Maine is not for the faint-hearted hiker. Headed north out of Rangeley, the Appalachian Trail climbs 2,500 feet in five miles to Saddleback Mountain, one of Maine’s High Peaks that reach above 4,000 feet. For the next 45 miles, hikers experience the highs and lows of the Maine wilderness before reaching the “flat” stretch to the Kennebec River.
“This region offers an extraordinary landscape because the mountains are so dramatic, rising high above low elevation ponds and bogs,” Ron Tipton, President and CEO of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, says. Continuing north, hikers pass Mt. Abraham, and Spaulding, Sugarloaf, and Crocker Mountains before reaching Bigelow Mountain, one of Maine’s highest ridgelines.
“I remember very well walking up Bigelow to West Peak on my 1978 thru-hike. I felt challenged by the steep, difficult climb, rising above treeline. Then you go down into the Col, where there used to be a small shelter with an incredible view,” Tipton recalls. On a clear day, the blue sky meets the Appalachian’s rolling lower hills in the distance. The swaths of green forest are broken only by the deep blues of meandering lakes, ponds, and rivers. From the Col, the Trail climbs again to 4,088-foot Avery Peak, named for Myron Avery, a Mainer and the first supervisor of the A.T.
For nearly two days, hikers stay above treeline, a very unusual experience on the Trail. “You feel very exposed up there. You could encounter a thunderstorm or have a foot slip and easily hurt yourself on the rugged terrain. Feeling this vulnerability was a very uplifting experience for me. An unforgettable moment,” Tipton shares.
The High Peaks is a biologically diverse region including a unique mix of alpine, coniferous, mixed-hardwood, and wetland areas that provide homes to rare, uncommon, or threatened animal and plant species. Keep your feet on the Trail to avoid trampling the pincushion plant, a rare small flowering evergreen shrub that makes its home on these mountain tops, the farthest south the species is found. In the summer, listen for Bicknell’s thrush, a recently identified bird species at risk of becoming threatened or endangered without conservation action. The thrushes nest and reproduce only above 3,000 feet in this limited range before making a long journey south to overwinter in the West Indies. Other uncommon birds here include blackpoll warblers, black-backed and three-toed woodpeckers, and boreal chickadees.
Increasingly, development and energy infrastructure threaten to alter these habitats and tarnish the indelible impressions of Maine’s tall mountains. In conjunction with land trusts, conservation organizations, and state and federal partners, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is promoting the Trail as a rallying point to help protect this ecologically significant region and preserve the spectacular views.
For northbound thru-hikers, Maine’s High Peaks bring a sense of “I’m almost finished” as they inch closer and closer to Katahdin, Tipton notes. Though the region’s quad-crushing ups and knee-buckling downs are challenging, the area’s beauty and sense of accomplishment gained are unmatched.