Difficulty: Very strenuous. Cathedral Trail leads up an extremely steep slope to the top of Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain. While there are no ladders or rungs, this trail requires a lot of hand-over-foot climbing over rough granite boulders.
How to get there: Travel on I-95 to Exit 244, then turn west on Route 157 and travel through Medway, East Millinocket and Millinocket. Drive straight through two traffic lights in downtown Millinocket, then bear right at a three-way intersection, then bear left at the next “Y” intersection, staying on the main road. (Along the way will be signs directing you to Baxter State Park.) Drive about 16 miles to the Togue Pond Gatehouse. (The blacktop road turns to gravel soon before the gatehouse.)
After registering at the gatehouse, veer right at the Y intersection and drive about 7.9 miles to Roaring Brook Campground, which is located at the end of the road. At the campground is very limited day parking, as well as parking for registered campers. Start the hike on Chimney Pond Trail, which leads to Cathedral Trail.
Information: The steep, rocky Cathedral Trail is one of several routes to the top of Katahdin, which at 5,267 feet in elevation, is Maine’s tallest mountain. Along the way, the trail visits three massive rock formations called Cathedrals, granite towers that almost appear to be manmade.
To hike Cathedral Trail, you must begin at Roaring Brook Campground, the busiest campground in Baxter State Park. Parking is limited, so it’s important to either register for camping or parking ahead of time or arrive at the park’s Togue Pond Gate early in the morning.
After registering at the ranger station at Roaring Brook Campground, your hike will start on the 3.3-mile Chimney Pond Trail, which ascends gradually to Chimney Pond. This section of the hike, in and of itself, is challenging. Many sections are rocky, and during the spring and summer, long sections of the trail are often wet and slippery.
Chimney Pond Trail starts fairly even and smooth, following the scenic Roaring Brook. But it becomes increasingly steep and rocky as it continues west, passing Pamola Brook (at 1.1 mile) and Basin Ponds (at 2 miles) and along the way.
As the trail nears Chimney Pond, a pristine tarn located 2,914 feet above sea level, you’ll see a boulder field on your right, from which you get a great view of Katahdin. A bit farther down the trail, you’ll come to the a gazebo, sitting area and outhouses, and just beyond that, the ranger’s cabin and Chimney Pond, surrounded on all sides by the granite walls of Katahdin.
After having a snack on the shores of Chimney Pond (and perhaps seeing a moose), register at the ranger station and head up Cathedral Trail, which is 1.7 miles to Baxter Peak.
At first, Cathedral Trail doesn’t seem too difficult, just a bit rocky. But it soon reaches the bottom of a rockslide and you’re confronted with a number of large boulders. You may need help climbing over these boulders. This is a good time to decide whether you want to do this type of hand-over-foot hiking or try another, more gradual trail (for example, Saddle Trail).
It’s always a good idea to hike with companions, but on this trail, it’s especially the case. There were a number of times I accepted a hand from a hiking buddy as I struggled over boulders.
The first Cathedral is an obvious landmark from the bottom of the rockslide. The bar granite tower looms and may seem an impossible goal. Bit by bit, one rock at a time, you’ll get there. The trail will climb to the right side of the rock formation, but many hikers climb on top of it for photos. Be careful.
The granite blocks that make up the Cathedrals were formed over a great period of time. Through geological forces, gravity and weathering, the rock cracked and widened and broke into blocks.
After the first Cathedral, which is 0.8 mile up the trail, you will continue climbing steeply over rough granite to the second Cathedral (at 0.9 miles) and less obvious third Cathedral. You’ll then hit a slope of scree (small, loose stones) that shift under your feet — a new type of challenge. Following cairns (rock piles) and blue blazes painted on the more stable rocks, you’ll reach the Cathedral Cut-Off at 1.2 miles.
At this intersection, it’s about 0.5 miles to Baxter Peak, the summit of Katahdin. This stretch of trail isn’t quite as steep as the trail you’ve grown accustomed to, but watch out for rolling rocks underfoot. Also, stay on trail and be careful not to step on delicate alpine plants.
Baxter Peak is a jumble of jagged granite boulders, topped with a sign, where hikers take turns taking photos. Not far from the sign is a giant cairn, which is said to be tall enough to just make the 1 mile above sea level mark, which the mountain is just shy of.
Hikers tend to linger at the peak, making it a bit crowded, especially in the middle of the day. It’s a good spot to rest, hydrate, eat a snack and tighten your boots before ascending the mountain.
Some park rangers advise against descending Cathedral Trail because it is so steep. If parked at Roaring Brook Campground, there are a few other trails you can take to hike down the mountain. Saddle Trail is more gradual but you will be dealing with some loose rocks on the slide. You can also make it a longer hike and descend the Hamlin Ridge Trail. Or you can cross the 1.1-mile, narrow and dangerous Knife Edge to Pamola Peak, then descend Dudley Trail or Helon Taylor Trail. All of these trails will lead you back to Chimney Pond Trail, which brings you back to Roaring Brook Campground.
With all the trails on the mountain, things can get confusing, so it’s important to bring a map and plan your route (and a Plan B for bad weather) ahead of time.
Preparation is key to a successful hike of Katahdin, and while rangers are located at trailheads to assist you with your plans, they aren’t there to babysit anyone. This reality is hammered home on a sign located along the Chimney Pond Trail that reads: “You are entering Maine’s largest wilderness. Your safety is your responsibility. Set a turn-around time and stick to it. Your destination is your safe return to the trailhead. Rescuers can be many hours in arriving.”
Important items to have in your backpack are extra snacks, a first aid kit, a map, a cell phone, sunblock and bug repellant, a headlamp or flashlight, extra clothing layers and plenty of water. Also, on Cathedral Trail, gloves might be helpful, since you’re often grabbing rough granite boulders. To learn more about preparing for a hike of Katahdin, including parking and fees, visit Baxter State Park Authority’s website at www.baxterstateparkauthority.com.
Personal note: Bright orange maple leaves were scattered on the ground of Bear Brook Campsite when I woke on the unusually warm morning of Sept. 27 and ambled to the picnic area, where my five hiking companions for the day were packing trail lunches.
I sat and waited for the coffee to work its magic on my sore throat. I’d caught a cold, and the day before, I’d contemplated ducking out of the arduous hike. The plan was to try Chimney Pond Trail and see how I felt. I could turn back, or I could opt for a shorter hike, such as Blueberry Knoll, if I felt weak at Chimney Pond.
But I dearly wanted to hike Cathedral Trail, my favorite route up Katahdin. And surprisingly, as I got going that morning, I realized by health had much improved from a night’s sleep (in a tent, nonetheless). By the time we reached Chimney Pond, I was tired, but I knew I could make it up — and more importantly, down — Cathedral Trail.
So up we went. Slow and steady was our pace. And it was well worth it. I’ve never experienced a more beautiful day on Katahdin. From the open Cathedral Trail, the views were filled with color — the deep blue of Chimney pond; the red and orange foliage of the trees below; Katahdin’s granite, green with lichen. And the weather was so warm and calm that we didn’t need to don jackets at Baxter Peak, where hikers usually catch a chill even on the warmest summer days.
To get down the mountain, we choose the gentler Saddle Trail to Chimney Pond, where we jumped back on Chimney Pond Trail to retrace our steps to Roaring Brook Campground. The total hike was just over 10 miles and took us, with several breaks, about as many hours.