Mt. Katahdin and the Hardest Trails in New England

DSC00059A list of the hardest trails in New England will feature hikes like Devil’s Path in the Catskills of NY (this is my version) and Tuckerman Ravine on Mt. Washington in NH. They run the gamut from nearly impossible to surprisingly easy. The Helon Taylor Trail on Mt. Katahdin in Maine, which we took up to Pamola Peak a couple weeks ago, will not be found on this list but in my opinion should be included.

DSC00055The Penobscot Indians named this 5,269 ft mountain, Mt. Katahdin meaning “The Greatest Mountain”. Even Henry David Thoreau would agree, when he wrote Ktaadn, that it  is immense and breathtaking. This is my favorite excerpt from his long and somewhat dry telling of his travels through the Maine wilderness to see its beauty.

The mountain was first summited in August of 1804 by Charles Turner Jr., a surveyor who climbed it via the Hunt spur. The Hunt Trail, up the eastern side of Mt. Katahdin, has since become the official ending/beginning of the Appalachian Trail.

Ridges sprawl in all directions, allowing views of lakes and long forests no matter which trail is hiked. The Helon Taylor Trail is on the west side of the mountain, a hidden path up unforgiving humps of exposed rock. It was an exhausting but very satisfying 3.2 miles to climb to Pamola Peak at 4900 ft. Baxter Peak, the true summit, is still a mile across the Knife’s Edge. This section of trail will be rightfully be found on the list of the hardest trails in New England.

The Knife's Edge

The Knife’s Edge

Our day began at the Togue Pond entrance to Baxter State Park (You will need to have a day parking pass for the Roaring Brook parking area, if you do not have a campsite reserved, get it early – here.) We woke early at the AT Lodge in Millinocket, about a half hour drive away. When we arrived at the gate we were third in line and had to wait for the ranger to exit her truck and drag open the metal gate protecting the park from all of us nature lovers. Turning right at the fork lead us to a dusty eight mile drive to Roaring Brook Campsite with the mountain peeking through the trees and teasing us into excitement.

DSC00009When we reached the parking area at the campground there is an area for day hikers on the left but we chose a shady parking spot in the campers lot on the right. After checking in with the ranger, spraying ourselves liberally with bug spray and sunscreen, we set off rock hopping down the connector trail. A brown creeper, a tiny bird who has mastered the art of camouflage, blended into the shades of grey and brown on the tree he scooted up.

DSC00016At the intersection of the Chimney Pond and Helon Taylor trails we headed up the latter (named for a celebrated Baxter State Park Supervisor and pronounced Hee-lon Taylor). This brought on a profound silence that can only be found in the mountains. The air hung among the roots as they smothered the rocks beneath them. Up and up we went until we crested onto the only flat section we would see all day. White Lady’s Slipper Orchids lined the path glowing like delicate paper and the canopy opened up for a sneak preview of the coming ascent.

We continued up for a long time, climbing over rocks with roots as our only handholds. The trees grew smaller and the bugs began to outnumber us, a hundred to one. I was afraid that this would drive Johnny nuts. Things like “He will never want to hike with me again!”, irrationally go through my head. But he takes pictures of me and swats the black flies away like they are nothing. As we reached treeline, where trees can only grow like vines across the ground, the expanse opened up below us. There was not a hint of fog and dark blue mountain silhouettes lined the horizon. For a moment we couldn’t take our eyes off of it.

DSC00062DSC00080Turning our attention back to the trail, we scraped through the short alpine shrubs with small dangling flowers and thick creeping pines until we reached a long rocky hill. Another mile of rock climbing and navigating through the cracks in huge boulders followed until we could see the Knife’s Edge, clear and frightening, to the left of Pamola Peak.

Pamola Peak is at 4900 feet and was believed by the Penobscott Indians to be the home of an evil bird spirit responsible for storms and cold weather. I could understand their fear of climbing this mountain and the terrible power of its presence having lead to the belief in the supernatural. The trail ahead of us was both daunting and exciting.

DSC00070DSC00072Tiny people crawled over the rocky final approach. Johnny put my hiking poles in my pack and we used our hands and feet to scramble to the top. The sun beat down hard on our summit. As a stranger took our picture we squinted at the clear panorama view. It was overwhelmingly wide.

We sat exhausted on a rock and ate some trail mix. Our reserves were nearly gone. One look at the Chimney, the cliff with a 4000ft drop that leads you onto the Knife’s Edge, had us quickly heading back to our campsite 3.2 miles back down the mountain.

A little way below the peak, Johnny asked breathlessly for a break. This doesn’t happen often so I stopped immediately and turned around. The brown eyes of the love of my life where bright and warm as he removed a small tissue from his pocket. In the tissue was a green sapphire set in a delicate silver band carved with leaves. When he knelt next to me on the rocks and asked me to hike all the trails with him for the rest of our lives, yes couldn’t escape my lips fast enough. *Click here to see the ring

DSC00093The hike seemed to slow on the way down but the rocks seemed easier to climb down and I could not have been happier. We dreamed of our celebratory bottle of wine and cans of crab and chicken that were waiting for us. The rocks were slippery as we headed below treeline, into the less buggy zone, so we picked our way carefully back to our roaring brook.

DSC00102We purchased firewood, the cedar smelled rich and the hardwood hay-like, and hauled our gear to the shelter we reserved for the night at Roaring Brook Campground. A young deer nibbled on the tender grasses, on the other side of the crackling fire, by the roaring brook that was now in our backyard.

Looking up at the sky in the dark revealed more starts than blackness. Dreams came easily after we crawled in our sleeping bags. We were glad to have chosen a shelter instead of a tent site because the brook drowned out the neighborhood noise. The tent sites were also uncomfortably close to the privies.

Be safe on the mountain this summer and fall; it has so much to reveal. The AT Lodge in Millinocket is a great place to stay before or after hiking in Baxter State Park. They offer many great services for hikers including shuttling, mail drops, and gear. It is a comfortable place run by nice people.

Also check out the art at North Light Gallery. We took the afternoon before our hike to wander through this gallery and have a delicious salad and coffee at the local AT Cafe. We skipped the karaoke at the hopping local bar, not really our thing. This is all in walking distance of the AT Lodge and only a short drive will bring you to a grocery store, McDonalds, and a pharmacy.

If you are interested in supporting the cause of Baxter State Park becoming a National Park click here. A lot of local towns have been suffering due to the loss of local businesses like the big paper factory in Millinocket and a slow down in logging. I don’t know that bringing the government in is the answer but an increase in tourism would make a big difference to the struggling people in the surrounding area.

The beginning of the Helon Taylor Trail

The beginning of the Helon Taylor Trail


White Lady's Slipper

White Lady’s Slipper


There is one stream that you cross after the flat section that may be a reliable water source

There is one stream that you cross after the flat section that may be a reliable water source


At the top...exhausted :-)

At the top…exhausted 🙂

Looking along the Knife's Edge

Looking along the Knife’s Edge

A very strange bug

A very strange bug

Lovely Lichen

Lovely Lichen

7 thoughts on “Mt. Katahdin and the Hardest Trails in New England

      1. Daniel Capilla

        Beautiful! There are very beautiful places in those mountains. And the photos in your blog are really excellent too!

        Landscapes in Málaga are more arid (summer is very hot, uff!), but we also have great places to go hiking in the mountains. The highest mountain here is 2060 meters (“La Maroma”) and is also in a natural reserve.

        1. znara Post author

          I just spent some time looking at images of the mountains you praise so highly and they are incredibly breathtaking. Thank you for sharing and for the complement.

  1. Mark Cashman

    The Knife’s Edge reminds me of rock climbing up Seneca Rocks. I did a relatively low difficulty route, but the exposure and lack of protection was terrifying.And that last set of moves to the summit made me practically want to crawl.

    It isn’t about being about to fall, it’s about the potential for anything to happen, and how far you feel from the safety of earth. But to withstand that and go to these places is memorable beyond words.

    1. znara Post author

      So true. I think it is also that you know that one slip or one moment of inattention can lead to serious consequences. It is hard to imagine yourself maintaining that level of concentration for the length of time that is needed to complete some of these difficult trails. Once again we visit risk and what it means when you are an adventurer.

  2. Pingback: Pura Materia | Daniel Capilla

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