Approximately 2 miles to the Saddleback Mountain summit, elevation 4,120 feet.
Approximately 3.5 miles to The Horn summit, elevation 4,041 feet.
4-6 hours round trip.
Difficulty: Weekend Warriors for only Saddleback, Pack the Aleve for adding The Horn.
It was dark and way-too-early when I slogged my way along snow-covered roads to Rangeley, Maine, with the intent of hiking Saddleback Mountain and The Horn via the Appalachian Trail. Imagine my disappointment when, after two hours of driving and the light of day still not showing its sunny face, I discovered that the AT parking lot on Route 4 was not only unplowed, but the entrance was plowed in, preventing anyone with four-wheel drive from powering through. Thank goodness for plan B! A winter ascent via Saddleback ski resort.
Saddleback Maine Ski Resort graciously allows hiking in all seasons. In winter the resort only asks that hikers adhere to the following guidelines, as outlined in the Trail Guide:
1. You are required to have a complimentary uphill access pass. This pass is available at the Saddleback Ticket Office during normal operational hours.
2. During operational hours, uphill access is restricted to the climber’s left of Green Weaver, Tri-Color, and Grey Ghost. If you would like to climb a different trail please talk to Ski Patrol staff.
It’s worth noting that resort staff seem accustomed to the presence of hikers. Aside from a couple head-nod hellos, ski patrol paid me no heed, and when I came upon a snow groomer on a closed portion of the trail, a spotter instructed the groomer to stop so I could pass. I thought I was the one out of place, and figured I must have been an annoyance to them, but the spotter seemed apologetic that they were in my way, advising me to be careful on the summit. It was sound advice, given the summit was enshrouded in clouds and visibility was limited.
This hike begins on the Grey Ghost trail, located directly in front of the main lodge. The Saddleback hiking trail map lists the hike as being approximately two miles, which probably means it’s slightly under two. After planning to hike the Appalachian Trail’s 5.7 mile northbound ascent, the ski trail’s two miles and 1,660 feet of elevation gain is like riding an escalator. This isn’t to say it’s without a good sweat as the Grey Ghost trail features several steep sections that are worth engaging the snowshoe heel bar. The other possible route, Green Weaver, looks to be more roundabout and, I presume, less steep.
There are several connecting trails that come onto the Grey Ghost trail, so it’s important to watch out for skiers. Saddleback’s one disclaimer for hikers is that you do so at your own risk. I had the fortune of getting started before the lifts were open, so I practically had the mountain to myself on the entire ascent. If there’s any question regarding the proper trail to take, just stick to the middle one and keep going up.
The Grey Ghost trail ends at an intersection with the Royal Coachman trail and the top of a lift line. From here veer slightly to the right to get onto the Tri-Color trail. This trail is less steep but narrower, so it could be a little risky when skiers are bombing down it. I had the fun of hiking up it through a gauntlet of snow guns.
At the top of the Tri-Color trail is another lift/trail intersection, along with a warming hut (skiers have it so easy) and a smaller maintenance shack. It’s behind the maintenance shack where the hiking trail that connects the ski resort to the Appalachian Trail is located. The distance between the two is very short, probably not more than a football field.
The connector trail quickly emerges above treeline and intersects with the Appalachian Trail. It is often extremely windy on the exposed Saddleback ridge, so winter hikers should come prepared with proper face gear. Turn left at the junction for the short jaunt over the frozen bedrock to the summit of Saddleback Mountain, elevation 4,120 feet.
From the Saddleback summit I continued along the Appalachian Trail for the 1.6 mile hike to The Horn. There’s approximately 500 feet of elevation loss and gain between the two summits, and the trail can be tricky to follow through this stretch as much of it is above treeline. There are cairns, but the landscape is also speckled with orphan trees, which, when sporting winter’s coat, closely resemble cairns.
There are two spots on the traverse to The Horn that require caution. The first is on a steep drop-off just after the cairn pictured above. I found it difficult amongst the icy bedrock to tell where the trail went here. Only after I picked a safe-looking way to the treeline on the left, and worked my way through waist-deep snow, did I discover the trail went straight ahead from the cairn down the center of the steep section. The other location is another ledge further along that is shorter, but which I found to be even more ice covered. I again opted for the long way around.
The big decision when crossing the saddle in winter is whether to wear snowshoes or spikes. At this time of year, shortly after an ice storm, it was a toss up. Someone had gone through before me on snowshoes, which no doubt served this person well in the low sags where snow accumulated. I chose to wear my crampons because of all the exposed ice. It was a decision I didn’t regret.
The northbound ascent of The Horn is easier than the Saddleback descent, but there are a few spots where educated guessing is required to stay on the trail. While none of the individual ascents are too strenuous, it’s the combination of Saddleback, The Horn, and then Saddleback again on the way back that makes this hike a real bear.