For northbound Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, summiting Katahdin is the pinnacle of a long and arduous journey. Not only is it the northern terminus of the trail, marking the end of the hike for many thru-hikers, but it is arguably the most spectacular peak of the entire trek. Standing alone in central Maine’s endless sea of forests, Katahdin rises well above tree level providing unparalleled views, notoriously difficult terrain, and a unique alpine ecosystem.
When thru-hiking the AT northbound, Katahdin looms for weeks. It can be seen on the distant horizon from the top of Avery Peak in the Bigelow Range, almost 200 trail miles away. By the time hikers reach the summit of Whitecap Mountain, about 70 trail miles from Katahdin, the mountain no longer feels distant, but looms large. During that last stretch of the 100 mile wilderness north of Whitecap, there are numerous views of Katahdin along the trail. It gets larger and more intimidating the closer one gets to Baxter State Park.
When I hiked through the 100 mile wilderness a few weeks ago, rain and cloudy weather obscured Katahdin from view. Whitecap was shrouded in fog when I crossed the summit, and when I reached another viewpoint just north of the peak, I saw just a tiny bit of Katahdin’s behemoth poking through the clouds. I didn’t see Katahdin again until I exited the 100 mile wilderness and got another partial view from Abol Bridge. Despite this, Katahdin still loomed large in my mind. The anticipation of that climb up to Katadin’s summit was building with each passing day, and I felt its presence even without seeing the mountain itself.
The original proposals for an Appalachian Trail placed the northern terminus at Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. Myron Avery, the driving force behind the trail’s creation in the 1930s, ensured that the trail would extend into his home state of Maine and up the summit of Katahdin. Avery was a scholar of Katahdin’s history, and thanks to him, Katahdin has become inextricably linked to the Appalachian Trail. It’s difficult to imagine an Appalachian Trail without Katahdin sitting at the northern terminus, but just a few years ago, the administrators of Baxter State Park forced many people to question the mountain’s connection with the AT.
In 2015 Scott Jurek set a record for the fastest known time for completing the entire Appalachian Trail (a new fastest known time record was set in 2018 by Karel Sabbe). Jurek summited Katahdin with a large group, including journalists, a crew of filmmakers, and other hikers. At the summit he popped the cork on a bottle of champagne and celebrated his achievement. This led to a series of citations for breaking Baxter State Park’s regulations on group size and alcohol consumption on Katahin’s summit. The incident brought public attention to a growing conflict between Baxter State Park and the Appalachian Trail thru-hiking community.
The year before Jurek’s controversial incident on Katahdin’s summit, the then-director of the park, Jensen Bissel, sent a letter to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy with a long list of complaints about the behavior of thru-hikers in Baxter State Park. The letter ended with a thinly veiled threat to relocate the northern terminus of the AT.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) took this letter very seriously, and has undertaken a number of measures to facilitate a better relationship between Baxter Park administration and the AT thru-hiking community, including the establishment of a new AT information center in Monson, ME. But as anyone who’s thru-hiked the AT northbound can attest to, this conflict remains unresolved. Baxter State Park wants the ATC to establish a permitting system for thru-hiking the trail, which is unlikely to happen anytime soon. The park only allows 12 thru-hikers to camp within the park boundaries on any given day, and they have no apparent plans to increase thru-hiker access despite increasing numbers of long distance hikers on the trail.
When any park ranger or representative is questioned about Baxter State Park’s restrictive approach towards dealing with thru-hikers, the unique management structure of the park is cited. Baxter State Park prioritizes wilderness preservation over recreational access. This has been the case since former Maine governor Percieval Baxter purchased the land and gifted it to the state of Maine. Governor Baxter began purchasing tracts of land in the 1930s, and continued this process into the 1960s until the current boundaries of the park were established. Because Baxter purchased the land himself, he was able to set many of the conditions under which this new state park would be managed, and he insisted that preserving the wilderness characteristics of the land be the primary management goal.
This all happened at a time when very few people were entering the park on foot. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the number of thru-hiking attempts on the AT began to rise significantly, so regulations on recreational use of the park were established based upon vehicle traffic. When I received my permit to hike Katahdin, the number 995 was printed on the card, meaning that I was the 995th northbound thru-hiker to receive a permit to summit Katahdin this year. Almost certainly a new record for the number of thru-hikers summiting Katahdin will be established this year, and many of the concerns expressed by Baxter State Park administrators back in 2014 are legitimate. It’s true that the park will continue to see increased usage from thru-hikers, and there are certainly management challenges that come along with this increase in hiker traffic. Much of the responsibility for establishing a more positive relationship between the park and the thru-hiking community lies with thru-hikers themselves. We must choose to embody the ethical principles of leave-no-trace and treat the park rangers responsible for managing Baxter Park with the respect that they deserve.
That said, I believe there are steps that could be taken by the administration of Baxter State Park that would dramatically improve this relationship and reduce conflict. Most importantly, Baxter State Park needs to allow more than 12 thru-hikers to camp within the park each day. It is entirely possible to make this adjustment while remaining within the boundaries of the park’s mission. There are 11 established campgrounds and cabins within the park that are accessible by car and available for visitors arriving in motor vehicles to reserve. Katahdin Stream Campground alone has 12 lean-tos, 9 tent sites, and 3 group sites available for folks who enter the park in a vehicle. This single campground can accommodate well over 100 park visitors – but all of this space is reserved for folks who enter the park by car.
For folks who enter the park on foot, there is a single campsite available and only 12 people are allowed to stay each night. This imbalance does not go unnoticed by thru-hikers. While it’s certainly true that a minority of thru-hikers display a sense of entitlement, and expect park rangers and staff to cater to their needs, I contend that there is a much larger segment of the thru-hiking population who simply struggle to understand why folks who drive into the park are treated differently than those who walk into the park. Why does the park provide accommodations for hundreds of people who arrive by vehicle, while restricting access to those who choose to walk across the park boundary?
It is simply illogical to claim that these restrictions on thru-hiker access are done to prioritize wilderness preservation over recreational access because my feet have inherently less impact on the land than a vehicle. If the goal was truly to prioritize wilderness preservation over recreational access, the park would encourage more people to walk into the park and fewer people to drive. Cars cause noise pollution, spew exhaust, and contribute to the climate crisis. Those who choose walking should be given priority – or at least equal access.
It was cloudy and raining when I entered Baxter State Park on foot on September 22nd. I was hiking with a small group of six thru-hikers, and the previous week we had reserved the only car camping campground that was available on that night since we had several family members who were planning to meet us in the park with their vehicles. We planned to summit Katahdin on Friday, September 23th, but knew there was a chance that the weather would thwart these plans. The weather on Katahdin’s summit can be extreme, especially in the fall, so thru-hikers are often forced to wait for good weather before making their summit attempt.
Sure enough, when our group approached Katahdin’s treeline, it became apparent that reaching the summit would be a challenge. Of the 20-25 thru-hikers who attempted to summit Katahdin on that day, the majority turned back when they reached treeline and experienced wind speeds around 50 mph. I continued onward despite the extreme conditions, along with two other members of my group. I have some experience hiking above treeline in winter conditions, and felt confident that I could safely reach the summit despite the extreme wind and cold. Although the hiking was very unpleasant at times, I successfully reached Katahdin’s summit at Baxter Peak at around 11am that morning. I spent only 10-15 minutes at the peak before I started to get cold and began my descent. Although I was sad to miss the spectacular views, it felt appropriate to reach the end of my AT journey under such extreme conditions.
Most thru-hikers would have waited for a clear day to summit Katahdin, and for good reason. Weather conditions on the mountain can quickly become quite dangerous, and it makes sense to play it safe, so I certainly respect and understand the decision that most hikers made that day to turn back and attempt to reach the summit on another day. The following day, September 24th, weather conditions were even worse however, and very few people attempted to climb the mountain. The weather forecast for Sunday the 25th looked promising, and a bottleneck of thru-hikers made plans to hike to the summit within this limited window of good weather.
The problem with this was, of course, that only 12 thru-hikers are allowed to camp within the park each day. Hikers aren’t allowed to spend more than one night at the thru-hiker designated site (called “The Birches”), so those who were forced to turn back due to weather had to find alternate accommodations. Park rangers made their best effort to accommodate this bottleneck of about 40-50 thru-hikers by granting them access to car accessible campsites that had been reserved, but weren’t occupied. But the majority of these thru-hikers took shuttles into the nearby town of Millinocket to stay at a motel or hostel.
So on the morning of Sunday, September 25th, all those thru-hikers who weren’t allowed to camp within the park boundaries drove back into the park to hike the last 5.3 miles up to Katahdin’s summit. Some got a ride with a shuttle service, others had visiting friends or family who gave them a ride. Those who didn’t have a campground reservation were forced to wait in a long line at the park boundary as the rangers there assessed how many vehicles had entered the park and calculated how many additional vehicles would be allowed in. All of the thru-hikers that I knew of who were planning on summiting Katahdin that day made it into the park.
The camping restrictions for thru-hikers in Baxter State Park are supposedly designed to limit trail use and reduce the impacts associated with overuse of the trail. But in this instance, these restrictions clearly did not have the intended impact. The only impact that these restrictions had on this particular day was to force most of the thru-hikers to drive outside the park to sleep, then drive back into the park the following morning. In this situation, allowing more thru-hikers to camp within Baxter State Park would have actually reduced the impact of recreational activities by dramatically reducing the amount of vehicle traffic coming in and out of the park, while having no impact whatsoever on trail usage.
I chose to climb to Katahdin’s summit a second time on Sunday, the 25th. I wanted to be present to support my friends who had turned back before reaching Baxter Peak two days previous, and I also wanted to experience the spectacular views of Katahdin on a clear day. I got a ride into the park from my mom, who came to provide support despite being forced to cut her thru-hike short due to an injury to her Achilles’ tendon (more on that in a future post).
Hiking to the summit of Katahdin on that clear day was an entirely different experience – it didn’t feel like the same trail. The views were breathtaking, and the summit was crowded with thru-hikers and day-hikers alike. While there was quite a bit of celebration going on at the summit with crowds of 20+ people, everyone that I saw up there was respectful. Gratitude for the beautiful weather and the amazing experience that the trail had provided was the overwhelming feeling amongst everyone that I encountered on the mountain that day. Day-hikers heaped congratulatory exclamations onto every thru-hiker that they encountered, and thru-hikers treated day-hikers with respect. The scene at the summit washed away much of the frustration that thru-hikers felt over the logistical difficulties associated with accessing the park. It was a glorious day, and we could do nothing but revel in the moment and be thankful for what the trail had provided.
I believe that the administrators, rangers, and staff of Baxter State Park have the best possible intentions. The rangers that I spoke with were kind and respectful – they sincerely wanted to help thru-hikers have a positive experience as we reached the end of our long journey. But these folks are operating from within a biased system of management that grants far greater access to visitors who arrive via vehicle as compared with those who choose to walk to Katahdin. Much of the conflict that does arise between thru-hikers and Baxter State Park rangers stems from this bias within the park’s system of management. For some thru-hikers, it’s difficult to keep a level head when a park ranger refuses access to the park while cars continue to stream through the gates. By labeling thru-hikers as disrespectful and entitled, and treating them differently from day-use visitors who arrive by car, park administrators are creating conflict where it otherwise would not exist.
The Appalachian Trail would not be the Appalachian Trail without Katahdin sitting at the northern terminus. Within my trail family we had a running joke that the AT should be renamed the “Katahdin Approach Trail”. With thoughtful management, I strongly believe that the continued increase in usage of the trail by long distance hikers can be a net benefit to the trail itself and to society as a whole. Thru-hiking the AT changes a person. The experience forces people to rethink their role in society. After hiking the trail, you stop taking simple things for granted and come to a better understanding of how little you need to achieve happiness. It dramatically increases one’s respect for natural spaces, and the importance of spending time outdoors. Trying to reduce the number of people who are granted permission to undertake a long distance hike would be a step in the wrong direction. While there are certainly management challenges associated with increased usage of the trail, these challenges should be embraced wholeheartedly, with the understanding that our society benefits from more people getting out on the Appalachian Trail.
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