Backpacking Mt. Katahdin

The Penobscot tribe declared Katahdin “the greatest mountain” in so naming it, and that superlative certainly fits.

The massif that is Katahdin, and the surrounding rugged beauty of Baxter State Park, has been itching at the back of my consciousness for years. Over all those years, the reservation system, finicky weather, my fear of heights, and the six hour (one way!) drive all combined to keep me away.

Not anymore.

Early this spring, I made a reservation for a lean-to at Chimney Pond for Columbus Day Weekend. I wanted to allow two nights and three days to give myself the best possible chance at decent weather.

We made the long drive up on Saturday morning, knowing we had to leave enough time to meet the October cutoff time for Chimney Pond (which, if you’re wondering, is 2:30pm). We stumbled out of the car, signed the hiker’s register, and were on our way.

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The fall foliage was beautiful and while it was drizzling, the air wasn’t too cold; the temperature hovered in the upper 40s during our hike in.

While the Chimney Pond trail is never really steep, it is a bit of an uphill slog with a heavy pack, perhaps especially after you’ve been sitting in a car for over 6 hours.

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Fortunately, it’s also beautiful.

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The trail is really impeccably maintained; it’s incredible to think of the effort that goes into building and maintaining gorgeous, strong, sturdy, resilient bridges like these in such a remote and storm-swept region.

As we walked into Chimney Pond campground, I was stopped in my tracks by the first fleeting glimpse of Katahdin.

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After I picked my jaw up off the ground, we made our way to lean-to 6 and dropped our packs before checking in at the ranger station and filling up on water at Chimney Pond.

I knew Chimney Pond was supposed to be beautiful, but the misty, dark, overcast conditions obscured the view. Perhaps it’s for the best; if I’d seen Katahdin from that angle the night before our hike, I would’ve psyched myself out even more.

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We hung our food bag on the bear line and went to bed early, motivated both by the cold, damp weather, and by our desire to get an early start.

The next morning, I practically flew out of bed at 6:50 to check the weather report at the ranger’s station, promised to be posted by 7. The forecast called for the summit to be in and out of the clouds with increasing sun – yes! I felt like a kid on Christmas. I retrieved our food bag, heated up breakfast, and filtered more water. We were on Cathedral Trail by 8:40, a bit later than I would’ve liked.

I had hoped, when making these reservations, that Dudley Trail would be open. It’s a bit less steep than Cathedral and allows for a loop with Knife Edge and either Saddle or Hamlin Ridge. However, it remains indefinitely closed, so our options were Cathedral or Saddle. I’d done extensive research and found that Cathedral had better views… but it is also the steepest approach, gaining 2,400 feet in 1.7 miles.

The trail is named for its three cathedrals, which are large buttresses that almost look man-made.

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Look at those tiny people, only a minute or two ahead of us.

The first 0.1 to 0.2 miles are below treeline before suddenly, you find yourself staring at the trail in all its exposed, rocky glory. A slabby boulder represents the tough start, which is extra challenging for short hikers like myself. The trail is described as “reachy” and I found that to be agonizingly, anxiety-inducing-ly accurate.

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I was able to distract myself with the scenery and by watching the clouds swirl and create and deconstruct delicate formations.

Despite my rock climbing experience and excellent, grippy boots, I managed to slip while attempting a big, committing move, and fell far enough to roll once before being caught graciously by a rock. For my ego’s sake, I’m chalking this up to the moisture on the rock from the rainy weather the night before and the mist and fog that morning. Regardless, I was fortunate to hike on with nothing more than a bruise.

Just 0.3 miles below the summit, Cathedral Trail joins with Saddle Trail and becomes a more typical New England hiking trail. It’s still rocky, but the final 0.3 miles switchbacks relatively gradually up to Baxter Peak, with no more scrambling required.

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When we reached the summit, we were greeted by an undercast on one side of the ridge while clouds caressed the other.

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We took the obligatory summit sign photo and hunkered down on the flanks of Baxter Peak to eat lunch. I brought a pouch of tuna and tomato basil Wheat Thins, but a group of guys nearby had carried up an entire loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a jar of jelly. Maybe next year.

Since we’d gotten to the summit before noon, we had enough time to hike over to Hamlin Peak and descend via Hamlin Ridge.

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The hike up Cathedral Trail had been relatively crowded, and the summit was practically mobbed – predictably, since it was both a Canadian and an American holiday. But after we made it past the Saddle on Saddle Trail, we were completely and utterly alone.

I can’t recommend this loop highly enough.

The views are spectacular and are truly 360 degrees.

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Besides that, it was amazing to stop every few dozen yards to look back over our shoulders, incredulous that we had, in fact, made it up to Baxter Peak.

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The terrain was moderate enough for us to look around rather than staring at our feet, planning each step, and the climb up Hamlin Peak felt like nothing after everything we’d already done.

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Of course, the descent was steep and daunting. The trail takes hikers down three caps, and again, requires negotiating fields of boulders. It’s exhausting after a long day, but you spend the hike staring straight into an absolutely stunning view.

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One cap can be distinguished in this photo.

I had read on Views from the Top that in one hiker’s opinion, this descent is easier and safer than taking Saddle Trail down. I can’t compare, but I can say that by the time we reached treeline, I wanted to kiss the dirt.

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I still think it’s a worthy loop, though; I just went into it with skewed perceptions about how difficult the descent would be – mentally more than physically.

We returned to our lean-to feeling somehow exhausted and exhilarated all at once – but of course there were camp chores to attend to, so we quickly changed out of our sweaty clothes, hoping to keep warm enough to get everything done. Unfortunately, we each had to huddle in our sleeping bags to restore warmth to fingers and toes despite heavy-duty mittens and socks.

Nevertheless, we made it through the night without losing any digits, and the next morning was the sunniest of all.

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We finally got to see what Chimney Pond looks like! I was filtering water when the clouds moved out and my hiking companion caught me here dawdling, awestruck.

Rather than simply hiking out, we decided to visit Blueberry Knoll, a spur trail we’d noticed on the hike down the day before.

I didn’t know anything about that little trail, which wasn’t even labeled on my map, so I wasn’t expecting much – certainly not this.

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We got to watch the clouds sweep over the ridge and into the valley.

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And then come hurtling towards us.

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After lingering for half an hour or so, we backtracked to the Northwest Basin cut-off, then followed that for 0.7 miles to return to Chimney Pond Trail. All in all, it added about an hour to our hike out. We didn’t see another soul out there, and it didn’t appear to be a heavily used trail. If you have bit of extra time and energy on your way down Chimney Pond Trail, it’s a must-see.

The drive home found us lamenting our short, two-night visit. I hope to return and spend a week here, backpacking in the less-visited parts of the park, and perhaps trying a different trail up to Baxter Peak.

2 thoughts on “Backpacking Mt. Katahdin

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