Monday, January 14, 2019

Big Moose Mountain

Katahdin and the Hundred Mile Wilderness peaks rise above Moosehead Lake
4.5 miles round trip, 1850 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Good gravel road to trailhead, no pass required

Big Moose Mountain towers 2000 feet above the southwest corner of Moosehead Lake, a massive sprawling jewel of a lake surrounded by the Maine Woods. The summit offers a sense of the vast scale of the Maine Woods, one of America's most extraordinary wilderness areas. The sweeping views from the summit give ample justification for why this peak once picked as the site of the first fire lookout in the country; that historic structure has since been removed. Big Moose Mountain sees just a fraction of the visitors of the much more popular Mount Kineo but delivers similarly jaw-dropping views of Moosehead Lake.

The trailhead is just a few miles outside Greenville, the main town in the Moosehead region. From Greenville, I followed Highway 6 north to North Road, where I made a left and followed that gravel road for about two miles to the marked trailhead for Big Moose Mountain.

The trail starts out as the remnants of an old road. After an initial steeper, rocky ascent, the trail soon leveled out with a smoother tread as it climbed very gently through a hardwood forest.

Maine Woods
After over a mile of a fairly gentle grade, the trail began to ascend at a more moderate grade and soon came to an abandoned warden cabin. In 1905, the first fire lookout tower in the United States was built atop Big Moose Mountain (known earlier as Big Squaw Mountain); this privately run fire lookout was staffed by a warden who lived at this cabin at the base of the mountain. The structure was still fairly intact and made for some interesting exploration.

Old warden cabin
Past the cabin, the trail crossed a creek that was once the water source for the warden cabin and then began the steep principal climb of the hike. The ascent here was quite steep and direct, often climbing via stone stairs.

Staircase on the trail
After a direct and brutal but quick ascent the trail came to a saddle at 1.7 miles from the trailhead, where a spur trail to the left led to viewpoints on the shoulder of Big Moose Mountain while the trail to the right led to the summit. I was initially torn about whether to go all the way to the summit and decided to check out the viewpoint first. The short spur trail quickly led to an outcrop with a decent but not overwhelming view of the southern portion of Big Moose Lake and Greenville. Having come this far, I decided that I would in fact finish the hike and visit the summit to see if there were better views.

View from the shoulder viewpoint
Returning to the junction, I continued uphill on the main trail, which switchbacked through a dense forest of small trees and climbed steeply until gaining the summit ridge. The trail leveled out at the ridge and came to the former lookout site a half mile from the junction. Although the structure was removed recently, this was once the site of the first fire lookout in the United States. From here, there was a wide view of much of Moosehead Lake that stretched from Borestone Mountain in the south to the lofty summit of Katahdin to the northeast. This was the first time that I saw Katahdin and I was in awe at its commanding and royal presence. Across the lake were the wooded mountains of the Hundred Mile Wilderness, the most primitive and untouched lands along the Appalachian Trail.

Moosehead Lake view at the former lookout site
While it's tempting to turn back after reaching the lookout site, you need to continue further down the ridge for more views if you've already come this far. A fenced-off communications tower was just beyond the summit, but continuing even further along the ridge I came to a wooden helicopter landing pad. This helicopter landing pad boasted views better than those from the former lookout site: here, I could see the entire view to the northeast that I had previously enjoyed, but I also had beautiful views of Indian Pond and the Bigelows to the southwest (the Bigelow Range is the second tallest in Maine after Katahdin). The Maine woods stretched nearly unbroken in all directions, its dark green coat just barely hinting at the autumn colors about to explode.

View out towards Borestone Mountain from the helicopter pad
View west towards the Bigelows
It's important not to end your hike here, either, as there are still more views to come. I continued along the ridge from the helicopter pad until I reached a north-facing clearing that finally delivered the open views of the whole of Moosehead Lake that I had sought from this hike. The shimmering waters of the lake- the largest in Maine- sprawled to the north, its labyrinth shoreline embracing islands and dancing around ridges. Big and Little Spencer were the tallest peaks near the shoreline to the north but the dramatic cliffs of Mount Kineo, rising from a peninsula in the lake, were the most impressive features of the lake. Burnham and Mountain View Ponds added nearby splotches of blue. The mountains on the horizon roughly marked the Canadian border.

Moosehead Lake
Mount Kineo
After enjoying the sweeping views at this last and most spectacular viewpoint in peace on a beautiful Saturday, I retraced my steps to the trailhead to begin the long evening drive to Millinocket for my Katahdin hike the next day.

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