Katahdin is Maine’s signature mountain, an honor bestowed upon it for more than simply boasting the state’s highest peak at 5,267 feet. From a distance Katahdin appears as though a crown rising above the vast woodlands of Baxter State Park. The aura surrounding this magnificent massif and the desire to conquer it can be traced to Henry David Thoreau’s exploration in September of 1846, as chronicled in his book, The Maine Woods.
Only a handful of people are known to have summited Katahdin prior to Thoreau, the first recorded account belonging to Charles Turner in 1804. Native Americans, who referred to Katahdin as “Kette-Adene,” or “The Greatest Mountain,” in all likelihood hadn’t made many ascents prior to Turner as they generally revered the mountain and feared the wrath of its deity, Pamola. Thoreau wrote of this ideology:
“The tops of mountains are among the unfinished parts of the globe, whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets, and try their effect on our humanity. Only daring and insolent men, perchance, go there. Simple races, as savages, do not climb mountains, — their tops are sacred and mysterious tracts never visited by them. Pomola is always angry with those who climb to the summit of Ktaadn.”
Since Baxter State Park began keeping a log of hiker deaths in 1926, 44 people have departed on Katahdin, the vast majority victims of falls or lightning strikes. Pamola’s fickle territorialism should not be underestimated—the weather can be harsh and unpredictable around Baxter Peak even when the skies suggest wall-to-wall sunshine from the trail head below. The dangers of Katahdin were cemented into the state’s folklore when, in the summer of 1939, 12-year-old Donn Fendler was separated from his family and became lost in the woods of Baxter State Park for nine days. As a schoolchild I recall reading the story of his ordeal, Lost on a Mountain in Maine, and through this cherished book the lessons of wilderness survival and the perils of Katahdin were every bit ingrained in my consciousness as those of not talking to strangers.
In addition to the legends of Thoreau and Fendler, a third factor in Katahdin’s kingship was born in 1935 when Myron H. Avery, a Maine native and Chairman of the Appalachian Trail Conference, put a plan into place to make Katahdin the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Avery’s vision was realized two years later, making way for the hundreds of through hikers who today eye Katahdin as the prize at the end of their 2,178.3-mile journey. Add to the count the hundreds more who begin their through hike at Katahdin and venture south, as well as the thousands of day hikers every season, and the mountain is quite possibly the most sought-out hike in the state.
While there are several routes to Katahdin’s summit, the vast majority of people ascend via the Hunt Trail (also the Appalachian Trail). The approximate route taken by Thoreau in 1846, the Hunt Trail is the perfect Maine hike offering 4,100 feet of rugged elevation gain featuring deep forest, waterfalls, rock staircases, boulder scrambles, a unique alpine tableland, and stunning views.
The Hunt Trail begins at Katahdin Stream Campground in Baxter State Park. It’s best to start as early as possible, ideally around 6 a.m., to enjoy the summit without having to share it with too many others. If you do this hike anytime from late July through October, expect to be passed by through hikers (don’t feel bad, they’ve got at least 2,173.1 miles of conditioning on their legs). Also, thunderstorms typically pass in the afternoon, so an early start gives you the best chance to avoid severe weather. Of course, always check the weather report or consult a park ranger before attempting this hike.
The first mile of the trail begins with a gradual climb through a dense, untamed forest symbolic of Baxter State Park, which once served as the inspirational backdrop to Walt Disney’s Bambi in the 1930s. The first milestone of the hike comes in the form of a wooden footbridge over Katahdin Stream, soon followed by the 50-foot Katahdin Stream Falls (the last reliable water source on the hike). From here the trail takes a turn for the steep, climbing a succession of stone staircases.
The treeline ends near the three-mile mark of the hike, which also coincides with the beginning of the boulder scramble on the Hunt Spur. Aside from the white trail blazes and the metal rungs protruding from several boulders, it’s hard to imagine this section of the mountain being any different when Thoreau made his ascent. The views from this point are quite literally breathtaking, not to mention a little nerve-wracking, often aided by a fierce tugging wind that gave me the distinct feeling one slip would send me spiraling off the face of the Earth. It’s easy to see how the Native Americans, Thoreau and others felt as though they were embarking upon forbidden ground.
About a mile into the boulders there’s one last climb over a shelf know as the “Gateway” to Katahdin’s mystical tableland. This flat expanse is populated with rocks and rare alpine vegetation. If not for the staked path and signs reminding hikers to stay on the trail, this section could have easily deceived my mind’s eye into thinking we’d landed on a far and distant planet. Just when I’d started to believe we had, a crow soared past sideways without a flap of its wings and we became enshrouded in a passing cloud, giving the impression that we were seemingly entering the great unknown.
For me, reality, and a dose of history, struck back with Thoreau Spring, elevation 4,627. As much as I’d love to glorify this waypoint, the spring is significant in name only. On a good day it looks as though someone spilled a Nalgene bottle. The spring’s signpost, which also marks the junction with the Abol Trail and the Baxter Peak Cut-off Trail, is significant in that it is the one-mile marker to the summit. Aside from having to be conscious of the many rocks in the trail, the last mile is relatively easy. Unlike mountains with false summits, Katahdin’s Baxter Peak has a tendency to sneak-up on hikers.
The views from Baxter Peak into the South Basin, over to the South Peak and across the jagged Knife’s Edge to Chimney Peak further perpetuate the image of standing upon Maine’s crown. The best part of which is that there’s no gift shop on top selling “This car climbed Katahdin” bumper stickers. Instead, you have the joy of knowing you’ve earned this cherished view. Just hope Pamola isn’t angered by your insolence.
The best place to camp for the Hunt Trail is at Katahdin Stream Campground where the trailhead is located. Through hikers can also stay at the Birches Campsite, though a minimum hike of the 100-Mile Wilderness is required. Space in Katahdin Stream Campground can fill up quickly in the summer so it’s best to make a reservation months in advance. Baxter State Park has a, well, interesting reservation system. Reservation can be made over the phone only if you wish to camp within fourteen days of calling; all other requests must be made by completing and mailing in the park’s reservation form. Learn more about the reservation process here, as well as check the park reservation system for campsite availability.
Parking for day hiking is available at Katahdin Stream Campground; however, this fills up quickly on weekends and the park does restrict traffic so arrive early to avoid getting shut out. Better yet, call the Day Use Parking Reservation System at 207-723-3877 to secure a spot.
Follow Baxter State Park’s directions to the Togue Pond Gatehouse. Veer left after the gatehouse and follow signs to Katahdin Stream Campground.
Baxter Peak, elevation 5,267 feet, is the highest point in Maine.
The view from Baxter Peak into the South Basin and Chimney Pond.
Katahdin’s Knife Edge. Just imagine what Pamola thinks of trespassers here….