Difficulty: Very strenuous. Katahdin is considered by many to be the most difficult mountain to hike in Maine.
How to get there: Travel on I-95 to Exit 244 and turn west on Route 157. Travel through Medway, East Millinocket and Millinocket. Proceed through both traffic lights in Millinocket and bear right at the three-way intersection after the second traffic light. Bear left at the next intersection, staying on the main road (which goes by many names, such as Baxter State Park Road, Lake Road and Millinocket Lake Road). There will be signs directing to Baxter State Park to help. Eight miles from Millinocket, you will pass Northwoods Trading Post on the right. Continue another 8 miles to Togue Pond Gatehouse.
From Togue Pond Gatehouse, you can get directions to the various trailheads of Katahdin. If you plan to park your car at any of the trailheads to Katahdin, I suggest reserving a parking spot ahead of time. The parking lots fill up quickly in the morning. Or you can stay the night at a trailhead campground (which requires reservations and a fee) and simply walk to the trailhead. The third option is to stay at a campground in the park that is not at a trailhead and plan for someone to drop you off and pick you up from the trailhead.
After the gatehouse, the dirt road splits. If you veer right, you can travel to on Brook Road to Roaring Brook Campground and the trailhead to Chimney Pond Trail. (Chimney Pond Trail leads to Helon Taylor, Cathedral, Dudley and Saddle trails.) If you veer left after the gatehouse, you can travel to Abol Campground and the trailhead of Abol Trail, or you can travel farther to Katahdin Stream Campground and the trailhead to Hunt Trail.
As you can tell from these directions, you must plan for transportation if you plan a route that starts at one trailhead and ends at another. (For example, if you hike up Helon Taylor Trail and down Abol Trail, you will end your hike about an hour’s drive from where you started.)
Information: Katahdin, rising nearly a mile above sea level, is Maine’s tallest mountain, and its ridges of jagged granite are a sight to behold, towering over the old forest and pristine ponds of Baxter State Park. Today, it is a popular and challenging hiking destination for people around the world.
But it wasn’t always seen that way. The native people of Maine, mainly the Penobscot indians, explored the mountain long before guiding European explorers to climb its steep ridges in the 1800s. “Katahdin” is an Abenaki word that translates roughly to “the greatest mountain,” but they didn’t see it as something to be climbed or conquered.
“They both revered and feared the mountain, and their spiritual connections shaped their world view of Katahdin as being a living, all-powerful presence,” wrote David Little of the native people of Maine in the 2013 book “Art of Katahdin.”
Today, Katahdin, and more than 200,000 acres surrounding it, constitutes Baxter State Park, which is managed in accordance with park donor Percival Baxter wishes that the park “shall forever be retained and used for state forest, public park and recreational purposes … shall forever be kept and remain in the natural wild state … [and] shall forever be kept and remain as a sanctuary for beasts and birds.”
Several blazed hiking trails climb the rock slides and ridges of Katahdin, meaning that people can hike to the top taking different routes. Each trail has its own special combination of challenges. And while some trails are more gradual than others, no trail that ascends Maine’s tallest mountain is easy.
In summary, two trails — Hunt Trail and Abol Trail — are located on the southwest side of the mountain and are accessed from the Park Tote Road. Both trails lead to the mountain’s alpine tableland, merge, and continue to Baxter Peak, the mountain’s tallest point at 5,267 feet above sea level.
One trail — Chimney Pond Trail — is located on the other side of the mountain, the northeast side, and is accessed at the end of Brook Road, at Roaring Brook Campground. Chimney Pond Trail leads to Helon Taylor, Cathedral, Dudley and Saddle trails, all of which climb to the top of Katahdin, though Helon Taylor and Dudley trails lead to Pamola Peak, not Baxter Peak. And the two peaks are connected by Knife Edge Trail.
The point is, there are quite a few options for hiking Katahdin, and it’s important that hikers do their research beforehand and bring along a map (as well as other hiking essentials).
On July 13, 2013, I woke up in a tent at Baxter State Park’s Foster Field Campground, surrounded by more than 40 family and friends, and prepared myself to hike Katahdin. If I didn’t fully wake at the campground, the bumpy truck ride around the mountain on the park’s dirt roads would help.
Under starting time, I wrote, “7:31 a.m.” on the registry at Roaring Brook Campground, and “11,” for the size of our group. My 10 hiking companions: my older sister, Jillian Sarnacki; my usual hiking buddy and significant other Derek Runnells; my cousin Sara Clark; and friends (both old and new) Kevin Peters, Evan Paradis, Mike Henry, Kelly Brooks, brothers Ryan and Jordan Carr, and Rylan Norris.
After 0.1 mile of walking on Chimney Pond Trail beside the noisy Roaring Brook, my group veered left onto Helon Taylor Trail, named by Governor Baxter in honor of a man who was Baxter State Park supervisor from 1950 to 1967. From there, we hiked up and up and up.
At 1.3 miles, the trail hit Bear Brook; and at 2 miles, tree line, the point where the forest gives way to the stunted growth of alpine terrain. The last leg of the climb was steep — at times, hand over foot. The mountain loomed ahead.
The trail ended at 3.2 miles at Pamola Peak, which rises 4,902 feet above sea level and is said to be the home of the enormous winged monster Pamola, according to Penobscot legends. All we found were giant flying insects of all shapes – monsters in their own right. They stuck to our sweaty skin and urged us to move on, quickly.
From there, we braved Knife Edge, a narrow and treacherous ridge that spans 1.1 mile between Pamola Peak and Baxter Peak. In some places, Knife Edge is just a few feet wide, and on both sides, the mountain drops away thousands of feet. The trail is often compared to a sidewalk in the sky, but unlike a sidewalk, Knife Edge is made of jagged, uneven granite.
As “group leader” (assigned to me by some of the parents camping back at Foster Field), it was my job to go first and try to help others navigate the trail without coming off as utterly bossy. Some parts were trickier than others. For example, near Pamola Peak is a place called The Chimney, where the ridge dips drastically. There, one can experience the thin line between hiking and rock climbing.
All of us made it across Knife Edge without difficulty. The day was calm, hot and sunny. In fact, I heard more complaints about the glaring sun and swarming flies than comments about the dangerous drop to both sides of the trail.
As we neared the end of Knife Edge, I looked ahead to the enormous cairn on Baxter Peak and was surprised to see a person waving their hands in the air and shouting my name. It was my cousin Eve Jordan, who had hiked up Abol Trail with another group from our campground that morning. We were arriving at the top
of the mountain at the same time — a lucky coincidence.
On Baxter Peak, we joined the second hiking group: Eve and her parents, Bruce and Kerry Jordan (my uncle and aunt); my cousin Megan Clark (sister of Sara, in my group); my mother, Joyce Clark Sarnacki; and friends Christene Berg, Elizabeth Clayton, Gary Robinson and Jeff McBurnie.
After taking traditional photos by the summit sign, we ate lunch and decided to head down the mountain together. Starting on Hunt Trail, which is also the Appalachian Trail, we crossed the alpine tablelands of Katahdin, a fairly flat expanse of low-lying alpine plants and scattered boulders. At a juncture at Thoreau Spring, we turned left onto the Abol Trail for a steep and rocky descent of 2.8 miles to Abol Campground. (My group had planned to hike down Hunt Trail, but opted to stick with the second group, which had planned to hike down Abol Trail.) The entire hike was 7.2 miles.
For information about Katahdin and Baxter State Park, visit www.baxterstateparkauthority.com.
Personal note: I mixed some personal notes with the information section above. I couldn’t help it. But I have a few more memories and insights from the long day of hiking to share here.
First of all, lessons we learned. Wear sunscreen. Only a few of us escaped that long hike without a sunburn. We were so excited about the blue skies that we failed to see the danger in it. Much of the hike was exposed to the sun, and we waited too long before plastering on some protection. The sun not only burned our skin, it dried us out, and because of that, many of us ran out of water, even the veteran hikers who know how to pack for a long hike. Fortunately, we had a large group to rely on. People shared what they had.
OK, enough with the lessons.
Hiking Katahdin and camping in Baxter State Park each summer is a family tradition. Not everyone participates in my large family, but those who do bring friends and significant others. I took up the tradition at the age 16, and since then, my mother and I have hiked Katahdin several times, as well as some surrounding mountains.
Each trip to Baxter has been special to me for different reasons. This summer was the first time that my older sister Jillian was able to attend, and she decided to embrace the experience by joining my group on the long hike. It was her first time climbing Katahdin, and for the first time, I felt a bit like the older sister, keeping an eye on her and offering encouraging words. She felt sick with nervousness at the beginning of the hike, but I think she surprised herself. At the top of Katahdin, I saw a joy in her that reassured me that she’d return to Baxter the following year if she could.