Thickening clouds roil over the barren tablelands, blotting out the remaining blue skies and greatly reducing the possibility of views from the top of Katahdin. No matter; it’s always a thrill to be high on the mountain whatever the weather, which will do as it pleases in this harsh Alpine environment.
After five hours of steady chugging through a vertical funhouse of rocks, the summit finally comes into focus. It’s hallowed ground, this spot, a special place like few others, especially to this hiker. I pause for a moment to reflect on the scene.
The big rock cairn atop the peak is there on the right. The classic sign marking the summit and the end of the Appalachian Trail is in the middle of the picture. To the left is the Saddle Trail sign, which never fails to remind me of Donn Fendler, who was lost amid the clouds on a day just like this so many years ago.
The 5,268-foot mountaintop is empty except for a couple of AT thru-hikers. We chat briefly, snap the obligatory photos, and descend after just 15 minutes. Good thing, too, because soon enough the sky turns charcoal gray and the wind picks up, and by Thoreau Spring we are engulfed in a full-on rain and hailstorm. We beat a hasty retreat down Abol into the lee, and slip, slide and stumble our way off the mountain.
Another wild Katahdin adventure goes into the archives. But then, with all the mystery and history, scenic wonder and rugged challenge of Maine’s “greatest mountain,” every trek up its slopes seems wild, an extra special outing, and one like no other on foot in this state.
If you haven’t climbed Katahdin this year, in a few years or perhaps ever, well, what are you waiting for? Baxter State Park is open for camping and hiking until Oct. 15, then for day use until Dec. 1, weather depending.
Choose one of the six hiking routes, pack up your rucksack and go.
It’s a big day so plan accordingly, exercise care, and remember that your final destination is not the summit, but your return to the trailhead!
APPROACH FROM THE WEST
Hunt Trail departs Katahdin Stream Campground and climbs 5.4 miles and 4,100 feet. This is the final stretch of the AT and arguably the most arduous route to Baxter Peak. The lovely Katahdin Stream Falls is reached in the first mile. Higher up it’s a boulder scramble, then an airy climb up Hunt Spur.
Abol Trail leaves from Abol Campground and climbs to Thoreau Spring on the tableland, where it joins the Hunt Trail a mile shy of the summit. The Abol Trail route gains 3,900 feet in 3.7 miles.
The Abol Slide is notable for its loose soil and rocks, but if Henry David Thoreau could make it up this way in 1846, so can you.
APPROACH FROM THE EAST
Roaring Brook Campground is the base for climbing Katahdin from the east.
Helon Taylor Trail climbs three miles and 3,500 feet up the exposed Keep Ridge to Pamola Peak. If the mountain gods deem you worthy and offer some good weather, make your way along Knife Edge, easily the wildest mountain path in New England, which crosses Chimney and South peaks on its way to the Baxter Peak.
For the three other summit trails, follow Chimney Pond Trail 3.3 miles and 1,500 feet to Chimney Pond, nestled beneath the incredible walls of South Basin. From this point, take the direct route up Cathedral Trail, gaining the top after two miles and 2,300 feet. Or venture up Saddle Trail, climb the slide to The Saddle, then continue to the summit; 2.5 miles total. Finally, you can negotiate the rocks on Dudley Trail to Pamola Peak, then follow Knife Edge to Baxter Peak, a total of 2.8 miles.
More info: Baxter State Park, www.baxterstateparkauthority.com or 723-5140.
Carey Kish of Bowdoin is editor of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide. Send comments and hike suggestions to: