Katahdin’s reputation is enormous for a feature that stands just under a mile high. Henry David Thoreau made it famous in his writing, America’s biggest-name long-distance thru-hike ends on its summit, and one of its summit trails is a classic Northeast test for fear of heights. And although Katahdin is most famous for its hiking trails, its walls also hold some of the best long technical climbing routes in the region.
Maine’s highest point at 5,270 feet, Katahdin stands 4,000 feet above the mostly flat Maine woods surrounding it in Baxter State Park. Katahdin isn’t a single summit, but a massif with several subpeaks on its sweeping ridges: Baxter Peak, the actual summit (5,270 feet); South Peak (5,260 feet); Pamola Peak (4,919 feet); Chimney Peak (4,900 feet); Hamlin Peak (4,756 feet); South Howe Peak (4,740 feet); and North Howe Peak (4,700 feet). With treeline between 3,500 and 3,800 feet at its northernmost latitude, the exposed Katahdin massif of glacially carved granite is renowned for miles of ridge hiking with unobstructed views.
In August 1846, a young man named Henry David Thoreau decided he wanted to climb Katahdin, a huge undertaking in those days (more bushwhacking, even less parking). He left his hut on Walden Pond, where he’d been living for more than a year, made his way to the Maine woods over several days, and began his climb. He never quite made it to the actual summit, historians have decided, but he thought he was pretty close, as far as he could tell through the clouds that kept rolling in and out. In “Ktaadn,” a recounting that would later become a chapter of The Maine Woods, Thoreau wrote: "The tops of mountains are among the unfinished parts of the globe, whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets, and try their effect on our humanity. Only daring and insolent men, perchance, go there. Simple races, as savages, do not climb mountains, — their tops are sacred and mysterious tracts never visited by them. Pomola is always angry with those who climb to the summit of Ktaadn."
Katahdin rewards those who use their feet to explore its terrain: With more than a half-dozen trails climbing its flanks, any trip to the summit involves some scrambling and is more than just a walk on a nice path—especially considering every route to the top involves at least 3,700 feet of elevation gain. The good news is, of course, that all that work is worthwhile for the views on Katahdin’s wide-open ridgelines.
The Hunt Trail is arguably the most popular trail to the summit of Katahdin; although the longest route at 5.2 miles, almost half of it is above treeline. The Helon Taylor Trail, another popular trail to the summit, is known for a different reason: It accesses the Knife Edge, perhaps the most talked-about ridgeline in the Northeast.
The Knife Edge
Many a hiker has confronted a fear, or latent fear, of heights on Katahdin’s famous Knife Edge, a 1,500-foot section of three-foot-wide ridge, with a 1,000-plus-foot drop on either side. It’s no joke: Hikers have been blown off by high winds and have slipped off in inclement weather. But most folks make it safely across, with an empowering (or frightening) memory of the traverse.
The Appalachian Trail
The five-mile Hunt Trail is a special section of trail, and not just because it ends at Katahdin’s summit. In fact, it’s the end of the entire 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail for those who hike south to north. The Hunt Trail comprises the final day of a six-month trek, and the last of the estimated five-million steps AT hikers tick off during their journey.
Maine is not known for having a slew of technical alpine climbs, but Katahdin holds all of them: a handful of classic multi-pitch rock, ice and mixed climbs for those willing to hike the approach. The cirque surrounding Chimney Pond—part of which forms the north side of the Knife Edge—is stacked with adventure climbs. Summer climbers tackle the Armadillo, a six-pitch, old-school 5.8; Pamola IV, the 11-pitch, 5.7 ridge climb; and the technical 5.9 Flatiron Buttress, all of which top out on the Knife Edge. A handful of other routes on the 1,000-foot headwall in the North Basin, beneath Hamlin Peak, also see summer climbers. In the wintertime, the gullies in the Chimney Pond cirque fill with ice and snow and climbers grind out the 12-mile hike in to get on the classic Cilley Barber (IV, NEI 4) and a half-dozen other committing long routes to the summit ridges.
Hiking the Knife Edge
From the Roaring Brook Campground take the Helon Taylor Trail 3.2 miles to the summit of Pamola Peak. From there, follow the exposed Knife Edge to Katahdin’s 5,270-foot summit, Baxter Peak.
Note: Katahdin is a popular hike in season. Parking at the trailheads is not only limited, it’s pretty competitive. Baxter State Park has instituted a reservation system for May 24th–Oct. 15th. For reservations or more information, visit Baxter State Park. (For the Knife Edge hike, make a reservation to park at the Roaring Brook Campground.)
From Portland, Maine, drive north on I-295 for 47 miles and continue onto I-95 north for 141 miles. Exit onto ME 157 and drive west to Millinocket. In Millinocket, turn north onto Bates Street (which becomes Millinocket Road, Millinocket Lake Road, and Baxter Park Road) and drive north for 17 miles into Baxter State Park to the Roaring Brook Campground.
From Boston, drive north on I-95 for 294 miles, exit onto ME 157 and drive west to Millinocket. In Millinocket, turn north onto Bates Street and follow the rest of the directions above.
Photography by ©Brian Mohr / EmberPhoto