Horse Mountain (Baxter State Park)

Horse Mountain Trail, Baxter State Park

Horse Mountain (1,589 ft) is the first trail you will encounter through Baxter State Park’s Matagamon Gate. This hike, about 3.3 miles, taking about an hour and twenty minutes with the inclusion of the East Spur Overlook, starts uphill on a narrow track through a forest dominated by birch. Map and description are available from two indispensable books – the AMC Maine Mountain Guide and Falcon Guides’ Hiking Maine’s Baxter State Park by Greg Westrich. Throughout Baxter State Park, I used Map Adventures’ Katahdin Baxter State Park Waterproof Trail Map to navigate.  Baxter’s great website also has downloadable/printable trail maps, and the Trout Brook Farm map covers this area.

Horse Mountain Trail near summit, Baxter State Park

The sparsely recorded trail log and spiderwebs across the trail attest to its lesser-used nature. In fact, as I was getting ready to hike at the tiny parking area, a man stopped his vehicle and told me that he had hiked every mountain in Baxter State Park except Horse Mountain. I don’t know why he stopped to tell me this, but it provided the proper motivation for me to do something that he had not.

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Hiking Maine’s Baxter State Park, by Greg Westrich

The digital age in hiking has brought us “apps,” which can be concealed in a phone, show us where we are, how far we have gone, and can describe and map hikes.  But these technological wonders have their limitations, particularly in a wild place like Baxter State Park, where cell service is available only intermittently (if at all), and only from the highest elevations.  There is also something incongruous about getting away and outdoors, only to stare at a tiny screen.  Enter Hiking Maine’s Baxter State Park by Greg Westrich (FalconGuides, 2017), an outstanding roadmap to Maine’s favorite wilderness playground, combining the analog permanence and durability of a book, and the accessible map and photo layout of an online guide.

Westrich’s book begins with an introduction and instructions on using the guide.  Following a “Before You Hit The Trail” summary of Baxter State Park’s history, geology, wildlife, seasons, and rules, Westrich describes thirty-seven unique day hikes, numbered roughly from north (Horse Mountain) to south (Roaring Brook Nature Trail) within the park, and three suggested backpacking trip itineraries, ranging from three to four days in duration.  Each hike begins with a short section called “The Run Down,” describing the essential characteristics of the hike at a glance, as well as its difficulty on a scale of Easy to Very Strenuous.  Physical directions and precise GPS location of the trailhead are included, as are individual trail maps and excellent photos.  Westrich describes points of interest, locations for views, and trail-specific features, like water sources, or places to rent canoes.

The genius of this guide is the layout.  Readers can flip through the guide, or use the numbered overview map in the beginning to find a hike based on its location in the park.  Hikes close in proximity in the park are correspondingly adjacent in the book, allowing the reader to string together their own hikes, like we did for Grassy Pond, Daicey Pond Loop, and Niagara Falls.  Another entry point is the “Trail Finder” towards the back of the book, breaking down the best hikes for swimming, views, waterfalls, blueberries, geology, families, wildlife, history, and canoeing.  These categories make for quick suggestions and ideas, and further broaden the appeal of this guidebook.

The subtitle of the book is “A Guide to the Park’s Greatest Hiking Adventures Including Mount Katahdin,” which cleverly (and rightfully) positions the park’s centerpiece as only one of the many places to explore.  Fear not, the legendary routes to Katahdin’s Baxter Peak via the Hunt Trail, Abol Trail, and The Knife Edge each receive their own detailed entries in this guide, which make the book worth owning all by themselves.  But it is impossible to peruse this book without feeling the urge to spend more time in Baxter State Park, seeking out the lesser-known hikes that Westrich so aptly describes.

 

Grassy Pond, Daicey Pond Loop and Niagara Falls (Baxter State Park)

Little Niagara Falls, Appalachian Trail in Baxter State Park
Little Niagara Falls, Appalachian Trail in Baxter State Park

(Note: As of July 1, 2020, Baxter State Park offices and headquarters remain closed to the public until further notice due to COVID-19, but reservations can still be made online and by calling (207) 723-5140. Baxter State Park is open for camping and day use. All trails, with the exception of Dudley, are open, and all publicly accessible roads are open.)

In season 1, episode 3 of the travel show “An Idiot Abroad,comedian Karl Pilkington, sleeping in a cave across from the impressive facade of the lost city of Petra in Jordan, focuses on his vantage point, rationalizing, “I’d rather live in a cave with a view of a palace than live in a palace with a view of a cave.” When our annual father/daughter trip to climb Katahdin was detoured by injury, we used similar logic in planning a non-Katahdin hike at Baxter State Park – a flatter, less strenuous hike highlighted by the views of Katahdin and the many surrounding mountains of Baxter S.P.  While Katahdin’s peaks are the undisputed centerpiece of this amazing place, this approach showed us a glimpse of the wonders available in the shadow of the mountain.

Mount Katahdin, wreathed in clouds, from Katahdin Stream Campground
Mount Katahdin, wreathed in clouds, from Katahdin Stream Campground

We kept our lean-to reservation at Katahdin Stream Campground, and when morning dawned, we filtered the chilly waters of Katahdin Stream into our water bottles. Instead of heading up the Hunt Trail to Baxter Peak, we turned south on the Appalachian Trail, all the way around Grassy Pond, Elbow Pond, Daicey Pond, down Nesowadnehunk Stream to Little and Big Niagara Falls, then back to the start. We pieced together this hike, totaling about 7.5 miles round-trip (3 hrs 45 mins), from Falcon Guides’ Hiking Maine’s Baxter State Park by Greg Westrich, and used Map Adventures’ Katahdin Baxter State Park Waterproof Trail Map to navigate.  Baxter’s great website also has downloadable/printable trail maps, and the Kidney-Daicey map covers this area.

Moose and Doubletop Mountains across Grassy Pond
Moose and Doubletop Mountains across Grassy Pond, Baxter State Park

Our turn away from Katahdin’s elevation seemed serendipitous, as a steady rain picked up that would have made a steep climb tricky, and we quickly donned our rain gear. An easy rolling trail and plank bridges took us over cold, clear streams tinged sepia tones by cedars, and a hard right turn took us onto the Grassy Pond (blue blazes) and Elbow Pond Trails. We skirted these ponds, trying unsuccessfully to glimpse a morning moose. We settled for birds, frogs and a variety of mushrooms in every color and shape, from small, bright cones to giant discs that looked dangerously like pancakes.

Looking across Elbow Pond to Mt O-J-I and Barren Mountain, Baxter State Park
Looking across Elbow Pond to Mt O-J-I and Barren Mountain, Baxter State Park

Canoes are available to rent at Grassy, Elbow, and Daicey Ponds from the nearest Baxter S.P. ranger station, with plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities.  Daicey Pond has cabins for rent, making it a great base for a week of hiking, if you can snag a reservation.  At Daicey, we re-joined the Appalachian Trail, moving across the day-use parking area to the shores of Nesowadnehunk Stream (towards directional sign marked The Falls). The sides of the trail were carpeted in vibrant green mosses and ferns, creating an emerald forest by the stream.

Little Niagara Falls, Baxter State Park
Little Niagara Falls, Baxter State Park

The remains of the Toll Dam, a vestige of Maine’s logging history, came first, then a short side trail to Little Niagara Falls. The rain and the time of day contributed to a quiet trail, with mostly thru-hikers heading in the other direction, racing the season to summit Katahdin, all friendly and moving quickly. We traveled the slight downhill, and enjoyed the spectacle of the roaring waters of both falls.

Big Niagara Falls, Baxter State Park
Big Niagara Falls, Baxter State Park

Heading back after a snack at Big Niagara Falls, we re-traced our steps north along the A.T., veering south (right) on the Daicey Pond Nature Trail to vary our return route. The trail around the southern side of Daicey Pond was narrow, with wet branches tight to our legs as we moved back towards the A.T. The clouds had moved in to obscure our view of the peaks across Daicey, but a clear day must be spectacular.

View across the south side of Daicey Pond to O-J-I and Barren Mountain
Cloudy view across the south side of Daicey Pond to O-J-I and Barren Mountain

The A.T. took us back to the trailhead, and our nearby vehicle. Normally, we would have enjoyed an outdoor meal on a camp stove, but the rain and cold had us in the truck with the heat on. We headed out of the park to lunch at New England Outdoors Center’s River Drivers Restaurant, overlooking Millinocket Lake (look for signs for a turn left as you head back towards Millinocket), a warm, welcoming place with great pub food and a view of Katahdin – crunchy chicken wrap and fish and chips both got high marks.

Grassy Pond Trail, Baxter State Park
Grassy Pond Trail, Baxter State Park

The trip to Baxter State Park is always a long one, no matter where you are arriving from, as it is remote and wild, and requires you to shed creature comforts and technology.  That, and the reservation system limiting access (smart and sustainable, for the park’s protection) can put a lot of pressure on a day or weekend trip with Katahdin as the goal.  But this great reclaimed wilderness holds a lot more secrets for anyone willing to broaden their outlook beyond the mountain centerpiece, and this change-up hike left us wanting to plan a much longer stay to explore the rest of Baxter State Park.

(Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links, and as an Amazon Associate Hiking in Maine blog earns from qualifying purchases.)

Mount Katahdin

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Keeping an eye on the weather on our descent down the Saddle Trail.

(Note: As of July 1, 2020, Baxter State Park offices and headquarters remain closed to the public until further notice due to COVID-19, but reservations can still be made online and by calling (207) 723-5140. Baxter State Park is open for camping and day use. All trails, with the exception of Dudley, are open, and all publicly accessible roads are open.)

Katahdin is the grandfather of Maine mountains, and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.  It’s hard to describe the way Katahdin’s bulk dominates the landscape without actually seeing it for yourself.  Dad and daughter climbed Katahdin’s Baxter Peak (5,268 ft) via the Chimney Pond, Cathedral, and Saddle Trails (total R/T appx 10.5 mi) on September 9, 2017 to cap off our spring and summer of hiking.  Dad had previously hiked Katahdin via the Hunt Trail (11 mi R/T), and via the Helon Taylor, Knife Edge, Saddle, and Chimney Pond Trails (total R/T appx 10.2 mi), but this was daughter’s first ascent.

(Note: for a deeper dive on the Knife Edge Trail, check out this update in September 2018.)

Here is the Katahdin trail map from the Baxter State Park website, which wisely suggests allowing 8 to 12 hours for a Katahdin hike, and has all the info you will need for a successful hike:

Climbing Katahdin requires some prior planning, due to the remoteness of Baxter State Park.  We stayed in Millinocket the night before our climb, as well as the night after, as not much was available for campsites within the park.  We booked late, and due to a good deal, stayed both nights at a large suite in the Parks Edge Inn, which was more space than we needed, but it would be a perfect arrangement for a larger group of hikers, as it was cozy, friendly, there was a kitchen, and there were plenty of places to sleep.

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View of Katahdin from the Chimney Pond Trail.

Our day started early, with the drive out to wait in line by the park’s gate.  Luckily, dad had secured a parking pass for the Roaring Brook campground beforehand, and we weren’t turned away, as some in line were.  Definitely plan ahead, and allow yourself the time to get to Baxter State Park’s gate, as well as the time for the slow drive on the Park’s dirt roads to wherever your trailhead is, as this will always take longer than you think.

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The Knife Edge from Chimney Pond.

We parked at Roaring Brook, took a look at the scale model of the mountain at the ranger station there, signed the log, and began our trek beside Roaring Brook on the Chimney Pond trail.

Chimney Pond is beautiful, and a great jumping-off point for multiple hikes, as well as family-friendly ranger-led programs in the summertime.  With ominous clouds moving in, we signed the trail log, got advice from the ranger at Chimney Pond to avoid descending the Cathedral Trail, and decided to make our push up Cathedral, and to return via the Saddle Trail.  We decided we would forgo the Knife Edge, and take it the next time the weather allowed us to.

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The Knife Edge on a previous ascent – not for the faint of heart.

Dad and daughter started the steep climb, and mom, who had accompanied us on this trip and hiked with us as far as the Chimney Pond Campground, then turned back to wait at the Roaring Brook lot for us as we climbed to the top.  We felt strong, and our packs were intentionally light, focused on water, food, and light rain gear (in that order).

Dad/daughter each carried a 3 Liter Osprey water bladder (dad is one of those humans who just flat-out uses a lot of water), and we left daughter’s less full to reduce weight.  Water on Katahdin is crucial, as straining leg muscles can easily dehydrate and cramp up, making for a difficult trip.  In addition to water, eating bananas, and/or taking small amounts of salt and magnesium with food can help counter this cramping.

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Daughter pushing up the Cathedral Trail.

We encountered several other pairs of hikers, who we spoke to briefly as we leap-frogged our way past and then behind them again during rest breaks.  Cathedral was a serious climb, with a few hand-over-hand scrambles to follow the blue blazes.

We didn’t linger long at the summit of Baxter Peak, or stay for our planned lunch break.  There was a large crowd that had come up the Hunt Trail, and the clouds did not look friendly.  When dad did this hike the first time, it had been an icy affair, with stinging hail and ice, combined with a steady rain, and sure enough, we heard distant thunder, and started to feel a few drops.

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Looking back at Pamola Peak and the Knife Edge from the Saddle Trail.

We scrambled down the Saddle Trail as the rain began to pick up, and about halfway down, dad’s feet went out from under him on a wet rock, and he took the weight on his wrist.  The pain was dazzling, and we looked at the joint and the hand, but besides the discomfort, it appeared to be fine, so dad pulled it into his stomach to minimize the jostling as we descended, and we kept going.

The rain really began coming down, and we stopped in the treeline to put covers on our packs, and for daughter to don her rain jacket.  The rain began to lighten while we stopped to enjoy some PB+J in a covered shelter at the Chimney Pond Campground.  From there, we covered the ground quickly down the Chimney Pond Trail to the Roaring Brook lot, and our truck.

Getting back in the truck, dad realized that he couldn’t shift, steer, or turn the keys in the ignition with his right hand, and used his left to reach over the wheel for these tasks.  As we wrote in our brief post on this hike to start this blog back in September 2017, it turned out, after X-rays a couple weeks later, that the wrist was broken.  Bummer.  Again, a great argument for the utility of hiking poles on a slippery descent, which would likely have mitigated this injury.

Daughter and dad agreed that Katahdin was the most challenging mountain of the summer, far surpassing Washington. We were happy with our route, and would suggest it to those tackling Katahdin when the Knife Edge is not a good idea due to weather.  Cathedral offered us incredible views, and we used our rest breaks to turn and survey our progress and the landscape.  We are looking forward to hiking Katahdin again, as well as exploring more of the newly established Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

A Post Script….

We did enjoy a great mini-hike the following day on the way home, as we had a full day available to us.  We stopped on the way south at the Orono Bog Walk, a 1-mile boardwalk loop that starts at the Bangor City Forest.

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We really like plaid.

This was fascinating, particularly for the opportunity to see pitcher plants, which we had seen in the Barren-Chairback range during our 100 Mile hike, and for the many varieties of birds along the route.

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Views from the Orono Bog boardwalk.

It was also a relatively easy loop, and an opportunity to stretch our legs after Katahdin the day before.  Larger loops are well-marked and available for running and walking within the adjacent City Forest.  Just get there early- parking was at a premium.

Katahdin at summer’s end

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On September 9, 2017, we hiked to the summit of Mt. Katahdin from the Chimney Pond and Cathedral Trails in Maine’s Baxter State Park.  This was the culmination of our 2017 hiking season, begun with a plan in the beginning of the year to hike the 100 Mile Wilderness of the Appalachian Trail together.  We are a father and daughter in Maine, and this blog is a project to capture the experience of exploring the Pine Tree State’s unique outdoors.  We are by no means experts, but we plan to recommend the things that worked for us – gear, trails, techniques, as well as to document the missteps we have taken, even if just for our own amusement.

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A longer description of this hike can be found here, along with recommendations and maps.

11/12/17: An update on this particular Katahdin hike in September, in advance of full hike/blog post content- X-rays a couple weeks after the hike showed dad broke his wrist during the rainy descent down the Saddle Trail.  This, combined with our 100-Mile Wilderness experience, finally convinced us of the utility of hiking poles, and we bought some Voli Trekking Poles.

9/8/18: Another successful hike of Katahdin, this time via the Knife Edge (more on that soon).  One of the aforementioned Voli hiking poles snapped during the descent.  Better a pole than a wrist.  Amazon no longer stocks them, so we wonder if others had the same problem.

(Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links, and as an Amazon Associate Hiking in Maine blog earns from qualifying purchases.)