Thursday, January 31, 2019

Precipice Trail

Porcupine Islands from Mount Champlain
2.2 miles loop, 950 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous, with scrambling, ladders, and extreme exposure
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Acadia National Park entrance fee required

There are many routes to the summit of Champlain Mountain, a long granite ridge that rises from the Atlantic Coast in Acadia National Park on Maine's Mount Desert Island. The Precipice Trail is by far the most spectacular and thrilling route to its summit, ascending directly up the cliffs on the peak's eastern face via a stomach-churning series of iron rungs and ladders. These obstacles make this hike a wonderful challenge and the sweeping views of ocean, forest, and rock en route to the summit make this a superb experience. The North Ridge of Champlain offers an easier while still scenic return. While the Precipice Trail is certainly a highlight of Acadia National Park, the extreme exposure on the route should not be taken lightly and makes this hike inadvisable for anyone with a fear of heights. Think of this not as a hike, but almost as a via ferrata. I strongly advise that you do not descend the Precipice Trail, but find some other route to return: the route is not accomodating of two-way travel, making a descent more dangerous for both yourself and hikers who are going up.

I hiked the Precipice Trail on a warm, muggy September morning after watching the sunrise from atop Cadillac Mountain. From Bar Harbor, take Main Street south to the Sieur de Monts entrance of the park and then follow the one-way Park Loop Road south for two miles to the Precipice Trailhead. The climb ahead is visible from the parking lot: the cliffs of Champlain Mountain tower directly above.

Champlain Mountain cliffs- previewing the climb
Leaving the parking lot, the trail hits rock immediately and begins with a scramble across outcrops of granite. As the trail weaved through the rocks at the base of the cliffs of Champlain Mountain, it encountered obstacles that gave a taste of what was to come: I climbed over a rock by pulling myself up via one waist-height iron rung and then rock scrambled uphill through a pile of giant boulders.

Rock scramble, previewing the climb ahead
The rocky landscape at the bottom of the mountain meant that I quickly came to clearings with views out to sea. A morning fog danced with the islands in Frenchman Bay while the forest below was showing the first hints of fall color.

The trail then led up through a talus slope, requiring scrambling moves both over and under massive granite boulders.

Rock scramble
Soon the trail began to climb up the cliffs, with handholds and iron railings to assist as I began to work my way up. The trail then began a horizontal traverse across the cliff and included a stretch in which I crossed a beautiful wooden bridge.

Precipice Trail
Soon after, I came to an intersection. The Orange and Black Path led to the right; the Precipice Trail headed straight up. I took the left fork and followed the iron rungs up the cliff.

The next fifteen to twenty minutes were packed with adrenaline as I climbed up ladders and rungs secured to the cliff. The trail generally led straight up, making multiple ascents at over 80 degrees. At times, the path traversed narrow ledges that were as little as two feet wide with extreme exposure. Although iron rungs and handrails were present all along the route, an accident here could mean (and has meant) a fatal fall. This high adrenaline ascent was accompanied by widening views of the islands and of the sea battering the pink granite coast. It was an experience that was mixed a little terror with sheer exhilaration.

Iron ladders
Precipice Trail- exposed ledges
Precipice Trail
The worst (or best, depending on how you view things) of the iron rung segments ended when the trail finally flattened out onto the gentler granite slopes just below the summit. Be sure to stop here to enjoy the views, as the views here may actually be better than those at the summit of Champlain Mountain. Standing at the top of the cliff, I could look along the great east face of the mountain in either direction as it led down to forests by the ocean. The Porcupine Islands dotted Frenchman Bay and the peninsula of Great Head was visible just slightly down the coast of Mount Desert Island, jutting into the Atlantic Ocean.

Porcupine Islands
The trail led up the lower-angle granite slopes until coming to a final iron rung climb up summit cliffs, a route that was much less intimidating after the much more extensive ladder sections from earlier in the hike.

More ladders
Atop the last iron ladder, I stood on the summit of Champlain Mountain. A wooden sign marked the summit of the park's fifth highest peak. The rocky summit was generally open, but a number of trees prevented the view from encompassing 360 degrees. The forested but rocky ridges of Dorr Mountain and Cadillac Mountain- the two tallest peaks on Mount Desert Island- rose to the west. Out at sea, the waves and the fog danced around Egg Rock Light on a lonely island.

Egg Rock Light
Champlain Mountain summit
Cadillac Mountain and Dorr Mountain
After enjoying the views, I began descending on the Champlain North Ridge Trail. Following the summit ridge to the north, this trail started out by remaining on the open granite slabs, providing frequent nice views to the north of the Porcupine Islands and Bar Harbor. The view of the town itself- a patchwork of houses and trees on the shores of the glimmering waters of sailboat-dotted Frenchman Bay- was idyllic, interrupted just slightly by the the jarring facilities of the Jackson Lab on the other side of Beaver Dam Pond. While I admire the Jackson Lab's work- it is a leading biomedical research facility and I am, after all, a bioengineer- the industrial look of its research facilities looked quite out of place on the otherwise idyllic Mount Desert Island scene. It's hard to fathom that there wasn't a less visually obtrusive location for the lab.

Bar Harbor
As the trail dropped along the ridge, trees began crowding out most of the view. Occasional openings still provided glimpses of Frenchman Bay and the Porcupine Islands.

Porcupine Islands
When the Champlain North Ridge Trail met the Orange and Black Path, I took the right fork to head back down to the Park Loop Road. As the trail came off the ridge, there were some nice views of the rocky Champlain Mountain east face and of the forested coastline of the Atlantic.

Mount Desert Island Coast
A fifth of a mile after leaving the ridgeline, the trail descended via stone steps to another intersection; here, I took the left fork, descending steeply on the Orange and Black Path to reach the Park Loop Road. I then followed the Park Loop Road south (to the right) for a final half mile to return to the trailhead. It's possible to take the Orange and Black Path back to the middle section of the Precipice Trail for the descent, but as that option still required a decent amount of rock scrambling and I had come off of four days in a row at Tumbledown, Kineo, Katahdin, and now this hike, I chose the less scenic but easier path back.

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