In July 2019, I spent a week in Maine with a group of Argonauts from Hudson Valley Hikers. We spent the first half of the week exploring Baxter State Park, home of the famous Katahdin. Day 1 was very rainy, so we did the easy 10 mile section of Appalachian Trail from Abol Bridge to Katahdin Stream (separate post.) On Day 2 we launched a 2-prong assault on the buttressed fortress of Katahdin itself. A portion of my group went up the Helon Taylor trail and crossed the Knife Edge. Tree Whisperer and I chose to go up the newly opened Abol Trail. We would all come back down the Appalachian (Hunt) Trail.
Hiking the Greatest Mountain
The word Kahtahdin in Penobscot literally means “The Greatest Mountain.” To most northeast hikers, it earns that name. Katahdin is a massive rock massif standing at the northern end of the Appalachian Mountains in Maine. The mountain has 5 peaks: Baxter (5268′), Pamola (4919′), Chimney (4900′), Hamlin (4756′) and South Peak (4740′). The entire mountain lies within Maine’s Baxter State Park, a 209,000 acre wilderness preserve.
To quote the BSP website, “There are no easy routes up Katahdin.” Every route presents the hiker with steep rock scrambles. The Appalachian Trail (known locally as the Hunt Trail) climbs the Hunt Spur from Katahdin Stream Campground presenting the climber with a series of rocky hurtles with near 360 degree exposure. The Abol Trail tackles the south face of the mountain from Abol Campground. It is probably the easiest (not easy) and least terrifying route.
Picking a Route
There are 4 routes up from the east, starting at Roaring Brook Campground. The Helon Taylor Trail climbs the Stegosaurus like ridge up Pamola Peak, then crosses the Knife Edge, a mile long serrated sky bridge with no safety trails. If you hike up to Chimney Pond, you have your choice of the Cathedral, Saddle, or Hamlin Ridge Trails. The Cathedral is the steepest (1500+ feet per mile) and most direct. I personally think its the scariest. The saddle trail is relatively easy, climbing a steep rock slide to the saddle and then taking a slower approach to the top. The Hamlin ridge Trail takes you first to Hamlin Peak, from which you can explore the rest of the mountain.
There are also two trails up Katahdin from the north, but these require long hikes into the deep back country of the park. I won’t go into those here.
Up the Abol Trail
Everyone in our group is an Appalachian Trail Section Hiker, so we all wanted to hike down the AT from Baxter Peak. We had our options about how to get up. St Gregory, Publius, and Ravioli felt daring, so they went up the Helon Taylor trail and over the Knife Edge. I had already been over the Knife Edge and done all of the other eastern approaches. Tree Whisperer wanted to avoid the worst of the rock scrambles. We chose to go up the recently renovated Abol Trail.
The Abol trail follows a series of switchbacks almost all the way to treeline. I’d say this is a fairly easy and straight forward way up and down the mountain for those with a fear of exposure. It is still a big climb, gaining about 4000 feet in 4 miles. My strategy on these climbs is to take a water break every 500 feet and a snack break every 1000 feet.
When we reached treeline, we took a break to admire the view. From the south face of Katahdin, you can see hundreds of miles. The Ridge behind Tree Whisperer is the Hunt Spur, which supports the first 5 miles of the Appalachian Trail. The lakes in the distance are in the Hundred Mile Wilderness, the longest unsupported stretch of that trail.
The Abol Trail had been closed for several seasons after a rock slide made the trail unsafe. The new route follows a series of carefully built switch backs. Here we can see where the rock slide went tumbling down the mountain. You should be careful to stay on the marked trails to avoid damaging plants are causing further erosion. If you get lost or injured off trail, it may be very difficult for rangers to come rescue you.
After several hours of strenuous hiking, we arrive at the edge of The Table Land, a broad, sloping plateau that forms the top of the Katahdin Massive. Here the Abol Trail meets the Appalachian/Hunt Trail and continues towards Baxter Peak. We still have to walk another mile over boulders, but there’s only another 600 feet to climb.
After rock hopping our way across the table land, we finally arrive at Baxter Peak – 5267 feet of elevation. Baxter Peak is the highest point in Maine, and the northern end of the Appalachian Trail. We took some photos at the summit marker and then sat and waited for our friends to arrive across the Knife Edge. As we waited, many groups of northbound Appalachian Trail Thruhikers arrived in celebration. They were done with their 2200 mile long journey.
Down the Appalachian (Hunt) Trail
From the Baxter Peak, we had 5.2 miles to hike down the Hunt Trail. For everyone else in the group, these were new miles of the Appalachian Trail. For southbound hikers, these are the first miles. We approached these miles with a sense of beginning. Even though we had all completed hundreds of miles of the AT already, these miles felt special.
To the Northwest of Katahdin lies a great ring of mountains surrounding an isolated plateau that I would love to explore one day. The mountain in the foreground is The Owl. In the distance you can see The Brothers. North Brother is one of Maine’s 4000 footers.
In this shot you can clearly see the white outlines of Fir Waves – a phenomenon marking the succession of generations of fir trees on mountains of the northeast.
Over the Edge and Down We Go!
From the edge of the Table Land, the Hunt Trail goes down a series of steep and rocky drops to treeline. Most of the time, you’re looking straight down. You’re exposed on 3 sides. Going up or down the Hunt Trail is more of an arm workout than a leg workout as you hoist yourself up and down boulders.
On our way down, we ran into many hikers still coming up. It was late in the afternoon and we really had to wonder what these people had gotten themselves into. For an averagae shape hiker, any route on Katahdin is a good 8 hour round trip. You should start early and plan to be done early. We ran into many people who had already run out of water. There are no water sources on this mountain. I carried 5 liters up with me and was able to give some out.
Time to Hug a Tree
After dropping several thousand feet, we finally approached the shelter of treeline. The upper flanks of Katahdin support only scrubby bushes and lichen. At treeline we were happy to be greeted bow flowers again. Of course, on a sunny day this is where you finally get some shade.
A few sections of the Hunt Trail are so steep that the park service has added iron rungs to make climbing safer. I wouldn’t say these rungs make the trail easier. They make it possible. Some of the rungs are broken and move a bit, so be careful before trusting your full weight on them. The section in the photo above requires you to descend down some blind footing. I didn’t like it.
After several hours of white knuckle descent, we arrived at Treeline. We finally had shade and reasonable handholds. From here, the trail gets gradually easier as you go down. The last couple miles follow the raging Katahdin Stream and pass several waterfalls.
After arriving at Katahdin Stream, we still had to go get our other car from Roaring Brook. The park speed limit is 10-15 miles per hour. The drive from Katahdin Stream to Roaring Brook takes about an hour. Parking areas fill up early in the morning. Be sure to factor these logistics into your hiking plans.
There are no easy routes up Katahdin. The hike down can be even more challenging than the hike up. This isn’t really a place for beginners, though a determined beginner can do anything if they do it slowly enough. Just be prepared! Know your route, carry enough snacks and water, and have a good plan. Start early and plan to be done early. Enjoy.