Pacific Crest is the most beautiful of the three and the Continental the hardest.

We all crashed bright and early afterward with plans to have a whole day of activities the following day.  We wanted to do so much, in the end after a hearty breakfast at a quaint diner that tailored to hikers.  We decided to hike another 6 or so miles to see some beautiful waterfalls.  I know TLC always said to not chase waterfalls, but we could not help it.

We started our journey with Katahdin Falls located on the famous AT.  At no point in our hike the previous day did we set foot on the AT, so it was nice to traverse it now even if just for a few miles to see the falls.  The Hunt Trail from the base of Baxter Park takes you all the way to Katahdin Falls and continues to the peak, it’s the route used by the AT.

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Katahdin Falls on the AT

Katahdin Falls was followed by another 3 miles or so to see Big Niagara and Little Niagara along another stretch of the AT a little south of Katahdin Falls.

Little Niagara

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Little Niagara on the AT

Big Niagara

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Big Niagara on the AT

We actually jumped into the water in Big Niagara, well Stephen, Sarah and I did.   It was a bit on the nippy side for Chad so he just sat on a rock and ignored the idiots jumping into 50+ degree water in 60 degree weather.  He was definitely the smart one in the group!

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From left to right, Me, Sarah and Stephen
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Chad waiting for the crazy people to stop swimming!

The only thing that could have made this weekend better would have been a Moose sighting, trust me, we looked.  We drove and walked so much in search of one that I think we should have seen one out of the pure will of our desire.  Alas, we did not.  Maybe next time.

This wraps up the trip., and what a trip it was.   if you want to see all the pictures and videos, just CLICK HERE for the full album.  Katahdin is one of those places you should definitely visit at some point in your life.  Even if you don’t risk it and do Knife’s Edge.  It’s worth the trip for everything else.  If you can, make sure and book the trip at least 4 months in advance so you can get a camp site or cabin in the park, and make it more than just a weekend.  I could fill a whole week of outdoor fun without ever leaving Baxter State Park!

 

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