Out of the wild lake country of central Maine rises a solitary peak revered by the native Americans, climbed by writers, artists, and adventurers, and preserved forever for the people of Maine. With an elevation of 5,268 feet, Mount Katahdin, topped by Baxter Peak, beckons outdoor enthusiasts like few other mountains in the world.
The History of Mount Katahdin
Katahdin was formed around 400 million years ago when an island arc collided with what was later to become North America. The collision caused a magma intrusion which hardened as it cooled. Over the next several hundred million years the surrounding softer sandstones eroded away leaving Mount Katahdin as a solitary reminder of the geologic forces at work in the past.
The mountain has long held a special place in the hearts of the Native peoples of central Maine. According to legends of the Penobscot tribe, the storm god Paloma lives atop of the mountain and from there sends forth harsh weather to pound the surrounding countryside. He is said to have the head of a moose, the body of a man, and the wings of an Eagle. Anyone venturing into his home on Baxter peak is warned to beware his wrath.
The first European to report the existence of Katahdin was a captive of the Abenaki tribe by the name of John Gyles. Captured near what is now Portland, Maine in 1689, Gyles reported a large mountain while journeying with his captors in central Maine. He wrote that the Abenakis he was with named the mountain “Teddon.”
The first reported climb of the mountain was by two surveyors from Massachusetts in 1804. They were followed several decades later in 1840 by famous transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau. He mentions the climb in his book “The Maine Woods”and a spring located near the summit bears his name.
Beginning in the1930’s, the then current Governor of Maine, Percival Baxter, began buying up land on and around the mountain. Later he left the property in trust to the State of Maine, stating that “Katahdin, in all its glory, shall forever remain the mountain of the people of Maine.” His intention was to preserve the mountain and the surrounding areas as “forever wild” and park rangers have since worked hard to preserve the wilderness aspect of the area.
The Appalachian Trail on Katahdin
The Appalachian Trail, considered the granddaddy of American long distance trails by many hiking enthusiasts, runs from Baxter Peak on Mount Katahdin south for over twenty-one-hundred miles to its southern terminus on the top of Springer Mountain in Georgia. According to recent estimates, several million people visit the Appalachian Trail annually with a large portion visiting the Baxter State Park just to climb Katahdin.
Many of these visitors to the park are those who have hiked or intend to hike the entire Appalachian Trail. These adventurous souls call themselves “thru-hikers” and hundreds complete the trek each year. Most of these long distance hikers choose to start their hike on Springer Mountain between March and May however an estimated one in six begin their journey on Mount Katahdin and head south, usually in the months from June to August.
How to Get to Baxter State Park
Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin are located in the wilds of central Maine’s lake country. Fortunately this area is only a few hours’ drive from Portland, Maine and just a couple more hours from Boston, Massachusetts. However, when Governor Baxter left the area in trust to the people of Maine, he did so with the condition that the areas remain “forever wild”. You will find no paved roads within park boundaries and pets are strictly forbidden. This also means that unlike many of Maine’s state parks, reservations must be made before your visit.
Camping reservations must be made with the four month window before your trip. Parking reservations must be made at least one day ahead of time. Due to the extreme weather that Maine experiences in winter, many of the parks camping areas, trails, and roads are closed between the dates of October 15, and May, 15 each year. For those that remain open, special winter regulations remain in effect. All reservations and questions about openings and campsite availability can be made by contacting the rangers at Baxter State park by following this link.
If you prefer to sleep indoors as opposed to camping, the town of Millinocket is located near the borders of the park 15 miles to the southeast. It has several places of lodging ranging from hostels to hotels and a handful of restaurants where a traveler can pick up a hot meal at the end of the day.
If you intend to climb to Baxter Peak there are several routes to follow. All are strenuous and should not be attempted by persons in poor physical condition. The Knife’s Edge is the most popular approach to the summit and is an 8.6 mile round trip. The easiest access to this trail is to park at the Roaring Brook trailhead and follow the Helen Taylor Trail for 3.3 miles to Pamola Peak. There you will connect with the Knife’s Edge Trail. From the juncture it is another 1.1 miles to the top of Baxter Peak. For about three tenths of a mile near the summit, the Knife’s Edge Trail is only 3 feet wide with a shear drop to either side. This trail is often closed during periods of high wind or bad weather and several people have died while attempting the traverse. It is not for the faint of heart!
If you prefer to approach the summit along the Appalachian Trail you will want to use the Hunt Spur Trail. The trailhead is located at the Katahdin Stream Campground. It is a strenuous 5.2 mile climb to the top offering great views and the potential for bouldering. About one mile from the summit this approach passes by Thoreau spring, named after the famous writer who climbed the mountain in 1840. If you intend to drink from this spring on your visit be sure to treat the water first.
The third approach to the summit is the Abol Trail which is the shortest route to the summit from a roadside trailhead. However, this trail is very difficult due to the fact that it crosses a large landslide
What You'll Find at the Summit of Mount Katahdin
Once a visitor completes their climb of the mountain they often have to stop and catch their breath. It’s a long, steep climb to the top but what really takes the breath away is the view. Mount Katahdin is the highest point in Maine and there are no other mountains for miles. What this means is that the climber is treated to a 360 degree view for miles in every direction. The vista is one of endless blue lakes and green forests as the Maine wilderness spreads out before the base of the mountain.
Looking around the hiker will first notice a large red sign marking the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Here hundreds of hikers have completed their 2000 mile journey from Springer Mountain in Georgia and from here hundreds more start south each year. Nearby is a large rock cairn that many travelers have added to over the centuries. A few yards south along the Appalachian Trail is a bronze plaque marking the end of that great American footpath.
The summit is a great place to spend an hour or two basking in the sunshine (the last 1,000 feet of mountain elevation is all above tree-line) and enjoying a picnic. Be sure to bring your own water because there are no sources closer than Thoreau spring one mile south on the Appalachian Trail.
While climbers are encouraged to revel in the success of summiting and the beautiful views it is important that they remember to give themselves ample time to descend. No camping is allowed on the mountain and nighttime temperatures and weather can be dangerous.
On the descent towards campsite or car, a hiker often will contemplate the days journey and give silent thanks for the efforts of countless thousands that have gone into preserving this wilderness area for the present and the future.