Our Baxter State Park Adventure: Hiking and Scrambling in the Appalachians

For the past few years since we all moved to separate cities, Kris, Matt and I try to meet up somewhere in Canada for a backpacking trip.  In the first weekend of July, in lieu of a backpacking trip, we decided to make our group adventure a car camping trip with lots of hiking in Baxter State Park, Maine, USA.  Last year (’11), we had two ‘sick’ reasons (Matt and Sheena) for our last minute cancelation to our annual trip.  This year however was not without last minute tribulations, when Sheena woke up on our first day with a strep throat infection.  After a quick trip to the Sussex hospital, Sheena was medicated for our drive to the border.  Thankfully, it was our only medical emergency this trip!

First, a bit of history on our choice of the park.  A couple of years ago, I saw a collegue’s picturesque background photo and inquired where he had taken it.  I was impressed as depicted in the photo was a mountain summit scene, reminicent of  ones I had seen the Rockies.  I then learned that it was actually taken from a mountain in Maine, specifically from the summit ridge of Mt. Katahdin.  Katahdin is one of the last rocky topped mountains on the Appalachian Trail and the highest mountain in Maine.  Mt. Katahdin is the main draw of Baxter State Park for campers and day hikers.  For campers (us), there are rustic campgrounds that allow car camping close to some of the better hiking trails in the east coast.  Because of the prominence of Mt. Katahdin, it is a very busy park with hundreds of visitors trudging the trails on a daily basis throughout the summer.  So in going to the park, we knew that it may not be the quiet backcountry ones of previous trips.  The park does allow for backpacking, but we decided to do only hiking day trips this year.  One thing to note is the reservation system at the park.  Reservations must be made 3 months prior to your visit.  These reservations (in 2012) had to be sent by mail one week prior to the three month time period.  I would suggest calling the park around the estimated time your letter would be received, just to confirm your preferences.  They will assign a campground to you, based on your prioritized list of preferences for campground (tent), leanto, group site, etc.  See the Baxter State park reservation webpage for the most up-to-date info.  As we would later find out, there is stiff competition for a parking spot in the day use areas as they fill up and close very early in the morning!

So, after only 4 hours of driving from home, a short stop at the border, a fueling and grocery top up in Houlton, we were on the windy and narrow road to Baxter State Park.  Upon arriving in the campground, we were pleasantly surprised at the condition of the campground and lean-tos.  The lean-tos were set up for sleeping in the open (if you like), but a small tent also can fit inside.  We were also impressed how the ‘Roaring Brook campground’ lived up to its name and we could not hear any of our camping neighbours and went to sleep to the constant roar of the nearby water.  That day,  we were also  welcomed to Baxter State Park by the first of many park rangers we encountered.  Ranger Bill MacDonald was a pleasant and funny park representative, and also with ancestors from Cape Breton of all places!  We won’t forget his promise of having the ‘the cleanest outhouses and friendliest staff’ in the US to keep park visitors coming back for more.

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After our scout outs of the campground the previous day, on our first full day, we stretched our hiking legs and took off from the campground for a hike to nearby Turner Mountain (South).  It was a three hour return trip, involving mostly woods travel with a good steady uphill climb on the mountain.  Most of the trail meandered around boulders and rocks, often following well trodden stream beds to the treeline.  Once at the treeline, it was a boulder scramble to the summit.

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Here’s Matt hiking up the boulders after the treeline.  The distanced mountain is Mt. Katahdin, which would be our task on the following day. Thankfully on our visit up the mountain, there were no low clouds as seen in the above photo.

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Above is a view of the start of the boulders.  The summit is visible.  Near the top has some good clambouring over the rocks, which was a taste of what Katahdin would be like.

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Our group at the summit.  The wind was pretty strong and hats were easily blown off if they weren’t tied down!  The view to the east was of an endless and ondulating forest, with the west being dominated by Katahdin.  View a panorama.

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After our hike to the summit of Turner, four of us returned to the campground for a dip in Roaring Brook (very chilly, but refreshing), while Kris and Matt scouted out the Chimney Pond trail.  Chimney Pond was the first destination tomorrow morning for our hike up Katahdin.  They found that the Chimney Pond trail is very busy with people as it is the main thoroughfare for hikers going between the mountain and the parking lot.

After inspecting the trail log (all hikers must sign in), we decided to head out bright and early (630 EST)  the following morning to avoid any crowds on the trails.  The 5k hike to Chimney Pond was a moderate hike and required a fair bit of stepping on and around boulders.  At Chimney pond, you get the first views of the Katahdin mountain ridges and see the outlier, Hamlin Peak and ridge.  There are several ways of ascending to Baxter Peak (highest point on Katahdin) from this side of the mountain.  We took the Cathedral trail route, which is a direct, almost straight up scramble over large rock and slabs to the tablelands before the summit. See the topo map for details. (Distances are in miles.)

Based on my scrambling experience, the Cathedral trail was an ‘easy’ scrambling rating, with no real exposure — but lots of work required to gain the plateau.  Once at the plateau, though, it became a hike again to the summit.  It would be nice if the Cathedral ended at the summit, but the obvious sheer drops below the summit are an indication of why the route is as such.  Other ways to the summit include ascending other connecting ridges to Katahdin (Pamola Peak or Hamlin Peak).  Both require long ridge walks, but are rewarding with exquisite views.  The easier route takes hikers up the saddle between Hamlin and Baxter Peak.

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Above is the view on approach to Chimney Pond.  At left is a part of Pamola Peak.
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Above, the Cathedral trail begins with a boulder scramble.  They were large and flat, angled and steep.  But, the guessing of the routefinding was eliminated by the blue painted lines marked on the rock.  (Someone painstakingly routed all trails on the mountain!)  It did take the challenge away, but likely prevents accidents due to the high number of inexperienced climbers on the mountain every year.

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Here is a good indication of the steepness of the terrain.  The far slope is part of Pamola ridge.

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(Kris’ photo) There were lots of cool slab rock throughout the ascent.

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(Kris’ photo) Checking out the next bit of the climb while standing on the gendarme.

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Looking back at a gendarme that blocks the view of the valley.  The route comes from the left side.  Turner mountain is in the background at the right.

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Kris and Matt meander the way through the boulders.

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Once out of the boulder field, there is a bit of reprieve through a well trodden trail through the scree.  It returns to the boulder field type climbing after the scree.

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A cairn marks a junction between a cut off trail to Hamlin ridge and the Saddle trail.  There was about an half hour left of climbing above this cairn.  In total, our approach took about 2 1/2 hours from Chimney Pond.  Below is a shot of some of the flowers we saw along the way (for Sheena and Janice).

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Here’s Matt and I on the summit of Baxter Peak, Mt. Katahdin.  We were lucky to get this photo with only one person visible in the background! It was probably the busiest summit I’ve ever seen.

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From the summit, the group split off and I continued along the ‘Knife’s Edge’ ridge toward South Baxter peak and Pamola Peak and eventually the Helon-Taylor Trail.  Kris and Matt returned via Hamlin Ridge and Chimney Pond Trail.   Here’s a panorama from the summit.

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(Kris’ photo)  Kris and Matt ended up meeting with Sheena, Karen and Darrell on their ascent.  Their group took the Saddle way up the mountain, then returned via Hamlin as well.

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The ‘Knife’s Edge’ route was probably the most mentioned route in any conversation we had about Mt. Katahdin.  The rangers talked about it, others heading to the area talked about it — especially given the weather conditions (wind).  The Knife’s Edge itself is a 2 kilometre long ridge from Baxter Peak to Pamola summit.  It is the most narrow part of Katahdin and there are a couple of spots with moderate exposure.  Despite the talk about it, there were only three sections that were a bit tricky and these included the two exposure areas.  Below is a little example of an exposed area.  The part just before this picture involves throwing your leg over the rock with a severe drop below.

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The Pamola Summit gendarme was another tricky section.  It required some downclimbing with about a 15 metre drop.  I spoke to a guy on Pamola, who told me that an old hiking book from the 1980s said they climbed these areas with ropes!  I was sad to say, I did see some people with tennis shoes doing the Knife’s Edge.  Again, the blue lines did allow for most people to follow the route almost too easily.
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The Pamola Gendarme. Below shows some of the downclimb and the step toward Pamola. See the blue lines?

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There were some really neat rock formations on Helon-Taylor Trail.  The return trip to the campground on Helon-Taylor was a 5 kilometre descent along this ridge.  The photo shows the flattest section of the trail as the rest is basically drop after drop after drop, through arrid country.  The part where Bear Stream intersected with Helon Taylor was very refreshing!  I returned to the campground around the same time as Matt and Kris, having spent 10 hours on the mountain.

Karen, Darrell and Sheena on their return from their hike!  They were glad to be back, that’s for sure.

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The following day, while licking our wounds from the previous day’s epic hike, Karen, Darrell, Sheena and I headed to the west side of the park to see Katahdin Stream Falls.  It was a beautiful spot, hidden away on the Hunt Trail.  The water was crystal clear.

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After that, we drove further north on the dirt road toward the Ledge Falls area for a lunch.  Ledge Falls was a real unique spot.  The falls are more like rapids, but flow over solid smooth rock, allowing for some fun swimming and sliding over the rock.  There was just enough moss to make it interesting and hard to exit the water because it was so slippery!

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Above: Looks down from our lunch spot.  Below: looking up toward the falls area.

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We spent an hour swimming down stream.  Here’s Sheena going to the deep section.

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On our final night, we spent the rest of the night playing ‘Zombies’ and having Darrell kick our butts at Settlers of Catan.  A great trip was had by all!

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Katahdin from the I95.

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