Katahdin and Beyond: The Best Hikes in Maine’s Baxter State Park

With more than 200,000 acres of wilderness and over 200 miles of trails, Baxter State Park (BSP) offers some of the best hiking in the eastern US. Katahdin draws most of the attention in the park since it serves as the Northern Terminus of the AT as well as Maine’s highest summit. While Katahdin is certainly worth exploring, miles of trails and over 40 peaks reward hikers with some of the northeast’s finest scenery.

1)  Katahdin-Hamlin Loop

Distance: 10.8 miles
Difficulty: Strenuous
Trailhead: Roaring Brook

Without a doubt, 5,267-foot Katahdin stands out as BSP’s centerpiece. A list of hikes in BSP would be incomplete without Katahdin. Its rugged terrain and vast alpine area make it feel more like a western mountain, and more than a handful of challenging routes lead to its summit. By any route, Katahdin stands as one of the most difficult peaks in the East. No matter what route you choose, expect to gain at least 4,000 vertical feet.

Stronger hikers should consider combining Katahdin with Maine’s second-highest peak, 4,756-foot Hamlin Peak, a route that optimizes time above treeline.  In addition to bagging Maine’s two highest peaks, this loop traverses the Knife Edge, Katahdin’s most impressive feature.

Starting at the Roaring Brook trailhead, follow the Helon Taylor Trail, climbing a long ridge that opens up with elevation before reaching the open summit of Pamola Peak. Enjoy Pamola’s summit view of the next leg, the Knife Edge. Drop from Pamola on tricky terrain to a narrow col called the Chimney.

The climb out of the Chimney is the most difficult portion of the Knife Edge. Class 3 moves may intimidate hikers with a fear of heights. Blazes on the rocks mark the best path out of the Chimney.

While the Knife Edge route drops down to only a few feet wide, the footing is solid and the drops aren’t sheer cliffs. Take your time on the 1.1 miles of the Knife Edge and enjoy the unique views as you approach Katahdin.

From Katahdin, continue beyond the Saddle Trail and climb to Maine’s second highest summit, 4,757-foot Hamlin Peak. Descend along the Hamlin Ridge with excellent views as you drop toward the Great Basin.  Return to the trailhead on the Chimney Pond Trail.

Alternatives:  The Abol Trail climbs Katahdin in the shortest distance. The Saddle Trail climbs the most gradual route. Feel the experience of thru-hiking by ascending the Hunt Trail. Scramble a series of buttresses on the Cathedral Trail.

You’ll likely share the summit with others on Katahdin. For solitude, visit after Oct. 15 when campgrounds close. The trails remain open as conditions permit, and few visit the park after this date. For those with technical winter experience, a winter climb of Katahdin nearly guarantees solitude. Climbing above treeline in winter requires registration and permits. More information on winter travel can be found here.

Extend the loop up to 20 miles by continuing into the Northwest Basin beyond Hamlin for a true wilderness experience.  Obtain a camping permit and make it an overnighter at Davis Pond Lean-to. Following the Howe Peaks Trail from Hamlin adds ridge time on a longer hike, with camping opportunities at Russell Pond or Wassataquoik Stream.

2) Traveler Loop

Distance: 10.5 miles
Difficulty:  Strenuous
Trailhead: South Branch Pond

Accessed from the less-frequented Matagamon Gate at the northern end of BSP, the Traveler Loop traverses long stretches with alpine exposure on rugged terrain while climbing three summits of volcanic origin.  Once at elevation, the route rarely dips below treeline.  The loop sees far less traffic than the busier trails on Katahdin.  Much of BSP comes into view on this loop, including the Katahdin Massif.  Miles of the trail traverse rock with no real tread.  Cairns and blazes mark the way where the path lacks definition to keep you on track.  Poor visibility or wet weather make this route treacherous.

From the South Branch Pond trailhead, head south on the Pogy Notch Trail. Begin climbing on the Center Ridge Trail, gaining 2,300 feet before reaching the first peak, 3,254-foot Peak of the Ridges. Traverse a rock spine known as the “Little Knife Edge” as well as talus and a few meadows en route to the high point of the loop, 3,540-foot Traveler Mountain. The undefined tread continues as the trail passes numerous ledges, talus, and a few sections of forest while making its way to the final peak, 3,152-foot North Traveler. Descending from North Traveler the views continue with more open meadows and ledges before reaching South Branch Pond. Expect to gain about 3,700 vertical feet on the full loop.

Alternatives:  If you still have energy to burn or and extra day at South Branch Pond, consider the South Branch Mountain Loop on the west side of South Branch Pond. This loop climbs 2,611-foot Black Cat Mountain and 2,630-foot South Branch Mountain. The six-mile loop gains about 2,000 feet with nice views of the Traveler Loop.

3) Brother-Mount Coe Loop

Distance:  9.7 miles, including side trails to North and South Brother
Difficulty:  Strenuous
Trailhead:  Slide Dam

This loop climbs a 4,000-foot summit and two other peaks on the New England 100 Highest List. All three summits climb above treeline. Expect to gain 4,000 feet of elevation with several ups and downs on rocky terrain that’s often wet and muddy.

From Slide Dam Picnic Area follow the Marston Trail, staying left at the Mount Coe Trail junction. After three miles you’ll reach a second junction.  Head left on the North Brother Trail. This spur will travel .7 miles over steep and rocky terrain (often in poor shape) to the 4,151-foot open summit of North Brother. Return back to the junction and join the Mount Coe Trail.

Following the upper reaches of the Mount Coe Trail leads to a short spur to the open summit of 3,970-foot South Brother. After enjoying South Brother, continue along the Mount Coe Trail to its summit. From the Mount Coe summit, the trail descends steeply on an exposed slide. Take care during the descent, stopping to enjoy the views of Doubletop. When wet, this descent is treacherous at best. The Mount Coe Trail rejoins the Marston Trail just over a mile from the trailhead.

Alternatives: From the summit of North Brother, follow a herd path about a mile to the summit of another New England 100 Highest peak, 3,861-foot Fort Mountain. Flagging marks the route at places and the tread is usually definable. Fort features an open summit with nice views into the heart of BSP.  Below the summit of Fort are the remains of a plane crash from 1944. If exploring the wreckage, be respectful and don’t tamper or salvage with the site.

With a second vehicle, this loop can be combined with 3,434-foot Mount OJI.  When descending Coe, hikers can alternatively follow the OJI Link and visit Mount OJI with its prominent slides and cliffs on an ambitious 12-mile hike.  Descending the Mount OJI Trail will bring hikers to Foster Field Picnic Area, about four miles south of Slide Dam along the Tote Road.

4)  Doubletop

Distance:  9.8 miles
Difficulty: More difficult with a strenuous climb below the south summit
Trailhead: Kidney Pond

Doubletop sits near the western boundary of BSP.  The peak rises 2,300 feet above Nesowadnehunk Stream, with a symmetrical cone-shaped profile when viewed from the south. The two summits offer excellent views of the Brothers, Coe, OJI, and reach beyond to Katahdin.  The views to the west take in many large lakes and vast expanses of wilderness.

To reach the summits, hike the Doubletop Trail, beginning at Kidney Pond. The route is fairly straightforward with a brutal climb gaining 900 vertical feet in .3 miles just below the south summit over a jumble of rock. The 3,455-foot south summit is reached first, with a narrow ridge leading .2 miles to the 3,488-foot north summit, gaining 2,700 vertical feet. Retrace your steps back to the trailhead.

Alternatives: With a second vehicle, traverse the entire Doubletop Trail from Kidney Pond to Nesowadnehunk Campground for an 8.1-mile hike. You can also hike from Nesowadnehunk Campground to the summits for a shorter seven-mile out and back.

5) The Owl

Distance:  7.6 miles
Difficulty:  Moderate for the first two miles, strenuous the remainder of the hike
Trailhead:  Katahdin Stream

The Owl sits less than two miles west of Katahdin’s summit. For those who have climbed Katahdin via the Hunt Trail (AT), the Owl is the peak that rises to the west across Witherle Ravine with dramatic cliffs. Access the Owl by its namesake trail, which exits the Hunt Trail just over a mile from the trailhead.  The route becomes increasingly rocky and steep as it climbs 2,600 vertical feet to the open summit. From its 3,670-foot summit, 360-degree views give a close-up look at Katahdin and the surrounding terrain.  Most of the southern end of BSP can be seen from the summit, with views reaching into the 100-Mile Wilderness.

Shorter Hikes

While most hikes to the higher peaks are classified as strenuous, plenty of options exist for less seasoned hikers that still offer top notch scenery.  Below are a few easier alternatives to the more rugged hikes listed.

1) In the southwest corner of the park stands 1,842-foot Sentinel Mountain.  Accessed from Kidney Pond, this 6.2-mile trip travels along Kidney Pond before climbing a modest 800 vertical feet.  A short loop travels over ledges around the summit.  Sentinel Mountain offers big views for a smaller mountain, including a grandstand view of Katahdin, Doubletop, and Mt. OJI.

2) Despite a steep final approach, the hike to 3,110-foot South Turner Mountain travels a mere four miles round trip from Roaring Brook.  The bare summit features one of the best views into the basins on the north side of Katahdin.  As a bonus, the trail passes Sandy Stream Pond with a photogenic view of Katahdin and a popular moose hangout.

3) The hike to Katahdin Lake covers mellow terrain with minimal elevation change.  Accessed from Avalanche Brook, the south end of the lake is reached in three miles.  Fine views of the Katahdin Group, the Turner Mountains, and Traveler Mountain can be seen from the lake’s shore.  Katahdin Lake makes for an easy seven-mile round trip hike.  The trail continues several miles to the north end of the lake for a longer trip.  Lean-tos are available at both ends of the lake for a casual overnight trip.

Know Before You Go

Numerous regulations govern BSP. Below are a few regulations and other details of note.

  1.  BSP entry fee for out-of-state vehicles is $15.
  2.  Camping is only available at designated sites by reservation. More information here.
  3.  Sign in at all trailheads at the beginning and end of your hike.
  4.  Trailheads for Katahdin frequently fill up. Arrive early to get your trailhead of choice. Parking reservations can be purchased for busier trailheads. More information here.
  5.  Generally, BSP’s prime season runs from late May through late October. If visiting in the fringe season, contact the park to ensure trails and roads are open.
  6.  BSP publishes its own trail guide with detailed trail descriptions available here.  The most recent addition of the Maine Mountain Guide by Carey Kish is another excellent source.
  7.   There has been increased pressure on the park by higher numbers of AT thru-hikers.  As a result the park requires permits for thru-hikers and imposed quotas.  Aspiring thru-hikers should look here for regulations.
  8. Mileage and elevations differ from signage and various guides. The numbers above may vary.

Resources

Below are useful links to help plan a trip to BSP.

Baxter State Park: The park’s website with all pertinent information from regulations to trail information.

Katahdin and Hamlin Peak: Hiking Maine’s Two Tallest Peaks: Author’s personal account climbing the two peaks.

Winter Ascent of Katahdin: Author’s winter trip to Katahdin.

Traveler Mountain: New England’s Least Traveled Alpine Trek:  Author’s hike of the Traveler Loop.

The Owl: Hiking One of Maine’s Most Overlooked Mountains: Author’s hike of the Owl.

Katahdin Lake: Author’s hike to Katahdin Lake.

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