Mt. Katahdin: Knife Edge Trail

We had hiked Katahdin, but daughter had never taken the legendary Knife Edge Trail, the narrow 1.1 mile stretch (and Maine rite of passage) from Pamola Peak to Baxter Peak. At age 12, it was time. On September 9, 2018, we hiked together to Baxter Peak on Mt. Katahdin via the Helon Taylor Trail to cross the Knife Edge. On the way down, dad and daughter took the Saddle and Chimney Pond Trails (total R/T appx 10.2 mi). (For maps, other routes, and links to Baxter State Park’s great resources, see our September 2017 Mt. Katahdin post.)

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On the way in to Millinocket the night before, we stopped at Hannaford to stock up on supplies before staying at the Parks Edge Inn. In preparation, we went with a chocolate and peanut butter theme, and for our lunches, wrapped Nutella, peanut butter, and bananas in lavash bread like some Willy Wonka burritos, and grabbed peanut butter chocolate chip Larabars and peanut butter M&M’s to snack on.

To get into line at the Baxter State Park gate the next morning, we woke up around 5 am, and signed in to start hiking at Roaring Brook at 6:47 am. The $5 Day Use parking pass for Maine residents has to be the most value Mainers can get for $5. This easy online step is essential to guarantee a spot in the park, which is kept wild in many ways, including the limitation on daily access to the park.

The climb up Helon Taylor Trail was steady and tough, but we took our time, and enjoyed the changing vegetation and ubiquitous chattering of red squirrels, often looking back to enjoy the views behind us to the east, as we slowly emerged from the forest, patches of scrub pine, and finally above the tree line, reaching Pamola Peak around 10 am.

Getting ready to descend into the beginning of the Knife Edge.

The first step of the Knife Edge was the descent into the chimney adjoining Pamola, then a quick climb back up, setting the tone for a fun traverse. We saw several other groups of people crossing the Knife Edge, including some coming from the direction of Baxter Peak, one of which contained the only other child we saw, a nimble little boy, younger than daughter, leaping from rock to rock.

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The Knife Edge Trail is a dizzying series of up and down climbs.

After the climb up Helon Taylor, exposed to the wind, and steeply ascending until our legs ached, we agreed that the Knife Edge was more mentally than physically challenging, and stopped frequently to gaze down into the bowl created by the steep cliffs of Katahdin, look at rock slides down the cliffs to the south, and watch ravens wheel and glide on the air currents below us.

We did not spend long on the summit of Baxter Peak, which was crowded with thru-hikers and large groups, with a long line to take pictures at the summit sign. Millennial-types used the cell service available due to the summit’s elevation to FaceTime with friends (“You’ll never guess where I am right now”) and send Instagram pictures ad nauseam. Daughter waited for a quick break in the action and snapped a ghost summit photo.

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A weather-worn sign cautions hikers on the Saddle to take care with alpine plants.

Much more interesting was our meeting on the way down to the Saddle Trail with a Baxter State Park ranger, who educated us about the fragility of alpine plants. She told us that even a small patch can take up to one hundred years to grow back, and can be killed by as few as seven footsteps on it. We asked a number of questions we had gathered during our hike, including why some slides looked different- she explained that the slides where the trees were laying downhill were caused by avalanches in the winter, but that when the mountainside was denuded of vegetation, it meant that a rockslide had occurred. This ranger, from Asheville, North Carolina, works at Baxter from May to October educating hikers, conducting rescues, and sometimes climbs Katahdin every day.

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Relaxing on the descent by Chimney Pond.

Our descent of the Saddle Trail was slowed by the onerous process of passing what looked like a large school group, and we got to Chimney Pond around 1:40 PM, where we took a long break to enjoy the sunshine, air out our feet, and birdwatch.

From there, it was a downhill walk over rocks and roots to Roaring Brook and our car, getting back around 3:30, for a total of almost nine hours of hiking. During this last stretch, one of dad’s hiking poles snapped, but our hike was otherwise uneventful.

So what worked? Obviously, chocolate and peanut butter. But daughter felt good about her hiking and running in the weeks leading up to the Knife Edge, and it got her into shape for the climb.

Mentally, we had talked about the challenges, and even used technology to our advantage, watching YouTube videos of the Knife Edge (the volume was quickly muted) to dispel fears. We started hiking with the agreement that we would not stupidly try to push through bad weather, and even reserved another parking spot for the following day, just in case.

We had a ton of water, using our 3 Liter Osprey hydration systems (Dad still ran out with a mile or two left to go). Dad carried a light pack with extra clothing layers and food. Daughter stayed with a Camelbak pack that allowed her to carry water and a few energy bars, but didn’t hinder her while climbing.

We shared a great hike, and daughter enjoyed being the tallest thing in Maine, even for a few seconds. With the right attitude, preparation, and training, the Knife Edge can be an incredible, unforgettable experience for kids, as part of an exploration of Maine’s tallest mountain and the limits within themselves. Even an unsuccessful attempt, safely and properly handled, can create a goal for future conquest, and build decision-making and risk management skills.

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