On July 25, I hiked to the summit of Maine’s legendary, 5,269-foot Mt. Katahdin. As someone who was born and raised in Maine and has spent the greater portion of my life exploring the state by foot, I was a little embarrassed to admit that it had taken me 26 years to find my way to the top of Katahdin. I had even bagged a generous handful of New Hampshire’s 4,000-foot summits, including Mt. Washington, the tallest peak in the northeastern United States, prior to this home-state endeavor.
But despite my hiking resume, sound physical conditioning from years of competitive running, summer job leading trips as a counselor at an outdoor camp, and a wilderness first-aid certification, I was not completely prepared for what I faced that day in Baxter State Park. And thus, my message to you is this: do not let your prior experiences–whatever they may be–blind you to the challenge that this mountain poses. Is it worth climbing? Absolutely! I am so grateful to have had the experience I did. However, it is well worth doing your research ahead of time so that you are prepared and can ensure a safe, enjoyable, and successful trip up–and down!–Maine’s tallest mountain.
There are a number of “Know Before You Go” guides provided by Baxter State Park, Outside Magazine, and Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters–read them. I didn’t. That is my first piece of advice. I will list my own tips here, but they are based on my personal experience, focusing primarily on the areas that I happened to overlook so that you can hopefully avoid doing the same.
#1: Secure a campsite or parking spot in advance.
My boyfriend Cory and I had actually planned to hike Katahdin last summer, but we had to cancel our trip due to inclement weather on the summit (see #2 for more on this). If I hadn’t told a friend who had hiked the mountain on multiple occasions about our plans, I wouldn’t have known that the parking lots at the trailheads have limited space and that you need to secure a reservation in order to be guaranteed a spot. If you are camping in the park, you do not need a separate reservation, but still want to arrive at the parking lot of your designated trail head prior to 7:00 AM; spots are held until 7:00 AM and then they will be given away on a first come, first serve basis. So, while there is technically a chance that you can squeak in without a reservation, it is extremely rare, especially in the summer months, that this will work out in your favor. Maine residents can make reservations for any day of the summer after April 1; non-residents can make reservations up to two weeks before their hike. Reservations can be made through the park’s website, but know that they fill up fast!
#2: Check the weather like it’s your job.
Last summer, after miraculously securing a parking spot just a week out, the weather on the summit was not looking good for the day of our hike. In fact, there was a 90% chance of severe thunderstorms right around the time we hoped to be summiting and throughout the rest of the afternoon. Because of this, we made the tough decision to call off the hike. Since we worked as camp counselors, we had limited time off, and this was the only chance we had to hike Katahdin that particular summer. But, we had also just spent three hours of an overnight backpacking trip (with a group of young campers) in the lightning crouch position during a storm, and didn’t exactly want to replicate that experience on top of a mile-high, treeless mountain top. Yes, it’s hard to cancel plans, especially when they are made far in advance and require travel and preparation, but just remember that your safety and the safety of those in your group should be your number-one concern. There will always be another opportunity, as there was for me.
You can get a detailed weather forecast for the summit of Katahdin here.
#3: Don’t forget your hiking boots.
We packed everything we could possibly need and more, for camping and hiking alike–tents, sleeping bags, backpacks, hammocks, propane, coolers, pots, pans, bug spray, etc. And then, in the parking lot at the Millinocket Hannaford, where we were picking up a few last minute groceries and meeting the other members of our group, Cory realized he had forgotten his hiking boots, arguably the most important piece of equipment he would need on his trip up the mountain.
We did a quick Google search and called every business in the area that sounded like it might carry hiking boots. After making about six different calls, the only place that confirmed having any for sale was the Tractor Supply Co. across the street. And they only had one model, which appeared more work boot-esque than hiking boot-esque. But they would be far better than hiking in Crocs, which was all Cory had with him.
You would think that a town like Millinocket, which relies so heavily on outdoor tourism, would have more options in terms of stores that carry hiking gear. Don’t be deceived–triple check your gear list before you leave home.
#4: If camping, don’t expect the royal treatment, but do expect a genuine experience.
This year, a friend of ours organized the trip, which included three nights of camping at the Foster Field group site with a day designated for our hike. Our site at Foster Field was lovely; it was large enough to accommodate our group of 11, had a fire pit with a grate for cooking, two picnic tables, a clean outhouse, and a shared pavilion, which was a lifesaver when it rained on our last day. However, for those who are used to campgrounds featuring more amenities, such as clean running water (our water source was a brook a few paces behind the site), a spigot or sink for washing dishes, or showers, it could feel a bit like roughing it. This wasn’t a problem for us, because we have done with less before, but it’s good to be prepared. For one, you want to make sure to bring a good supply of water and/or a reliable filtration system (we use the SP856 One-Gallon Gravity Water Filtration System by Sawyer Products) and practice LNT principles at all times, particularly when washing dishes (carry water 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use small amounts of biodegradable soap, and scatter strained dishwater). There isn’t firewood available at the sites (unless you forage for down, dead, and detached branches), and you can’t bring it in on your own, but you can purchase it from the park.
Here is a list with a description of each campground in the park.
#5: Plan your hiking route wisely.
There are a number of trails that you can choose from when it comes to deciding on a route to the top of Katahdin. Baxter State Park’s website offers a detailed description and map of each trail, and I highly recommend reading about each of them before choosing which trail(s) to take. Last year, Cory and I had thought we would make a loop out of the Helon Taylor, Knife Edge, Saddle, and Chimney Pond trails, and let me tell you it is a good thing that bad weather rolled in because Cory, who is deathly afraid of heights (see more on that in #9), would never have made it across Knife Edge. Long story short: we didn’t do enough actual research on the individual trails to realize this. Our friend who organized this year’s trip and had hiked Katahdin before decided that we should take the Hunt Trail, which is actually the part of the AT that leads to Baxter Peak, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail itself. When I told my father about our plans, he proudly stated that he had completed the Hunt Trial twice in his younger years, so I immediately thought, well, if Dad did it, it can’t be too bad, and failed to do any further research on what I was getting myself into.
#6: Start early and sign in.
Everyone in our group agreed to set our alarms for 5:15 to be prepared for a 6:15 departure (it was about a 15 minute drive from our site to the Katahdin Stream campground, where the Hunt trailhead is located). The last thing we wanted was to face a jam-packed parking lot, or get back after dark. Between the time we parked our vehicles, adjusted our packs, and made our last-minute visits to the outhouse, the lot was full. As I stood there watching the scene before me, I was reminded of the starting line of a road race: a slew of people in small groups, all appearing rather athletic, lacing up their shoes, stretching their taut muscles, lining up outside the bathroom, and talking excitedly amongst themselves. Nervous energy filled the parking lot, and it made me start to feel a bit anxious myself. I wanted to get moving. Thankfully, a friend in our group knew to sign in on the sheet at the trailhead so that there would be a record of us being on the mountain in case of an emergency. This is something you don’t want to forget to do. By 6:40, we were making our way up the trail.
#7: Pack the right supplies, but limit backpack size if you can.
I like to think that I know how to pack for a hike, whether it be for a day or multiple days. I am an excellent planner: I make a list, and check things off. I know to bring first aid, at least 3 liters of water for a day hike the length of Katahdin, calorie-dense snacks, sunscreen, a trail map, a firestarter, a whistle, a pair of dry wool socks, layers (usually a rain jacket and a fleece for a summer hike), and a headlamp (it is actually a park rule in Baxter that you carry a flashlight or headlamp with you, as some people have been caught up on the mountain after dark). I also carry my phone, but keep it switched to airplane mode so that it does not waste battery and can be saved for emergencies. So was I prepared for the hike? Yes. But I packed everything in my 28-liter Osprey Manta daypack, and while I love this backpack, it was a little bulkier than I would have liked for the boulder-scrambling that was to come. There are some sections that you really have to squeeze through, and a slimmer-fitting pack would have made it easier. On the way down the Hunt Spur (see more on this in #9 and #11), it often got in the way whenever I had to hoist myself down while gripping onto the boulder behind me, and I would sometimes have to remove it, toss it down to the next ledge, and then put it back on once I got myself down there. I will reiterate this, though: it is always best to be prepared. Don’t skimp on the essentials, but don’t bring anything non-essential, compress as much as you can within your pack, and, if possible, use a lightweight or slim-fitting pack (taller is better than bulkier for this climb).
#8: Make nice with other hiking parties.
I knew Katahdin was a popular hike, but somehow I wasn’t quite prepared for the amount of people who would be on the mountain at the same time as us, and that’s with the existing limited reservations plus more overall day-use limitations due to COVID-19. We played leap-frog with a handful of other hiking parties throughout the day, allowing them to pass when we stopped for a quick rest and then passing them when they did the same. It was wonderful to see how supportive many of the other hikers were; one woman even offered me her pole at a particularly difficult section. Chances are, if you’re respectful towards them, they will be respectful towards you. I can’t even count the number of times our friend Mike said “Howdy” and tipped his ridiculous bucket hat at passersby (who then proceeded to comment on his mid-calf Allagash Brewing Co. socks) and 10.4 miles and 7 hours later, it was driving me absolutely insane, but everyone else on the trail seemed to appreciate it. People like friendly people. And if you aren’t friendly, or someone else isn’t friendly, it’s going to be a long, awkward trek up (and down) each time you pass each other. So, the moral of the story is, be kind.
Looking out from the bottom of the Hunt Spur, towards the 100 Mile Wilderness.
#9: Be ready to climb, and to emotionally support those who are afraid of heights.
As mentioned previously, my boyfriend Cory is absolutely terrified of heights. Like, he will start hyperventilating. Three years ago he needed the help of two seven-year-old campers to make it to the top of the fire tower on Bald Mountain in Oquossoc, and when we crossed the suspension bridge over Montmorency Falls in Quebec on a vacation, I honestly thought he was going to pass out (after he had squeezed my hand to the point of restricted blood flow). As soon as we broke tree line on Katahdin and found ourselves at the face of a large boulder with a single iron rung for assistance and the whole of the 100 Mile Wilderness at our backs, I heard Cory’s breathing grow short and rapid and watched him shrink against the side of the rock. “I can’t do this,” he said, and then, “I need to turn back.” I exchanged a nervous look with a couple other members of our hiking party. Either he went back and spent the day waiting for us at the bottom of the trail, or I turned back with him so he wouldn’t have to be alone, and missed out on a summit that I had been waiting for for years, or we convinced him to keep going. I was hoping for the latter.
We were able to talk him through the iron rungs, and for a brief moment after that the trail got a little less sketchy, winding between boulders and some wind-thrashed Alpine shrubbery. But we still had nearly 2.5 miles to go, all above treeline. And then we reached the Spur.
I was not prepared for the Hunt Spur. It is a narrow ridge made up almost entirely of boulders that stretches upwards (often at a steep incline) for nearly a mile. At this point, we had to start climbing, using our hands to grip the boulders above us while finding secure footing below. I was grateful that I did not rely on hiking poles; they would be of no use here. Poor Cory was white as a ghost, but I had him follow my path and kept telling him to focus only on what was directly in front of him–not the sweeping slopes to either side or the empty air at his back. Guiltily, I did feel my patience with him wearing thin as we climbed on, since it required so much focus and my nerves were heightened as well. Had I done my research and known what the Spur held in store, I likely would have had a less stressful experience, both for my sake and for Cory’s sake. We finally ascended over the final and most narrow section of the spur, “The Gateway,” and took a break to regroup before trekking across the tablelands and past the famous Thoreau Spring.
Looking down the Hunt Spur from The Gateway.
#10: Don’t forget to enjoy the view.
The tablelands were surreal. Cory and our friend David commented on how it felt like a scene from a Lord of the Rings movie. I didn’t feel like I was in Maine anymore, or even on this planet. The sky seemed close enough to touch, and everything (minus the breeze and the hikers ahead of us) seemed so still and peaceful. I didn’t want to know what it would be like up here in bad weather, though. We were lucky to have such a clear day–and while it was hot at the base of the mountain (nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit), it was a comfortable 60 as we neared the summit. In hindsight, I wish I had spent more time soaking in everything around me. I think the stress of the climb up the Spur had me on edge a bit (I couldn’t imagine traversing Knife Edge!), and I wasn’t able to focus as intently on the present moment as I wish I had been able to. When I look back on it, I think, wow, I was really up there, and find it hard to believe because it was so beautiful.
We reached the summit around 10:30, just shy of four hours after we started. It was busy, but we were still able to find a spot to rest and have an early lunch as a group. We did our best to take pictures facing every possible direction, but pictures cannot replicate the experience of being up there in person. After spending close to an hour at the summit, we started our 5.2 mile descent back down the Hunt Trail.
From the summit: Baxter Peak to the right (sign not pictured); Knife Edge in the distance (to the right)
Looking up towards Hunt Spur and the tablelands
#11: Don’t expect to make it down faster than you made it up.
While our downhill time ended up being close to an even split with our uphill time (leave it to a group of former cross-country runners to record the whole thing on their Garmins), it wasn’t drastically faster as one might expect it to be. I’ve always been better about going up than down, and this hike proved no differently. The first mile back down, across the tablelands, didn’t take long, but getting back down the Spur did. I was pretty worried about Cory at this point; my prescribed strategy of focusing only on the rocks in front of him wouldn’t work this time around, with the rocks at his back and the whole panoramic wilderness in front of (and below) him. I think at this point he realized he was either making his way down or he would have to set up camp and live up here forever. I went down a few steps (or scrambles) ahead of him, and I was pretty jittery myself. We maintained three points of contact at all times (butt and hands) and inched our way down the boulders. It took us close to an hour to complete that entire mile of trail. By the time we got to the iron rungs just about the treeline, Cory was pleased to find them not nearly as daunting as they had been on the way up. We decided this meant that he had conquered his fear of heights–or at least came closer to conquering it.
My legs felt pretty shaky by the time we reached the final two miles of the hike, and Cory’s feet were killing him, thanks to his makeshift footwear, so that slowed us down a bit as well. I assume that most people would be feeling pretty tired or sore at this point. When we reached Katahdin Stream and the waterfall, where we planned to regroup, we stripped off our boots and sweat-drenched socks and stuck our feet in the icy water–and it felt amazing. Some of us even dunked all the way under–I didn’t care that my clothes would be soaked for the last mile or so of the hike.
We made it back to the trailhead around 4:45. So, with an hour spent at the top, and an hour-and-a-half spent at the stream, our actual hiking time was about seven hours. We were happy to be back down with plenty of time before dark. I couldn’t imagine doing this hike on a time crunch, and I’m so glad we allowed ourselves time to enjoy other spots along the trail. So, not only should you start early to ensure a timely arrival back to the trailhead, you should also take summit time into account as well as plan for a potentially longer trip down the mountain.
Back at the campsite, refreshed from our dip in the stream, we changed clothes and lounged around before preparing dinner (a hearty meal of bean chili and grilled sweet potatoes, with s’mores for dessert). We mustered some energy for a cornhole tournament following a post-dinner energy boost, but everyone was ready for bed by 9:30. In the morning, my legs, which were covered in scrapes and bruises from the boulders, were the sorest they had been in a long time–and that says a lot for someone who runs fifty miles a week. I had thought that they would be conditioned to handle the hike given the amount of running they’re used to, but I was wrong. They remained sore for three days afterwards–going up and down stairs was an exceptional struggle. I took some time off from running and reflected on the wonderful but challenging experience I had just had. It was well worth it, and I would do it again–but with some better preparation.
By Laura Pulito- for Tom Ferent/Mr. Lakefront