Posted by: Chris Maloney | August 22, 2013

Climbing Mount Katahdin: Baxter State Park And Rocks.

English: Baxter Peak and the Knife Edge Trail ...

English: Baxter Peak and the Knife Edge Trail on Maine’s Mount Katahdin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I wish someone else had written this review of hiking Mount Katahdin, so I’m writing it for everyone else. If you like amateur rock-climbing and bouldering, you will be pleasantly surprised that Baxter hasn’t been advertised correctly. Those of you considering whether to do Cadillac or Katahdin will get a clear answer.

It’s Thursday, so I’ve fully recovered the use of my limbs after climbing Mount Katahdin on Sunday. I really enjoyed my climb, and I want to personally thank Percival Baxter for setting aside the mountain for the people of Maine.

Lest any of the following be construed as whining, let me say that I just did Mt. Katahdin’s Chimney Pond, up Cathedral, across Knife’s Edge, and Down Helon Taylor, in seven hours with my son (including breaks) and in running shoes. The shoes were not a mistake, they were a decision based on having done Cadillac Mountain (Acadia) two weeks previously in a rain storm in the same shoes.

So, given that my son and I are not hiking duffers (average hike time eight to twelve hours), let me say this clearly: Mt. Katahdin is NOT a family hike!

Let me spell that out. If you have a seven, eight, or nine-year-old who does not climb rocks for fun, you do not want to try to scale Katahdin unless you thrive on disappointment as a character building exercise. Anyone who does not climb rocks for fun will not enjoy Katahdin. Tolerate it, get through it, have nightmares about it, yes. But we’re talking about enjoyment.

My second critical point is that: Mount Katahdin will take you longer to go down than to go up!

No, I didn’t misprint. Unlike almost every other mountain I have climbed, Mount Katahdin is more difficult to descend because you are sliding down boulders rather than climbing up them. You are also tired, and the fun descending part (open downhill trails) doesn’t really exist on Katahdin.

I had wondered before I left about the number of Mainers who have climbed Mt. Katahdin and never gone back.  We all talk about it, and everyone has a story, but on a beautiful Sunday morning in August I arrived at a state park with about fifty parking spaces and got in without a reservation? I wouldn’t recommend trying that, it’s worth reserving the spot online before coming all the way out to the mountain.  We got lucky.

We also got lucky in terms of weather. It was gorgeous and we had no previous night’s rain. These were ideal hiking conditions, and so the trails were at their best. I cannot imagine attempting to do much of what we did in the rain.

So, let’s get to the hike.

Planning: I froze three quarts of water each, plus an emergency pint. We took long pants, a rain jacket, two cell phones, sunscreen, bug spray, flashlight and lantern, extra batteries, full lunch and four emergency protein bars. It all went into one backpack and one butt pack, which we swapped off. (My son carried the back pack 3/4th of the time). Both of us wore shorts and shirt, with exercise underwear (no chaffing).

Getting There:

We took off from Augusta at six, and made the Millinocket exit by 7 ish. It was another hour on the roads to Katahdin until we reached the gatehouse. Once in, it was another eight miles of dirt roads (well-packed) to the Roaring Brook parking. The parking lot had black flies, but once we got above the tree line the bugs were gone.

(Roaring Brook) Chimney Pond Trail on Mount Katahdin

If you love jumping from rock to rock, you will love this trail! We jumped our way up the trail alongside the stream. Since we were going fast, we passed all the families with young children, then the more plodding hikers, and finally the hikers who thought this was a standard hike.  The trail doesn’t require much climbing, and there are some wonderful bridges. Even dry it wasn’t dry, and so with rain this would be mud and rocks.  We love jumping from rock to rock and made it up to Chimney Pond campground in an hour-and-a-half. I’d plan for 2 1/2 hours up.

Chimney Rock Campground

We stopped at the ranger station, and he was concerned about us signing in more than directing us. He pointed out the landslide that is the “easy” way up Katahdin (Saddle Trail) and Cathedral, which he said could be a little tricky. So of course my fourteen-year-old picked the shorter Cathedral.

DO use the pit toilets at this level, because you will not be doing number two anywhere higher on the mountain.  There just isn’t any cover, and no place to dig anywhere.

Cathedral Trail

Let me be perfectly clear about this hike. It is not a hike. A hike is a “a long walk, esp. in the country or wilderness.” Mountain climbing is “climbing of mountains, especially the scaling of rock faces by means of special equipment and techniques.” Bouldering is a form of rock climbing that is performed without the use of ropes or harnesses.

When one is on all fours, climbing either cliff faces or boulders for over a mile, that does not qualify as a hike. Cathedral needs to be taken off the “hiking trail” list and placed in the “fun bouldering climb” list.

Under no circumstances should you attempt to descend Cathedral trail unless you have five hours and mountain climbing experience.  An elderly couple found the Saddle Trail landslide a bit too taxing and were attempting to begin the descent of Cathedral when we stopped them. Had they continued, they would have needed a rescue.

I’m not sure what sort of logic allows the park service to continue this as a hike rather than a bouldering expedition, but my major concern about the climb was that they seemed to be going a bit scarce on the paint. It was mid-day in beautiful weather and for whole sections I couldn’t see a single blue mark from the bottom of a cliff face. At least have someone make a dotted line up the preferred ascent for those of us who thought we might be hiking.

I loved bouldering Cathedral. I just wish someone had told me that was what I was going to be doing. The running shoes were preferable for lodging in cracks and a lot of finger work was necessary.  Nothing anyone with bouldering experience couldn’t handle easily.  We did come across several unprepared adolescents stuck in the midst of the boulders, and one tall fellow who had just given up near the top.

The Top

The views above the tree line were wonderful. I do hope the naked man with the American flag had just finished the Appalachian Trail, because it seemed a bit excessive for even the rock climb we’d done. The top was crowded with hikers from all the trails, all trying to have lunch and enjoy themselves.  It was beautiful weather and hardly any wind.  Green hills and lakes in all directions.

Knife’s edge

Nothing but rock hopping for over a mile was what I was expecting. We love to rock hop, but we didn’t expect the narrow, above a cliff crawl arounds, and I think the thirty-foot drop and climb was just terrible.

Let me explain. A child might make it all the way up the Helon Taylor trail to the Knife’s Edge, all the way out along the Knife’s Edge, and then have to turn back because there is a thirty-foot descent and a thirty-foot ascent. Other hikers have made a way around the descent, but the ascent can’t be skipped. Beyond the big ascent there is one more short descent, and we passed a woman openly weeping as her husband tried to convince her to keep going. Another family with two intrepid children eyed the thirty-foot descent and turned back rather than risk it.

I didn’t mind Knife’s Edge after going up Cathedral, but I cannot imagine doing either in any sort of rain or high wind. I think they need to close the park in those situations.

Helon Taylor

The most perverse part of Helon Taylor was coming to the end and having stone steps to gently descend for a short period. I can only imagine the intrepid family heading up the stone steps, then through the poorly marked underbrush, scrambling over boulders, only to find themselves more than a mile up the trail and facing a fifteen-foot stone cliff with a six foot ledge to reach. I imagine it is possible to go around, but the juxtaposition between the stone steps and the cliff struck me. Why not skip the steps and provide a rope or even a ladder?

You keep thinking Helon Taylor will end, but it doesn’t until you hear the sound of rushing water. It was an endless trail, but I’m sure the lower part is really quite nice if you aren’t as tired as we were, and drier than the Chimney Pond Trail. The problem with ascending Helon Taylor is that the only way to go farther is to face the Knife’s Edge.  Two bouldering parents with a child should have no problem, but parents who don’t feel comfortable should look to Chimney Pond and Saddle, with the knowledge that Saddle ends in a landslide.

The finish

I really, really enjoyed Mount Katahdin. If you like bouldering, if you bring way more water than you think you’ll need, and if you don’t mind injury-defying stunts, you will love it too. I hope more people come prepared for the hike/climb, and we all enjoy this wonderful piece of Maine!


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