Although I climbed Bigelow Mountain dozens of times when I lived in the western mountains of Maine and explored most of the terrain on the northern side of the mountain when I was involved with the group that had notions of building a mega-ski area on the broad flank above Flagstaff Lake, Columbus Day in 1984 marked a very special occasion.

It was on that day as I reached 4,088-foot Avery Peak, one of the two spectacular cones projecting above the ridgeline on what is the last really challenging climb for through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail before they reach Mount Katahdin, about 180 miles to the north, that I made a vow to myself: On or about Columbus Day, when the mixed forest is near its foliage peak, I’ll climb Bigelow, not only for the sheer delight of the ascent, but as annual proof to myself that I still could.

And so, for the past 26 years, I’ve managed, by a variety of routes, to do it. And this year I completed my 27th consecutive odyssey on what is, in my mind, the perfect way to put an exclamation point on the end of a summer hiking season. And to celebrate, once again, that I’m still alive and can.

Bigelow is a very special mountain. In the mid-1970s, ski development plans fell to the voters of Maine in a referendum as a result of the incredible efforts of Lance Tapley and his passionate organization, “Friends of Bigelow.” The state of Maine purchased some 8,000 acres of mountainside and shorefront from the Flagstaff Corporation and patched it together with another 25,000 acres to create a very special 33,000-acre treasure, to be administered by the Bureau of Parks and Lands of the Maine Department of Conservation and to be called Bigelow Mountain Preserve.

One of the things that makes Bigelow special is its sheer expanse, with its Range Trail running some 12 miles west to east from Cranberry Peak (3,194 feet) to Little Bigelow (3,025 feet). In between are the aforementioned Avery Peak; West Peak, the highest point in the range at 4,125 feet; South Horn (3,805 feet); and North Horn (3,792 feet).

Cranberry’s distinctive feature is its bare ledges, and the Horns tower above little Horns Pond, stocked just last year with some real beauties. On Avery Peak, the now-abandoned fire tower rock foundation still stands. And for those who delight in trivia, you might like to know that when I surveyed the lift line for the Sugarloaf gondola to be built in 1965, I sighted with my transit from the upper terminal location directly on the fire tower to use as my reference point as we descended the mountain cutting the line. So the next time you stand at the fire tower, look south directly up the line of Sugarloaf’s long-gone gondola!

Every few Columbus Days, if the weather’s right and there’s no snow on the ground, as there is about one out of every five years, I’ll commit to the 12-mile loop up the Fire Warden’s Trail from Stratton Brook Pond for about 5 miles to West Peak via Avery Peak. And a word of warning: the last 1.5-mile stretch below the Bigelow Col between Avery and West rises about 1,700 vertical feet, making it one of the tougher climbs in Maine — then it’s about 3 miles west to Horns Pond via both Horns, 2.5 miles down the Horns Pond Trail to reconnect with the Fire Warden’s Trail and then 1.6 miles back to my car at Stratton Brook Pond.

Some years I’ve included Little Bigelow in my hike, beginning on the Flagstaff Lake side of the mountain, and rarely I’ll begin in Stratton climbing over Cranberry Peak past Cranberry Pond and down the Appalachian Trail heading south, but this requires two cars and a couple of people so you can shuttle back up to Stratton.

The shortest way to Avery Peak, and the easiest I’ve found over many years of ascents, is via the Safford Brook Trail from the north up through Safford Notch, around the breathtaking Old Man’s Head, with its commanding view down the Carrabassett River, and along a bold section of ridge to the peak. This route covers some 4.2 miles each way, and it has become my route of choice about every third year. And if there’s snow on the ground, I encourage you to opt for this one, as the scramble up the last mile on the Fire Warden’s Trail over snow-covered rocks can be a killer, at least for me.

Another thing that distinguishes the Safford Brook route is that you’ll be following what was Amos Winter’s original ski trail that he cut in the late 1940s with a bunch of Kingfield locals who became known as The Bigelow Boys, when they widened sections of the Appalachian Trail and the old Shingle Mill Trail running down to the Dead River, to give themselves a place to ski without having to go all the way to Tuckerman Ravine on Mount Washington. When Central Maine Power Co. built Long Falls Dam to form Flagstaff Lake, Winter and the boys turned their attention to the next 4,000-footer to the south, Sugarloaf, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Every few years I’m treated to one of nature’s great juxtapositions as I sit at the summit, drinking in the view and thanking God (and Lance Tapley) for this truly remarkable treasure, and for the fact I’m still able to enjoy it. On those years, the mixture of crimson, yellow and green foliage contrasts with snow cover on Sugarloaf to the south above the 2,000 foot level, and the still-bright green fairways of the golf course at the base of the mountain are almost more than one’s eye and mind can process and digest.

John Christie is an author and year-round Maine explorer. He and his son, Josh, write in Outdoors about places to enjoy the beauty only Maine has to offer. He can be contacted at: [email protected]