Sunday, November 3, 2019

Tumbledown Mountain

Tumbledown Mountain and Tumbledown Pond from a pond on Parker Ridge
7 miles loop, 2200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous, substantial rock scrambling
Access: Good gravel road to trailhead, no pass required

Tumbledown Mountain is a scenic gem in the Maine Appalachians. Visiting hikers can walk along open, rocky ridges, relax by a pretty subalpine pond, or challenge themselves with steep trails and acrobatic rock scrambles. The mountain's multiple summits and side ridges offer plenty of exploring, but getting up to this beautiful spot is a strenuous endeavour no matter what approach you take. I'll detail a loop trail that involves an ascent through an exciting scramble route and descends along a ridge with beautiful views after visiting Tumbledown Pond.

I hiked this trail as the first stop on a four-day journey through the Maine Appalachians. I had started the day by driving up Mount Washington in New Hampshire's White Mountains; after coming down that mountain I followed US 2 east into Maine. If you hike at Tumbledown, you're inevitably traveling from far away, so I'll describe the final approach from Rumford: I followed US 2 east to Dixfield and then took Highway 142 north towards Carthage and Mount Blue State Park. Winding 142 passed through Carthage before coming to an intersection with Highway 156 at Weld. I took the left fork at Weld to continue north on 142; a little further north, I turned left onto Byron Road to head towards Tumbledown Mountain. I stayed on Byron Road for the rest of the way; at one point, I had to make a sharp right turn to stay on Byron Road heading towards Tumbledown. The road turned to gravel for the final stretch but was in fine condition; I drove past the Brook Trailhead and continued on to the Loop Trailhead, parking in a lot off to the right of the road just past the trailhead.

From the trailhead, I hit the Loop Trail, which was initially fairly flat as it approached the base of the steep Tumbledown Ledges. In the initial three-quarters of a mile, there were some small ascents and descents as the trail made two stream crossings. The end of this easy stretch of trail was marked by a massive trailside boulder that had tumbled down the Tumbledown Ledges at some point.

Boulder at the base of the climb
Past the boulder, the trail began a very steep and direct ascent of Tumbledown Mountain on a path that frequently required rock scrambling. The path was at times easy to lose and at one point I found myself off-trail on a more precarious rock scramble before realizing my error and backtracking. The initial ascent leveled off atop the Great Ledges, where some open stretches of rock were dotted with the evergreens of the Maine Woods. Looking up and ahead, I could see the massive rock faces of Tumbledown Mountain's West and East Peaks. The Loop Trail was headed towards the wooded crevice separating the two summits. On the other side, trees partially obscured views of the peaks across the valley.

Tumbledown Ledges

The Maine Woods
Returning into the woods, the trail then began to follow the gully between the east and west peaks of Tumbledown. This gully was carved by a stream descending from wetlands on the north side of the east and west peaks. The terrain was very steep here as the trail acended directly alongside the stream among large boulders. In total, the trail ascends nearly 1300 feet in just three quarters of a mile after beginning the scramble ascent.

Gully up which the trail ascended
At the top of the gully, the trail reached a jumble of enormous boulders that constituted the crux of the hike. Here, the stream emerged from the rocks; the trail followed by diving straight into the rock pile.

Crux of the hike
Inside a small rock cave, the trail made an acrobatic ascent through a narrow vertical passageway called Fat Man's Misery. I had to scramble through a small opening between rocks, hoisting myself up with just three strategically placed iron rungs. This stretch of trail is actually quite challenging but I found it to be a lot of fun: because of the necessity of pulling oneself up with the iron rungs, I'd avoid bringing dogs or children.

Fat Man's Misery
At the top of the Fat Man's Misery, the trail emerged at the top of the ravine, where a stream flowed from an elevated wetland between the East and West peaks of Tumbledown. Here, the trail also arrived at a junction: the trail to the east led towards Tumbledown Pond, but I decided to visit the West Peak first to enjoy its panoramic views.

Atop Tumbledown Ridge
Leaving the trail junction, the trail climbed briefly in the forest returning to rock, with blazes leading to the summit of the mountain across the open rock. The trail climbed at a moderate grade and reached the 3068-foot summit of West Tumbledown just a fifth of a mile from the trail junction. From here, standing atop the dramatic Tumbledown Ledges, there were magnificent views all around. Ridge after ridge of the Appalachians faded to the south and the west, with tinges of autumn coloring the predominately verdant summer coat of the hardwood forest.

The Maine Appalachians from West Tumbledown
The East and North Peaks of Tumbledown were visible from here as well but appeared subordinate to Little Jackson Mountain, a taller but more forested peak that rose further to the east. Mount Blue, a prominent peak between Weld and Farmington, rose above the lower ridges on the eastern skyline.

Tumbledown, Little Jackson, and Mount Blue from West Tumbledown
From the West Peak, I backtracked to the junction with the Loop Trail, then followed the Tumbledown Mountain Trail east towards the East Peak. This trail climbed quickly exited the forest onto rock ledges, which led uphill until I reached a long, level rocky ridgeline that defined the summit of the East Peak. From this viewpoint, the cliffs of the West Peak rose dramatically above the valley below. The equally rocky ridge of North Peak rose across a small depression; the summit of North Peak is not accessible by an official trail, though there is apparently a scramble route reaching it from around West Peak, which I did not take. To the southeast, I could see Lake Webb, a large lake in the valley below near Weld, as well as the rocky profile of Parker Ridge, which I would later follow on my descent from the mountain. Far in the distance to the west, I could see New Hampshire's lofty White Mountains rising above a closer ridge dotted with windmills. The Presidential Range was identifiable by its height and Mount Washington, the tallest peak in all the northeast, poked slightly above the other peaks on the horizon.

West Tumbledown from East Tumbledown

Mount Blue and Lake Webb from East Tumbledown

The Maine Woods

View towards the Whites
After enjoying the views atop East Peak, I started descending down the east side of the mountain, following the path down along open rock. Views of Tumbledown Pond, the most popular destination on Tumbledown Mountain, soon opened up. This tiny subapline lake surrounded by coniferous forests lay at the foot of the broad peak of Little Jackson Mountain, with a small island punctuating the center of the pond.

Little Jackson and Tumbledown Pond
I followed the trail downhill back into the forest; at times, the blazes on the open rock could be difficult to follow and at one point I found myself a little distance off the trail and had to backtrack. At the bottom of the descent, about a half mile from the junction with the West Peak Trail and the Loop Trail, I arrived at the south shore of Tumbledown Pond. Open rock ledges on the southern end of the pond offered nice views of the water and the island, but I found that the prettiest views of the lake came from its southeast corner. After crossing the outlet of the pond, a social path broke off to the left, following the east shore of the lake; going along this path, I found some vantange points from which I could see both the East and North Peaks of Tumbledown rising above the pond.

Tumbledown Pond with East and North Peaks

Tumbledown Pond
Leaving Tumbledown Pond, the trail arrived at the junction with the Brook Trail, which broke off to the right and descended south towards the Brook Trailhead. I decided to lengthen the trail slightly and enjoy some more views by descending on the Parker Ridge Trail instead; thus, I headed straight at the junction. The trail reentered the forest and soon came to another junction: the Pond Link Trail led to the left towards Little Jackson Mountain, while the Parker Ridge Trail led to the right and promised more views. I took the Parker Ridge Trail, which soon began to ascend again. After a slightly climb, the trail emerged back onto an open, rocky ridge with sweeping views. Parker Ridge provided one of the most iconic views of the hike, a panorama of the three rocky Tumbledown Peaks together, rising over Tumbledown Pond on one side and towering above the forested valley below on the other side. I found a small pool of water near the edge of the rocky ridge at one point that enhanced the view even more; reaching this pool required deviating slightly from the main Parker Ridge Trail.

Tumbledown Mountain and Pond from Parker Ridge
The views of Mount Blue and Lake Webb were also quite impressive from Parker Ridge; as this is the closest that the hike gets to Lake Webb, the lake appeared largest from this vantage point. At the far end of the ridge the trail began to drop, blocking Tumbledown Mountain from view but continuing to provide nice views over Lake Webb.

Lake Webb and Mount Blue from Parker Ridge
The descent down Parker Ridge still involved a lot of scrambling, making it difficult at points; however, this scrambling is less intense than the Fat Man Misery's stretch of the Loop Trail, making this a preferable path for descent.

Parker Ridge descent
After the trail reentered the woods, it maintained a very steep descent. Although the Parker Ridge segment is 2 miles and involves 1600 feet of the elevation loss, most of those 1600 feet occur within a one-mile stretch in the middle of the Parker Ridge Trail.

The trail followed a road on the west (right) side of a stream at the end of the descent; as I returned to more level ground, I came to an intersection. While the trail to the left led towards Little Jackson Mountain, I took the right fork to follow the Little Jackson Connector towards the Brook Trailhead. This trail meandered through the woods for the next mile, with minimal elevation gain and loss, until it brought me out of the woods at the Brook Trailhead. I followed Byron Road west for the final 1.4 miles back to the Loop Trailhead where I had parked, arriving just as dusk set.

This is a beautiful, challenging, and rewarding hike in the Maine Appalachians that delivers a fun scramble, sweeping views, and a beautiful pond without crowds; it was a highlight of my time in Maine and I highly recommend it to both visiting and local hikers.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Katahdin Hunt Spur

View of the Knife Edge from Katahdin
10.5 miles round trip, 4100 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Strenuous, involves difficult rock scrambling with some exposure
Access: Good gravel road to trailhead, Baxter State Park gate fee ($15/person) and Day Use Parking reservation ($5) necessary

Katahdin. As much a legend as a mountain, Katahdin occupies a special place in the Appalachian imagination. At Katahdin, the twenty-two hundred mile long Appalachian Trail reaches its northern terminus, ending in a spectacular flourish by climbing to this wild alpine peak, the highest summit in Maine. Nowhere else in the Appalachians is nature so raw, so uninhibited, so mighty. This is the most thrilling landscape of the East Coast. The lofty summit rises above the Maine Woods and is accessible by multiple approaches, the most famous of which are the Knife Edge and the Hunt Spur. I had a difficult time picking between these approaches but ultimately settled on the Hunt Spur when parking spaces for the Roaring Brook Pond (which serves the Knife Edge Trail) were fully booked. The Hunt Trail follows the final five miles of the Appalachian Trail, embarking on one of the hardest climbs of the entire route through an acrobatic scramble to reach the final white blaze atop Maine's mightiest mountain.

A note about logistics: it is necessary to reserve one of the limited day use parking spot at the Katahdin Stream Trailhead spring through fall prior to your hike, at If you're a Mainer, you can reserve a parking spot some time in advance but out of state visitors can't make reservations until two weeks beforehand. If you're planning on hiking this trail on a weekend, you absolutely will need a reservation; weekday hikers may be able to snag a spot if you just show up at the gate, but don't count on it. If the Katahdin Stream Trailhead is sold out, it's also possible to dayhike Katahdin from either the Abol or Roaring Brook Trailheads (though the Roaring Brook Trailhead is by far the most popular and likely to fill up before the Katahdin Stream Trailhead does).

Katahdin is a long way from anywhere, so rather than supplying directions from a nearby major city I'll just detail how I got to the trailhead from the freeway. I took I-95 north to exit 244, then followed Maine Highway 157 into Millinocket. Once in town, I followed signs towards Baxter State Park, turning right onto Katahdin Avenue and then left onto Bates to leave town on Millinocket Road headed towards the mountain. I followed this road until it turned into the Baxter Park Road near the park entrance. To make the most out of my hike, I arrived at the park entrance bright and early at 6 AM, when the gate opens to allow day hikers in. After checking in with my printed reservation, I drove in and took the left fork after Togue Pond, following a gravel road past the Abol Stream Trailhead to the Katahdin Stream Trailhead and parking in the specific lot for day hikers.

From a grassy spot at the campground by the trailhead, I could see up the rocky, barren upper reaches of Katahdin high above. A park ranger at the trailhead warned all hikers about conditions on the mountain as I started following the Appalachian Trail north, first walking from the day use parking area past a number of campsites along the road. Soon, the campsites ended and the trail plunged into the Maine Woods, with little initial elevation gain.

Katahdin from the Katahdin Stream Campground
After a mile of flat woodland hiking, the trail crossed the crystral-clear waters of Katahdin Stream on a well-built log bridge. Past the bridge, the trail began to travel on large, exposed stretches of rock, which marked the start of the ascent of Katahdin.

Katahdin Stream
The trail began climbing along the south side of Katahdin Stream and soon came to a view of an impressive, multi-tiered waterfall on the stream: Katahdin Stream Falls. Water was a little low at the end of the summer but the flow in the stream was still high enough for this to be a pleasing scene.

Katahdin Stream Falls
Beyond Katahdin Stream Falls, the trail ascended relentlessly. The trail was frequently rough and rocky as it climbed through a forest of progressively smaller trees. At spots, the hike required a bit of rock scrambling- an initial taste of the much more intense rock scramble that waited beyond the Gateway. The trail ascended roughly 1500 feet in a mile and a half before emerging at the base of the enormous boulders of the Gateway about 2.5 miles into the hike.

The Gateway
At the Gateway, the ridgeline of the Hunt Spur dissolved from forest into a rocky mess requiring constant scrambling. The scrambling was quite taxing, requiring some acrobatic moves and involving metal rungs in places, but was also a fun way to ascend the peak. Open rock also meant open views: soon, views of surrounding Maine Woods opened up. The Owl, a solitary rocky peak to the north, was initially prominent, rising high above the forested valley of Katahdin Stream. The valley below was dotted with patches of early color as the New England summer waned.

The Owl rises over the Maine Woods
Views improved as we continued our ascent, soon opening to cover Doubletop Mountain, the Brothers, and other forested peaks in Baxter State Park. At the same time, views of the lakes in the calmer terrain to the south improved, as Rainbow Lake, Hurd Pond, and the vast expanse of Millinocket Lake all became visible, dotting the landscape traveled by the Appalachian Trail's Hundred Mile Wilderness.

Peaks of Baxter State Park

The Maine Woods
The rocky scramble ascent came to a brief pause when the trail arrived on a shoulder of the Hunt Spur. From here, there was a clear view up the rocky spine of the Hunt Spur to the desolate summit plateau. Clouds hovered above the summit of Katahdin, forming a misty crown for Maine's monarch of a mountain. It was clear that there was plenty of rock scrambling left to reach the summit.

The Hunt Spur
I continued up and up the rocky ridge, getting passed at times by bearded AT thru-hikers with a glint in their eyes as they approached the final destination of their grand journey along the crest of the Appalachians. As I approached the rocky plateau of the Tableland, the other forested peaks around me started flattening into the surrounding wooded landscape. Katahdin truly stood head and shoulders above all its peers.

The Maine Woods
3.5 miles into the hike, the AT gained the top of the Hunt Spur, having completed a climb of some 1300 feet since the Gateway in about a mile. The most difficult stretch of the hike was over; a gentler ascent through admittedly rocky terrain remained. As I reached the ridge, I was engulfed by a cloud, obscuring the views for much of the rest of the hike.

Atop the Hunt Spur
The trail began to cross an area known as the Tableland, a broad plateau just below the summit of Katahdin. Walking across this desolate alpine terrain was extraordinary- a unique experience in the Appalachians unrivalled even by the alpine zones of the Whites and the Adirondacks. Dramatic cliffs marked the edge of the Tableland, the true depth of their drop-offs hidden in the mist.

The Tableland
Looking closer to ground level, I found an abundance of ripe blueberry bushes.

Maine blueberries
At 4 miles, I came to a large rock with a plaque marking the spot of the Thoreau Spring. Henry David Thoreau, the poetic wanderer of Walden Pond, attempted to climb Katahdin in 1846; although he failed to reach the summit, Thoreau was enthralled by the wildness of the landscape and wrote of how the landscape moved him, popularizing this hitherto remote and unknown peak to New England society. This spring near the summit is named for Thoreau, although it really isn't as much a spring as simply a small pool of stagnant water under the plaque. Here, the Abol Trail joined the Hunt Trail for the final push to Katahdin's summit. The Baxter Peak Cutoff Trail led to the north; I stayed straight through this junction and continued following the last handful of white blazes. The trail was often demarcated by ropes here to keep hikers on trail and protect the fragile alpine environment. I pushed through the last mile and completed the final ascent of the Appalachian Trail to arrive at the last white blaze and the summit of Katahdin.

The last white blaze
At the summit, AT thru-hikers were celebrating the end of their long journey from Springer Mountain while dozens of other hikers ate lunch amidst the zero-visibility cloud cover. A large wooden sign marked the highest point in Maine and hikers lined up to take photos with the iconic structure. Although the summit was initially engulfed in clouds, I waited at the top for over two hours and some views eventually started to peek out. I had initially planned on hiking the Knife Edge to Pamola Peak but decided against it when it seemed that I wouldn't get the stunning and harrowing views for which the narrow ridge is famous.

The Tablelands led up gently to the summit of Katahdin from the west, but the northeast face of the mountain drops off precipitously into a deep cirque called the Great Basin. These cliffs are among the wildest scenes on the East Coast of the United States; standing from the summit, there is almost sheer drop down the snarling rock to the forest around Chimney Pond. This remarkable cirque- carved out by an ancient alpine glacier- is bounded by rock walls on all sides: Hamlin Peak to the north, the summit of Katahdin to the west, the Knife Edge and Pamola Peak to the south.

Chimney Pond nestled in the Great Basin of Katahdin
After waiting atop the summit for a while, views of the Knife Edge and Pamola Peak began to emerge from the clouds. There is nothing else like these serrated rocky ridges east of the Great Plains.

Pamola Peak
The main summit of Katahdin still bears the name Baxter Peak for now, honoring Maine Governor Percival Baxter for his role in preserving the extraordinary wilderness. Baxter purchased the lands now comprising the park with his own funds and donated the area to the state of Maine, but with stipulations attached that have kept this remarkable landscape wild through today. Many of the park's oddball rules resulted from Baxter's demands, but his guidelines have prevented Katahdin from undergoing the same level of development that has reduced Mount Mansfield in Vermont and Mount Washington in New Hampshire to popular tourist stops.

Mighty Katahdin
This is an extraordinary hike, one of the best day hikes and the most impressive alpine summit on the East Coast of the US. The hike to the top via the Hunt Trail is difficult with sustained stretches of difficult rock scrambling and some exposure, but those who reach the top and gaze into the rocky bowl of the Great Basin will find it hard to forget mighty Katahdin.