Katahdin

Katahdin
Hunt Trail and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail
Trailhead Elevation: 1,089 ft.
Summit Elevation: 5,269 ft.
Distance: 9.78 mi.
Elevation Gain: 4,186 ft.
Start Time: 6:46am
Summit Time: 9:24am (13 mins)
End Time: 12:01pm

Trip Report:
When my wife and I set out to plan a trip to the Northeast to celebrate our anniversary and we settled upon New Hampshire and Maine as our destinations, I knew that Katahdin would have to be a target high on the list of attractions. I haven't fully put a finger on it yet, but for me there has been something majestic about this mountain and how it feels in my mind compared to many others I've hiked. Certainly it is famous and that has something to do with it. Katahdin is the highest point in the State of Maine. Katahdin is also the northern terminus of the epic Appalachian Trail. That latter point is perhaps the most moving for me. All of that aside, it is also just a wonderful hike and mountain climb and one to be enjoyed with great care. As I reflect in hindsight on this hike I have to admit it was much more than I was expecting, and that's a good thing.


There are a number of routes to the summit on Katahdin, the main four being the Hunt Trail, Abol Trail, Helon Taylor Trail and Saddle Trail. The Hunt Trail is regarded by most as the primary route. When I was making early plans for my hike on Katahdin I had considered a traverse of the mountain going up the Hunt Trail on the west side and down the Helon Taylor on the east side. This would enable me to enjoy the knife edge trail which connects the main peak, Baxter Peak, and Pamola, a subpeak. Ultimately logistics and time led me to settle on an up and down of the Hunt Trail.


Togue Pond, early morning

Baxter State Park also adds to the logistical hurdles to make a successful climb of Katahdin. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. They are very protective of their State Park with hopes of keeping that wilderness in as pristine and natural condition as possible. I believe for the most part that it shows. The forests are lush and seemingly untrampled by man. Even the Hunt Trail had a bit of a rustic feel to it in parts. You get a true remote feeling as you drive down the dirt roads of the park to the campground and trailhead.

The logistics for my hike of Katahdin entailed reserving a parking spot at the Katahdin Stream campground/trailhead which as an out-of-state resident I was allowed to do 2 weeks ahead. I believe they allotted 25-30 spots for my target date and when I reserved only a couple had been taken. Your spot is guaranteed until 7am the day of your hike so you need to arrive early. The park opens at the Togue Pond gate at 6am and so you have a small window to work with.
Early section of trail, more dirt than rock at this point

I left my hotel in Lincoln and arrived at the Togue Pond gate at 5:50am and found 16 cars already ahead of me, lined up on the roadway. This gave me a few minutes to finish up my breakfast and get my gear ready. At 6am they startled funneling cars through. When my turn arrived at the gate the park ranger asked me of my plans for the day, I showed him my "DUPR" or Day Use Parking Reservation. He also asked of my party number, and if I had pets or firewood. He gave me a few basic instructions and sent me on my way up the road to Katahdin Stream. The speed limit in the park is only 20MPH which from afar seemed slow, but the winding dirt roads all bug necessitate such a limit anyways. It took a good 30 minutes to drive the 8 miles out to the campground from the gate. Upon arrival I found a dirt parking lot and I made myself a spot.

Katahdin Stream Falls

Today I was wearing my Osprey Rev6 trail running pack with basic food, water, and raingear. Baxter requires all hikers to carry headlamps so I packed that as well. I debated whether to bring trekking poles and assuming I may have good trail to hike swiftly I opted to take them. This would be a major pro/con debate in my mind for most of the day. At the edge of the parking area there is signage for Katahdin and directions up the camp road to the true trailhead. There are the TH is a hiker register. I signed in and was on my way.


The first highlight early on the trail was passing the marked Katahdin Stream Falls. It is visible to climber's left without leaving the trail. You can also approach the falls off-trail for closer views. Above the falls the trail immediately climbs rock slabs and then enters into a lengthy climb on a well made rock staircase. The early part of this trail was fairly rocky but for the most part the rock was small. A good trail-runner could likely make a decent running pace through most of the first two miles. After that, not so much.

Beginnings of the rock staircase
For about a half mile, from roughly mile 2.0 to mile 2.5 on the hike in the rocks in trail get boulder size. To the point that you're actually scrambling in some places to make progress on trail. The first of these big obstacles gave me a good gash on my knee as I tried to push myself up and over. You can see this example in the following photo:

Large rock obstacles in trail
My compliments and respect go out to all the folks that hike this trail with big backpackers on, particularly the Appalachian Trail finishers. This is no easy hiking trail for a Sunday stroll. Speaking of AT finishers, about halfway up my ascent I ran into one, something I was hoping to do today. I guess the man to be in his 50s and he told me he had started his hike on March 24. He was still moving well today and I wished him the best and congratulated him. That's just incredible.

At about 2.5 miles in and 3400 feet in elevation is where the real fun begins. The views begin to open up as you enter the transition of treeline and they are spectacular. You also move into the full on rock scrambling. There are a series of 3 or 4 successive sections where iron bars are bolted into rock to help with forward movement. One involved a 5 foot chimney with iron bar at top to help with pulling up and over. The others involved movement around massive rocks and bars in places to help with a step or a handhold. None of it is in high exposure areas, but at the same time, you still wouldn't want to be falling or making big mistakes. The other added element of difficulty on this day was the wind. The moment the route leaves the thickness of the trees the wind hit hard. Though I couldn't say exactly what the speed was, it felt like 20-30 mile an hour sustained winds. They made the areas of scrambling a bit more attention grabbing as balance became an issue.

The views open up to the northwest, Barren Mt and Mt. Coe in center

These views to the southwest

The rocks get big, the scrambling fun

The five foot climb with iron bar at the top

More scrambling on boulders, a white blaze marking the route in view

Looking down on the terrain typical to the climb from 3400 to 3800 feet

After the initial scrambling in the area with iron bars it eases up into more class 2 stuff maneuvering around boulders on occasional dirt trail segments. At around 3800 feet in elevation you top out momentarily into a brief saddle only to see that another ridge climb awaits you. It looks like you're scaling a mountain peak for a summit as you look on ahead, but in fact the "summit" is only the beginning of the Table Land. The rock in this ridge climb is smaller than what you just went through and there are momentary bits of scrambling, but mostly fairly easy. Nonetheless, all of it with some added difficulty for those with large backpacks. Throughout the scrambles I went through the heavy personal debate of the two trekking poles I had carried. Ever since the trail below began hitting the large boulders I began regretting the poles. They had been fine the first two miles, now they were just in the way. My Rev6 pack didn't seem to offer any help as it simply isn't designed to carry much. When I gained the Table Land the trekking poles were a delight once more and nearly changed my mind on whether they were worth it.

The ridge climb to the Table Land

A closer look at the basic rock scrambling

A look down, during descent, at the rock in the ridge climb
When the trail topped out again and the Table Land lay before me I had two basic thoughts: (1) Wow, this is beautiful, and (2) Wow, that wind is really whipping. From this moment onward to the summit and back I had to watch balance with most every step that the wind wouldn't knock me over. It was blowing so hard you could see small clouds rolling over the summit at a very notable speed. This area is predominantly flat and in fact the next mile or so of hiking is all on the Table Land with very minimal gain. This alpine terrain is still in very pristine condition. Baxter State Park has a lot to do with this. For a lengthy section of the Table Land they have small stakes and string guarding the sides of the trail strongly encouraging people to stay on trail, even when wet or muddy, to avoid braiding and widening the existing trail into the fragile tundra. It appears for the most part this is working. Aside from the wind, I enjoyed picking up some speed and moved well through this area.


360 Photo from the beginning of the Table Land

Sign marking the beginning of the Table Land
Table Land alpine terrain, stay on trail!
Quite beautiful on the Table Land and beyond
The trail was all easy to follow in this area
There is another 500 feet to be gained before the summit and this is quite evident as you move onward. Its all pretty much trail with rock, but no more scrambling involved. I was encountering more and more people through here as I began to finally near the summit. I finally topped out on the state of Maine at 9:24am for a 2:37 ascent. It was gorgeous up there even as the wind continued. We had moments of sunshine and the clouds continued to move rapidly about us. There were at least 20 people about. I looked briefly over to the South Peak and the knife edge trail and could quickly see that it would be very slow-moving terrain. Given it was my anniversary and my wife was overly gracious in letting me be out here in the first place, another 2 hours might have been needed to hike the knife edge and back so I decided one summit was enough for today.

While the temps had been in the low 60's at start today, we got down to 46 at the summit. I was still in short sleeve and I had taken my zip-off pant bottoms off so I was borderline chilled. I didn't want to get my jacket out knowing I would linger too long, but I nearly sprung for the gloves in my pack. I spent just under 15 minutes on the summit making contact with my wife and just enjoying the views. Being on a summit at 5200 feet is notably different than the many 14,000 foot summits I've enjoyed. My cardio system today hardly noticed any elevation whatsoever.

Looking down to Chimney Pond from the summit

South Peak, the knife edge trail, and Pamola

More summit views

Obligatory summit photo with the famous Katahdin sign

One more summit shot
360 Photo from the Summit

On the descent I made quick work of the upper terrain and the Table Land and found myself back to the ridge descent into the rockier terrain. I really didn't want to be dealing with my trekking poles in hand here and not being free to put hand on rock. I was able to jam them into my Rev6 pack and use a carabiner to keep the zipper from peeling open. I had one full pack, as if I didn't already, but it worked. This was an absolute God-send to have the hands free in all the scrambling terrain ahead. So much so that I shared this blessing of wisdom with a handful of individuals I encountered. As I neared treeline 2 or 3 others had trekking poles in hand and I gladly shared the thought of keeping hands free for better scrambling.
One more Table Land shot on the descent

Back in treeline I moved well through the boulders on trail and soon found myself back to the rock staircase and the Falls. Below the falls I was able to break into more of a light trail-running pace to speed up my finish of the trail. I was back to the campground at 12:01pm making for a 2:24 descent. That is a bit of an eye-opener as I can usually make a bigger difference between the up and down times. I think a couple of factors contributed to this today. One, the rocky terrain made the descent, especially in the scrambling area no quicker at all. I also had to wait on traffic in a few spots and perhaps lost 5-10 minutes. Two, it shows how good of an ascent I had today with little stoppage and good consistent pace. If I factor out the 15 minutes or so I spent on the summit I had a round-trip moving time of 5 hours which felt really good for a difficult mountain such as Katahdin.


Back into the trees, but the views still work
In hindsight, I have to say this is no mountain to be underestimated. A part of me was expecting mostly a basic hike to and from the summit with 10 miles and 4200 feet of elevation to grind out. I had recently done Mt. Elbert in Colorado and those specs are almost identical. And Mt. Elbert on its northeast ridge is pretty much a grind of a hike. Katahdin was much more than that. The rocky trail, the light boulder scrambles on trail, the iron bar and full on hand scrambling, and all made for a full adventure and well earned.

Katahdin Stream campground


Track:

I have a track and waypoints from the hike all contained in a KML file that you are welcome to download and use (at your own risk).  

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