Difficulty: Strenuous. The hike from the Gulf Hagas Parking Lot to the top of Chairback Mountain and back is 7.8 miles, including the short section of the hike that is on the gravel road. The hike includes long stretches of steep climbing and a rock slide that is difficult for dogs to navigate because of several big steps.
How to get there: From the four-way intersection (Main Road, High Street, Route 11 and Church Street) in Brownville, drive north on Route 11 for 4 miles, passing through Brownville Junction along the way, then turn left on Katahdin Iron Works Road. Drive 6.4 miles on Katahdin Ironworks Road, which soon turns to gravel, then park at KI Checkpoint to register and pay admission to the KI-Jo Mary Forest at the log building, which is open 6 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. Admission is $7 per person between ages 15 years old and 69 years old, and free for people under 15 years old and over 70 old. (The attendant prefers being paid in $1s, as they often run out of change).
Continuing past the checkpoint, you’ll drive across a bridge over Pleasant River, then take a hard right, remaining on Katahdin Iron Works Road. (You’ll soon cross another bridge, which will tell you that you’re going in the right direction.) About 2.3 miles from the checkpoint, you’ll reach a fork where you will veer left, following signs to Gulf Hagas. At 3.4 miles from the checkpoint, you’ll reach a second fork, where you’ll again veer left, following signs to Gulf Hagas. And 6.5 miles from the checkpoint, you’ll reach the Gulf Hagas Parking Lot, on your right. Park there, then continue following the road by foot for 0.5 mile to where the Appalachian Trail crosses the road. Turn left and hike south on the Appalachian Trail toward Chairback Mountain.
Information: Rising 2,197 feet above sea level, Chairback Mountain is one of the many impressive Maine peaks visited the Appalachian Trail. With open ledges at its summit, this mountain offers the reward of expansive views of the Maine north woods, but the day hike to get there is a demanding one, with long steep slopes, a tricky rock slide and up-and-downs that may make you question whether you’ll ever reach the top.
The closest access point to Chairback Mountain is where the Appalachian Trail crosses Katahdin Iron Works Road in Bowdoin College Grant East, approximately 0.5 miles east of the Gulf Hagas trailhead and parking lot. There you take AT south to climb Chairback Mountain.
From the road, the trail immediately starts climbing steeply up the northwest slope of Chairback Mountain. At first, this hike can be discouragingly arduous, with a continuous climb up, but after about 0.5 mile on the trail, the incline becomes less severe and the mixed forest transitions into a beautiful, mossy evergreen forest.
At 1.2 mile, a 0.2-mile side trail leads to East Chairback Pond, which is covers about 40 acres and has a maximum depth of 58 feet, according to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife surveys.
Continuing south on the AT, the trail travels over rocky, hilly terrain, dipping down several times, then climbing steeply to a knoll below the summit of Chairback. This rocky hill is where you’ll enjoy the first wide open views of the surrounding landscape. This area could be considered the seat of the “chair” that is Chairback Mountain. It also could be considered a false summit, since it seems like it could be the top of the mountain. But if you look to your right (southwest), you’ll see the rocky peak of Chairback Mountain.
From this fairly open spot, the trail descends a bit, traveling through thick brush and across a bog bridge, then heads steeply uphill, traveling up a short rockslide that is a bit tricky to navigate. White blazes painted on boulders will help you find the best route up.
At the top of the rockslide, it’s just a short walk through the forest and over open ledges to the summit, which is marked with a sign posted on a tree to the right of the trail. Just before the summit, you’ll come to a nice open space where you can sit and enjoy an unobstructed view of mountains to the north.
If you turn around at the summit and return to the Gulf Hagas parking lot the way you came, the total hike is 7.8 miles, with 1 mile of that being along the gravel Katahdin Iron Works Road. If you continue south on the AT, you’ll descend the mountain into Chairback Gap, where a lean-to was constructed by the Maine Appalachian Trail Club in 1954 for AT hikers. The lean-to is about 0.5 mile from the summit of the mountain.
This section of the AT is maintained by volunteer trail stewards of the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, a nonprofit organization that maintains roughly 267 miles of the 282 miles of the AT in Maine.
For more information, visit www.matc.org, where you can purchase the MATC trail maps and guidebook.
Personal note: As I sat on a boulder beside Katahdin Iron Works Road, talking to my camera and my dog Oreo, I heard a noise across the road and studied the woods, expecting to see either a moose or a thru-hiker emerge from the shadows. It ended up being the later — a man with the tell-tale beard, dirty but sensible clothes and a large backpack with a bedroll fastened to it with paracord. Sitting down on a boulder nearby, he explained that he was section hiking the AT. His goal was to hike the 100-Mile Wilderness, about 100 miles of the trail between Monson and Baxter State Park where the trail doesn’t cross any major roads — just remote woods roads, such as the one we were sitting beside.
He’d started in Monson and was headed north, he said. The night before, he’d slept in Chairback Gap Lean-to. That morning, he’d hiked down from Chairback Mountain, and now he was waiting at Katahdin Ironworks Road for someone to drop him off more supplies — food mostly. He’d hiked 30 miles of the section, so he was about a third done with his long trek. The West Branch of Pleasant Stream was nice and cold, he told me, pointing across the road from the direction he’d come. He’d just visited the stream to replenish his water supply.
It seemed to me that the man would have liked to talk longer, but it was already past noon, and I needed to get going if I was going to make it to the top of Chairback Mountain and back down before sundown. I was limited on time, but I wasn’t worried because I had all the supplies I needed — a SPOT satellite tracker, a GPS, extra batteries, a headlamp, water, food, compass, map and first aid kit. Oreo had his water bowl and treats. We were good to go.
The trail started uphill immediately and didn’t quit. I was soon breathing hard, my legs burning, as I climbed up the steep hill.
I came across at least five other thru-hikers that day, all of them hiking in the opposite direction (northbound). It didn’t surprise me. It being Sept. 22, it was around the time that many northbound hikers are finishing up the trail in Maine after a long summer of hiking north from Georgia.
One thing that made the hike especially challenging for me was that it wasn’t just a straightforward climb. On the way to the summit, I hiked up a lot, but I also hiked down a lot. The terrain was so uneven, that by the end of the hike, I’d hiked up (or ascended) about 3,900 feet, while the mountain’s summit only reaches 2,197 feet. It was a good lesson to me that the height of a mountain doesn’t necessarily give you an idea of how challenging it will be to hike.
Fortunately, the view from the top of Chairback Mountain was well worth the long trek, and despite starting the hike late in the day, we managed to complete it before the sun set.