Saddleback-Sugarloaf backpack

Andy and I backpacked the Appalachian Trail in Maine, picking up eight 4000-foot peaks along the way.

Andy heads north from Saddleback Mountain toward The Horn.

The guidebook describes this route as the “most difficult along the A.T. [Appalachian Trail] in Maine”, and after hiking this section, I can certainly see why.  It is incredibly rugged and steep – and we managed to avoid the tough conditions that might have come with rain: slipping down wet trails, and fording high-water streams.

Andy and I set out to backpack the A.T. from Route 4 (near Rangeley) to Route 27 (near Stratton), bagging eight four-thousand-footer peaks along the way.  It was an ambitious five-day, four-night plan, part of my goal to complete the NE111. We had a great time, good weather, nice views, and I succeeded in bagging all eight peaks – but with a twist at the end. Read on, and be sure to check out the photo gallery.

It seemed like a good plan: to bag these eight peaks as dayhikes would mean climbing the ridge multiple times; by stringing them together as a multi-day backpacking trip, we could avoid the extra distance (trail miles) and extra gain (feet of ascent) that would arise in a series of dayhikes.  Plus, it would be fun way to spend four or five days in the woods.

I watched the weather closely and picked a window of good weather; we arrived around noon on Sunday after a rainy Saturday, and had at least four days of sunny weather ahead.  Our route plan was, however, for five days.

Andy inspects Piazza Rock, along the A.T. near Saddleback Mountain in Maine.
Andy inspects Piazza Rock.

Sunday. A local hiker-taxi service helped us spot our car at the north end (Route 27) and drove us around to the south end (Route 4).  The sun was out and clouds were diminishing as we hiked the easy 1.8 miles into Piazza Rock lean-to.  We passed dozens of young families and tourists on their way out from visiting this fascinating site, in which a huge rock is cantilevered over open space.  A lone thru-hiker was at the shelter when we arrived, but over the course of the afternoon and early evening, at least a dozen more arrived.  Tents popped up in the woods nearby, and the hikers gathered around the lean-to firepit for dinner and conversation.

Every night was a fascinating experience, listening to the A.T. thru-hikers’ chatter. (Thru-hikers attempt to hike the entire-length of the 2,100 mile Appalachian Trail in one summer.)  They share an easy-going fellowship, a loose community of friends known only by their ‘trail name’.  The north-bound (nobo) hikers would trade tips with the south-bound (sobo) hikers, about the best near-trail hostels, restaurants, re-supply points, and more. Section hikers (who do the trail in sections, a little each year) soak up the tips as they imagine their future.  Slack-packers (who get someone to drive their overnight gear from trailhead to trailhead while they day-hike sections of trail, faster) are scarce. The thru-hikers compare notes about how many times they’ve taken a zero day (in which they rest without completing any miles of the trail), or gossip about hikers ahead or behind them on the trail. The thru-hiker social network, once linked only by word of mouth or by written notes scribbled into logbooks kept at each shelter, has changed dramatically with the advent of smartphones (texting each other within the woods!) or web forums (including Facebook).   Several times I witnessed thru-hikers making phone calls from the shelter to a hostel, one or two days ahead, to reserve space; going online to order supplies or replacement parts; or texting fellow hikers to coordinate plans. I’m not sure I’m happy about the intrusion of technology into what had once been a backwoods experience.

Anyway, I found all the thru-hikers to be pleasant, friendly people.  Early to bed (8:30pm) and early to rise (5–6am), they were extremely efficient to set and break camp, cook and eat dinner, all while chatting with trail friends.  Of course, at this point, all the nobos had been hiking nearly 2,000 miles, and were the survivors of a massive group that started at Springer Mountain in spring.  Their packs were probably half the weight of mine, refined over time to the lightest gear and the minimal compliment of necessities.

2018-07-30-58965Monday. Beautiful weather for the most scenic piece of this section: up and over Saddleback, Saddleback Horn, and Saddleback Junior. Three miles above treeline, with expansive views all around. We summited by 9:30am, having been woken at 5am by above-mentioned thru-hikers.  The ridgeline was mostly easy walking, but the descents and ascents between peaks were brutally steep and rocky.  We gratefully pulled into Poplar Ridge Lean-to in mid-afternoon, washed off the day’s mud, and took a nap.

2018-07-30-58955Inside Poplar Ridge shelter is the photo commemorating the sad story of Gerry Largay, a 66-year old thru-hiker in 2013.  This photo is the last ever taken, because a few hours later she stepped off the trail for a bathroom break – and could not find her way back to the trail.  Lost in the dense Maine woods, she hunkered down in her tent, surviving for weeks while a massive search effort tried to find her. Sadly, the search failed – a reminder of the incredibly dense forest and rugged terrain.  Her body (and diary) was found, by accident, two years later.   One of the saddest stories I’ve ever read.

Sharing the lean-to that night was a 60-something thru-hiker who had been hiking the trail in 2013 and had hiked for a while with Gerry.  (Other matters caused her to leave the trail and postpone completion until this year.)  She told us, and the others at the campsite, stories about Gerry and about the search.  It was mesmerizing, almost five years to the day since Gerry’s stay at this shelter, to hear some of this story first-hand.

Tuesday.  After yesterday’s grueling hike we were both tired.  We started with a treacherously steep descent toward Orbeton Stream, which we knew had no bridge and could be difficult to ford.  Stories from sobo hikers led us to believe the water was low, and lowering, and indeed it was an easy rock-hop from one side to the other.  A beautiful 100′ cascade from a tributary decorated the other side of the stream.  We then began the long slog up Lone Mountain – later described to us, by a pair of trail-working elderly gentlemen, as the tallest-gain section of the trail.  With no view, we stopped for a brief lunch in the woods.  We reached a junction and split up – Andy proceeding another mile to Spaulding lean-to, and David donning his daypack for a 3.4-mile round-trip to Mount Abraham.Trail to Mount Abraham skirts this rocky outcrop and proceeds up that ridge.

Beautiful wild blueberries along the Mount Abraham ridge.A gloriously alpine summit, it reminded me more of Franconia Ridge than Maine; a jumble of talus rock with scattered heather and loads of fat wild blueberries.  I chatted with a man, head of maintenance for this section of A.T., on the summit, while we inspected the impressive gray clouds passing through.  On the way back, I picked a cup of large, juicy blueberries for breakfast.

Wednesday. This day was to be our shortest – only 6.2 miles of backpacking, with two short side-hikes for David to bag Spaulding (0.1mi) and Sugarloaf (1.2mi). Andy was feeling better; the weather remained sunny, though with growing clouds. We passed a marker commemorating the spot where, in 1937, the A.T. was completed as an end-to-end trail. On the brutal descent from Sugarloaf to the Caribou Valley, over a chockablock trail of rocks from some ancient slide, Andy’s ankle began to hurt and the clouds above started to look ominous.  At noon we sat soaking our feet in the river, eating lunch and assessing the situation.  We realized a night out, tenting in a heavy rainstorm, followed by an 8-mile hike over two peaks, would not be especially pleasant – and, as it happens, there is a dirt road leading from here to our car on Route 27. We decided to change plans.

2018-08-01-59008Andy would walk 4.3 miles to Route 27, and 1.5 miles along that road to our car, then return to drive back up as far as possible.  (As we later learned, he could reach a parking area only half mile from the A.T.)  David would drop pack and dayhike the three remaining peaks – Redington and the two Crockers – then return to meet Andy and the car for a ride out.  The catch: it was 1:30 pm, the sky was turning more gray every minute, the dayhike was 9+ miles, and we did not know whether the road was passable for our little Prius. We made plans, backup plans, and backup-backup plans – neither of us had cell service, so once we parted there was no way to communicate.

David on the summit of South Crocker.
Three times to the summit of South Crocker!

The plan worked.  I hiked fast and hard, climbing 1900′ to S.Crocker in just 70 minutes. Then I left the trail and dropped down into a col, and up Redington, following a herd path used by peak-baggers like me.  I reversed, back down into the col and slogging back up to S.Crocker; 2.5 mi round-trip with 1146′ gain.  Then I descended the A.T. north, and ascended N.Crocker, reversed back down to the col and up (again!) to S.Crocker; 2.0 mi round-trip with 1000′ gain.  Phew!  Then descend 1900′ from S.Crocker back to the road, where I was grateful to see my backpack gone – an indication Andy was close and had carried it out for me. I hurried down the road half a mile, where the car was waiting; 4h40m for a dayhike of 9.2 mi and 3761′ gain – on top of the morning’s 6.5 miles. Needless to say, I was woofed.

David had hiked 15.7 miles and Andy 12.7 miles.  It was nearly 7pm and we had a notion to drive the four hours home. Instead, we stopped in Rangeley for pizza and beer, and found a pleasant-but-not-expensive motel to spend the night, sparing the drive for the next morning.

All in all, a successful and fun trip!  Check out the photo gallery and the SPOT track.

Some stats about distance (miles) and gain (feet), each day; many days included deep descents as well.  Monday was an extremely tough backpack over Saddleback, Saddleback Horn, and Saddleback Junior.  Wednesday was intended to be a short day, but our early exit (avoiding a rainy Thursday) added an intense dayhike for David and a long roadwalk for Andy. The SPOT track shows David’s progress; ignore the last two points (which were in the car).

Day Backpack Dayhike Where
Sunday 1.8 mi, 550′ gain none Rt4 to Piazza Rock lean-to
Monday 8.8 mi, 3347′ gain none Piazza to Poplar Ridge Lean-to
Tuesday 8.0 mi, 2000′ gain 3.4 mi, 773′ (Dave) Poplar Ridge to Spaulding Lean-to
Wednesday 5.2 mi, 993′ gain 10.5 mi, 4571′ (Dave)
7.5mi down (Andy)
Spaulding to Caribou Valley Road

4000-footer Peaks (in order ascended):

  • Saddleback 4116’*
  • Saddleback Horn 4041′
  • Abraham 4043’*
  • Spaulding 3988’*
  • Sugarloaf 4250′
  • S. Crocker 4010’*
  • Redington 4010’*
  • N.Crocker 4168’*

Elevations differ between the signs, maps, AMC guidebook, and MATC guidebook, and NE111 list. I used the signs (where available*), otherwise the AMC guidebook (where available), otherwise the MATC guidebook.

Trail sign at the end of my dayhike, where the A.T. crosses the Caribou Valley Road. Note 23.9 miles since our starting point, indicating total backpack distance.
SPOT medium angle
Location, at 10-minute intervals, from SPOT Gen3 location tracker

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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