Friday, March 14, 2014

Baxter State Park, Maine

Anyone who climbs and hikes in the Northeast who hasn't heard of Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin must have had their head in the sand. It's an almost mythological destination with superlatives better suited to mountains in the western United States and a park bureaucracy that makes getting reservations almost as hard as having lunch with the Pope.

And for anyone that has made the pilgrimage to the park, you'll understand just why so many people are in love with the park.

Plus Baxter isn't just Mount Katahdin and the Knife Edge, there's a whole other set of mountains that are just as exciting and interesting throughout the park.

Where is Baxter State Park?

Maybe it's the fact that Baxter is located in the heart of Northern Maine that adds to the allure. It's a long way from everywhere, even from places in Maine! You'll spend about 3 ½ hours getting there from Augusta, somewhere around 4 hours from Portland and somewhere around 6 or 7 hours getting there from Boston, depending on traffic (heck, with Boston traffic, figure 10 hours).

The park is located just to the north of Millinocket, Maine - which is about a ½ an hour to the west of Interstate 95. There are two ways to access the park - the main entrance is the southern entrance just north of Millinocket, while a second northern access is open at the northern top of the park.

There are actually quite a few ways to get to the entrances, either on official state and local roads or via the timber company "paper" roads that crisscross the timber company lands outside of the park. A good map of the area is a must if you're planning on trying any of these more "rustic" trips to the park.

Getting into the Park can be a challenge...

You either need reservations or need to be incredibly lucky to get into Baxter. Bother overnight and day-use is strictly regulated in the park with caps on the number of people that can be in the park at any one time.

Getting reservations can sometimes be like getting Willa Wonka's golden ticket. It used to be that you'd send in your request the week between Christmas and New Years and if it got to the Baxter offices that week, you stood a chance of getting something, but probably not what you originally requested. Sometime in January the park would call you collect and you'd haggle over reservations and eventually end up with something. The only other way to get the reservations was to wait in line that same week at the park headquarters and get a reservation in person. I remember living in Maine and this would be a big news story - the lines of people in Millinocket, waiting for Baxter reservations.

Reservations now, instead of all the reservations for the year going in at the beginning, are rolling. Basically you make reservations 4 months in advance - so you need to plan ahead and get your reservations in at the right time.

For day-use activities, unless you're at the park gate at about 5:30 in the morning (the gate opens at 6), it's not likely you'll get to go to the area you want. There are three major access points for day hikes on Mount Katahdin and Knife Edge (Abol Slide, Katahdin Stream and Roaring Brook) and all three fill up very fast. Once a certain number of people has been reached, the park will not allow other people to go to those lots. Don't think you can sneak in either after saying you're going somewhere else. You must display a day-use pass in your window and it clearly says which parking lot you are supposed to be in. Access points for other parts of the park beyond Katahdin don't fill up as fast, so if your heart isn't set on climbing Mount Katahdin, it's not quite so hard to get into the park for a day.

It's also important to realize that Maine residents get first dibs on both overnight reservations and day-use in the park. A certain number of overnight slots are saved for residents and generally a Maine resident will have an easier time getting into the park for the day. Plus Maine residents pay a reduced day-use or overnight fee in the park.

There are gate fees, day-use fees and fees for overnight reservations, so be prepared to pay. The fees all stay within the park, as the park is a self-sufficient entity that doesn't get its money from the State. The park is completely run off of fees and the income from the trust that Percival Baxter set up when he donated the park to the State.

What you'll find inside the park

There are two major areas in the park. The southern portion of the park contains the Mount Katahdin massif. This is where you'll find Baxter Peak (the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail), the Knife Edge (a mile long hike along a ridge that in places is only 3 to 4 feet wide), the Great Basin, North Basin, the Tablelands and the Northwest Basin. In the northern portion of the park you'll find somewhat less impressive mountains that are nevertheless, still impressive in their own right. You'll also find a lot more "quiet" areas in the northern portion of the park - it's significantly less crowded and beyond the mountains, there are many stream valleys, lakes, ponds and bogs to explore.

Mount Katahdin

To be honest, Mount Katahdin is the reason that probably 90% of park visitors are in Baxter. The mountain is the highest mountain in Maine, it has a huge area of alpine tundra, the knife edge ridge is like nowhere else in the eastern United States and the North Basin was home to the east coast's last permanent snowfield (it finally melted in the 1800s).

There are several different access points for Mount Katahdin. Day trippers and overnight campers alike can climb to Chimney Pond from Roaring Brook and make a loop out of the mountain. There's day-hiking access up very steep trails from Abol Slide and Katahdin Stream and for campers, a several day trip around Katahdin and up through the Northwest Basin is one of the most amazing trips anywhere in the Northeast.

Most campers book a few nights at Chimney Pond campground (located in the Great Basin, directly beneath the summit of Mount Katahdin and the Knife Edge) and use it as a base camp to hike the Knife Edge and explore the other areas nearby (the Tablelands, Hamlin Ridge, and the North Basin).

The day trips from the other areas are long and steep and don't set themselves up for loops as much as a trip through Chimney Pond would, but they are shorter (7 or 8 miles versus 14 miles for a day-trip loop through Chimney Pond).

The Knife Edge

No trip to Baxter would be complete without a traverse of the Knife Edge. This ridge, located between the summit of Mount Katahdin (Baxter Peak) and Pamola Peak is a mile long, narrow ridge, that in places goes down to about 3 feet wide. At it's narrowest point, an almost sheer cliff drops down into the Great Basin a Chimney Pond for a few thousand feet (it's a bit dizzying).

The ridge is barren, exposed and above tree-line and will test just about anyone. In bad weather (high winds or icing), the park will close the route (they will also close other exposed trails) but even in good weather, the route can be intimidating for some.

Honestly on my first trip across, while I didn't crawl on my hands and knees, I tried to stay as close to the ground as possible and when I got to the narrow section, I was pretty freaked out. It took a lot of nerves to make it that first time and even to this day, I still get a bit weak kneed going across in places. Of course, I've also seen people that literally have thrown themselves against the rocks and are screaming "I can't go on," so I guess I'm not that bad.

The Northern Portion of Baxter State Park

For anyone who's gone to Mount Katahdin, a trip to the northern part of the park is a completely different experience. Forget the over-protective (and zelous) park rangers around Mount Katahdin and the "we need to know where you are at all times attitude," things are more laid back in the north. There are a few major campgrounds and a few overnight backcountry areas. The majority of the mountains and other areas can all be reached by day-trips, including one spectacular mountain called Doubletop.

Unlike almost any other mountain I've been on - Doubletop is, as the name suggests, a mountain with two tops. The two summits are connected by a narrow ridge. Nowhere near as narrow as the Knife Edge, still the ridge is an incredible walk and ends on the northerly summit where it seems like you're standing on the edge of the world - the mountain's summit ends in a large cliff that gives you an expansive view of the entire park.

There are also the Brothers which give you a close-up view of Mount Katahdin, the Traverler, a large, partially trailless peak and several other smaller mountains that are all interesting in their own right.

Beyond the mountains there are several lakes and ponds to explore and for you geology buffs out there, the very northern portion of the park is home to some of the earliest fish fossils ever found. Though don't remove anything if you find it - fossils are protected in the park.

My Park Experiences

I've been in the park several times for both camping trips and day trips (living in Maine had its advantages) and I still love every time I get to go to this park. Mount Katahdin is so intriguing - I would stop take a look whenever I was driving by for work and I still get all excited when I'm coming up from Millinocket to the turn in the road where the Katahdin massif seems to rise from the plain.

While I hate the over-regulated nature of the park, I realize for such a popular place, it's probably the only way to manage the use. You'll still run into crowds, but the park does not seem overused and beat out like other areas in New Hampshire or in the Adirondacks. Baxter has something special and their main goal is to protect that, which is admirable.

There's no "right way" to climb Katahdin or explore the park. No matter where you go or what you climb, I'm willing to be you'll not only enjoy it, you'll be wanting to come back for more.

The Park throughout the seasons

In the late spring, summer and early fall, the entire park is open for overnight and day users. In the wintertime select campgrounds are open.

There is a bunkhouse available at Chimney Pond for winter use, but any parties attempting to climb Katahdin in the winter, you must prove to the park authorities that you are equipped and experienced enough to handle the mountain. There are also extensive rules and regulations for winter camping that should be reviewed before you even considering visiting in the wintertime.

Also in the winter the main access road (from the North Gate to the South Gate) is open to snowmobiles, but the access road from the South Gate to Roaring Brook Campground is only open to skiers and snowshoers (which makes for a very long approach to Chimney Pond).

For More Information

The park maintains a comprehensive website that includes information on reservations, day-use, park regulations, maps, and more. Anyone considering visiting should take the time to check out the site beforehand.

You can also check out the Appalachian Mountain Club's Maine Mountain Guide for the most complete guide and map set to trails in the Park.  National Geographic also publishes a Trails Illustrated Map for Baxter State Park.

Final Thoughts

Baxter State Park is one of those places that everyone should get to experience at some time. You may not be able to make it across the Knife Edge, or get to explore every nook and cranny of the park, but just being there is really an experience. Mount Katahdin is unlike any other mountain in the Northeast and the rest of the park is just as engaging.

Plan well ahead to get into the park and no one will be disappointed by what they'll find once they are inside.

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