Monday, July 30, 2012

#62 and #63 The Bigelows (Maine): Avery and West Peaks, NEHH #78 South Horn July 28, 2012

The Bigelows: Avery Peak (4,090'), West Peak (4,145'), South Horn (3,805') and North Horn via Firewarden's, Bigelow Range (AT), and Horns Pond trails July 28, 2012 (UPDATED June 25, 2016).

Mileage:  11.4 miles (loop)

Elevation gain: 4,294'

Trailhead: (From mainetrailfinder.com) To access the Firewarden's Trail, enter via the rough gravel Stratton Brook Pond Road which leaves from the eastern side of ME Routes 16/27 4.6 miles south of the junction of ME Routes 16 and 27 in the Village of Stratton, or 0.6 miles north of the Appalachian Trail crossing of ME Route 16/27. At 1.4 miles from the highway, Stratton Brook Pond Road crosses the Appalachian Trail; however, the parking and trailhead for the Firewarden's Trail is 0.7 miles further.
The road is in good condition to the first parking lot. Vehicles with higher clearance can make it to the pond lot.

Lesson learned:  Weather predictions have little meaning in the mountains of Maine; this can be a good thing!

Today I hiked with Rich, Barb, Becky and Mark.  I wanted to hike at least five of the Maine 4k peaks this summer.  These hikes are too far from home for a day trip so the plan was to book a hotel in the area.  Five of my peaks, Saddleback and Horn (July 5th entry) and the Bigelows and Horns, are best bagged in good weather.  

I vowed not to plan the Bigelows ahead of time; I'd wait for perfect weather and book lodging on a day's notice. But the weekends of summer started filling up fast, leaving me one weekend (one day actually) to hike the most beautiful of ridge hikes this side of Mt. Katahdin.  So two weeks in advance, I booked two nights at the Mount Blue Motel in Farmington (cheap with great reviews on tripadvisor.com).  The plan was to arrive Friday night, hike Saturday and head home on Sunday.

My friend Barb also needed the peaks for her New England 4ks and Hundred Highest, and friends Becky and Mark weren't peak bagging at all but they'd heard of the Bigelows and they too were looking forward to experiencing the Bigelows' famous summit and ridge views.

A week before the hike I started to track the weather.  noaa.gov predicted blue skies, sunshine and temps in the 70s (I like noaa.gov because you can click directly on the summit for the forecast).  I'd planned well; things were going to be great! 

But by Wednesday things weren't looking so good and on Friday we were heading up north with rain gear to a Saturday forecast of rain, thunderstorms and in general, unsettled weather. 

100 Classic Hikes in the Northeast suggests hikers go up the Horns Pond trail and down Firewarden's trail (clockwise) as Horns Pond trail is gradual compared to Firewarden's steep rock "steps."  Since the two peaks I wanted to bag were at the top of Firewarden's trail I opted instead to hike up Firewarden's, across Bigelow Range and down Horns Pond (counter-clockwise), bagging my prizes first and hopefully continuing on the Bigelow Range trail to summit South Horn (which is on my New England Hundred Highest list). Besides, if the day was going to be wet, I'd rather negotiate up slippery rock than down. 

Saturday morning's sky was gray and overcast.  We got to Stratton Brook Pond Road around 7:45.  Any vehicle can reach the first parking lot, but there are dips and rocks beyond that point. Barb's Outback made it to the pond without a problem.

Someone left their boots on the trail.  
We crossed a stream and headed along the pond, passing a few campers (Update - the stream, which can be tricky in high water, is now bridged - see photo).
 
New Bridge!
 
Path runs along the pond.

Skies were brightening as we arrived at the Horns Pond trail junction. We saw more campers at the Moose Falls campsite.  Soon after, we were heading up the rock "steps." The path shows some signs of erosion; overall this trail is well cared for.

The steeper part of the trail.
We got a bit confused at the Avery Memorial Tent Site as the blue blazes we'd been following led us to the spring and not up the trail.  The trail is obvious though, and we soon got back on track. Avery peak looks so close and so steep from this section of trail.



To the right of the path Avery Peak looms.

We got to the col and headed right along the Bigelow Range trail (AT) toward Avery Peak, 4/10 of a mile away.  Craggy, ill-placed rocks had us hopping at odd angles but there are no real scrambles on this route.  

There are incredible views on this peak.  We could see in the distance the foundation of the old firetower - there's an easy path to it.  I'd recommend taking the trip over to it as that's where the three USGS summit markers are.  

Handsome group on Avery Peak.

Remnants of the fire tower.
USGS summit markers in the firetower foundation.
Rich looked nervously at the skies; there were some dark clouds in the distance and it was hard to tell if things would clear up. I was so happy it wasn't raining and Becky and Mark got their Bigelow summit views!  

The Bigelows are sometimes referred to as "the Bonds of Maine" by White Mountain enthusiasts and looking at the 360° views of mountains and below it's hard to compare one lovely rugged ridge walk to the other.  They both have their own unique, outstanding beauty.

We headed down Avery Peak back to the col and continued to West Peak, a shorter, milder hike up (though it is just a tad higher than Avery).

Avery Peak in the background as Rich is headed to West Peak.

West Peak.

The skies had cleared and there wasn't a dark cloud in sight.  We were surrounded by beautiful mountains and landscapes; from Flagstaff Lake to Sugarloaf and beyond (no problem with cell service here with that huge cell tower on Sugarloaf!).

AT thru-hikers Papatatts, Goat and B-Rubbles were at the summit. They were section hiking southbound.  We talked for a bit, got a few photos, drank in the views and then continued descending toward South Horn.

B-Rubbles and Goat.


The walk from West Peak is spectacular with the ridge (and the Horns) in the foreground and mountains in the distance. Over two miles to go before we reached the Horns but for now we were on top of the world! 

The ridge above treeline (Horns in the background).
This is a magical place. We ducked back into the trees and here and there we'd pop out in a clearing or near an edge to see great views.  

A well cut path led us up the ridge.
We met several north-bound thru-hikers as we headed to The Horns. I shared my Gatorade with one of them (not much for water up on this ridge; even the springs were dry).  


Nice views from South Horn.

And then we were on South Horn.  It came up quickly; if not for the sign I never would have known we were there. South Horn is on my New England Hundred Highest list so I took a few photos for my album and we hung out for a while.

Sign is hard to read but it's South Horn!
We still had miles to go so no one wanted to trek over to North Horn. It wasn't on any list after all and the views here were fine. And besides, our legs were tired.....
 
Well okay, yes, Becky and I went to North Horn - the sign said .2 miles and the path looked soft, rock-free - inviting.  The others headed down to the Horns Pond campsite and trail junction. Within minutes Becky and I were on top of North Horn (didn't seem like .2 miles at all).  I highly recommend you do this one no matter how tired you think you are, who knows when you'll be back!  






On North Horn.



View of Horns Pond from North Horn.

When we caught up with Barb, Rich and Mark they were joking around with the campsite's caretaker, who was giving Rich a hard time because he had a GPS (too much technology I guess).

Caretaker and a few buddies at the lean-to .
The caretaker went off to harass a new visitor so we headed down the path to the Horns Pond trail junction. (Note: Pond Loop trail is not Horns Pond trail, continue down the path past the lean-to and you'll see the signs). 

Horns Pond trail is quite mellow.
The rest of the hike was uneventful.  About an hour before we got to the car we heard thunder in the distance and it started to rain.  

We had dinner at Tufulios as it poured outside, toasting to a fabulous hike. 

The weather held off for us and allowed us to experience the beauty of the Bigelows with mild temps and little wind - can't believe our luck! 









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