Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Hiking Mt Hamlin, Maine: Baxter State Park's Best

The Katahdin Massif is massive. Although most travelers would prefer bagging Maine's highest peak, Hamlin Peak offers an alternative to the often crowded Baxter summit. It is also one of Maine's 4,000-footers.
Mt Hamlin Ridge Trail, Baxter State Park
Well you can hardly ever expect favorable weather to last long in Maine unless you consider windy and rainy favorable. Regardless, any trip to Maine has to compensate for the likelihood of stormy weather. Today I was to hike Hamlin Peak which is part of the Mt Katahdin ridgeline but is prominent enough to be a peak in its own right. Although tall enough to have a bare summit with 360-degree views, this mountain hardly sees the kind of traffic that its big brother sees. Its a great hike though and probably better than Katahdin for those of us who prefer to wander off the beaten path. Its also another necessary peak for the obsessive-compulsive folks who climb 4,000-footers. Whatever your pleasure, Hamlin shouldn't be missed if you've made it all the way out to Baxter State Park

I just as much assumed that no amount of rain gear was going to keep me dry today. The Hamlin ridge is mostly above tree line and very expose to wind and weather. 

Classic view of Mt Katahdin with Mt Hamlin just right of center
The Katahdin parking lots are always such a riot. Even on a Tuesday morning, one can probably find a license plate in the Roaring Brook Trailhead which is the most frequently used trailhead to climb Katahdin. I could see different groups with varying levels of preparedness for the hike ahead. There were the super-fit couples from New York who wore designer "activewear" but were clearly not dressed for the wilderness. There were families from Boston, Hartford, Washington and all up and down the eastern seaboard looking for a pleasant day-hike totally unaware of the viciousness of Katahdin. I probably could have seen myself there from a few years back- a wild west-coast climber thinking that a mere-5,000ft hill would be a walk in the park (I've since learned better). Finally, there were a few gaunt Appalachian Trail finishers who made all of us look like pedestrians. 

While I would have loved to have stayed and enjoyed the scene, I had my own ridiculous mountain to hike.

The trail up Mt Hamlin begins the same way as the Katahdin hike. The first 2.2 miles climb up a well-maintained trail past the basin ponds until the first turnoff appears on the right. Hoards of hikers will continue straight onwards to Chimney Pond but the Hamlin peak trail turns right. From here, it is 0.6 miles to another turnoff- heading right will take you to the North Basin lookout while heading straight will bring you to Hamlin. It is just 0.2 miles further from the North Basin cutoff trail to the Hamlin Ridge Trail

A stormy day but still gorgeous

Mt Katahdin before the storm rolled in

The Hamlin Ridge Trail
Now, if you have ever hiked any trail up Mt Katahdin, you know that it is a trail in the loosest sense of the term. If you're looking for "a trail" well head to Acadia. In Baxter State Park, trails are routes. Routes are a collection of blue-blazes running over hands-and-feet climbs which are exposed and steep. Take home message- its more of a climb than a hike. Hamlin Ridge was no different. Its only 1.1 miles up the Hamlin Ridge but I'm an experienced hiker and it took me a good 1.5 hours, at least. 

Mercifully, there are fantastic views to keep the mind off the steepness. Hamlin Ridge really felt like Katahdin except without the crowds and woefully unprepared hikers. I know that the weather had something to do with it, but hey, I had the trail and the summit to myself. Even with the clouds, I doubt you could have seen any further from the Katahdin summit. 

I won't lie; the primary reason I hiked this mountain was to bag another 4,000 footer. However, like most of these adventures, I discovered a little known peak with lots of adventures. 
The Alpine

Rocky and stout vegetation
The weather did get miserable at some point but that was just part of the experience. The whole hike actually didn't take me more than about 6 hours and I'm not a particularly fast hiker. It was just about 8 miles total too. At one point on the way up I thought about skipping over to Mt Katahdin but with the wind and rain I decided that Hamlin would suffice. Although its so often overshadowed by Katahdin's fame, its a glorious peak. Tomorrow... the Brothers loop!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Hiking Traveler Mountain: Baxter State Park's Best

Baxter State Park is, without a doubt, the crown jewel of Maine's protected lands. It is larger than many national parks and vast as any. Baxter SP is also fiercely preserved in its original state with the strictest protections against any and all development save for dirt roads and primitive campsites. I spent 4 days in Baxter and hike some of its finest.
Baxter State Park Wilderness
One of the first things I did when I came to Maine was climb Mt Katahdin in Baxter State Park. Why not though- its the highest mountain in Maine and in the middle of a vast alpine wilderness. The trip was wonderful, of course, but I was surprised at how large Baxter State Park really is. Before getting the map, I just assumed Baxter was essentially just a park for Mt Katahdin. However the Katahdin massif is less than 1/8th of the size of the park and there are some 60 other summits that can be hiked. Well I would just have to see some of those!

Baxter State Park is an anomaly among publicly preserved lands. Donated by one of Maine's most famed politicians, Percival P. Baxter, and is neither a true state park nor a national park. Instead it is a land trust that is open to the public and free to Maine residents. So I hit the road again, ready to explore the lesser known parts of our wonderful wilderness! Day one would be a hike up "The Traveler"

View Hiking the Traveler Loop in a larger map

The Traveler is a unique hike for many reasons. Primarily, it is because the red volcanic rock which is not often found in Maine or New England. The Traveler is, in fact, Maine's largest volcanic formation which is of interest to both geologists and hikers. For hikers in particular, it means that almost the entire 10 miles of the hike is exposed and above treeline. I don't think I've ever had such extensive views for this long of a hike. Katahdin has extensive views too, but the entire first half of the hike is below treeline. Bottom line, after hiking nearly every mountain with a trail in Baxter, I chose Traveler as the best.

Getting to Baxter State Park is not easy from anywhere. Getting to the North End of Baxter is even more difficult. This is good news to folks like me who prefer a lonely trail to a crowded one. You can use the map above for directions but expect there to be not very many services once you get off the 95 freeway and the classic BSP dirt roads once you get into the park. Nevertheless, it was accessible to me and my lil sedan- no 350 4x4 required to see this one.
View of the south ponds from the Traveler hike
Volcanic rocks on the route up Traveler
View of Mt Katahdin from Traveler hike
If you can stand the distance, the Traveler loop is really one of Baxter State Park's best hikes. It is 10.5 miles and has significant elevation changes. But you may hardly notice the steepness of the hike when you have panoramic views along most of the trail. Even the forested parts of the trail are pretty. Within 0.5 miles of starting the hike, I was greeted with views of Katahdin and Black Cat mountains and the volcanic rocks which make up the Traveler. It didn't take more than 2 hours to get to the summit of North Traveler which was completely open. On a hot day this hike might be insufferable, but with the temperatures hovering in the 60s and the sun out, it was pleasant. From North Traveler, you could turn around if you're worried about time or distance but the views only get better from here.

The trail dips below the summit and crosses the saddle between North Traveler and the Traveler where there are bits of shade. As you can see from the map, there are many ups-and-downs but again, the trail is just too pretty to notice these things. 
Mountains, lakes, forests, Maine
Peak of the Ridges serves as the third and final summit of the trip
Numerous summits come into view on the top of the Traveler
The summit of the Traveler serves as a rough half-way point of the hike but there is one other summit on the way down to the trailhead. Peak of the Ridges is another bare summit with views of the entire valley created by the three peaks. Its a bit of a scramble in some places, but the trail is well marked and easy to follow.

Coming down from Peak of the Ridges is especially steep in some places and is a great example of why I always bring trekking poles. At some points it was so steep and rugged that it felt like a climb down. Be prepared for this if you have shoddy joints. However the trail dumps you out right near the ponds which is an excellent place to cool down or take a swim. From the ponds, its a short walk back to the trailhead.

Well it could have been the uncommonly agreeable weather, but the Traveler has to be one of my favorite hikes in Maine. I'm sure I say that all to often, but it was certainly unique to climb a large volcano in this part of the country. I would go so far to say that if I had to chose between bagging Katahdin or Traveler again, I would go with Traveler. Nevertheless, tomorrow I would be headed out to climb Hamlin Peak on the same ridgeline.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Hiking Mt Pisgah on Lake Willoughby, Vermont

The scene of Lake Willoughby and Mt Pisgah are reminiscent of a sight from Norway. This glacial lake looks like a fjord and is surely one of the most picturesque lakes in New England.
Famous view from the South Shore of Lake Willoughby, Vermont
Vermont's Northeast Kingdom has captivated me for a long time now due to its rough beauty and seemingly complete lack of people. While I've traveled through the NEK several times, I've actually missed seeing its most famous place- Lake Willoughby. The long lake which is over 300ft deep is somewhat of a symbol for the NEK and serves as one of Vermont's most photographed natural area. Other than that, it is famous for hiking, paddling, boating and ice climbing. More than enough reasons for a guy like me to make it out here.

I had been on a little excursion through northern New Hampshire and Vermont on this particular trip which has included a backpack trip of Mt Cabot, mountain biking East Mountain and now this. I camped out at the White Cap Campground on the lake's southern shore and had a magnificent sunset and sunrise. It was a cloudless, cool summer day which was perfect for exploring and hiking.
The cliffs of Lake Willoughby which are famous for ice climbing in the winter
The first thing I did was just poke around the south shore beach! There is a small parking lot and the beach is free and open to the public. Apparently its a nude beach but today it was devoid of that crowd. So instead of seeing the kind of crowd that really should keep their clothes on, I was able to see the lake in all of its glory. I was surprised at how shallow and clear the water was on this side. Although its a deep lake, you could probably walk several hundred yards out from the south shore before you got in over your head. It would be a great place to cool off on a hot summer's day.

After this little walk, I had to hike Mt Pisgah which promises uninterrupted views of the entire lake and most of the NEK. I would not be disappointed. 
Mt Hor and the south end beach.
The parking lot for the hike is not more than a half a mile south of the campground on the lake's southern shores. I decided to do the hike of Mt Pisgah as a loop; starting at the South Trailhead, coming over the summit and the lookouts, down to the North Trailhead and walking along the road back to the start. Total distance of this is 6.9 miles. This is how it was described at Hike New England. It was a half-day hike which was steep but short. Mt Pisgah can also be hiked as an out and back hike for a total 3.4 miles. If you do it as an out and back, you must not miss the lookouts which are just north of the summit. They are the best!

For me it was a nice walk and the shade made the steepness bearable. Black flies were everywhere but hey, it was New England in mid-June... what do you expect? There were a few directional views on the way to the summit but nothing like what I would see just past the actual marker.
Views of Lake Willoughby from Mt Pisgah
Another lookout from Mt Pisgah
After spending time at the three lookouts, I walked down to the North Trailhead without any trouble. The road walk back to the South Trailhead wasn't too bad either; just a pleasant stroll along the lake to where I started. There is a cliff jumping spot too which I didn't try today. 

Well I would have loved to have spent a weekend there hiking and paddling but I was due back for work that evening. Nevertheless, I was happy to have seen the Northeast Kingdom's most famous sight. I'm sure I'll be back!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

East Mountain, Vermont and Abandoned Cold War Military Base

If this place isn't haunted, nothing is
Just a raw, unedited picture of the Cold War Military Base on East Mountain
I've been some bizarre places tramping around the wilds of New England but this one has to take the cake. East Mountain in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont has become a famous place for mountain biking but it was previously a Cold-War Military Base. Having been retired since the mid 1960s, its a places that's essentially been left to the elements for the better half of a century. I'd heard of this place before but I figured it would be just a few broken down buildings and not nearly as expansive as it turned out to be.

The Northeast Kingdom of Vermont is the least populated region of the 49th least populous state. I wouldn't be surprised to learn there are more moose than people in this area. I've traveled here before and found it to be a great place for mountain biking and solitary hiking. On this occasion, I wanted to bag East Mountain which is part of New England's 50 Finest Mountains. Its been a fun list to bag and I'll be damned if this wasn't the strangest mountain I've climbed.
Abandoned radar buildings on the summit
East Mountain is located just North of Granby Vermont and is out there even by Vermont standards. There are only dirt access roads around the area and most of them aren't marked except for snowmobile trails. I'd recommend bringing your copy of the Vermont Gazetteer  if you should venture off here. It would be easy to get lost on any of the unmarked roads and abandoned logging trails. 

Of the few people who do go up East Mountain, most take Radar Road from Granby, Vermont. I chose to take Radar rd from East Haven, Vermont which is essentially the same distance. Either way you go, take a mountain bike as the distance is long and there are gates to prevent cars or ATVs from going up the way. Here's a rough map of how I got there-

View East Mountain, Vermont in a larger map

I parked just a little ways beyond the gate. There didn't appear to be any restrictions, but just to be on the safe side, I called Kingdom Trails, the mountain bikers association, just to be sure. They said people frequently mountain bike East Mountain from this direction and that there wouldn't be a problem. So I parked, packed up and headed up!

The road up was sort of paved, sort of gravel and sort of dirt. It wasn't really any of these at some points. There were big potholes and a couple of rough sections which would be tough for a car but easy on a bike. Most of it was shady too which was welcomed on this hot summer day. Its about an 8 mile climb to the summit. For the most part, its easy to follow as long as you stay on the main road. I encountered only one other biker on the trip up. Just before the final climb, you actually see the old military base and the road is paved from here on up. However, it is wicked steep!
Phenomenal vies from the summit
Appalachian Mountains
Perfect day for mountain biking
Don't know how somebody managed to get a car up here!
Abandoned Base
There were some amazing views from the top... as long as you were willing to climb the structures that once housed military radar equipment! It wasn't too crazy, but I probably wouldn't do it twice. East Mountain is a significantly prominent mountain so I could see for miles and miles- all the way to Mt Washington. But as I walked around the base, the sights became stranger-

Although the summit had some crazy buildings, it was the other part of the base below the mountain which really felt haunted-

Clearly... somebody lives here
What a place...
I felt like this was the kind of place that deserves to be on that "After humanity" show. At any rate, it felt genuinely haunted. I learned from some Granby locals that the place has been a hobo hideout and a Hell's Angels place in the past. It looked quite deserted this time, but there were some signs of life...

I'm not saying I believe in Zombie Apocalypses, an imminent nuclear winter or suvivalism... I'm just saying, if something like that happens, I got a place picked out.

Ah well... I'm more into mountain climbing and this was #29 on New England's 50 Finest and #1 on New England's 50 Strangest. Whatever your pleasure, it would be a great place to spend a haunted night.

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Hiking Great Falls, New Brunswick

Great Falls, New Brunswick is an impressive waterfall on the St John River which carves out a large gorge in the center of the city. The falls and gorge are often featured in photography of New Brunswick
Grand Falls, New Brunswick
Before traveling all the way back to Portland, Maine, there was one other thing I've wanted to see in New Brunswick. As I travel, I love to pick up tourist brochures and maps because they usually do a great job of pointing out places all across a country, state or province which would normally be passed over in a road map. Grand Falls, in particular, is just a town on a road map but the falls and gorge were on 3 of my New Brunswick tourism maps and they looked like something worth seeing. The Saint John River Valley is, for the most part, as flat as the midwest. Other than a few hills and outcroppings, its a bunch of flat, fertile land, perfect for growing potatoes. The Great Falls are an interesting contrast to this bucolic scene with steep canyon walls and a roaring waterfall. At first I couldn't believe there was such a deep gorge in an otherwise flat landscape. 

So, once again I crossed the border!
The Saint John River Gorge
Grand Falls lies just a few kilometers across the border and within minutes I was downtown. I parked the car in a free parking lot and walked. The falls are very easily accessible and it was a nice walk. Both the Falls and Gorge can be seen in less than a kilometer. During the "tourist season" it is possible to walk all the way down to the bottom of the gorge. Here is the website with all the interesting ways you can see the falls and gorge, from zip-lining to rock climbing. I wish I had more time to zip-line across- that looked like fun. 

For today, it was just a little hike and I was glad I made it out here. It was like New Brunswick's Grand Canyon. I had to head back to Portland now, but this whole adventure through Maine, New Brunswick and Quebec certainly has been one to be told around the campfire circle.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Hiking Rocher-Percé and Mont Sainte-Anne, Québec, Canada

My last adventure on the Gaspé Peninsula of Québec would be the picturesque Rocher-Percé in Parc National de l'Île-Bonaventure-et-du-Rocher-Percé. Although I was not able to make it to the rock itself, I hiked Mt Sainte-Anne which had excellent views of both Bonaventure Island and Rocher-Percé
Parc National de l'Île-Bonaventure-et-du-Rocher-Percé
Previous: Hiking Forillon National Park. 

My trip to the Gaspésie was soon coming to an end as I made my way back to Portland Maine. I took the most scenic route possible which involved a long but pretty drive along the eastern peninsula which included a quick hiking near Rocher-Percé or Pierced Rock. This rock has become somewhat of an international symbol of the Gaspésie and shows up on the covers of most regional tourism brochures. It is both the natural symbol of the Gaspé Peninsula and the Québec Maritime. Its a fitting one too with its unique natural beauty which couldn't be found anywhere else in Canada or the world. While this would be my last sight on this trip, it would not be the least!

Compared to the rest of the towns I saw, Percé was more cosmopolitan and catered more towards the general tourist. It was a busy small town with all kinds of shops, small motels and novelty stores. The centerpiece of the action was, of course, Rocher-Percé which is a massive monolith with a curiously shaped sea-arch. It is instantly recognizable-
Rocher-Percé from across the bay
I visited the tourism department and they gave me directions to hike Mt Sainte-Anne which has a great view of the whole town, Rocher-Percé and Bonaventure Island. It is about a 2.5 hour hike to the summit and back and the crowds thin as you climb higher. Along the way there were about 5 lookouts which offered different angles and views of the rock. The hike itself was steep but short enough to do in a half day.
The hike helps you appreciate how massive the rock actually is
At the summit of Mont Sainte-Anne, there is a curious sight- an outdoor Catholic Church! What a spectacular place for a church! There were all the necessities of a regular church- pews, choir seats, a pulpit and statues... but no walls. Instead the congregation was surrounded by the natural beauty of the peninsula. I wish I was there for a service.
Mont Sainte-Anne hike, Quebec
Well I still had a long way to travel back to Portland, Maine so I could not stay too long. However I did drive around town and found another great view of the rock with the arch-
And that is why it is called "Pierced Rock
It was a nice end to an epic trip. From here I drove the southern end of the peninsula around Chaleur Bay and back into New Brunswick. It was sad to leave but I'm sure I'll be back for more adventures. After all, Québec is a big place!

Au revoir, Québec!

Lire. Plan. Partez à l'aventure!
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Hiking Forillon National Park, Quebec, Canada

Forillon National Park is the eastern terminus of the Quebec International Appalachian Trail and the continental Appalachian Mountains. Its a lovely place for hiking, kayaking and old-fashioned beach walks.
The edge of the Appalachians at Forillon National Park, Canada
Previous: Driving the North Coast of the Gaspesie. 

After making the drive along the cliffs and fjords of the northern Gaspé, I came to the very edge of the peninsula at Forillon National Park. This is where the Appalachian Mountains fall below sea level before reemerging on Newfoundland Island. It was somewhat of a monumental occasion to have finally traveled to "Mile 0" of the International Appalachian Trail and the first or last of the continental Appalachians. To continue, I would either have to take a boat to Newfoundland or walk south to Key West, Florida. I didn't have the time today, but it was an intriguing idea...  

Forillon National Park is the only park on the peninsula managed by Parks Canada. There are a half dozen other national parks managed by the Province of Quebec. Like all the parks I've been to in Canada, it was well managed, easy to get around and full of natural beauty. Originally I wasn't planning on coming out this far, but I figured I might as well see the end of the peninsula.

Beach walk in Forillon National Park
Forillon was a nice change of scenery from my explorations of the interior of the Gaspe Peninsula. After hiking Mt Albert and Mt Jacques-Cartier, high in the alpine plateaus, I was looking forward to hiking along the coast. I decided to start my day off at the North Area where the famous Mont Saint-Alban Tower stands. I parked at Cap-Bon-Ami parking lot and walked down to the beach you see above. It was a dramatic sight to see the cliffs of the cape heading straight down into the ocean. I was here early too so I was the only one walking along the beach. Today was going to be a good day!

From the beach, I began hiking the Mont Saint-Alban trail which steeply ascends the cliffs to the tower. Its about 3.2km round trip distance from the parking lot to the tower and back. Although short in distance, it was very steep! Fortunately there are plenty of lookouts and views along the way. An informative sign told me that fishermen used to walk this way before there was a trail to get from the southern end to the northern end of the peninusla. I can't imagine doing this without a trail!
Birds of the sea were darting in and out of their cliff dwellings as waves crashed below
The cliffs of Gaspe
When I did make it to the tower on Mont Saint-Alban, I was greeted with a panoramic view of the Gaspe Peninsula and Gulf of St. Lawrence. To the north, I could see almost 80km away to Anticosti Island. To the east was the edge of the peninsula which looked like the edge of the world. To the south was the bay and town of Gaspe. The mountain I stood upon was a mere 283m in altitude but I felt as if I was standing on the last (or first) mountain in the world. I could have stood here for hours if the fierce wind hadn't forced me down to warmer temperatures.

I couldn't leave this park without actually traveling to the very easternmost point of the peninsula. It would be a fitting end to the trip!
Another beach to walk in Forillon National Park
Turning south, I took the road that cut through the mountains and headed to the south area. Parking at Anse-aux-Amérindiens, I took the last 4km of the International Appalachian Trail to Cap-Gaspé. The trail went across the beach and hugged the coastline as it made its way to the end. Once again, I was stopping every 10 meters to take pictures. Eventually I made it to the lighthouse and the official marker for the IAT/SIA. It was almost an emotional moment. From here, the continental Appalachian Mountains begin. There was a replica of the AT marker at Springer Mountain in Georgia. It made me wonder if Benton MacKay would have ever dreamed of his trail crossing international boundaries, waters and even whole oceans one day. 

As I was poking around the lighthouse, I noticed there was an additional 0.4km trail which leads to the cliffs above the ocean-
The END!
I saw several kayakers rounding the peninsula
And I was there. Nowhere else to go but West.
Kayaking the Gaspe Peninsula
I can't wait to come back and kayak here someday...
As I walked back, I was accompanied by some kayakers. We were both heading back at the same rate and I was excited at the thought of coming back here with a kayak some day. I hope they didn't mind being a part of my photos!

Well I had a long way to travel to get back to Portland, Maine. Spending just one day in Forillon National Park is an insult to the park's beauty; I wished I spent a week there. For all the pictures I took, I probably saw less than 25% of the park. Nevertheless, I headed on route 132 to see a few more spots before getting back stateside Next up- Parc National de l'Île-Bonaventure-et-du-Rocher-Percé!

Next: Hiking Rocher-Percé.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!