The AT for You & Me
"Do not attempt this section unless you carry a minimum of ten days' supplies. Do not underestimate the difficulty of this section. Good hiking!"
With these dire-sounding words, hikers are welcomed, if you can call it that, to the Hundred Mile Wilderness, perhaps the most dreaded section of the Appalachian Trail in Maine. Though the sign writers tried to leaven their gloomy message with that chipper exclamation point, the effect can be enough to daunt even the staunchest outdoorsman.
What's ahead, after all, is a 99.-mile corridor historically known for its lack of access to civilization and its long slogs through dark woods, punctuated though they are by some of Maine's most impressive natural wonders, from 400-foot canyons like Gulf Hagas to famously remote lakes like Nahmakanta to twisting gorges like Slugundy Falls.
These days, though, many logging roads cross the wilderness, making it accessible to hikers with just a daypack and several hours to spare. The best part about the Hundred Mile Wilderness, when approached this way? There's no need to delay your gratification by trudging through miles of forestlands to get to the views. For example, the Elliotsville Road in Monson gets you close enough to do Barren Mountain (elevation 2,660) in an easy day, beginning at the base of the peak, crossing Long Pond Stream, and taking you past Slugundy Falls up over wide-open ledges with sweeping views out across Lake Onawa. A fire tower at the summit, a 3.9-mile hike one-way, provides even more vistas — if you dare venture up it.
The Hundred Mile Wilderness accounts for less than half of the Appalachian Trail's 281-mile journey through Maine. And while the AT is best known for the rugged backpackers who walk the entire 2,175-mile trail, from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mount Katahdin through fourteen states, it's just as accessible to casual hikers hoping to experience spectacular vistas and unspoiled wilderness. Still skeptical? Here are six hikes of varying difficulty on the famed AT, recommended by those who know the trail best, the iron-lunged through hikers.
1. Mahoosuc Notch
On the New Hampshire border, the section of trail through Mahoosuc Notch has been widely called the most difficult mile of the entire AT, and hikers either love it or hate it. Marlboro, Massachusetts, through-hiker nicknamed Peaks is in the former camp. "It's a mile that is completely different from every other mile on the AT," he says.
Indeed. The notch is a famously tortured twist of granite where gigantic boulders tumbled into the crevasse between Mahoosuc Arm and Fulling Mill Mountain. Here, day hikers, who wear small packs and can time their hike for good weather, have a distinct advantage over through-hikers, who are burdened by large frame packs and often have to tackle this stretch in snow and ice. (Day hikers definitely won't want to tackle this hike when the trail is wet.)
Still, Patrick Jacaruso, a fifty-something through-hiker from Connecticut who wrote his trail name, Hogwalker, into registers the length of the AT, loved the area. "The Mahoosucs were pretty cool," he says. "People say it's so hard, but it wasn't that way for me. Your mind's not on the walk, it's on the scenery, the atmosphere. You get down in there, and there's smoke coming up from the snow below, and you can hear water going through underneath the rocks below you. It was pretty incredible." The easiest way to get a sampling of the Mahoosucs is to visit Grafton Notch State Park, north of Newry on Route 26, and climb the 3.8 miles up Old Speck Mountain, a 4,180-footer that is worth the trip on its own merits. Two miles on, drop down into Mahoosuc Arm to see what all these hikers are talking about.
Scorpion, aka Gary Couse, 64, of Swainsboro, Georgia, says you won't soon forget the trip. "Mahoosuc Notch is one that everybody will remember," he says. "Going up the Arm was probably the most difficult mile on the trail. But it was a fun mile."
"Saddleback was one of my favorite places," says Hogwalker. (The construction worker rides a Harley when he's not in the woods.) "It had just fantastic views up top."
The subject of a long-running controversy, Saddleback (elevation 4,116) is among the state's tallest mountains and part of a range of eight peaks in the western mountains near Rangeley. A ski resort sits on the side of Saddleback proper, and for decades it was embroiled in an epic battle with the federal government over the status of the trail corridor. The situation was finally resolved in 2000. (Both the resort, which wanted to develop the mountain, and the federal government, which wanted to preserve the trail corridor, made concessions in an historic $4 million deal. The owners of the resort set aside about 1,500 acres they had planned to build on and the feds paid more for the land than they planned.)
Saddleback has always been open to climbing, but many Mainers have not bothered with it, figuring that the ski slopes would detract from the woods experience. While there are signs of development on the mountain, the AT corridor is largely protected from it, and the prospect is truly breathtaking.
Six of the mountains in the Saddleback Range loft up over 4,000 feet, and the ridgeline that links them is among the top three ridge walks in Maine, behind only Katahdin and the Bigelows. Much of the going is exposed, which allows you to bask in the panoramas for hours at a time. Of course, that same exposure means that the winds can be strong — and that the route sees some pretty intense weather at time.
AT hikers start at one end and walk the thirty-two miles to the other, which is a fine backpack that takes several days, but you don't have to follow suit. A great day hike can be had by simply mounting Saddleback off Route 4 in Sandy River Plantation (south of Rangeley) and going up to the summit — 5.1 miles, one way — and back on the same trail. Ambitious hikers could push on and make it to the scenic summit of the Horn, which is about 13.5 miles round trip, to get a sense of the ridgewalk. The mountain is so gorgeous you'll understand why the feds, the owners, and the hikers all wanted a piece of it.
3. The Bigelows
Known on the AT as the "Bigs," the Bigelow Range in the Eustis-Stratton area is arguably the single place on the trail in Maine most beloved by through-hikers. "That was one of my favorite ranges," says Krissy Walls, 23, of North Carolina. Known to her hiking buddies as Little Tree, Walls was one of the first women to finish the trail in 2004. "The Bigs were so exposed and treeless, and it all looked so difficult and impressive, but it wasn't that hard to climb."
The camel-humped peaks — Little Bigelow, Avery Peak, West Peak, South Horn — do indeed look impressive, their immense sides shadowing Flagstaff Lake. The trail climbs along a ridge between them, rising and falling like a woodsy roller coaster; some say the views it provides are as impressive as those on Mount Katahdin.
Hiking the entire Bigelow Range may not seem that difficult to through-hikers like Little Tree, who have been averaging twenty-five miles a day for months, but the average day hiker would find the twelve-mile trek quite an undertaking. Numerous trails feed the ridge, however, allowing you to do a loop and enjoy the scenery up top without having to hike the whole thing.
A nice day trip, Avery Peak offers some of the grandest vistas of woods and water in the entire state, from the rest of the Bigs trundling off to the west, out across Flagstaff Lake to the paisley of forest and ponds that flows endlessly to the east. The 4.5-mile hike up begins at Round Barn field, a clearing on the shore of Flagstaff (off East Flagstaff Road and reached via Route 16 from North New Portland). The Safford Brook Trail will take you up a couple miles and connect you to the AT. Follow it west up a steep mile-long rise, and then make sure to take a side trail off the AT to Old Man's Head, a precipitous cliff. Then push on to the 4,088-foot summit of Avery Peak.
4. Moxie Bald Mountain
Not all of the hikes on the AT are so difficult. The trail is full of less dramatic beauties that can be just as captivating as soaring mountains.
"I really enjoyed some of the smaller peaks and quieter stretches," says Rich Wentzel, 53, of Wisconsin. Wentzel hiked the trail for the second time in 2004, having previously hiked it in sections. "Moxie Bald Mountain, for example, was easy hiking but really pretty. The sun met me on top, there were nice views, and I could see Katahdin."
This little-known peak is only 2,600 feet tall, but its summit and the approaching ridges are wide-open and offer through-hikers their first look at their Holy Grail, the Mountain of the People of Maine, out across the Hundred Mile Wilderness, as well as a glance back at the mighty Bigelows and Sugarloaf. The trail climbs up through a mixed forest, passing pretty stretches of pines and blueberry and raspberry patches, after getting its start in Bald Mountain Township northeast of Caratunk. You skirt the edge of Moxie Pond at the outset, then cross the minor rapids at Baker Stream before making a gradual ascent. The climbing gets a little tougher about 3.5 miles up, when the path crawls over the open ledges. The trail to the summit is 4.2 miles and takes about three and a half hours to complete, before returning the way you came. Those looking for an overnight will find Joe's Hole Lean-To about halfway up.
To reach the trailhead, take Route 16 north out of Bingham and make a left onto Moxie Pond Road. Turn right at Moxie Pond onto a paper company road and follow that for about eight miles. Then watch for AT signs.
5. The Hundred Mile Wilderness
For through hikers, the first half of the trip through the Hundred Mile Wilderness, which stretches from Monson to the edge of Baxter State Park, crosses mountain after mountain and can be grueling; the latter half wanders back and forth through a picturesque landscape of lakes and rivers.
"When I was hiking I was told that the Hundred Mile Wilderness would be scary," says Hogwalker. "I didn't want to do it. People said the blackflies would eat me alive and that there was no place to get off. But I found it wasn't scary at all and that you can get in and out of there anywhere you want now."
In fact, there are enough points to hop in and out that you can plan excursions that are as long or as short as you like. Try taking the KI Road out of Katahdin Iron Works Township and getting on the trail at the Hermitage. You can then do a loop around Gulf Hagas, which is known as the Grand Canyon of Maine (a bit of a misnomer, but the 400-foot gorge is still quite impressive), and scale Gulf Hagas Mountain for a long day of hiking.
You can't talk about the AT in Maine without mentioning Mount Katahdin. The mile-high peak is unquestionably the most popular destination for hikers on the trail in Maine. For northbound through-hikers it's the grand finale, the super scenic and highly emotional culmination of their life-changing odyssey. For many southbounders it's the end of the trail as well — they find Katahdin so strenuous they give up on their AT dream then and there. For the rest of us, it's just the best hike in the state.
"I think I most enjoyed the last mile across the Tableland when I finished my hike," says Master Maine Guide Deane Jones of Mount Vernon. "I could see the summit of Katahdin approaching and I knew it was about to end. I cannot describe what went through my mind, but that day the summit was my favorite place on the entire AT."
Katahdin might not rise as tall as some of the other summits on the trail — Mount Washington is about 1,000 feet higher - but it sits in the middle of a wilderness and is the highest point for miles around, so it offers a more dramatic panorama than anywhere else. Even some hikers from out West, who are used to scaling 14,000-footers, find the mountain both appealing and challenging because the trail gains a lot more elevation than many mountains in the Rockies and beyond, which often begin two-thirds of the way up — and Katahdin doesn't have switchbacks. One ranger at Baxter State Park calls it "eight-hours on a StairMaster."
A hike up the AT on Katahdin begins at Baxter State Park's Katahdin Stream Campground — get there early because the parking lot often fills by 7 a.m. in summer, and once the parking spots are gone, you're out of luck to hike that day. The trail follows Katahdin Stream for a couple of miles and passes Katahdin Stream Falls before making its way up a large boulderfield. There the hiking turns to climbing, as you scramble up, sometimes with the assistance of iron bars driven into the rock. Then it's onto the Tableland, a huge, wide-open tundralike place that's home to rare subarctic flora and fauna. After hours of steady ascent — it takes the average hiker at least five to make his way up the 5.1-mile trail — the relatively flat Tableland feels like a relief. Then it's another short trek up to the summit of Baxter Peak. The views that await are truly astonishing, 360 degrees of the best of Maine.