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.

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