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Although only a state park, Maine’s Baxter has as many, if not more, regulations as a national park. In fact, there’s an ongoing debate to turn it into one, though it’s heavily opposed by many Mainers, and Greg and I agree with them. We love our national parks for the scenery, but they are overwhelmingly crowded at times, extremely regulated, and seemingly only for the elite ($400 for a hotel room?!). We’re as happy to avoid them as we are to enjoy them.
Thanks to Governor Percival P. Baxter, Baxter State Park was established in 1930 through lands acquired by his own wealth, declaring “Man is born to die, his work short lived; buildings crumble, monuments decay, wealth vanishes, but Katahdin, in all its glory, shall forever remain the mountain of the people of Maine.” The park is still independently funded, is not park of Maine’s state park system, and works hard to maintain its ‘wild’ status. Hence all the regulations.
Baxter State Park is far, far, far north, and looks more like Alaska than the rest of the continental US, and Katahdin, Maine’s highest point at 5,267 ft, looks like it’d be more at home in Colorado than in New England. Baxter is over 310 sq miles of birch, aspen, and pine forests full of moose, black bears, pine martens, and badgers. In autumn it’s a blanket of red, yellow, and orange leaves, and in winter the Northern Lights illuminate the night sky. It is a magical place. A magical, remote, expensive place.
While we were in Acadia National Park, we happened to check the weather up north. It showed one nice weekend day amongst a week or more of cold rain. We made the decision to leave Acadia and try for the high point as a dayhike. We heard you could camp in Millinocket and just drive into the park early in the morning and hike up and get out. Though Greg is wont to make concrete plans and generally doesn’t think too far ahead of his next meal, he looked up the number for Baxter and called to ask them about camping inside the park. Whoa whoa wooah had we gotten some bad information. Turns out there are only a certain number of parking spaces at any Katahdin trailhead and they had all been reserved in advance, most likely through October according to the gatewoman. Reserved parking spaces; now I’d heard it all. The park gates don’t open until 6:00, and those with reserved spaces have until 7:05 to claim their spot. Should they not show up on time, those without reservations are allowed to drive into the park and claim their spot. Nothing makes me crazier than when hiking becomes a competitive sport.
Greg asked if there were any options for getting a spot for the last bluebird Saturday for days (what a joke) and it turned out there was, in fact, one campsite left, two miles from the Katahdin trailhead we’d hoped to hike, and if we reserved the site, we’d be guaranteed a parking space for our summit day. The campground was like glorified backcountry camping with pit toilets and no running water, yet they still wanted $30(!)/night. We reserved it and paid another $14 to get into the park, and pushed on to conquer Maine.
There are no paved roads in Baxter, no hotels or convenience stores, no running water or electricity. Still, the glorified backcountry site at Abol Campground was gorgeous- well-maintained and clean and a real pleasure to stay in. We loaded up on water before we drove into the park, as well as a rotisserie chicken from Walmart, one of our favorite travel deals. Chicken for supper, chicken for breakfast.
We got up at 4:00a for breakfast and coffee, and light was already starting to shine through the trees. A couple of cars left camp before breakfast was ready, and by the time it was done we didn’t even need our headlamps. Three groups had signed in before us on the Hunt Trail register at the Katahdin Stream trailhead- one having left at 1:00a to catch the sunrise. The Hunt Trail is the most popular (read: easiest) route up Katahdin so to avoid the masses and potential afternoon thunderstorms we left started hiking at 5:45a. I started off with leggings and a down jacket but stopped to shed those after the first flat mile. After that, things got real. We started going up rapidly, at times using our hands to pull ourselves up around boulders and tree roots. Then we got above tree line, where things got really real. There was no technical climbing involved, just a lot of scrambling and maintaining four points of contact. In short, a really, really fun climb up. The summit ridge ended up being the hardest part. Even though it was just walking at that point it was long and drawn out and we were already worn out. Our first real mountain of the season did a number on us! We could see the true summit in front of us, but it looked as though the South Peak was higher from where we were so it was a bit discouraging and that added to our fatigue, but it sure was a nice surprise when we popped out on the real summit!
It was chilly up there, like most summits, but with gorgeous views of the surrounding forests, lakes, and mountains. Baxter is beautiful, and Katahdin a worthy summit. There are seven trails to reach it by, and we’d love to give the Knife Edge a whirl from Chimney Pond someday. Some bluebird autumn day, hopefully, when the leaves are in full color and the days warm and the nights crisp and the moose mating and the aurora popping.
When we started heading back down the mountain there was a string of hikers, at least a hundred strong, heading up the summit ridge. We could see why Baxter imposed all the regulations then.
Katahdin: an unexpected mammoth of a beauty, and totally worth your climb.
Full disclosure: I could hardly walk the next day.