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.

Mount Washington

On July 23, 2017 we hiked Mt. Washington (6,288 feet) from the AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail and the Lion Head Trail (4.3 miles).  The best road map for this strenuous hike is the AMC White Mountain Guide, which contains maps and trail descriptions.  The Pinkham Notch Visitor Center also sells maps for a nominal fee, has free advice and info, and a scale model of the mountain and its trails.

Having attempted the 100 Mile Wilderness two weeks earlier, we now set our sights on Katahdin later in the summer, and focused on getting in some climbing to prepare for this capstone hike.  We packed light, though, and focused on water and snacks.  Dad carried a pack with clothing and essentials, and daughter used a small Camelbak pack that held a water bladder and not much else.

Knowing that the parking lot and the trail would be busy on a Sunday in the summer, we got an early start, signing the trail log and beginning our hike before 7 am.  Still, we were not the first ones to hike the mountain that day, because a scary fit guy wearing no gear came running hard down the trail, having already been to the top.

Crystal Cascade
Crystal Cascade.

About 0.3 miles up, we stopped to take a picture of Crystal Cascade.  The next two miles were a steady climb upward on a wide, rocky trail. We shed some layers as the sun rose higher in the sky, then took the right-hand turn onto the Lion Head Trail.

Lion Head Trail on Mount Washington
Lion Head Trail on Mount Washington.

The trail became a lot steeper as we approached the edge of the tree line.  We took a break shortly after clearing the tree line to apply sunscreen and eat some peanut butter M&Ms, a favorite of ours.  Hiking a mountain with such light packs seemed easy, after our 100 Mile ordeal.

Tuckerman Ravine
Tuckerman Ravine.

The open climb and bright summer morning gave us excellent views of Tuckerman Ravine below.  We also paused several times to admire the foliage in an area close to the Alpine Garden Trail.

Mount Washington

There is so much more to see, and this is a great video describing some of the varieties of plants and flowers in the Alpine Garden.

The final climb to the summit, .4 miles, which seemed to go straight up, with no end in sight, ended abruptly at the parking lot near the summit.  This has always seemed a strange juxtaposition, to be immersed in nature, then to have so much commerce at the top of New England’s highest peak, but we also enjoyed the opportunity to buy a chili dog and slices of pizza in the snack bar.  For round-trip hikers, there are restrooms, as well, and water points to refill for the descent.

We made the decision to purchase tickets for the van shuttle back down to the Pinkham Notch Visitor’s Center, rather than hiking the descent, as daughter was fighting a headache, and we had done the fun part of the climb already.  The price was reasonable ($31 for dad, $13 for daughter), and included a pass to the Mt. Washington weather museum, which we visited while waiting for our scheduled van.  The moral of the stories contained in the museum seemed to be: be careful on Mt. Washington in the winter.  Daughter purchased a plush moose she instantly named Tuckerman, and a clever cat-themed t-shirt (“The Meow-ntains are calling, and I must go”).

Mt. Washington Summit.
Mt. Washington Summit.

You can see how volatile the weather can be from the featured image at the top of this post – immediately above is a photo from dad’s summit in June 2016, with better visibility.  Dad usually climbs Mt. Washington once per summer, via the Tuckerman Ravine or Lion Head routes.

After a short jaunt down the auto road in the van, and back to our car at Pinkham Notch, we drove the 15 minutes south to Jackson, NH, where we cooled off in Jackson Falls and picked blueberries by the side of the river to end the day.