Saturday, July 27, 2013

Mt. Katahdin - Baxter Peak and #66 Hamlin Peak July 14, 2013

Mt. Katahdin - Baxter Peak (5,267') and Hamlin Peak (4,751') via Saddle, NW Basin, Hamlin Ridge, North Basin and Chimney Pond trails, 7/14/13

Mileage:  6.4 miles (loop)

Elevation gain:  2,954'

Trailhead: Hike begins at Chimney Pond campground in Baxter State Park, Maine.  From the park's Togue Pond Gatehouse take Roaring Brook Road to Roaring Brook campground. (It takes about 30 minutes to get to Togue Pond Gatehouse from Millinocket and another 25 minutes to get to Roaring Brook campground.)

Chimney Pond trail begins at the Roaring Brook ranger station.  Hike 3.3 miles to Chimney Pond campground (CP), which offers lean-tos and a 10 person bunkhouse.  (Pack in, pack out, water is from the pond and must be filtered).
Lesson learned:  Don't let the short distance and elevation gain fool you. There is no easy way up Mt. Katahdin. We had the best of circumstances and this short trip challenged us!

Rich and I are working on AMC's New England Four Thousand Footer list which includes three peaks in Baxter State Park, Maine.  I'd hiked Baxter Peak in 2006 (see previous report). It was the turning point in my hiking obsession!  I had yet to bag Hamlin Peak (one of Katahdin's three lower peaks) or North Brother, a 4k in the park that's also on the list. 

Rich needed all three.  He researched the trails and decided we would hike to Baxter and Hamlin Peaks via the Saddle Trail from Chimney Pond (up and back). Mark, Becky, Lindsley, Sandy and Joe joined us for four sunny days in the park.

Trip planning:

Baxter Park reservations.  Day hike.  All we wanted was guaranteed parking at the trailhead.  There are only a handful of day hiker parking spots at Roaring Brook and Katahdin Stream parking lots (trails to Katahdin peaks).  If you are a Maine resident or a non-resident who can be flexible with dates and plans (I am neither), you have hiking options.  After April 1st Maine residents can reserve a parking spot online for anytime; non-residents can reserve within two weeks of their hike (see Baxter State Park site).  Hikers can also drive to the Togue Pond Gatehouse for 6 a.m. opening, wait in line and hope to get a parking spot.

Camping.  Because I wanted a guaranteed parking space ahead of time I decided to reserve space at CP; a campsite or space in the bunkhouse (staying at CP would cut 6.6 miles from our hike). BSP rules state that reservations can be made no earlier than 4 months prior to your stay. 

The plan was to hike to CP on Day 1, hike the Katahdin peaks on Day 2 and hike back to the car on Day 3.  We chose July 12th-14th to execute our plan.

On March 12th (exactly four months prior to our stay) I called BSP at 8:00 a.m. sharp to make reservations for the CP bunkhouse for two nights (July 12/13) only to learn that the bunkhouse was already fully booked!  I spoke to Nancy at BSP (she was wonderful btw):

Me, "Oh NO! The bunkhouse is full on that date?  How about the following day?"

BSP, "You would need to call tomorrow morning to try and reserve it (that damn four month rule!).  Once you reserve a spot, you can reserve other spots in the park for up to fourteen days' duration."

Me, "Hmmm. So if I reserve a spot for July 12th at another campground in the park that's not fully booked, can I then reserve the CP bunkhouse for the following days?"

BSP, "Absolutely!"  

And that's what I did.  I booked us a night at Roaring Brook Campground for July 12th just so I could be guaranteed the CP bunkhouse for July 13th and 14th (space was available), moving our plans back a day.  

Unless weather pushed up our hiking date, we would not use the Roaring Brook reservation for Friday night.*

Complicated, isn't it? But it worked out well.  The extra day's reservation guaranteed another day's entrance into the park should circumstances cause us to hike a day early. 

Once reservations are made to hike the mountain you'd best get crackin' with prayers to Pamola, the Abenaki bird spirit/ghost in charge of weather on Katahdin! 

Bunkhouse.   The Togue Pond Gatehouse staff checked our reservation carefully before letting us in. Parking was very tight at Roaring Brook - I think we were the last to park that day. 

The CP bunkhouse has a table, wood stove, counter top and two bunkrooms.  Two propane wall lamps helped us with meal preparation. Windows are screened and there is a screened-in porch in which to store gear. 
The bunkhouse is in the trees near the Outlet (swimming hole).
Be prepared to hang all your food and food waste.

Two bunkrooms, bring a pad to sleep on.

The hike.  Day 1, Rich, Sandy, Joe and I hiked the 3.3 miles in to CP. 

Once the cars were parked we quickly ate lunch, hoisted our packs (way too heavy - you could tell we're not backpackers) and signed in the hiker register.  Baxter Park keeps track of all hikers coming in and out of the park and entering/exiting trails

I am sure the trail up to Chimney Pond is very lovely but it was hot and we had so much crap in our packs that we just wanted to get there and get them off our backs!  It took almost two hours to go 3.3 miles!

Very sturdy bridges on the way up.
Nice views motivated us to chug along.
Bed of rocks, was it a washout or an outlet?

Our friends Becky, Mark and Lindsley arrived earlier and "reserved" our bunks with hiking poles and crocks.  They too thought the trip was tough for just 3.3 miles! 

Chimney Pond is the most beautiful tarn I've seen (not surprising since I just learned of the word "tarn" ten minutes ago - means lake at the bottom of a cirque).   The mountain cirque is quite dramatic with steep walls topping out with a series of pyramid-like formations. 

"Pyramids" are visible up top.

It is so magical up there. Everywhere you walk everything you see is different; we were on Mt. Katahdin. 

First order of business was to secure the food. Mice get into packs and chew just about anything so we hung our meals and snacks on lines in the bunkhouse (see photo above).  

Next on the list, get water. Out came the filters.

No, it's not some native spaghetti dance. They're filtering water.

With the hike to Baxter and Hamlin Peaks scheduled for the next day, we scouted out the ranger to help us with our route plans.

Chimney Pond ranger station.

Rich went over his plan with the ranger; up and back down the Saddle Slide. The week before I'd suggested taking the Hamlin Ridge trail down but Rich had seen a video of the trail on youtube and didn't like the steep drop-offs. 

That sandy part up the middle? That's the slide.

From the station, the ranger pointed to the slide in the distance. It looked mighty steep!  He said, "Go up the slide and at the top turn around, look back down and ask yourself, 'do I want to go down that way?'"  If not, he said Hamlin Ridge will offer a more gradual route down.

And that's how the day went.  Day 2, we hiked in two groups.  I went up the Saddle trail with Rich and Lindsley.  Becky, Joe, Mark and Sandy climbed the Cathedral trail. 

From center of the slide it looked (gulp) really scary but once we got to the steepest part it was easy to see a stable route and up we went. 
At the top of the slide Rich stopped, looked down the slide, turned to me and said, "We are doing Hamlin Ridge down."  I'd heard the trail was beautiful and looked forward to it.

Rich looking back down at the slide (Lindsley's photo).

At the top of the slide we turned left and headed up the trail to the summit of Mt. Katahdin (Baxter Peak).

Hello Tablelands!

The trek up to the Appalachian Trail terminus is tableland flat and gravelly.

Katahdin's summit cone is made of all-too-familiar rugged boulders but a clear path takes you through them.  I would hardly call the last leg to the summit a "push." 
Lindsley and Rich just below the summit.
Look at that blue sky!  Thanks, Pamola!
At the peak we high-fived, enjoyed lunch and took some photos.  Lindsley went over to explore the thirteen foot cairn and the Knife Edge. 

A thru-hiker and his brother celebrate with cigars.

Okay enough celebrating; the summit was crowded, it was getting really hot, and I needed Hamlin Peak on the other side of the saddle to complete my list.  Down we went back to the saddle, heading toward Hamlin Peak.

Things are flat for a while before the trail swoops up toward the junction of Northwest Basin and Hamlin Ridge trails.  We turned onto Hamlin Ridge trail and walked the gradual up to the peak.

We walked around the top for a while looking for the sign.

The trail junction sign is also the Hamlin Peak sign and it's so weathered I walked right by the peak looking for the peak!  It wasn't until we checked our map that we realized the junction is the peak.  Hot, sweaty and pretty tired - with a whole lot more hiking to go - we smiled for the camera.

Feeling a bit dizzy from the heat but very upbeat (really, how lucky were we to have this kind of weather?!), we started down the Hamlin Ridge trail.

Ridge trail.  My hiking companions explained later that for them, the term "ridge trail" conjures up visions of a more moderate trail (like Franconia Ridge trail).  Not in this case.  Like all things Katahdin, this ridge trail takes things up a notch.

 This trail reminds me of the Castellated Ridge trail. It reminds me of Lion Head trail.  It does not remind me of Franconia Ridge trail.  There are some exposed spots to get through as well as interesting scrambles  - but, oh the views are beautiful!
For what seemed like hours we negotiated up down and around boulders on this path. The sun was burning my face and shoulders; Rich loaned me his spare t-shirt.  Our energy was spent and our water getting low.

Eventually we found ourselves out of the sun and in the trees - and at the trail junction. 

Just the pertiest sign I ever did see!  .7 miles to the bunkhouse!

Signing in at the hiker register at CP, we weren't surprised to see our friends were still on the trail. The Cathedral trail is more challenging than the Saddle trail and I knew they'd be spending more time enjoying Baxter Peak than we did. 

Back at the bunkhouse we raced to the Outlet and plunged into the ice cold pool as deeply as our skin would allow.

Becky, Sandy, Mark and Joe soon returned from their hike having also descended via the Hamlin Ridge trail.  We compared experiences.

That night, caught up in the post-Katahdin euphoria, we celebrated by the pond drinking wine, taking photos and exaggerating our adventures (well, maybe I was the only one exaggerating!).  The ranger was nearby, binoculars in place keeping tabs on a woman still on the Tablelands, allegedly without water. He kept tabs on who was still up there as the evening approached.  From the pond we could see headlamps moving around and down from the top of the cirque, hikers finding their way in the dark. BSP's policy on hiker whereabouts is reassuring to me. The park has had their share of unprepared hikers this year.

The next morning we packed our gear and hiked back to our cars.  It was hot and yes, the trip down seemed just as long as the trip up even though we descended with lighter packs.

Back at the parking lot and in our air conditioned cars we headed to Millinocket to stay at Katahdin Cabins. The temp was over 90° when we reached the town and the cabins didn't have air conditioning.  We wound up leaving our cabin and booking a room in the air conditioned Katahdin Inn and Suites.  Lindsley stayed at the AT hostel.  Not much for accommodations in Millinocket (not a lot for restaurants either). 
Katahdin forces hikers to "take it up a notch" with its remote setting and challenging trails. The group was in good physical condition for this hike.  Prior to the trip each of us participated in a "training" schedule that included the Baldfaces, Mt. Hight, and Mts. Sugarloaf, Spaulding and Abraham. 

Logistics make it tough to plan this trip in advance but it is definitely worth the extra effort to execute a fabulous three days in Baxter Park.  That written, weather is EVERYTHING (see above - re: praying to Pamola). 

*We cancelled our Roaring Brook stay early on Friday, forfeiting $55 but allowing BSP to resell our bunk spaces.

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