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.

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument (Katahdin Loop Road)

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During a visit to Baxter State Park, dad and daughter found ourselves with sore legs and a half-day to explore, and we decided to check out Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument via the Katahdin Loop Road.  We got our direction from a Katahdin Chamber of Commerce visitor’s guide and a pamphlet from Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM), but we had followed the progress of the Monument since its creation in August 2016.

The standard route into the South Entrance is via Route 11 from E. Millinocket/Medway to the Swift Brook Road along the Katahdin Woods and Waters Scenic Byway, but we were feeling adventurous, and took the Stacyville Road north from Millinocket to where it meets the Swift Brook Road.  We savored the lonely ride along this quiet logging road, occasionally startling game birds (this is not the way to take a low-clearance or non 4×4 vehicle).

The 17-mile loop of Katahdin Loop Road is punctuated by meadows, bogs, and ridges, and the south and west parts of the loop boast excellent views of Katahdin and the surrounding area.  This is an opportunity to see the Monument and cover distance in a vehicle, while having the chance to get out and explore at a variety of hiking paths and overlooks.  The best map of the loop we found (which I wish we had when we were there, as it is also an excellent interpretive guide) was from the Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters, and can be found here.

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Lynx Pond

The Lynx Pond Walk is shortly past the Loop Road Gate, on the right just past the Mile 2 marker.  Shortly after the trailhead is a parking area on the left of the Loop Road.  This is a very short walk through the woods to a small boardwalk by the pond, and a spot for quiet reflection and wildlife viewing.

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Looking south from The Overlook on Katahdin Loop Road.  The large lake is Millinocket Lake.
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Views of Katahdin from The Overlook on Katahdin Loop Road

Katahdin towers over the loop, and there are multiple spots around the Loop Road with views of the lakes and mountains to the west and south, particularly The Overlook, between Miles 6 and 7, which conveniently has a picnic spot and a toilet.

We continued around the Loop Road, and got out to stretch our legs again at the International Appalachian Trail (IAT) and trail to Barnard Mountain, passing over Katahdin Brook and by the IAT lean-to.  This wide logging road made for a sunny trail, and though we did not make the turn towards the Barnard Mountain summit, we enjoyed the walk, and the familiar plants and animals that inhabit newly overgrown woodcuts, with blue jays diving across our path and into the trees.  The Barnard Mountain trail itself is a moderate 4-mile round trip with summit views of Katahdin and Katahdin Lake to the west.

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Late summer flowers and plants along the IAT

The IAT continues from the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail at Baxter Peak across Maine, into Canada, across to Greenland, and Europe, to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.  For a great exploration of the concept of the IAT, see On Trails by Robert Moor, reviewed on this blog.

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Moose tracks and droppings on the IAT

There are seven mountains in the Monument to hike, including Barnard, as well as paddling opportunities and waterfalls.  The Loop Road was quiet, as were the trails, with natural sounds, and only a few others exploring the area.  A bumpy drive back down Stacyville Road took us to Millinocket, where we devoured a Hawaiian pizza without remorse at the Millinocket House of Pizza.

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is a special place, and we will be back there for hiking, biking, and paddling.  The views during peak foliage season must be spectacular.  Ensure you plan ahead, bring maps, and a cooler with water and snacks, as there are no facilities at the Monument, and cell coverage ranges from little to non-existent.  But that’s probably what you’re looking for in the first place.

Mount Katahdin

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

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.

5 steps to getting back on the path: Ideas, resources, tactics, and links for hiking Maine in 2018

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Maine’s seasons are different than those of our neighbors to the south- sometimes the resolutions of the New Year are still buried under several feet of snow, even at the beginning of Daylight Savings.  I believe it’s important to get outside in the winter either way, but this article will focus on planning for the traditional hiking season.

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Step 1: Create a difficult, even unrealistic goal.

  • How we did it in 2017: In the winter of 2016-2017, we decided to attempt the 100 Mile Wilderness.  The difficulty of this task forced us to create a training schedule, and to prepare our gear and bodies one piece at a time for a “capstone” hike, so that we were not fully ready for it until we stepped onto the trail.  The training then became part of the journey, instead of being a series of unrelated excursions.  And we also had a blast doing it.
  • How you can do it in 2018: Pick a goal, and plan for it.  Check out this great article by Carey Kish on Ten Great Hikes You Should Do in 2018.  Or this one, again from Maine Today, on 10 Brag-Worthy Hikes in New England.  Pick one outside your comfort zone, something you haven’t done before.  If you are a more experienced hiker or backpacker, do the same with longer, multi-day hikes.  Try the Section Hiker blog for ideas.  Great ideas in the area include Maine’s Bigelow Range, the Presidential Traverse in New Hampshire, and even the Long Trail in Vermont.  Or maybe you are tired of explaining why you have lived in Maine for X number of years, and never been to Katahdin’s summit.  Make it challenging.

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Step 2: Make yourself accountable, find a partner if you can, and lock in your plans.

  • How we did it in 2017: Daughter and dad agreed on our training plan and final goal.  Hiking together is fun.  We told people (family, friends, co-workers, gear salespeople) we were going to hike the 100 Mile Wilderness together.  That made it hard to back out.  We also set aside vacation days for the attempt, and later, booked a Baxter State Park parking pass ahead of time for Katahdin.  Planning is fun, too, and having these outdoor excursions to look forward to can be soothing, depending on your life situation and “day job.”
  • How you can do it in 2018: Start with the end goal in mind, and back up to the current day, making incremental additions to your training plan.  For accountability, book your arrangements early (vacation days, lodging, re-supply) so you are motivated to follow up on your investment.  Put everything on a calendar.  In general, buying a state park season pass is a good deal, and will prompt you to get out there.  Maine’s is $55 for individuals, or $105 for a vehicle pass, and free for seniors. The White Mountain National Forest offers an annual pass for $30, and an annual household pass for $40.  These passes also allow you to forgo the hassle of trying to find a pen and exact change at the many self-service kiosks at trailheads, and to support our great parks.

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Step 3: Let experts do the work for you.

  • How we did it in 2017: We devoured the books and blog posts we could find on the 100 Mile Wilderness (check this out), and purchased the Appalachian Mountain Club Guide to Maine, as well as the maps for the 100 Mile.  For our training hikes, we consulted the Maine Mountain Guide and the White Mountain Guide (skip to Recommended Hikes, get in the car, and go).
  • How you can do it in 2018: Buy the AMC Maine Mountain Guide and White Mountain Guide.  Just do it.  They come with maps, they are well-researched, portable, and can serve as a journal for hikes completed.  Also, follow Philip Werner’s Section Hiker blog (mentioned above) and Carey Kish’s columns on Maine Today.com.  Ask at Information Centers for actual information, and engage with park rangers and volunteers.  In addition, join the Appalachian Mountain Club.  It’s cheap, most of the membership fee is tax deductible, it supports trails, and they sponsor a ton of group activities/hikes for all skill levels.  Follow the people above on Twitter to get updates and ideas, as well as publications like Backpacker Magazine and Outside, which also has an excellent podcast series.

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Step 4: If your plans are disrupted, do “something” anyway.

  • How we did it in 2017: We couldn’t always get out on the trail.  School, work, travel, injuries, commitments came up that kept us out of the woods.  But we figured out ways to work through.  Daughter played basketball, and dad focused on weight room exercises (lunges, box jumps, squats) that strengthened legs for the terrain of the 100 Mile.  We skied.  On a couple weekends we couldn’t hike, or were out of town somewhere, we signed up for several 5K road races – try Running In The USA.  The way to get better at doing hard things is to do hard things.  Just do something.
  • How you can do it in 2018: Shorter hikes can be very rewarding when time is not on your side.  Try a big-payoff one like Burnt Meadow Mountain or Pleasant Mountain, steep hikes with great views.  Try trail running, which is just hiking’s skinnier cousin.  There are trail running groups throughout Maine.  Baxter Outdoors does a great race series, which might take you to some places you haven’t been, help you meet some like-minded people, benefit charity, and get some free beer.  Here are some tips to get ready for hiking with a pack from Backpacker MagazineUnderstand your limits, particularly with an injury, but focus on the things that you can do.  For example, dad broke his right wrist descending Katahdin in September 2017, and this precluded a lot of activities, but still allowed him to hike, and as a result he developed more dexterity in his left hand.  A caveat: all these things help, but hiking with a pack seems to be a singular exercise, and the best way to get better at hiking is to hike (see above regarding hard things).

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Step 5: Let the momentum propel you to staying on the path.

How we did it in 2017: Despite our difficulties at the end of the 100 Mile attempt, we were both invigorated by the hiking we’d done, and talked about more goals.  Daughter had never climbed Mt. Washington or Katahdin, and felt strong after our training.  It was only mid-July, so the good times we’d had kept us hiking, and we completed both of these mountains, as well as some great hikes in between.  We started taking more pictures, and talked about capturing our adventures in this blog, which we began last fall, right after our Katahdin hike.

How you can do it in 2018: Use the aforementioned accountability to keep you going, locked in to activities, and check in with people who are doing the same.  You will feel stronger each time you get out there, and maybe your goals will change by the time you hit your big hike.  You will see intriguing side trails and places along the way.  If you are into social media, use it to catalog your progress.  You won’t find any “look at me shirtless doing yoga on top of a mountain” selfies on this blog, but if that’s your thing, and helps you…  Either way you will have fun and get outside.

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.