I’ve always had somewhat of an obsession with Mount Katahdin, the tallest mountain in Maine. I vaguely remember my mother reading “Lost on a Mountain in Maine” to me when I was very young, a true story about a boy who got lost on Mt. Katahdin and survived 9 days on his own as he walked 35 miles to civilization. I also remember going to Baxter State Park on a family trip when I was very young, too young to join my dad and sister on their climb to the summit so I fished at a small pond by the campground instead and was blessed with the sight of a cow moose and her calf walking through the water just a few yards in front of the boulder I was sitting on. Unfortunately this was long before the days of always having a camera in your pocket.
Fast forward about 30 years, I had moved from Connecticut to Maine and had seen Mount Katahdin many times from the trails of Baxter State Park, from Katahdin Woods & Water National Monument, while kayaking on Seboeis Lake or Jo Mary Lakes, or from I-95 North on my way to Aroostook County, yet still had not climbed it. I was intimidated … I do my fair share of hiking in Maine, but not 8+ hour hikes climbing over 4,000 feet in elevation to reach the 5,267 foot peak. But this summer, I was determined to do it.
My sister and my eight year old nephew joined my wife and I for two nights of camping at Daicey Pond Campground at Baxter State Park. The plan was to climb Katahdin on Saturday. We got to the park on Friday afternoon and decided to do the Chimney Pond Trail to the pond and back. That was one hell of a warm-up! The trail was longer and steeper than we realized, the weather was hotter and more humid than we realized and unfortunately the basin was mostly clouded in when we reached it. Luckily however we did make it back to the car before the torrential rain started. Unfortunately, that rain continued on Saturday, making it dangerous if not impossible to climb Mt. Katahdin that day. So, we changed our plans and hung out around the campground on Saturday and planned to climb Katahdin on Sunday instead, which would mean my sister might be getting home to CT near midnight but she was determined as I was to climb Katahdin.
We woke up Sunday morning at 4:45am to clear skies and cool, fresh air that was perfect for hiking! My wife dropped us off at Abol Campground at 6:00am. She’s not the boulder scrambling type and after doing this climb I told her that she made the right decision not to go as it would’ve been her personal hell. The trail starts out easy enough, going past Abol Campground, past the junction to Abol Falls, and through the woods at a constant but reasonable incline.
After about a mile and a half, the trail gets a lot rockier and steeper. It’s about at this point where the new trail turns left and you walk up a few switch backs that take you above tree line to the most challenging part of the climb.
The original trail became unsafe due to rock slides and Abol Trail had been closed for a few years as they built this new part of the trail. These switch backs consists of many, many granite steps as you quickly gain elevation and begin to be rewarded with amazing views of the park and beyond. After only 2.3 miles, at about 3,500 feet elevation, you break through tree line and the rock scrambling begins!
My first introduction to rock scrambling was on Baxter State Park’s South Turner Mountain, which I did last year with my sister and nephew as well, and it was then that we decided that my nephew was ready for Katahdin as he didn’t break a sweat on that climb and we were trying to keep up the whole time. The rock scrambling on Abol Trail is like South Turner Mountain on steroids, with much bigger boulders and much, much more climbing. There were several times where we thought we must’ve gone off the trail but nope, we were on it. The thing is, I actually enjoy rock scrambling because it forces you to slow down so it doesn’t challenge your endurance as much as climbing endless granite steps. At no point was any of us scared as we ascended the steep boulder field and we thought it was a lot of fun, though I know it’s not for everyone.
After 2.7 miles, now 4,500 feet in elevation, we climbed over the top of the rock slide to reach the Tablelands, the relatively flat and very large top of Mt Katahdin that I didn’t know existed. In about a quarter of a mile is the junction with the The Hunt Trail (AT) at Thoreau Springs. From here it’s about another mile and a climb of about another 700 feet to Baxter Peak, where the Saddle Trail and Knife Edge trail also meet. It was on this last mile that I hit the jello legs stage … I had been climbing for about 4 hours and my legs didn’t want to cooperate anymore. We stopped for a quick break, I pounded more water and candy to give myself some energy, and powered through that last mile for an hour to the summit.
Everything they say about the magic of standing on the summit of Mt. Katahdin is true. The 360 views are incredible on a clear day like the one we had. Below you is a steep drop to Chimney Pond where we had stood two days earlier. In front of you is the insane Knife Edge Trail, which looks as scary in person as it does in pictures and videos. Behind you is the Tablelands that you just walked across, and the Abol Trail looks like it just drops off the side
of the mountain, which it kind of does … Words just can’t describe how awesome it felt to be there.
Then, there’s the climb down … While the climb up tests your endurance, the climb down tests your nerves. You have get on your butt and slide down several of the larger boulders. Our speed going down was just as slow, if not slower, than going up. Finally we reached tree level but ground level still looked so far away, and it was! Looking back, I was in awe that we had just climbed up that steep boulder field. We picked up the pace as we headed into the woods, and in the last mile when it started to rain, we really picked up the pace! Finally after 9 hours including breaks (about 8 hours of actual hiking/climbing) we triumphantly arrived at Abol Campground where my wife was waiting for us in the car.
After driving 2.5 hours home, I pretty much fell out of the car as the muscles in my legs had stiffened. It took a couple of days to recover but it was absolutely worth it and now I want to do every trail to the summit as they each provide a unique experience.
The obsession continues …