East coast mountains get a bad rap. Rocky mountain dwellers are known to scoff at the older, lower elevation peaks of the Appalachians. Sure, climbing at ten thousand feet presents another level of difficulty that five thousand feet just can’t present. But you don’t need a math degree to know that no matter what trail you’re on, a twelve-hour hike is going to take twelve hours. Mount Katahdin boasts one of the best climbs that the east coast has to offer, even for you seasoned veterans of the Rocky Mountains.
Leading up to the Hike
My first summer in Maine, I thought more about sitting lakeside and eating lobster. Can you blame me? But we did make time for exploring the outdoors between our many rounds along the banks of Lake Saint George. Before I even stepped foot in Maine, Sarah had been asking me if I wanted to climb Katahdin. Once we’d already made it to the top of Mount Battie, I thought we might as well go for it. Why not? How hard could it be?
Sorry for the spoiler, but pretty damn hard.
Hob and Sarah had both climbed Katahdin, but I don’t remember them telling me much about the ascent. Actually, I thought Katahdin would be really similar to Battie. Pretty sure I bought a new pair of socks thinking that would be about all I needed for the mountain. Excellent foresight, professor. It wasn’t until the day before that we discussed when we would be leaving that I began to understand the magnitude of our hike. I laughed when Hob said 3:00 am, but he wasn’t joking nor was he kidding when he suggested I drive home since we would be getting back around 1:00 am. Cue awkward silence.
A Bit about the Mountain
Mount Katahdin rests at the center of Baxter State Park. It is the (unofficial) starting point for the Appalachian trail southbound, but also the northern terminus for it as well. At an elevation of approximately 5200, it is the highest peak in Maine. There are four distinct peaks–Baxter Peak, South Peak, Pamola Peak, and Hamlin Peak–found on Katahdin. There are several trails that climb the mountain. Most likely, you are going to ascend about a few thousand feet and cover around 10 miles on any of them. If you want to get the full details, check out the state park website here. They can fill you in on all the details I didn’t pay attention to while trying not to die traversing the Knife Edge.
What We Packed with Us
Since we had the grueling departure time of 3:00 am, we needed to do all of the prep work the day before the trip (which is often better than last minute packing anyway). We took roughly 64 oz. of water each, 1.5 pounds of trail mix between the three of us, a half dozen nature valley bars, three bananas, and a ziplock bag full of left-over lobster meat from the previous night. Hob that it would be appropriate, I thought it would be delicious.
It was mid-August so the three of us wore shorts and t-shirts, and I remember packing a rainfly/windbreaker style jacket. The weather can change by the minute in Maine. The last thing I wanted to do was get caught clinging to the side of the mountain ill-prepared for any potential downpours. In addition to rain gear, I brought a small knife, a hand towel, sunscreen, and a baseball cap. I left the usual change of clothes and additional water in the truck.
Ascending “The Greatest Mountain”: Mount Katahdin
Mount Katahdin features several trailheads, each with their own unique passage up the mountain. Whichever one you choose, make sure you call to reserve a spot before you head there. Baxter State Park keeps a limit on the number of people who can access the trail each day. Memory serves me that we didn’t book long in advance, maybe a couple days, but the earlier you know you want to make the trek, the better off you’ll be getting a spot.
At 7:00 am, we parked the truck, checked our packs, and set off down the Chimney Pond Trail. This was the part of the hike that I would actually classify as a hike, but we’ll get to that later. I remember it being three miles from parking lot to the check-in station, but I could be wrong. I slept poorly on the ride. Anyway, Chimney Pond Trail is moderate hiking at best, with a gradual incline that carries you to the base of the mountain. If you just want to see the Mount Katahdin, but not climb it, I’d head to Chimney Pond. You’ll witness great views from there.
After a brief stop to check in at the ranger station (which you always want to do to make sure if you get lost or need help, someone knows to come looking for you), we set off for the Dudley trailhead. It was here that I learned that “hike” became synonymous with climb. Also, Dudley would not be a dull way to start the mountain. Nothing about Dudley felt like a dud. Much of Dudley is climbing over boulders. Not rocks. But massive, castle-wall-crushing stones that must be overcome to pass through an hour or more of the Dudley trail. Be ready to be part mountain goat if you select this path.
A few hours and a stop or two later, we’d come to the end of Dudley and the beginning of Knife Edge. I should’ve known by this point that if the park is going to dub a three-hour boulder trot “Dudley,” that when they named a trail “Knife Edge,” it would be something you might want to check your pants over.
It was. But it was the best part of the hike.
Knife Edge takes the trail along a narrow, at times up-and-down path that truly showcases the magnitude of the mountain. It feels like every time you are nearing the top, another precipice appears to challenge your resolve. Loose rocks make up the majority of the trail, and there is little room to make way for hikers you encounter.
Giving more detail would only lessen the experience. Mount Katahdin is worth the trip just to experience Knife Edge. In fact, it made the summit and hike out on the Saddle Trail rather boring. It wasn’t that the views weren’t stunning or Saddle wasn’t difficult, Knife Edge just has something special to it.
Some Final Thoughts
Mount Katahdin doesn’t rest among the towering Rocky Mountains. It does, however, make for a challenging ascent within the Appalachians. If you are looking to test your skills, it’s one of the most memorable hikes I’ve completed, even if much of it I would call a climb. Be sure to give yourself a day to recover, put your feet up, and drink a few beers.
Check out the @wanderous.life Instagram and our photo gallery for more pictures from Mount Katahdin and other wanderings…