1.7 miles (one way; also doesn’t count the 3.3-mile hike in on the Chimney Pond Trail)
1-3 hours (ditto)
Difficulty: Pack the Aleve. Then double-down
The Cathedral Trail is the most direct route from the base of Katahdin to the summit. If the trail name alone doesn’t provide adequate foreshadowing, future hikers should know that “direct” means “straight up now tell me is the trail gonna be like this forever.” What’s more, the terrain likely qualifies as cruel and unusual—in a good way, of course, for trail masochists. Please also be advised that the Cathedral Trail should be avoided on descents. I caution this because the Roaring Brook Campground ranger specifically told us not to come down via the Cathedral Trail. I also know this because I’ve never been very good at following instructions.
In a nutshell the Cathedral Trail is a 5,000 foot rock pile with boulders on the bottom and loose gravel at the top. It’s as if the glaciers left behind an unfinished game of Jenga. The trail begins at picturesque Chimney Pond nestled at the foot of Katahdin’s South Basin. It’s easy to become transfixed by the giant bowl rising above the miniature pond, and thus it’s no surprise reservations at Chimney Pond Campground have to be made months in advance. Just cross your fingers for fair weather. Fortunately for those starting at Roaring Brook Campground, the 3.3-mile hike along Chimney Pond Trail is a nature walk on the difficulty scale.
The Cathedral Trail wouldn’t be the shortest route between points A and B without starting the up from the get-go. Immediately after departing the campground from behind the ranger’s station the trail tackles a boulder climb amongst a thicket of stunted trees. The cover is short lived as the vast majority of the trail is in the open (aka sunblock and hat advisory). The boulders, on the other hand, continue, bringing hikers to the mounded outcroppings known as the Cathedrals. The trail doesn’t actually traverse the Cathedral tops, but you can scamper up them fairly easily and the photo-op view is well worth the effort.
Continue up the rock slide to the junction with the Baxter Peak Cutoff trail; keep left following a series of cairns. Throughout the climb you’ll be treated to dramatic views of Hamlin Ridge to the northwest and Katahdin’s Knife Edge in the southeast. Near the top you’ll pass a steep ledge that puts the Knife Edge hike into perspective. Eventually the trail levels out upon the Tableland and joins the Saddle Trail with .02 miles to Baxter Peak, elevation 5267 feet. Baxter Peak marks both the highest point in Maine as well as the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, which ascends Katahdin via the popular Hunt Trail.
From Baxter Peak the brave and adventurous can continue across the Knife Edge (fair weather only) and descend via the Dudley Trail to return to Chimney Pond, or get back to Roaring Brook Campground via the Helon Taylor Trail. If the Knife Edge isn’t your cup of tea, double back to the Saddle Trail for a more gradual (relatively speaking) trek down.
The best spots to camp for this hike are the Chimney Pond and Roaring Brook Campgrounds. Both fill up fast so it’s best to make reservations months in advance. Learn more about the reservation process here, as well as check the park reservation system for campsite availability. Parking is also limited, so day hikers should call the Day Use Parking Reservation System at 207-723-3877 to secure a spot. It’s also best to arrive as early as possible. The park will turn away day hikers once the lots have reached capacity.
Follow Baxter State Park’s directions to the Togue Pond Gatehouse. Veer right after the gatehouse and follow signs to Roaring Brook Campground, which is also the main parking area for Chimney Pond Campground. Those staying at Chimney Pond have a 3.3-mile hike to the campground.
My brother Mike admiring the view from atop one of the Cathedrals.
The Cathedral Trail intersection with the Baxter Peak Cutoff Trail.
The view of Katahdin’s Knife Edge from the Cathedral Trail. On this day we dared to cross.
The Cathedral Trail from near the top. If you’re smart, you’ll only hike up it. We weren’t smart.
The view of Hamlin Ridge.
Another peek at the Knife Edge from near the top of the Cathedral Trail.
Another look at the South Basin from Chimney Pond.