How To Climb Mount Katahdin
September might just be the best time to scale Maine's tallest mountain.
Maine Guide Bob Chase was born and raised in Millinocket, where Mount Katahdin looms on the horizon. A middle-school science teacher for twenty-seven years, he frequently took his students hiking up to Katahdin Stream Falls to teach them ecology and, he says, “Give them a bit of that pride in the area thing.” After his teaching career, he served as assistant ranger at Katahdin Stream Falls Campground. Chase has also been a white-water rafting guide on the Penobscot for more than twenty-five years. These days, he teaches skiing, snowshoeing, and kayaking at the L.L. Bean Outdoor Discovery Schools.
How many times have you climbed Katahdin?
I’ve been to the summit, Baxter Peak, fifteen times. I have never been up at the top in the winter, although I’ve been on all the other parts of the mountain in every season. I first climbed to the peak in my early twenties, and I’m fifty-seven now.
How has the experience changed over the years?
One thing that has changed is the accuracy and availability of weather reports, which is great because the weather at the top can be really different than at the bottom. Otherwise, the experience hasn’t really changed. It’s still amazing. Of course, you can get up there on summer days and there will be sixty people on Baxter Peak. But it’s always been more crowded in the summer. I never go on Labor Day.
When is the best time to go?
Before the blackflies swarm, or in the fall. I think July and August are wicked hot. My favorite time is September and October — clear air, moderate temperatures, no rain, and leaf color. It reminds you why you want to live in Maine. Of course, in the autumn, you want to start early because the days end early. But at dawn, you get to see the light breaking over the horizon. It’s fantastic.
Is Katahdin difficult to climb?
It’s not easy. The mountain is 5,267 feet, just thirteen feet short of a mile. On any hike, you’re going to do three thousand feet of vertical climbing — eight to ten hours of hiking up and down. So, I’d say that it’s much more than a lot of people figure. Then again, anyone in reasonable shape can do it.
Who shouldn’t do it?
People with cardiovascular, ankle, or knee problems. And if you’re out of shape, don’t climb.
What if people aren’t ready for Katahdin, but still want some kind of mountain experience?
You can take some wonderful short hikes around Katahdin, and you can get up on the mountain, but not go to the summit. Hike from Roaring Brook Campground to Sandy Stream Pond, which is where everyone takes those pictures of moose. South Turner Mountain is only three-quarters of a mile from where you park your car, and it’s just two thousand feet high. Go to Daicey and Kidney Pond and rent a canoe for an hour. You won’t be climbing, but you’ll have spectacular views of the mountain.
All right, for those of us who really want to climb, how do we start?
First of all, “leave no trace” is very important. When you visit Baxter State Park, you should always pack out what you pack in. If you see a beautiful flower, leave it; it belongs to everybody.
When you get to the park, stop at the Visitor’s Information Center at the main [south] entrance. Rangers have maps and a lot of information about hiking. Also, check the weather reports at the ranger station. While you’re there, you might want to thank the rangers. They have a lot to deal with, and they’re wonderful.
What route do you recommend?
It’s hard for me to say that something is “the best” because they’re all spectacular. So, given that, I’d say that most people should take one of four trails that lead from the campgrounds. Some of those trails lead directly to Baxter Peak; others go to Chimney Pond, where there are three trails to the peak. All the routes up are approximately five miles. You should be ready to start hiking before 9 a.m.
Hunt Trail, which is part of the Appalachian Trail, starts at Katahdin Stream Campground. It’s 5.2 miles, the longest continuous trail. Some people consider it the least strenuous because after you go up the side of the mountain you get to the plateau. Once you’re there, it’s very gradual up to the peak.
Abol Trail, which begins at Abol Campground, is the one that historians figure Henry David Thoreau took. You start by climbing up a rock slide. It’s steep, but it’s also the shortest, quickest way to the top. The slide brings you to the plateau, and after that it’s gradual. A lot of people don’t like to go down Abol, because going down a rock slide is more difficult than going up one! You can go down Hunt Trail to the Katahdin Stream Campground and hike back to your car.
What about trails from Roaring Brook?
Two trails lead from Roaring Brook Campground on the east side of the mountain. If day-hikers want to do them, they should get an early start. Parking is limited. In July, you can arrive at 6 a.m. and not get in. Helon Taylor Trail, from Roaring Brook, goes up to Pamola Peak. From there, you cross the Knife Edge to Baxter Peak.
Chimney Pond is the other trail from Roaring Brook. It leads to a beautiful pond three miles up. Some people just hang around there, which is fine. But if you want to keep going, there are three routes to Baxter Peak. Dudley Trail, named after one of the first guides, Roy Dudley, takes you up to Pamola Peak, passing Pamola Caves, which are granite rocks positioned so that you have to squeeze through them. Then you cross the Knife Edge to the top. Cathedral Trail from Chimney Pond is my favorite. It’s the most rugged. You’re going to use your hands, and you’re going to know that you’re climbing a mountain. You’re looking at the Knife Edge all the time you’re climbing. It leads to the Saddle Slide, which isn’t as steep as Abol Slide, and across the plateau to the peak. Saddle Trail from Chimney Pond is the most popular. You go up Saddle Slide and over the plateau to the top.
Is the Knife Edge really a knife edge?
Yes. There are a couple places where it’s only two to three feet wide. It’s very steep on both sides and people who have issues with height might not like it. I think
it’s awe inspiring and beautiful, but unsettling. You don’t want to be there in high winds, because you don’t want to have to cross it on your hands and knees!
Are the trails obvious?
Yes. In spring, summer, and fall, you can always see the blazes on the rocks and trees. If you go a little way and see no blazes, walk back to the last blaze you saw.
What should people wear?
You want to have good sneakers or comfortable light hiking boots. You don’t need big heavy Italian leather, just something supportive and broken-in. Hiking Mount Katahdin is not the time to break-in a new pair of shoes.
And don’t wear cotton socks. I recommend Smart Wool socks. I think that they are the most outstanding outdoor invention of the last fifteen years.
Layer with poly-type clothing. The saying in the outdoors is that cotton kills, because when it gets wet from the environment or sweat, it absorbs water and stays wet. So if the weather changes, as it often does, you’re going to get chilled and not get dry. Wrap a fleece around your waist, consider rain gear, and carry a warm hat, even in the summer. It gets windy up there. Just because it was eighty degrees by your car doesn’t mean that it’ll be warm up top.
How about supplies?
You don’t have to carry a heavy pack, but you need water; no less than two quarts. It also doesn’t hurt to have hiking poles. The adjustable kind fit into a daypack. They’re very helpful going up, and they’re very, very helpful going down. They can take the shock off your knees.
Bring high-energy foods. I don’t mean that you have to carry all kinds of granola bars. Take something hearty that will give you an energy burst. Take a lunch. Don’t go up with a bag of M&Ms. You want to have real food. I also like to have hard candy to keep my mouth moist and keep me from drinking all my water too fast.
Speaking of water, what about answering the call of nature?
That’s an issue. The only way to solve it is to be a little less shy. There are big rocks that you can get behind. But you definitely should go when you need to go. If you’re with a friend they can hold up their windbreaker and stand in front of you. Nobody up there thinks anything of it.
While you’re looking for a big rock, though, don’t go off-trail; stay with the rest of the group. I tell everyone to agree with your group at the beginning about who will be in front and back. Do a lead/sweep thing. You don’t want someone to pull a Donn Fendler. [The twelve-year-old Boy Scout was lost for nine days on Katahdin in July 1939; he survived, although he lost sixteen pounds during the adventure.]
Other than getting separated, what is the most common mistake?
Not bringing enough water. The second biggest is forgetting a flashlight or headlamp, or bringing a flashlight without checking the battery. Don’t go up there without light. You may think that you’ll be back by 5 p.m., but a lot of things can happen. You can roll an ankle, or so enjoy yourself at the top that time goes by and it gets dark as you head down. There aren’t any streetlights up there. At the end of the day, you’re exhausted. And if it gets dark, it’s very frightening.
What will surprise people the most?
How much they can see. The great thing about Mount Katahdin is that the tree line ends at three thousand feet and you have another two thousand feet above the trees. That’s what makes it so spectacular. At the top, all you hear people say is, “Wow, look at that.”
- By: Aurelia C. Scott