Anyone looking to get a taste of hiking the Appalachian Trail in Maine will find a full-course AT meal on the Route 4 ascent of Saddleback Mountain. Add a dash of fall in October, and the lush forest, side dishes such as Piazza Rock and Eddy Pond, above-treeline climbing, and open vistas of the Rangeley Lakes Region will satiate the heartiest of AT appetites. Just make sure you leave room for dessert: a mostly open ridge hike to The Horn.
Hike Distance: 5.7 miles to Saddleback Mountain summit; 7.3 miles to The Horn
Time: 7-9 hours
Difficulty: Pack the Aleve
Elevation: Saddleback 4,116 feet; The Horn 4,041
Elevation Gain (approximate): 2,250 feet to Saddleback + 500 to The Horn
Recommended Gear: Trail Runners or Hiking Boots, Trekking Poles
Note: you might also be interested in hiking Saddleback via the Berry Picker’s Trail.
Saddleback Mountain during peak foliage is one of those hikes where I simply couldn’t get out of the car fast enough. A quick nod to an AT hiker who was making breakfast out of the back of his vehicle in the parking lot, and I scrambled across Route 4 and set out on the Appalachian Trail under a canopy of fall leaves. The hike begins with a short descent to Sandy River, more of a small stream at this time of year, the pool of water under the bridge reflecting shades of purple.
The Appalachian Trail northbound climbs sharply from Sandy River for about a half mile before leveling out and crossing a dirt road. The next mile to the Piazza Rock Lean-To is mostly easy going, passing through a fir tunnel at one junction. The gnarly, vein-like roots that frequently criss-cross the trail are the only real threat to sure-footing.
The Piazza Rock Lean-To (caretaker and fee in the summer) is located at a stream crossing and includes tent platforms. Due to the campsite’s proximity to Route 4 and Rangeley, it gets less thru-hiker traffic than other sites, making it more of a haven for weekend warriors. Access Piazza Rock via a short side trail. This massive boulder with a flat top protrudes horizontally from the cliff and has interesting caves and rock climbs beneath.
A mere 0.2 miles north of Piazza Rock is another side trail to a series of boulder caves. The Appalachian Trail then cuts through a hollow filled with old maple trees glowing with color in the sunlight.
A short climb follows the hardwoods. The trail then skirts around Ethel Pond.
A moderate climb follows Ethel Pond for the next mile, passing a small bog before circumventing Eddy Pond and crossing a subsequent woods road/ATV trail. There’s a small boat launch area that goes from the road to the pond, which makes for a good picnic spot. It also appears as though this area serves as a stealth camping spot for thru-hikers.
Eddy Pond also marks the spot where the casual hiking ends and the thigh-burning climbing begins.
The next 1.8 miles from Eddy Pond to the Saddleback Mountain summit is steep going, a full mile of it above treeline on exposed bedrock. The open hiking defines Saddleback as one of Maine’s premier mountains because it delivers prolonged vistas of the Rangeley Lakes Region such as this:
Of course, all of the exposed hiking around 4,000 feet also creates a dangerous environment in foul weather, so it’s key to prepare accordingly for both friendly and foe skies.
The Saddleback summit, elevation 4,120 feet, features stunning 360-degree views.
The 1.6-mile hike to The Horn descends into the col via a bedrock ledge that can be tricky in winter, re-enters the trees for a short distance, and is then in and out of the krummholz before a moderate but exposed climb to The Horn.
On the way to The Horn, 0.7 miles south of the Saddleback summit, is the intersection with the Berry Picker’s Trail. Opened in September of 2016, and created by the Maine Appalachian Club and the Maine Appalachian Land Trust, the Berry Picker’s Trail takes the historic route that locals often used to pick blueberries and cranberries on Saddleback.