ZAC BOSTON'S GUIDE TO HIKING THE MAINE 4,000-FOOTERS IN SEVEN DAYS, MAYBE LESS
Words and Photos by Zac Boston
One of our favorite local dudes, Zac Boston, is nothing if not goal oriented. Just before leaving for a southbound hike of the Appalachian Trail, he was kind enough to share this awesome “how-to” about summitting all the 4,000-foot peaks of Maine in a way that fits in nicely with modern, busy schedules. For anyone who’s itching to check these peaks off their to-do list, this plan might be the ticket.
Global pandemics have this way of slowing down regular life to a sporadically intermittent crawl. Last year everyone's daily lives had to change by limiting social interactions, disconnecting from regular routines, changing work environments, and re-acclimating to a "New Normal." The pandemic affecting our world has also provided an opportunity for many to unplug from human life and reconnect with natural living. Being a hiker made for a perfect excuse to ditch the annual outings that all were postponed or canceled anyway and instead focus on pushing my skills further.
Growing up in Maine, I know of the storied past this state has shared with the outdoors. So, I started to reminisce on the good times I spent in an overnight summer camp in the great north woods. Weeklong trips into the backcountry where we learned survival skills, explored the wilderness while canoeing and hiking and learned how to make the perfect s'more. (Listed on my resume under special talents.)
Last year around mid-July, I found myself at home again on a Friday night pondering what fun could be had within the next 48 hours free from bosses and deadlines. A freshly poured Banded Brewing "Daikaiju" helped bubble the idea of completing the AMC's 4,000-footer list for Maine to the top of my brain. Although this was a worthwhile goal to scratch off my bucket list and a failed New Year's resolution multiple times, it never grew legs sitting in limbo.
After a few searches on the old innerwebs and while having multiple browser tabs open at once, a light bulb started to flicker in my mind. "There might be an efficient way to summit all 14 of these mountains before the summer's end." I started an excel sheet to record the information I collected and quickly learned the names of the highest peaks of Maine. A grin took hold sitting back, glass half full, and it became clearer where this summer was heading.
This is the way I completed the Maine 4,000-footer list over the course of seven days. A caveat before we begin–this is the path I took. You are not me, and as such, this is not a recommendation but merely a documentation of the information I have gained from personal experience, and it might be useful to others. It is overused but very fitting here–hindsight is 20/20–and in writing this, I think someone could possibly complete the fourteen peaks in only six days. (But more on that in a second.)
A good starting point and my first summit on the list was Old Speck which is a part of the Grafton Notch Loop Trail. The quickest route is a 7.6 mile out and back, starting off from a parking area on Route 26 and heading up the Eyebrow Trail. It then continues on the Appalachian Trail south. The summit features a fire tower that gives you a full view on a clear day in all directions.
Looking back, depending on skill level and time of year, Old Speck and the two Saddleback peaks could be hiked as a double-day hike with a two-hour drive/break in between each hike. That approach would shave a whole day off the process and bag you all fourteen 4,000 footers of Maine in only six days.
Now, except for Old Speck and The Baxter Park Peaks (North Brother, Hamlin, and Katahdin), the bulk of the 4,000 footers are located between Rangeley and the Carrabassett Valley Region of Maine. This geographic factoid lends itself well to the efficiency of summiting the ten mountain peaks found here. Furthermore, all ten can be tackled as four separate hikes, which I managed by doing two pairs of day hikes while camping locally to help cut down on drive time.
The first day hike was a lesson in "go big or go home." The planned peak-bagging route included Sugarloaf, Spaulding, and Abraham in one out and back hike along the Appalachian Trail and the Mount Abraham Spur Trail for a total of around 17 miles. Although this is a long journey, the rock summit of Abraham provides a relaxing reward. Adorning the final peak were stacked cairn thrones from which successful hikers can sit and ponder the rocky kingdom they just conquered.
For the next day's hike and in proper ultralight fashion, I parked in the same spot since Caribou Pond Road serves double duty by providing access to both trailheads, which are located on opposite sides of the same dirt road. Crocker, South Crocker, and Mount Redington were all bagged via an 8.6 mile "Y" shaped loop on the AT with a manageable but rough bushwhack trail to get Redington. I was questioning whether to take the unmarked bushwhack or skip Redington altogether, but on the summit of Crocker, I ran into old friends from high school who were working on their lists as well. Our shared worries were eased with a little determination as we decided to double up our mountaineering efforts and successfully summited as a group.
It's just a short drive north from these six summits up Route 27 to reach the Bigelow Preserve, the location for Avery and West peaks, two neighbors also connected via the Appalachian Trail. I chose to hike the 12-mile loop recommended on the 4000footers.com website, which takes the Fire Warden's trail up, the AT south, and then hooks a left on the Horns Pond trail. Walking the Bigelow ridge, you get expansive views of Flagstaff Lake to the north and southern views looking back at the bulk of the Maine 4,000 footers and the lush Carrabassett Valley.
The following morning driving southwest on Route 16, I headed towards Rangeley to bag Saddleback and The Horn. The last time I had visited this mountain was many winters prior with my uncle for a day of carving downhill on some crusty New England corduroy. However, on this day in August, the sun was hot during the quick and steep hike up the grassy ski trails to the top of Saddleback. Hiking two miles up a ski trail isn't my favorite; however, the payoff is a view every time you stop and turn around to take a break. It can be motivating to track your elevation gain with a simple look over the shoulder for reference. Once at the summit, it is a picturesque one-mile ridge walk over to The Horn, rounding the day off at seven miles roundtrip.
A funny, small world moment happened while hiking that day when I ran into a woman who had also been hiking the Bigelows the day before. As we passed each other on the trail, we both laughed at the interesting coincidence. We chatted for a bit, sharing stories of our peak-bagging goals, and then headed on our way. The hiker community is generally a very supportive, fun-loving, and goal-oriented group of people. There is a shared kinship earned through blood, sweat, and tears spent striving to reach some of the highest points in life.
Worth a mention here is the spot on Flagstaff Lake that served as my base camp for the two overnights. The tent site allowed me to save on gas and driving time to go full weekend warrior status and bust out some 4,000 footers in very short order. At Myers Lodge East, I spent two summer nights under the stars camping along the lake's sandy shore. Waking up to the sound of loons calling while watching the sun rising over the foggy calm water was like witnessing mother nature performing live art in front of me. Sitting there in awe and feeling fortunate to see such serene beauty, I began to chuckle as my freed thoughts drifted back into my body. Suddenly self-aware of the wonderful clique I was experiencing sitting on a lake in Maine, I reminded myself of the state's classic motto, "The Way Life Should Be."
Moving on and further north, three of the peaks (North Brother, Hamlin, and Baxter) on the AMC's list for Maine reside within the Baxter State Park in Millinocket, which also serves as the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. The best way to accomplish these summits will include at least one night spent camping at one of the campgrounds within the park (most logically Abol, Katahdin Stream, Kidney Pond, or Daicey Pond). I say at least one night because the park is too large and jaw-dropping to soak it all in at once and definitely worth visiting again. Baxter has a magical reverence that shields away the noise of the modern world. This is assisted by a lack of cell service in the park, but jokes aside, the wild north woods is a sacred place where souls can leave feeling recharged.
The first day in Baxter was spent in the southwestern side of the park. Deciding to add extra mileage for the day, I parked at Foster Field and headed up the OJI trail. Even though the day I hiked was dry and sunny, the conditions were perfect for morning dew-coated vegetation. This, coupled with the trail being less popular, had my boots rapidly saturated from overgrowth that perfectly distributed their watery droplets onto my legs with each step. At the summit, I hung my socks in the sun and poured out the water collected in my soggy 'waterproof' Keens thinking to myself, "It's going to be a long day."
Continuing north, my route included the slippery rock slide up to Mount Coe, where I met a hiker from Iowa spending a week in Baxter trying to hike all the peaks before he left. We teamed up and finished the day together, summiting South and North Brother while only passing two other hikers for the remainder of our trip. Finally, we took the Marston Trail down where his car was, and I hitched a ride on the tote road back to my spot.
Spending the night at the Abol Campground, I was able to dry my boots by the fire with only a minor melting incident and sleep peacefully to the sound of the babbling stream only a few feet away from the lean-to.
In the morning, I started the ten-mile day with some bouldering on the legendary Abol Slide. Cresting the top of the slide into Tableland, I was greeted with gusting winds and fog hiding anything more than 30 feet away. Following cairns, I took the Baxter Cutoff to the Saddle Trail north to Hamlin Peak. I only stayed briefly with the misty winds whipping me on the exposed summit and ventured toward Maine's tallest peak and the last on my 4,000-footer list.
Reaching Katahdin as the clouds began to break with sunlight starting to warm the air, the enormity of the mountain I had completed came into clear focus. Looking across Knife Edge and down on Chimney Pond, a sense of accomplishment filled my being, and a familiar grin took hold of my face.
Mountains fill many with wonder and have mystified humans for generations. Ethereal jagged structures towering above our amorphous mortal shells that reach toward the heavens seem to offer a bridge to an enlightened state of being and an elevated viewpoint where the bigger picture falls into perspective. The goal of summiting the Maine 4,000-footers in seven days was the drive that got me out of the house during a global pandemic and shaped my path for the better. We are capable of amazing things if we stay motivated and take the steps necessary to keep moving forward.
Zac Boston is a designer, photographer, writer, and avid hiker who calls Maine home. Inspired by nature, he spends free time kayaking the shores of local rivers, biking twisty singletrack trails, and hiking the higher summits sharing his adventures along the way in hopes of inspiring others to explore the wild outdoors. Over the past year, he has completed the AMC 4,000-footer lists for Maine and New Hampshire in preparation for a 2021 southbound thru hike of the Appalachian Trail. You can follow more of his hiking on his Instagram, website, and YouTube channel.