Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Owl- Hiking One of Maine's Overlooked Gems

I have hiked in Baxter State Park nearly two dozen times now.  A majority of these involved a climb of Katahdin which is Maine's highest peak.  Most people visiting the park focus on Katahdin.  Many of the other peaks in the park are overlooked by visitors.  One of these peaks in The Owl.

The Owl was on my radar for a while.  The J Man and I headed to Baxter State Park Sunday with intent to hike either The Owl or South Turner, another overlooked mountain in the park.  When the parking lot for South Turner was full when we arrived we set off for The Owl.

The Owl, at 3700 or so feet is a stunning peak.  It is located just about two miles from Katahdin as the bird flies and sits across Witherle Ravine from the Hunt Spur of Katahdin.  Hikers approaching Katahdin via the Hunt Trail (AT) have The Owl at there shoulder.  The side of The Owl most people see is a large cliff band that with a little imagination, resembles an owl.  The summit of the peak is open and offers views in all directions.

From an earlier hike, The Owl from the Hunt Trail.  The rocky mountain in the foreground.

The trail to The Owl starts at Katahdin Stream Campground.  For the first mile it follows the Hunt Trail before splitting off onto The Owl Trail.  The trail climbs gradually  most of the way.  The trail doesn't get too steep until well over two miles into the trip when hands are needed to climb at a few of the steeper spots.  Along the way views into the ravine and to the Hunt Spur are sporadic.  Eventually the vegetation thins, taking in views toward Katahdin while looking across the sheer cliffs of The Owl.  Most of the way the roar of Katahdin Stream can be heard.  As you enter the scrubbier vegetation high on the peak, waterfalls are visible in the distance dropping into the ravine. 3.3 miles and over 2600 vertical feet later the summit is reached.  In a few weeks, the summit will have a nice crop of blueberries.

One of the first views toward Katahdin

Looking across Owl's cliffs toward Katahdin

Looking into Witherle Ravine
"Balancing Rock"

Indian Pipes along the trail

Looking toward the Tableland

Waterfall below in the ravine

The views from the summit are impressive.  In the distance to the south, the peaks of the 100 Mile Wilderness are on the horizon.  Closer at the base of the mountain are Kidney, Daicey, and numerous other ponds.  The mountains around Moosehead Lake are visible to the southwest.  It was somewhat hazy today and I could easily see as far as Big Moose Mountain near the southern end of Moosehead Lake.  To the west are other nearby peaks in Baxter State Park are in sight including Barren, Coe, The Brothers, Doubletop, and Moose Bosom just beyond the park boundary with Chesuncook Lake in the distance.  The north is dominated by the Northwest Plateau, Hamlin Peak, and Katahdin.  The Hunt Spur is immediately east with the lakes heading toward Millinocket visible beyond the Hunt Spur.

Barren Mountain in the foreground, Doubletop and Moose Bosom to left and Coe just behind Barren

Hamlin Peak and Northwest Plateau

Another look in ravine, the slash is Katahdin Stream flowing down from Thoreau Spring

Looking over ridge of Owl over Daicey and Kidney Ponds area

The Brothers and Fort Mountain

I highly recommend hiking The Owl to anyone visiting Baxter State Park.  On weekends in the summer, Katahdin can be a zoo.  As we looked over to the Hunt Trail we could see numerous groups hiking to Katahdin and the sign in sheet at the trailhead was full of people going to Katahdin.  We saw only one other group on the trail to The Owl.  It is a scenic summit that you can have to yourself.  At less than 7 miles round trip it will leave you with a little to spare.

Me sitting on "Balancing Rock"

Me sitting on edge of Witherle Ravine below The Owl

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Moxie Bald Mountain Blueberry Feast

At 2630' Moxie Bald Mountain is not very high.  There are 196 higher mountains in Maine alone.  It stands in relatively lonely country near Bingham and The Forks, Maine.  If it wasn't crossed by the Appalachian Trail, it probably wouldn't see very much traffic.  In fact even with the AT crossing it, it still doesn't see much traffic.  Apart from long distance hikers on the AT, it appears that this place is seldom visited.

The hike to its summit is moderately challenging but relatively tame compared to Maine's bigger peaks.  The summit of the mountain is fairly open with good views in most directions.  I have been here twice before.  The first time was in 1999 when I hiked the AT.  Last December I hiked it for a second time with most of the trail covered with snow and ice.

Rock overhang on Appalachian Trail

Another rock formation along AT

Looking back down AT near summit of Moxie Bald

When I crossed Moxie Bald Mountain on my AT thru hike, one memory comes to mind.  The blueberries were abundant.  Most of the low vegetation on its broad summit consists of blueberry bushes.  I leisurely crossed the summit stopping to grab handfuls of blueberries during my thru hike.  That memory is what inspired me to hike the mountain again this weekend.

The J Man went along on the hike and we both brought containers along to pick berries.  Shortly before reaching the summit, the trail begins traversing terrain with few trees.  Almost immediately we found blueberries.  We stopped at the more concentrated clusters to gather berries and would move on to the next cluster when we depleted the ripe berries in an area.

One of many clusters of blueberries with many more to ripen

 About a mile beyond the summit is a side trail to the north peak of Moxie Bald Mountain.  I never hiked here before and didn't know too much about this other summit.  The only information I had was that the side trail was about 3/4 of a mile long and there is abundant blueberries in season.  This was no lie.  There were huge clusters of ripe berries frequently along the trail.  We both filled our Cool Whip containers well before the summit.  After our containers were filled we continued to pick more to eat on the spot at the patches with heavier concentrations.  I never seen so many wild blueberries in my many years of hiking.

My bounty of hand picked wild mountain Maine blueberries

The berries weren't the only attraction.  It was a beautiful day and the views from Moxie Bald Mountain are quite nice and far reaching.  Little did I know they got better at the north peak.  The north peak consists of a nearly mile long open, rocky summit with 360 degree views.  Judging by the lack of wear on the trail, very few people venture to this peak.  AT hikers usually don't bother with a 1.5 mile detour for an understated view and the locals usually summit the main peak and turn around.  Any guidebook with the description of hiking Moxie Bald barely mentions the north peak.  The trailhead to this area is a 20 mile round trip on a dirt road. I'm guessing that deters others that might consider hiking here.

Approaching the summit of the north peak

I was pleasantly surprised at the far-reaching and unobstructed views that went from Katahdin to the peaks in the Grafton Notch area, not too far from the New Hampshire border.  Nearly the entire 280 miles of Appalachian Trail in Maine.  The peaks of the Bigelows are fairly close and unmistakable.  Just past the Bigelows, the trails of Sugarloaf Ski Area are visible.  Immediately to the north are the peaks of Moosehead Lake, including, Big and Little Moose, the Spencers, and the Lily Bay Range.  Just east of the Moosehead is all of the 100 Mile Wilderness peaks.  To the northwest mountains on the Canadian border can be seen. Several ponds are visible just below the mountain and countless other summits.  This area, particularly the north peak is great hidden secret of Maine mountains and a good place to find solitude and in season, amazing wild blueberries.  With only modest elevation gains and just over 7 miles of hiking, this hike is short enough that you can hike leisurely and enjoy the views and the berries.

Bald Mountain Pond

Looking over open summit toward Moosehead Lake area mountains

Moxie Pond with Bigelows in background

Big Moose on left and the Spencers in distance

Looking across vast open summit on Moxie Bald's north peak

Looking toward Moxie Bald from the north peak

Mountains east of Moosehead Lake region

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Presidential Traverse

The Presidential Traverse is a hike in New Hampshire's White Mountains that traverses the Presidential Range.  Most people know the range's most popular summit, Mt Washington, but the entire range contains many more significant peaks.  The five highest mountains in New England are in the Presidential Range as well as three other 4000 foot mountains and several other lesser peaks.

The hike is one of the more challenging hikes in the east with large areas above treeline, major climbs and descents, and potentially dangerous weather.  It is also one of the most scenic hikes in the east with much of the traverse above treeline offering endless views.  I hiked all of the major peaks along the traverse at one point, but never linked them all together in one continuous hike.  While many choose to do the hike over two to three days, many others like to test there endurance and complete the hike in one day.  I was up for the challenge and wanted to do the one day traverse.

There are several options for the traverse.  While nearly everyone hikes the northern summit, some only hike as far south as Mt Pierce, the last peak named after a president.  Others will hike to Mt Jackson since it a 4000 footer.  Some will hike to Mt. Webster, the last peak heading south in the range.  Along the way there are a few lesser peaks including Mt Clay and Mt Franklin that some people choose to skip since they do not have enough elevation change to be considered a major summit.  Since this was my first traverse, I chose to hike all of it.

My hike would hike over eight major summits and three lesser summit.  From north to south I hiked over Mt Madison, Mt Adams, Mt Jefferson, Mt Clay, Mt Washington, Mt Monroe, Mt Franklin, Mt Eisenhower, Mt Pierce, Mt Jackson, and Mt Webster.  The hike would cover just under 23 miles and gain over 9500 feet in elevation.

I didn't have a set day planned to do the hike.  When the forecast made a turn for the better, I made a last minute decision to try the hike on Saturday, July 13th.  Since I live three hours from the northern trailhead, I headed there the night before and obtained fine trailhead lodging in Le Motel Subaru.   The parking lot was busy all through the night and I didn't sleep very well, maybe getting four hours sleep if I was lucky.

I was on the trail at 447 AM.  It was still mostly dark with just enough light to get by without a headlamp.  I started on the Valley Way before turning onto the Watson Path. Less than a mile onto the Watson Path, the trail emerges from the trees and remained above treeline most of the day.  The Watson Path would bring me to the summit of Mt Madison at 648 AM.  At 5367', Madison is the 5th highest peak in New England.  This is the toughest climb of the trip gaining over 4000 feet of elevation in less than 4 miles.  I have been on Mt Madison several times before and I am always impressed with its view.  The drop into the valley to the north from the summit seems dramatic since it is the last peak on the ridge.  Most of the valley was shrouded in fog while all the higher terrain was in the clear.  Soon after I reached the summit, several groups were hiking up from Madison Springs Hut, a short .5 miles away.  I descended to the hut and refilled my water.

Duck Falls

Typical warning signs in the Presidentials

Valley fog from Mt Madison

Mt Jefferson (closer) and Washington

After leaving the hut, I headed to Mt Adams.  I used the Star Lake Trail which is one of my favorites in the Presidentials.   It climbs steeply up the mountain and requires some rock scrambling and use of the hands to negotiate.  It also sees fewer people.  I reached the summit, which at 5774' is the second highest in New England.  I had the summit to myself and ate breakfast.  Mt Adams is probably my favorite peak of the Presidentials.  I think the views are among the most dramatic in the range.

JQ Adams, Star Lake, Madison

Steep section of Star Lake Trail

JQ Adams, Madison, valley fog

Cairns marking trail with Jefferson and Washington in background

A short descent brought me to the Gulfside Trail which I would follow across its open terrain until I reached the Mt Jefferson Loop.  Mt Jefferson, at 5712' is the third highest peak in New England.  Its summit is attractive but not quite as nice at Adams and Madison in my opinion.  I didn't linger too long before heading back down the Mt Jefferson Loop to the Gulfside Trail.

Looking back at Adams while climbing Jefferson

I broke off the Gulfside Trail to the Mt Clay Loop.  This was the only peak on the trip I never have visited.
At 5533', Mt Clay is one of the highest spots on the traverse but it doesn't have enough prominence to be ranked and is technically a shoulder Mt Washington.  Nonetheless, Mt Clay is stunning.  It offers perhaps the best views in the Presidential Range toward the peaks to the north in the range, looking over the Great Gulf, as well as a close up of Mt Washington.  The trail on the way to the summit passes through an attractive area of alpine grass and tundra plants.  I stopped on its peak for a snack and to enjoy the views.

Grassy climb up Mt Clay

Looking back at Jefferson, Adams, Madison from Clay

Another view looking back

Mt Washington was next .  I reached the summit just after 1030AM.  At 6288', it is the highest summit in the Northeast.  It is also home to some of the nastiest weather and highest winds.  On this day the weather was quite placid.  The summit temperature was a comfortable 60F and the winds were calm at an almost unheard of 3MPH.  I would have liked the wind since it was on the warm side to help cool down.  I personally hate the summit of Mt Washington.  The place on a nice day is a zoo.  A road and train take tourists to the summit.  Since it is the highest peak, it gets an insane amount of hiker traffic.  There is a parking lot and a cluster of buildings to clutter the summit.  Hiking to the summit is nice and scenic, but the summit itself is a let down when you see the mayhem.  Needless to say, I didn't linger.

Looking back at northern Presis

Looking over Great Gulf from high on Washington

Leaving Washington toward Lakes of the Clouds and Mt Monroe

Mt Monroe

Mt Monroe was my next summit.  Before reaching the summit, I stopped at Lakes of the Clouds Hut.  I had lunch and refilled my water.  The hut sits just below the Mt Monroe, only 1.5 miles from Mt Washington.  Mt Monroe is the 4th highest peak in New England at 5384'.  Mt Monroe is one of the more scenic spots in the Presidentials.  It offers dramatic views of Mt Washington and the southern peaks of the range.  It also sees a fraction of the people at any given time as Mt Washington even though they are less than two miles apart and share a trailhead.

Looking over Lakes of the Clouds toward Washington and northern peaks from Monroe

Looking south from Monroe

From Monroe I headed to Mt Eisenhower.  Along the way I made a brief detour to Mt Franklin.  Franklin's rise from surrounding terrain is so insignificant that I'm not sure why it's even named.  It offers nice views nonetheless into the Oakes Gulf and surrounding peaks.  I'm not sure why, but Eisenhower's summit was very crowded.  It has nice views in all direction but with the crowds, I didn't linger too long.

Looking back to Monroe

Looking south below Monroe

Washington framed between Monroe's peaks

Tundra grasses over flat plateau south of Monroe

Mt Eisenhower was the last dramatic mountain I would traverse.  It stands predominately south of Mt Monroe and north of Mt Pierce.  There are beautiful stretches of high alpine meadow along the way and the trail is quite level before eventual dropping in and out of the treeline.  The remaining mountains have partially open, scrubby summits, but aren't nearly as grand as the peaks between Madison and Eisenhower.  The trail south of Mt Eisenhower I hiked before but not since 1999 when I thru hiked the Appalachian Trail. Every other mountain except Clay, I hiked in the past few years.  Despite hiking it before, this area was basically new to me since it had been so long since my last time in the area.

Looking north near Eisenhower

Descending Eisenhower

By the time I left Mt Pierce I started to feel the mileage of the day.  When the scenery started to diminish, I became aware of the fatigue I developed.  Luckily, the elevation gains at this point were less dramatic than the higher peaks.  My last pit stop was at Mizpah Springs Hut.  I ate one last snack and filled up with water.

Looking north near Mt Pierce's summit

I went over Mt Jackson and Webster before descending to the road.  Jackson had some areas of open summit.  Webster's summit was in the trees but had several ledges that offered views into the valley.  From Mt Webster the trail dropped about 2000' to Crawford Notch and Route 302.  This is the longest elevation loss of the day and my knees were ready to be done when I reached the road at 357PM.

Alpine meadow

Spruce grouse

Haze settling on Mt Washington
Cliffs in Crawford Notch

Mountains to the south of the Presidential Range

Silver Cascade

The hiking was over.  The next challenge began, getting back to my car.  My preferred method in these situations is hitchhiking.  Around the mountains hitchhiking can be easy and effective.  My luck wasn't the best however despite plenty of weekend traffic.  It took me nearly a half hour for my first ride which only took me about ten miles north.  I got two quick rides to Route 115.  Then I was stuck.  Once car stopped but I declined since they were only traveling a mile and I had a descent location.  The road was dead and more than 45 minutes passed with no luck.  Finally a truck going the opposite direction turned around and asked where I was heading.  He too just finished the Presidential Traverse and saw me hitching earlier.  He took me back to the trailhead.  It turned out we have done a lot of the same hikes including the Appalachian Trail, Long Trail, and Colorado Trail.

I'm glad I finally got to do the Presidential Traverse.  The weather was good.  It was a little warmer than I would have liked but not overly hot.  The visibility was great, especially in the morning.  Later in the day it started to cloud over and get a little hazy but not too bad for July.  Now I just need a couple days for my knees to recover.