Difficulty: Moderate. The trail is especially rocky and measures 1.1 miles from the trailhead to the East Peak. The final stretch of the hike, just before the peak, is steep and features big steps that may not be navigable for some dogs and small children. You can easily add some distance onto your hike by exploring a small loop from the East Peak or adding on a visit to the mountain’s West Peak.
How to get there: From Route 1 in East Sullivan, turn onto Route 183 (Tunk Lake Road). Drive 4.3 miles, then turn left onto Schoodic Beach Road. The road is right before a house and is marked with a large blue Donnell Pond Unit sign. Drive about 0.3 mile and veer right at the fork onto Black Mountain Road. Drive about 2.2 miles and a small parking lot for the Big Chief Trail will be on your right with a kiosk that includes a map of the trails. The trailhead is just a few hundred feet farther up the road on the left, marked with a brown sign. You’ll be able to see it from the parking lot.
Information: Rising 1,049 feet above sea level, Black Mountain belongs to a cluster of mountains in eastern Maine that are preserved within the state-owned Donnell Pond Unit. Topped with two bald peaks, the mountain can be explored by a number of interconnecting hiking trails.
For this column, I’m focusing on the 1.1-mile Big Chief Trail, which climbs to an overlook on the south side of the mountain, then dips down to the tiny Wizard Pond before making a final climb to the Black Mountain’s East Peak.
Starting on the gravel Black Mountain Road, the Big Chief Trail is marked with blue blazes and climbs steadily through a rocky mixed forest full of moss and large glacial erratics. Large oak, aspen and maple trees create a canopy high overhead in some areas of the forest, while in other places, evergreen trees dominate.
Less than 0.4 mile into the hike, you’ll come to the first overlook, a rock shelf with an open view to the southeast. The long body of water you’ll see is Tunk Lake. If you look closely, you’ll be able to make out a long spit of land that reaches out into the lake called The Thumb, where two state-owned campsites are located. To the right of that is a smaller peninsula, Hurricane Hole, where another campsite is located. These campsites are free to use on a first come, first serve basis. They can only be reached by water.
From the outlook, the trail continues to climb and becomes increasingly steep and rocky. In some sections, granite blocks have been arranged into steps, but in most places, you’ll need to pay close attention to your steps to navigate the uneven terrain.
The forest will start to open up as you near the top of a southern hump of the mountain. Here you’ll notice plenty of wild blueberries growing alongside the trail, as well as sheep laurel, which display beautiful pink flowers early through mid summer.
In the absence of trees to mark with blue blazes, the trail is marked with large rock piles called cairns. These cairns are placed on the bare bedrock, guiding hikers to walk a specific path to avoid crushing low-lying plants and lichen.
Following these cairns, you’ll soon reach a second overlook, which offers a wider view to the east. On this bare rock slope there is plenty of space to sit down and have a break.
Continuing on the trail, following some impressively large cairns, the trail reaches an intersection at 0.6 mile. This is the beginning of a 1.4-mile loop around Wizard Pond that visits East Peak. To reach East Peak in the shortest distance (0.5 mile), turn left, following the sign that reads “East Peak Black.” Technically, you’re remaining on the Big Chief Trail.
Following cairns, you’ll cross an area of the mountain that is partially bald with open views to the east before descending into a forest gap that separates the southern hump of the mountain, the East Peak and the West Peak. In this gap you’ll cross a meandering brook that flows out of a tiny body of water called Wizard Pond. Along the edge of the brook are some northern white cedar trees.
You’ll then make the final climb up to the East Peak, which is the steepest section of the hike. This section features several large steps (naturally formed) and a few spots that may require hand-over-foot climbing.
The East Peak offers a stunning 360-degree view of the region. It also serves as an intersection. You can return the way you came for a total hike of 2.2 miles, or you can turn toward Black Mountain Cliffs to hike a small loop that will add a few tenths of a mile onto your hike. You can also take a side trip to West Peak by hiking in that direction.
For a trail map of Donnell Pond Unit, click here.
Donnell Pond Unit (also known as Donnell Pond Public Land) covers more than 14,000 acres of remote forestland, clear lakes and pristine ponds in Hancock County. The land was conserved in phases with the assistance of numerous conservation partners – particularly The Nature Conservancy, Maine Coast Heritage Trust, the Land for Maine’s Future Program, the Frenchman Bay Conservancy and private landowners.
The property is open to visitors year round, free of charge. However, some access roads may not be plowed in the winter. Dogs are permitted. At campsites, they must be leashed and attended. Outside of campsites, they must be under the control of their owners. Also, keep in mind that hunting is permitted. Wear bright clothing to increase your visibility. Pick up after yourself and respect wildlife and other trail users. Leave No Trace.
For more information, call the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands at 207-941-4412 or visit www.maine.gov/donnellpond.
Personal note: I first hiked Black Mountain’s Big Chief Trail back in January of 2012, just a couple months after I launched my “1-minute hike” series. It began to hail as I stood at the trailhead recording the introduction. I also remember thinking that the forest was incredibly mossy, and that the views from the mountain’s top were fantastic. But other than that, my memory of the hike is somewhat fuzzy. Over time, it has blended together with the hundreds of other hikes I’ve completed throughout Maine.
So on July 15 of this year, I decided to return to Big Chief Trail with my husband, Derek, and our dog, Oreo, with the goal of documenting the hike better than I did 7 years ago. (I like to think my writing and camera skills have improved since then.)
As we climbed the mountain, some bits of nature I stopped to photograph included a white mushroom bursting through the leaf litter, a swath of lung lichen covering the side of a tree, and another type of lichen that I believe to be called rock tripe lichen. Growing in big green sheets on a boulder, the lichen almost looks like leaves.
Atop the mountain, I took some photos of sheep laurel blossoms and clusters of small white flowers that I haven’t been able to identify. I also snapped a few photos of a turkey vulture passing close overhead. From afar, the large bird is often mistaken for an eagle, but up close, the difference is obvious. The turkey vulture has a small red head that is mostly bald. Some may consider it to be “ugly,” but it’s all a matter of perspective. Often seen flying in circle patterns, the turkey vulture has an incredible sense of smell, according to the Audubon Society. It actually finds carrion by odor.
During the hike, we passed a group of five hikers and one solo hiker. Aside from that, we had the trail to ourselves on a Saturday, which leads me to guess that this trail is rarely crowded.
More photos from our adventure on Black Mountain: