22nd Highest State Highpoint
15th Most Difficult
2019 was finally the year I had the opportunity to travel to Maine to climb Mt. Katahdin. Why did it take so long? Well for starters, I put in the coordinates into Google Maps and it shows 3,286 miles from home so literally there is hardly another mountain in the USA any further away from Southern California.
Four years ago in 2015 I did actually did travel to Maine where I knocked out two marathons in a single weekend. There have been many state high points I've visited on the same trip as a destination marathon tho not even considering logistics, physically not even I couldn't have fit in a traverse up this mountain into a double marathon weekend.
A trip back to Maine has been on my radar for sometime. After retirement my friend Greg wanted to visit the North East including Canada. He would be a little flexible with his schedule so we could work in Mt. Katahdin as a small segment of his grand trip. Originally it looked as if summer 2018 would be the year but he postponed retirement a year and therefor the trip was delayed. I received a message from a friend and a photo of her on top of Katahdin in August 2018 on what looked like a beautiful day which was even further motivation to continue planning a trip.
It wasn't until June 14th that our plan started to materialize and the tentative dates were established of August 3-10. Next came figuring out exactly how to get to Maine from California and how to maximize the time to fit in as much as possible into the short window of only a week. There were many options for flights but what has seemed to work the past few trips to the North East was to fly into Boston. You would think Boston is not that close to Mt. Katahdin but it's main advantage is there are direct flights and it's the least expensive for airfare vs. flying into either Portland or Bangor. The cost of the flight + car rental flying into Boston was less expensive than just the airfare alone if I were to fly into to either of the closer cities.
My friends Greg and George, both from Ohio, would drive in George's Subaru Outback for a month long journey and I recruited my friend Josie to accompany me for my week long overlap of their vacation. I'd already been to Mt. Washington the high point of New Hampshire a couple times but it's a pretty spectacular mountain it worked out that the four of us would meet there.
Josie and I flew red-eye Friday night so landing on the east coast we were already sleep deprived when we hit the ground early in the morning on Saturday. There are many hikes up to Mt. Washington, but require 4,000 vertical feet of climbing and and early start, so unfortunately we couldn't join Greg and George Saturday morning for their hike. Instead I made a reservation on Mt. Washington's COG railroad. It makes for a 3 hour trip, about an hour up, an hour on the summit, and an hour back down.
Often the railroad is sold out so it was recommended to buy tickets in advance and in doing so you have to commit to a time. I chose a 1:30 departure with a 4:30 return in June and hadn't given it much thought for a couple of months. I figured that would give us plenty of time to make it to the mountain in New Hampshire from Boston. When we landed in Boston I glanced at the train tickets and noticed the time and in big black and white letters which showed 4:30. I guess I forgot what time I had made the reservation so a 4:30 ticket afforded us some extra time so perhaps we could head to downtown Boston, visit Quincy Center and walk some of the Freedom Trail.
I'm meticulous with travel plans and keep all receipts printed in a manila envelope. When we landed I searched for an auto reservation and was dumbfounded that I had completely forgot to make a reservation. No worries, I broke out the mobile phone and tried to find the best rate for a last minute week long car rental. A little bit rushed, I made a reservation on the shuttle bus from the airport to the rental car center. Upon check-in at the counter I find out I made the reservation at a location off the airport. Apparently 1 reason my rate was so good. No worries, the airport location took the reservation but had to add the airport taxes. Oh, well. Happy just to have a car we were off to begin our east coast adventure.
Every single time I've been to Boston I've got lost in the tunnels missing my desired exit and ended up driving out of my way. Of course this time was no exception. Eventually we found parking downtown and headed out on foot to see a little of the city. We stumbled upon the Freedom Trail almost by accident and followed it to the Quincy Market and had breakfast at Cheers. We hit a few shops and decided to drive over to Bunker Hill Monument and hiked up the 294 stairs to the top of the monument.
From Boston we soon hopped back in the car and made our way towards Mt. Washington to meet up with Greg & George.
After the train ride to the top of Mt. Washington we headed to Acadia National Park for three days.
Now satisfied from our three days of adventures in Acadia National Park it was time to get on the road and head toward Baxter State park basically due north, all in all, about 135 miles or 2.5 - 3 hours by car. We had all day to make the drive and not much to do once we got to our next camp site so we had no sense of urgency.
I read a motto for Mount Katahdin ..."Hike, climb, and scramble your way up the final five miles of the Appalachian Trail and be rewarded with the best views in Maine." We would get to hike, climb, and scramble, however for our day we would miss out on the views. We would discover this trail is not to be taken lightly as it presents challenges of all kinds.
There are several routes to the summit and we decided we would hike a trail called the Hunt Trail. A mere 10.5 mile round trip hike with an elevation gain of 4,250 ft. The trail description I found spelled out the hike something like this:
Mile 0.0: Begin hiking on the Hunt Trail, following the AT's white blazes alongside Katahdin Stream.1.1: At the junction with the Owl Trail continue straight on the AT.
2.2: The trail turns more rugged, introducing some large boulders - a sign of things to come.
3.0: Begin the steeper, exposed, scrambling portion of the climb.
3.75: Reach the tableland, Katahdin's mysterious alpine wonderland.
4.2: At Thoreau Spring (and the junction with the Abol Trail), continue following the white blazes for the final mile to the summit.
5.2: Reach the summit of Katahdin and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.
Now a days when traveling, a great deal of planning is necessary to assure there is a place to lay your head at night as most desired destinations fill up quickly. Each part of our week long adventure was broken down and fortunately we shared the responsibility of making reservations. I had made the first nights reservation in New Hampshire, Greg took care of Acadia camp reservations, and finally George finalized the last couple nights near Katahdin.
Our camp site Thursday night was actually a lean-to in Baxter State Park at Katahdin Stream. This offered the optimum logistical advantage because we could pack up in the morning and get to the trailhead early without having to wait at the entrance to the park at 6 a.m. to open as we would already be within the park. This turned out to be a great choice because there is typically a long line of cars waiting to get into the park in the morning an limited amount of parking spots available.
After packing up from our 4th night of camping we headed for Millinocket a little town close to Baxter State Park. The metropolis of Millinocket is about a 2 block town, mostly run down, but a few note worthy business to visit. Our first stop was the Appalachian Trail Cafe for lunch. Here is where I started to feel the sense of what hiking the Appalachian Trail was all about. Katahdin is either the start or end of the Appalachian Trail and from what I gathered for most hikers it was their "end". There was a lot of history and being in this small town we could start to feel the vibe.
Arriving at the cafe is when we started to realize the weather was beginning to change. Our first four days in Maine we had nothing but blue skies and sunshine. It looked as if a storm was moving in and we were going to get a little rain. We knew weather was hit or miss at Katahdin so in a way we built a "rain day" into our plan and if conditions were not ideal, we could possibly wait one night and hike the next day.
Ironically, back in March Greg was in S. California for a couple days and we had planned a Saturday morning for a hike near San Diego called Potato Chip Rock. It seems as if I can hike about 360 days a year in S. California in the sunshine, but the one day that we planned our hike it's a stormy rainy day. Greg and I are hard core enough that we weren't going to let a little rain spoil our day, after all, at the time we were both training for our Grand Canyon hike in May, so we ended up doing the hike in probably the worst weather I've ever hiked in S. California as we got drenched from what I remember from the start to the finish of our hike.
In front of the cafe we talked to a hiker that had just came off of Katahdin and enjoyed the blue skies and sunshine. We exchanged emails as I had hoped he would send a few pictures of what we might have experienced on Katahdin had it not been cloudy on our hike. We ventured into the cafe to find a place that looked like it was frozen in time for fifty years. A few pieces of artwork lined one wall and some photos of the Katahdin were on the opposite wall. The food was great as we enjoyed each other's company and the first time we had really all sat down together.
After lunch we walked down to the Appalachian Trail Lodge where we would spend the night the evening after our summit of Katahdin. The lodge was recommended by my friend Stacy and did not disappoint. The office of the lodge also served as a small gear store and we popped our heads in to let them know we would be be checking in the following evening for our stay the next night.
Walking back to the vehicles we popped our heads into two other retail establishments. One was actually a hub for a new National Monument called Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. We weren't certain if we would have a chance to visit but was good to know it was so close. We also found a store for the NEOC (New England Outdoor Center). Neat little store that also helped us get a better understanding of the area. We also learned they had a restaurant near the entrance of Baxter State Park which seemed like a great place to get some food so we seeked this place off on the way which was a little off the main road to the state park down a dirty and dusty stone road.
Without further delay our next destination was to make it towards our campsite within Baxter State Park. Baxter State Park offers 215 miles of trails, 337 camp sites, and 209,644 acres of wilderness. We found the park office on the way to the park entrance and stopped by to see what else we could find out about our reservations and our hike. We were not happy to learn that the storm brewing and the forecast showed 100% chance of rain overnight and a 90% chance of showers for the day of our hike however it did indicate a good chance of T-storms with elevated lighting risk. Yikes. This was not the news we wanted to hear as most of the upper part of our trail is greatly exposed and with no shelter.
At the ranger station we learned there was no running water at the campsite, so walking back out to our vehicles we did a quick inventory of drinking water and realized we did not have enough for all four of us. We decided I would head back to a trading post back the road about 9 miles to stock up and would meet Greg and George at the campsite. They ended up waiting for me the ranger station so we could all enter the park together and wouldn't get separated or lost.
Following each other to the park entrance it was gated and heavily guarded. The rangers came out and made sure we had the correct credentials to pass. For some reason they wanted to make sure we had no firewood from outside the park and no pets, other than that we were good to go. Apparently the parking pass they had recommended we needed for parking wasn't necessary since we were camping.
We only knew our campground was the 2nd one off the main road and from there we would have to seek out the local campground ranger for any additional questions or concerns. The roads within the state park are all unimproved dirt roads so travel progress from this point was slow being careful to avoid all the pot holes.
We found the entrance to Katahdin Stream Campground and began to seek out our campsite. The sites were numbered, but our site wasn't obvious. We hiked back to the camp ranger and learned our site was a "hike into" site. We did a quick reconnaissance to get our bering straight and it seemed as if there were two places we could leave the cars, but a little hassle we found because instead of parking at the trailhead at night we would have to park elsewhere and then move our car in the morning the trailhead.
Not a big deal, but just shows how strict the rangers are and everything has to be by the book. We ended up moving our cars and and seemed as if the distance to walk to our campsite from where we parked at the trailhead was equal from where we had to park for the night. We would just enter the trail to our camp site from the opposites side of the trail.
There were some picnic tables near the trailhead so we decided before unpacking our camp gear we would have our dinner. We made sandwiches out of the last of our cold cuts as well as prepared a couple extra sandwiches for our hike the next day. There were a couple through hikers that had just finished their trek and came back to thru the campground very excited. They all wanted to bum a ride back to Millinocket but no one seemed to be going that direction at this time of the day.
There wasn't a whole lot of room for four people, so it was going to be tight quarters for the night, but as luck would have it the lean-to next to ours seemed as if it was not inhabited so Josie and I decided to make camp there and keep our fingers crossed that we wouldn't get bumped out in the middle of the night by either by those who had reserved it or perhaps even a ranger just wondering why we were there. The ranger did stop by our site to check but didn't expect to find anyone there however fortunately he didn't give us too much trouble and let us stay.
Between the clouds, the tree cover, and the setting of the sun it started to get dark. It would have been strange to sleep in the three sided building exposed on one side except for I was familiar with these structures from camping in Ohio-Pyle State Park in Pennsylvania years ago. We expected even mosquitoes in the night might eat us alive, but only once did I hear one buzzing in around my ear.
The campground was very quiet and once the sun completely set it became really dark. So dark that if you opened your eyes you honestly could not see your hand in front of your face. I'd never experienced this degree of darkness outside of being underground in a cave with all the lights turned off. The next morning we would all discuss the blackness of the night and all agreed it was as if we were underground with no outside light source. It wasn't until about midnight, but without fail the rain began and once it began it did not stop.
If you were to live in Maine, you may have the luxury of having multiple days or weekends to choose from for climbing Katahdin, however, traveling from all away across the country doesn't really give you much flexibility for bad weather days. Due to many factors the climbing season is fairly short plus with rain and insects there is a narrow window of good days to do this hike. The park itself is is only open from the middle of May to the middle of October. It's probably best to wait for snow to be melted in the spring/summer, then there is black fly season, thunderstorm season, and then fall & cold again so pick your poison so they say!
Our goal was to be on the trail by 6 a.m. and be off the summit before any thunderstorm moved in. The trail we were hiking is called the Hunt trail or is also the end route of the Appalachian trail. The guides all say 10.4 miles and allow for 8-12 hours for the hike. We all agreed that to come back the following day to try the hike on potentially a much nicer day would be too difficult because we would no longer have a campsite inside of Baxtor State Park so we would have to get up extremely early and wait in line for a parking spot at a trailhead. We all knew if it was too bad on the upper mountain we could turn around at any time and the thoughts of lightning in such an exposed area was very frightening.
We had to move our car from our camp parking area to the trailhead parking about a quarter of a mile away. Our cars were the first in the parking lot. I signed in the night before and as we checked out the trail log book we could see a couple of groups had already signed in under our name and were then obviously on the trail in front of us. I added the appropriate start time to my earlier entry the night before and with our lunches and rain coats (hoods up already) we were off. I actually tossed in a dry set of clothes into my pack for a spare.
With our rain coats on it didn't take long within the first mile to start breaking a sweat. Normally I would layer down but with the rain falling the only thing I could do was to take off my ball cap hoping to let some heat escape and cool down. The one thing I forgot to pack from Cali was a set of gloves, but realized I didn't have any so a few days earlier in Bar Harbor had picked up a pair. The guy we met in Millinocket who climbed on a bright and sunny day said his one wish is that he had brought gloves just for the fact the rocks/boulders were rough and they tore up his hands a bit. About a mile into our hike Greg realized he had lost/dropped his pair of gloves so decided to back track and find them while the three of us George, Josie and I pressed onward and we knew he could catch us.
I read about a bridge being out for our first river/stream crossing, but when we got to the river/stream there was a makeshift plank of wood that was wedged between some rocks that looked safe enough to cross and all three of us made it over the already raging water safely. The trail took a turn to the left and followed the river and there was a beautiful waterfall. The next couple miles of the route seemed as if a new creek was formed in the center of the trail so we sloshed on through. Still Greg had not caught up with us which was taken longer than expected, but eventually he shows up disappointed that he was not able to find his gloves.
At the 3 mile mark the clear trail through the woods ends and next we soon came to our first obstacle which was the beginning of the boulders. This is where we leave the safety of tree line and enter the rocks. I was expecting some one foot boulders to walk across but to my surprise there were giant slabs of rock thrown about in all directions and all stacked ontop of one another. Leaving the safety of the tree line the winds picked up and began to really howl. It was so cloudy we had very limited viability to see exactly where we were heading. There were white blazes on the boulders that were usually easy to follow but a few times we lost site of them and had to back track to find our way.
Greg was probably the lightest dressed with just a light flimsy rain jacket. It was raining and blowing so hard that it seems no matter what kind of rain gear you had you would still get soaked. Shortly after entering the boulders Greg and George decided that they could move a little faster thru the boulders so we broke into two parties. They probably thought that Josie would want to turn around and they were determined to make it to the top. They continued and quickly were out of site while Josie and I slowly pressed forward. I put on my full fingered gloves which provided a little more warmth as well as I had hoped for a little better traction on the wet rocks.
There one a single male hiker that was also on his way up and caught up with Josie and I and continued on. Good to know we weren't the only crazy ones up here. He moved swiftly and was soon out of site.
It wasn't long and we saw an old man coming down from the top of mountain with two very young barely teenagers. They were moving very slow and carefully down the rocks and there was a bottleneck and we had to sit in place and wait for them to pass. The old man had a long staff and looked like he was having problems coming down the mountain. We talked briefly and learned they spent the night on the mountain. They had full packs and while the weather was really nice 24 hours earlier I think they got stuck on top in the storm and camped somewhere higher than were we were passing them. This break for us meant that Greg and George were now so far ahead we would never catch them.
It wasn't before long there was a 2nd pair of hikers also coming down the mountain, this time a guy and a girl in their late 20's. I guess it was a little reassuring we weren't the only crazy ones on the trail. They were lightly dressed, waterlogged, and looked very cold. It ends up that they found a single guy that had fallen above and injured his arm/shoulder and were trying to help him. I think they had sat still for too long and became very cold. The only thing they could do was keep moving and get out of the wind back in the safety of the treeline. They had carried a satellite phone and had called to the rangers below to report the injured hiker that they left sheltered somewhere above in the rocks.
I had a pretty bad feeling about descending through these boulders on the way back down. I missed a white blaze and ended up trying to do a maneuver through some rocks off the trail and slipped and actually fell back a little smashing my shoulder into a rock. Ouch, that hurt. I didn't fall far but could only imagine the pain if I had so I turned around and headed the correct direction thru the rock maze being extra careful of every move to make sure I wouldn't slip or fall again.
The higher we got the stronger the gust of wind felt and the harder the drops of rain pelted us. The clouds were flying across the ridge of the mountain and it looked almost heavenly, however, I would have traded these conditions for calm winds and blue skies in an instant. The conditions seems to deteriorate the higher we climbed. I had expected about an hour to pass through all the boulders but I'm pretty sure with the extra caution it seemed as if it was taking twice as long.
Each obstacle we passed through thoughts of horror ran through my mind as we would eventually have to go back down the same way we came up. Honestly, one more big rock to climb over and I was ready to toss up the white flag and turn around. As we made it over one last rock maneuver call the "shelf" or the "gateway". Visibility was still horrible and no longer were there any rocks to block the wind. Climbing through the slabs of rock was about 3/4 of a mile of the hike, which left only about 1.5 miles to the summit.
The last stretch of the climb to the top is basically a traverse of the saddle through a mysterious alpine wonderland. The path was roped or taped off as they wanted to preserve the alpine tundra and wished for hikers to stay on the path. So much rain had fallen that the path was pretty much a big water puddle, but our feet were already so wet it really didn't matter where we walked. The hard part so to say was over so now the rest of the climb was to be left up to the the hands of the weather.
About half way from the end of the boulders to the final junction of where the Abol Trail crossed paths we met up with the lone hiker that has passed us earlier. Apparently his common sense kicked in and he decided to turn around. It was a little demoralizing to see someone that had passed us moving more quickly give up and turn around. We shared only brief pleasantries with the hiker as the wind noise made it hard to communicate.
We pressed on and soon arrived at the Abol trail junction which signified only 1 mile to go. Also the trail which had been pretty level for the past half mile became a little steeper and our progress was slowed yet our determination helped us press on. We thought any minute we should see Greg and George on the way down and sure enough there they were. We were greeted with smiles and laugher as they thought for sure we had given up and turned around. We were so close now there was no turning back. They shared with us that they were going to go back down the Abol trail and avoid the way we came up. We were unsure how we would return at this point and wished them well.
The sign at the top soon came into view through the rain and the fog an was certainly a great sight for sore eyes. Jose hugged the sign, it was one of the cutest things I'd ever seen. She persevered through many hardships, a long hike, horrible weather, crazy rock scrambles, low visibility, and exhaustion. We didn't stay long as it was cold, very windy, rainy, and so foggy hardly any visibility. There was a pile of rocks a little past the sign. We didn't explore the rock pile or even look for a USGS elevation marker, after snapping a couple ceremonial pictures we started our trek back down.
The wind on the way up felt like a cross wind slightly from side to side but hit us from behind. Not heading downward we were getting the rain directly in the face. The rain seemed as if it could change to sleet an moment but I don't think it was quite cold enough but still it was very loud as it bounced off of my rain hood. We soon covered the mile back down to the Abol junction and had to decide to follow Greg and George or go the same way we came up the mountain. It was a mile less to the car by going the way we came and even tho we knew it would be tricky sliding back down the rock slabs, at least we knew what to expect vs we had no clue what the Abol trail would offer so with the current conditions I felt less risk to take the path we already (sort of) saw on the way up.
With a little help from gravity the way back down from the summit our pace was a little more brisk than the way up. We were nearly back to the "gateway" back into the dreaded rock slabs and ran into a ranger hiking up. He was responding to the radio call he received on the satellite phone looking for the injured hiker. We spent several minutes trying to compare stories to figure out where the injured hiker could be, but since we didn't see him on the final stretch to the summit combined from the information we got earlier in the day we were pretty certain the ranger missed the hiker on his way up thru the boulders. The conditions were not improving and we wanted to keep moving so we all agreed to start our careful decent back thru the boulders.
The ranger moved more swiftly and soon was out of site. We would not see him again the rest of our scramble/hike down. Much to my surprise making our way back down thru the boulders given the wet conditions it was easier than I had expected. Partly because we didn't have to use as much upper body strength as pulling ourselves upward like on the way up. We took our time and carefully climbed down safely following the white blazes on the rocks the best that we could. Partly I think the fear was of the unknown on the way up so we were happy with our decision to return the way we came up so there were no surprises.
It did seem like an eternity getting back to the woodlands but once back in the safety of the trees we decided it was finally a good place for lunch. It had rained since midnight the night before and didn't let up for a minute all day so we were soaked to the bone. There is nothing worse than being tired, wet, and cold on a mountain. My minimalistic friends always give me a hard time for carrying too big of a pack or too heavy of a load, but it's always nice to have a few extra things in your pack in case you need them. For example, nothing was better than a warm dry shirt, shorts, and socks which made all the difference in the world for comfort of the remainder of the afternoon.
With the hardest part of the hike done now we were left with the last 3 miles. The last few miles of any hike always seems the longest and this one was no different. With the deluge all night and day most of the trail now had turned into a small stream so we had to slosh our way back to the trailhead. It didn't take long until we ran into another group of rangers. They were now with the old man and the two kids and helping him slowly down. They had radio contact with the ranger still in the boulders who we learned had found the other injured hiker and had began escorting him off the mountain.
It obviously rains often in Maine and the trail although had a lot of running water, the trail was designed well as there were many spill off channels that fed the main stream. We could hear the water getting louder so figured we were getting close to the falls we saw on the way up and another good place to stop and finished the other half of our lunch.
The falls seemed like there was a much heavier flow than just a few hours earlier. We continued downward to the temporary bridge that was merely a few board in place directly over the stream but quickly realized that it would be unsafe now to try to traverse as the water was flowing completely ov. The park had already made a make shift trail that followed the left side of the river all the way back to camp. The temporary trail now super soft, very wet and muddy was our only option. It wound through the woods and eventually dumped us off near the original trailhead.
George and Greg didn't know which trail we would have came down and since the had a mile more tor travel they thought we might have came down the same way as they did. Moving more swiftly downward they had already arrived much earlier, in fact, had driven back to the start of the Abol trail and didn't see us. I walked back to the sign-in sheet and signed us safely off the mountain and noticed there were fewer than 8 people that ever started the hike that day and only a few did we see. After another set of dry clothes we started heading out of the park back towards Millinocket and then finally ran into George's Subaru on their way back towards our trailhead which they turned around and we followed each other back to town.
This story does not finish at the end of the hike. Back in Millinocket we check into the Appalachian Trail Hotel. Honestly, with so much history a trip to Katahdin wouldn't be complete without a night's stay at this place. The stories from within those walls if they could talk would be unbelievable as every guest seemed to be there taking a day off of there hike from South to North with only a few miles to go until they were finished. Apparently a lot of hikers will take a shuttle from the Appalachian trail back to the town and stay at the lodge for a night or two and then shuttle back to where they were picked up to continue their journey.
One guy we talked to had started his hike I think was around January and was just finishing. Apparently he had multiple visits to the hospital and needed to take a few weeks off more than once on his journey because of falls or problems with his feet. With only 1 shared shower we took turns before heading out to dinner and started to share stories of our separate journeys once we split on the way to the top. It ends up the only place open for dinner was the local pizza shop where we luckily found a table and celebrated our successful summits.
The next day we decided we would go check out the new National Monument Kathadin Woods as blue skies once again greeted us and we had pretty clear views from the lookouts. Besides the lookout, there wasn't a lot to see, but we had a day to kill so it was actually a fun relaxing off road experience.
From the National Monument we thought about heading up the "Golden Highway" to the Abol Bridge Campground which is about 28 miles the other side of Millinocket. After calculating the time to drive all the way there and back to Bangor with the 50/50 chance of a clear view the rest of the afternoon we decided to head back to Bangor for our last night together with George and Greg before parting ways. We headed to Bangor Inn & Suites which have a nice little happy hour for all the guests. We discussed easy walk to restaurants from the hotel or car pooling downtown to the riverfront where we ended finding the Sea Dog restaurant and found a nice table on the patio next to the river.
In the morning we said our goodbyes and parted ways in search of the Maine coast for our drive back down to the airport in Boston.