The Northbound AT Hiker’s Guide to Summiting Katahdin

As the northern terminus of the AT and Maine’s tallest mountain, Katahdin in Baxter State Park is an iconic end for many thru-hikers’ journeys. Finishing the AT involves some logistical planning for thru-hikers, whether you plan to day-hike Katahdin or stay overnight in the park. 

Permiting for Katahdin

Baxter State Park’s policies to limit the number of people on Katahdin can be a source of ire for thru-hikers and day-hikers alike. These policies come from the unique circumstances around the creation of Baxter State Park. It was established in 1931 by Maine’s former governor Percival Baxter under the condition that the land “be kept forever wild” (BSP Website). Today, Baxter State Park manages this by focusing on preserving the wilderness first and access to recreation second. 

A long-distance hiker permit is required for all thru-hikers within the park, whether you’re hiking northbound, southbound, or flip-flopping (and even if you’re not summiting Kathdin). There is no cost for the permit. To get one, hike from the park border at Abol Bridge (2,183.2) to the ranger station at Katahdin Stream Campground. There you will sign in and receive the paper permit and a plastic card. Carry both with you while you hike Katahdin.

Across from the ranger station is a lean-to. This structure is not for sleeping but contains day packs you can borrow if you don’t want to carry your full pack up Katahdin. Many hikers will leave their overnight gear at the lean-to and use their own emptied-out pack as a day pack instead of using a loaner. 

A female hiker in pink shorts and a gray sun hoodie scrambles up a dark gray rock face on the Hunt Spur of Mount Katahdin. Behind her other parts of the ridgeline are visible. The landscape is predominantly green.

Katahdin is a strenuous climb, using day packs or lightening your pack will make it easier and more fun.

With your permit, you’ll be ready to hike Katahdin. From the Katahdin Stream Campground, it’s 5.2 miles (8.4 kilometers) and 4,188ft (1,277m) to the summit via the Hunt Trail, the official route of the AT. 

Comparable with the White Mountains and the Mahoosuc Range, Katahdin is a challenging climb, even at the end of a thru-hike. Allow plenty of time for the hike and ensure that you have sufficient water. The only places to get water on the Hunt Trail are Katahdin Stream (2,193.4), O Joy Brook (2,194.3), and Thoreau Spring (2,196.4). Later in summer, O Joy Brook and Thoreau Spring have been known to run dry. 

It is possible to hike from Abol Bridge to the summit and back in a day, but keep in mind this will make for a 20+ mile day.

Camping in Baxter State Park

If you plan to camp at the Birches Lean-To, you’ll have to register at the kiosk at Abol Bridge. Registration starts at 7:00 a.m. when the ranger gets there. To register, you will put your name (real and trail) on the sheet and then hike into the Katahdin Stream Campground ranger station. It is advised to take a photo of the sheet upon signing in to prove that you signed up just in case. 

On a day when the ranger isn’t there, put your name on the list, take a photo,  and hike to the ranger station.  

Limited camping is available at the Birches (12 hikers max), but don’t worry if the spaces are full when you go to sign up. The rangers do want you to finish the trail. They’re likely to help you find an available space at either Katahdin Stream or Abol Campground. 

Once you’ve signed up and hiked into the ranger station you’ll go through the same process for getting a thru-hiker permit and pay $10 cash to camp at the Birches. 

Your stay at the Birches is limited to one night only, so if the weather looks dicey, it might be advisable to wait at Abol Bridge for another day. 

Summit Etiquette and Getting off Katahdin

Reaching the northern terminus is a reason for celebration, but it’s important to keep celebrations at the summit small and respectful. Alcohol is not permitted in Baxter State Park so save that summit beer for town. Don’t crowd the summit with a large group (Baxter forbids groups larger than 12), and be respectful of other hikers and of the mountain.

Not only is Katahdin the northern terminus of the AT, but it remains a sacred mountain to the Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot nations (source). Follow instructions from any Baxter State Park staff at the summit. 

There are a few ways to get down Katahdin. None of them are “easy,” but the logistics of taking the Hunt Trail (the AT) or Abol Trail make it easy to get out of the park, as they at least return you to the correct side of the mountain.

Abol Trail is slightly shorter than the Hunt Trail (4.4 miles) and requires less technical scrambling but will drop you 2 miles from Katahdin Stream Campground on Park Tote Road.

Instead of retracing their steps, some thru-hikers opt for a more memorable descent by continuing across Baxter Peak on the Knife Edge Trail and then down the Helon Taylor Trail to Roaring Brook Campground. If you go this route, you’ll need to arrange a pick-up from Roaring Brook as it is on the opposite side of the mountain from Katahdin Stream (where you mostly likely left all your gear this morning, don’t forget).

Rocky ridge line looking up to an all-white sky. On either side of the ridge the terrain drops off sharpy and is covered in green alpine vegetation.

The Hunt Spur is one of the most challenging sections on the Hunt Trail going up or down.

Getting out of Baxter State Park

Once you’ve summited Katahdin, you still have to get out of Baxter State Park. The nearest town, Millinocket, is close to an hour away. 

Most of the options involve needing to call or otherwise contact someone. There is no service at the base of Katahdin and on the mountain service is unreliable. Make sure to contact your ride in advance.

For those thru-hikers who have people coming to pick them up, they will be able to enter the park without a reservation if they are only coming to pick you up. If they intend to hike Katahdin with you, they will need a parking reservation at one of the Katahdin trailheads. For out-of-state residents, these reservations are available two weeks in advance. Maine residents can make them at any time throughout the summer.

Several hostels in the area offer shuttles out of Baxter State Park. The Millinocket-based Appalachian Trail Hostel picks up by default at Katahdin Stream and Abol Campgrounds.  If you plan on taking Knife’s Edge to the Helon Taylor trail, make reservations to be picked up at Roaring Brook.

Shaw’s Hiker Hostel in Monson offers shuttles out of Baxter by reservation. When you stop in Monson, talk to the staff about shuttle options and prices. In addition to offering shuttles out of Baxter, they also shuttle to Bangor International Airport. 

Hitchhiking out of Baxter is common and fairly easy. Most people leaving the park will be heading to Millinocket and many are willing to pick up an AT hiker. 

Regardless of how you leave the park, make sure your paper permit is handy. The rangers at the gatehouse will collect it. The plastic card is yours to keep as a memento. 

Getting Home 

What is more challenging than getting out of Baxter State Park is getting out of northern Maine. The Appalachian Trail Hostel in Millinocket offers a shuttle to the bus station in Medway, Maine. There you can catch the 9:30 a.m. CYR Bus for $12 which will take you south to Bangor. Home to the Bangor International Airport and other public transit, Bangor is many hiker’s gateway to post-trail life.

Featured image: Zack Goldmann

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Comments 1

  • Rhea : Jul 11th

    Thank you for your sensitvity to K’taadn, as a spiritual home, a magnificent obsession, wilderness first, and although not explicity mentioned, for the people of the great state of Maine.


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