As I’ve worked with maps of the Appalachian Trail for the past several years, I’ve been fascinated by seeing what the land around the AT looks like from satellite imagery. It’s often very different from what we, as hikers, realize is nearby. What you see from above tells a very different story about the landscape than what thousands of through-hikers have seen.

Logging
The mountains and forests surrounding the Appalachian Trail have traditionally been very busy with logging and timber cutting, although today the amount of logging is certainly less than it was a hundred years ago. Maine and New Hampshire, especially, were cut with wild abandon. Today, the aerial view of the AT shows that there is still plenty of logging in Maine, but not much near the trail in New Hampshire or anywhere else that I could find.

Land ownership is an important consideration in timber cutting near the AT– in Maine, the trail mostly follows a narrow strip of National Park Service land sandwiched between private land owned by logging companies. Further south, the AT mostly walks through National Parks (where logging is not allowed) or National Forests (where logging is regulated by the Forest Service). What surprised me so much about the aerial view of logging lands in Maine is how invisible they are from the Trail, despite being sometimes only a quarter mile through the woods.

A logging area, mostly regrown, near the north end of the 100 Mile Wilderness. Notice how close to the AT this cut comes, though you'd never notice it from the trail.

A logging area, mostly regrown, near the north end of the 100 Mile Wilderness. Notice how close this cut comes to the AT, though you’d rarely notice it from the trail.

Lots of logging near Pleasant Pond Mountain in Maine. Notice how the strip of uncut land around the Trail shows where the National Park Service land border abuts the private logging company's land.

Lots of logging near Pleasant Pond Mountain in Maine. Notice how the strip of uncut land around the Trail shows where the National Park Service land border abuts the private logging company’s land.

A recent, large cut very close to the AT in one of the wildest parts of Maine. Again, you'd never notice this from the Trail.

A recent, large cut very close to the AT in one of the wildest parts of Maine. Again, you’d never notice this from the Trail.

The cut on the left is within Grafton Notch State Park, which probably means the logging was regulated by the state's Bureau of Parks and Lands.

The cut on the left is within Grafton Notch State Park, which probably means the logging was regulated by the state’s Bureau of Parks and Lands.

Farms
The other major business in the mountains and rural areas is farming. Nowhere is this more obvious to me than in Virginia and Pennsylvania, where the trail walks along long mountain ridges, and occasionally dips into valleys that are filled with farmland. Vermont, New York, and Massachusetts are also patchworks of farmland although nowhere near as completely as those two large, flat, rural states. I find the farmland to be very pleasing to walk through, almost as much as a deep forest. There’s just as much peace to be found in a pasture, unless you happen to be nervous around bulls.

A patchwork of farmland on the New York/New Jersey border.

A patchwork of farmland on the New York/New Jersey border.

Farmland in the valleys between mountain ridges in Virginia.

Farmland in the valleys between mountain ridges in Virginia.

A more exaggerated example of farms filling the Virginia valleys while the mountain ridges remain mostly untouched.

A more exaggerated example of farms filling the Virginia valleys while the mountain ridges remain mostly untouched.

Ski Resorts
The Appalachian Trail crosses over, or within a short distance of, more than a dozen ski resorts. From the sky, one can see just how much of an impact this use of land can have. In some cases, the clearcut ski trails make for a good view where there may not have been one on top of a mountain otherwise. Hikers also tend to enjoy the ski resorts because there may be buildings where we can camp on top of a mountain, or restaurants and stores near the trail. A less flattering look at these resorts is that they become essentially permanent marks on the landscape, and often go along with major housing and condo developments. Like logging, I see them as an important economic driver in rural mountain areas which can have negative impacts if not regulated and held in check to some extent.

Sugarloaf in Maine, one of the largest resorts in the state.

Sugarloaf in Maine, one of the largest resorts in the state.

Killington and Pico in Vermont, the busiest ski resort in New England. Notice the extensive housing developments packed into the area around the resort as well as the ski trails.

Killington and Pico in Vermont, the busiest ski resort in New England. Notice the extensive housing developments packed into the area around the resort as well as the ski trails.

Housing Developments
I expected to find suburban developments in droves in the far northern section of Virginia, where the AT passes very close to Washington, DC, and was not wrong. But there are many large developments very close to the trail in other places, as well. It’s hard to miss these when looking at aerial images. Messes of yards and roads in deep woods very near to the AT stand out like a sore thumb. In one case, where a planned development was cancelled and later turned into a National Recreation Area, you can still see the abandoned roads even decades later– a near-permanent mark upon the land.

In New Jersey and New York, the AT is very close to New York City, so suburban developments are abundant, crowding near to the Trail.

In New Jersey and New York, the AT is very close to New York City, so suburban developments are abundant, crowding near to the Trail.

In Northern Virginia, the AT threads the needle between many suburban developments. Like the New York area, this area is home to many commuters in the Washington, DC, area.

In Northern Virginia, the AT threads the needle between many suburban developments. Like the New York area, this area is home to many commuters in the Washington, DC, area.

In the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, one can still see the roads that were built for a real estate development and abandoned.

In the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, one can still see the roads that were built for a real estate development and abandoned (northwest of the AT, faint lines in the woods).

Even the high mountains aren't immune to vacation homes and real estate development.

Even the high mountains aren’t immune to vacation homes and real estate development.

Roads
I was surprised to see that Interstate 90 passed by less than half a mile from Upper Goose Pond Cabin, one of the quietest, most peaceful shelters on the AT. Roads are an interesting feature on the landscape, with thousands of miles of them winding all over the country and criss-crossing the Appalachian Trail. In some places I was surprised to see so few roads, though the Trail seems to cross them so often. In other areas, zooming in a little closer showed that there were many more small roads that weren’t visible from further out.

Upper Goose Pond, so idyllic and tranquil, isn't really so far from a major Interstate highway!

Upper Goose Pond, so idyllic and tranquil, isn’t really so far from a major Interstate highway!

In many National Forests, it looks like the closest road to the Trail is miles away.

In many National Forests, it looks like the closest road to the Trail is miles away.

But zoom in much further, and you'll find that there is a tangle of small Forest Service roads all around the Trail.

But zoom in much further, and you’ll find that there is a tangle of small Forest Service roads all around the Trail.

Wilderness
To find total wilderness near the trail, I had to look for areas with strongly protected public land. Shenandoah and Smokey Mountains National Parks had the largest uninterrupted road-free areas I could find. Baxter State Park was the only land I could find that wasn’t owned by the Federal government and did have deep wilderness. The National Forests along the Trail were hit and miss– many National Forests are filled with roads and logging, but some have heavily protected by Wilderness areas. After looking along the entire AT for visible human impacts, the truly wild areas seem scarcer and more important than ever.

Shenandoah National Park seems like such a car-oriented place, but there is a remarkable amount of wilderness once you drop off the ridgeline where the AT parallels Skyline Drive.

Shenandoah National Park seems like such a car-oriented place, but there is a remarkable amount of wilderness once you drop off the ridgeline where the AT parallels Skyline Drive.

The Blue Ridge Parkway, as well, seems busy and car-oriented, but the area near it is also remarkably wild.

The Blue Ridge Parkway, as well, seems busy and car-oriented, but the area near it is also remarkably wild.

The Smokey Mountains, so crowded by car-bound visitors and hikers, is also remarkable for the sheer acreage of its wilderness.

The Smokey Mountains, so crowded by hikers and car-bound visitors, is also remarkable for the sheer acreage of its wilderness.

Baxter State Park was the only massive wilderness I found near the AT not owned by the Federal Government, which says to me that the National Park and Forest Services, as well as BSP are especially important parts of our land management near the AT.

Baxter State Park was the only massive wilderness I found near the AT not owned by the Federal Government, which says to me that the National Park and Forest Services, as well as BSP are especially important parts of our land management near the AT.

As a backpacking instructor for NOLS, one of the lessons I try to impart on students is that we can’t take for granted the beautiful mountains and forests we play in. When I was first a student on a NOLS course, I spent three months in various wild areas, assuming that these remote mountains and canyons had forever been used only for hiking, paddling, backpacking, or other wilderness ventures. But with each area we entered, there were new cognitive dissonances. Paddling by oil derricks on the Green River, or hearing warnings of an angry, shotgun-toting neighbor next to a Forest Service trailhead in the Wind River Mountains. These things didn’t fit with the wilderness I thought I was in.

Since then, I’ve learned more about the trails that I hike on, and the land I recreate in. Most hikers still take for granted that the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail exist, meandering through scenic mountains for thousands of miles. They don’t give too much thought to who owns the land under them while they’re standing on a mountain or paddling a river. But who owns the land, and how it’s managed, and how it came to be like that, are issues that matter very much if we plan to continue visiting the mountains.

Maine's public lands managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands. Click here for the original.

Maine’s public lands managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands. Click here for the original.

These issues pop up mostly on the local level– they don’t get national attention when headlines are more concerned with high-profile political squabbling. I’ve been watching a few of these debates play out in Maine over the past year, mirroring debates from national lands in the west. You might not hear about these if you live outside the state, but I can almost guarantee something similar is going on near your home.

Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL) is a well-regarded agency that oversees Maine’s State Parks and Public Reserved Lands. The Public Reserved Lands are analogous to National Forests, with the land being managed for wildlife habitat, recreation, and sustainable timber harvesting. BPL uses income from the timber harvest to pay its overhead, and most everyone is happy with the arrangement. Locals and tourists get beautiful mountains and lakes to visit, and management costs come out of sustainable logging, which doesn’t significantly impact the recreation or wildlife habitat. It’s a harmonious balance between the three primary goals of the Bureau.

Heading up Parker Ridge, with a view of Tumbledown Pond and Mountain.

Tumbledown Pond and Mountain, one of the most loved Public Reserved Lands.

But as with all balances between recreation and resource extraction, politics rears its ugly head. In the past several years our governor has tried to tip the balance in public lands more toward logging, which has led to increased harvests despite sustainable logging limits set by BPL. A few weeks ago came his latest attempt (as reported in Bangor and Portland), which involves dissolving BPL, and moving management of the Public Reserved Lands to the Maine Forest Service– an agency that is primarily concerned with logging on private lands, not recreation on public lands. Practically everyone sees this as a veiled attempt to cut more trees for short-term economic gain.

Looking over Flagstaff Lake from the Bigelow Range (possibly my favorite Public Reserved Land)

Looking over Flagstaff Lake from the Bigelow Range (possibly my favorite Public Reserved Land)

The reaction to the governor’s plan hasn’t been particularly positive (editorials in the Bangor Daily and Free Press, testimony by Natural Resources Council of Maine, and some backlash in Augusta), but the fight continues. There’s a lot of quick money in resource extraction and real estate development, while the economic benefit of recreation on public land is a bit harder to measure, so short-sighted politicians often see public land as a pile of cash being squandered by whiny environmentalists.

The Appalachian Trail touches five Public Reserved Lands (Mahoosuc, Four Ponds, Bigelow, Abraham, and Nahmakanta), which means over a thousand through-hikers each year visit these lands, not to mention various section hikers. More importantly, there are millions of tourists who come to Maine each year, most of whom spend at least some of their time enjoying the great outdoors. Whenever I meet someone from away, I hope they come to love the land as much as I do, and even come back again and again because of it. It’s harder to imagine that person seeing Maine as such a special place if the balance between conservation and resource extraction tips too far away from conservation.

Edit: I’ll post some articles about how the issue progresses as they come in.
3/23/15: A well-balanced article from the Portland Press Herald that highlights the history of BPL, the varied opposition to the plan, the governor’s plan for where the increased revenue would go, and his strong-arming tactics for getting a widely unpopular plan into effect.

Last week seemed like a good time to take an alternative weekend and head to the mountains, so on Thursday morning I took off for the town of Weld, not knowing exactly what I was getting into. The plan: hike up to Tumbledown Pond and camp for the night by myself. The difficulty: there’s no winter trailhead for Tumbledown, since the Byron Road isn’t plowed in winter. Even more difficult: almost nobody attempts Tumbledown in winter, so there’s no info online about parking or attempting the hike.

The Tumbledown-Jackson ridge from a farm on the north shore of Webb Lake.

The Tumbledown-Jackson ridge from a farm on the north shore of Webb Lake.

After calling Mt Blue State Park, I knew it was possible to reach the trail, although parking was still unknown. Once I arrived in Weld, I stopped at the General Store and found a trove of information from Jerry, the owner. He and another local there at the time were both on the area’s Search And Rescue team, so they were happy that I stopped in to let them know my plans. If you want to try a winter attempt at Tumbledown like this, I’d highly recommend letting Jerry know your plans, just in case he has any local news about parking, or in case anything goes wrong on your hike.

Parking at the east end of Byron Road might have been possible with a high-clearance vehicle, but I wasn’t going to chance it in my Jetta, so Jerry’s other suggestion was parking on the West Brook Road, where the town snow plows turn around at the end of the last driveway, just after crossing West Brook on a small bridge. This isn’t a trailhead parking area, just a space where one or two cars could pull off, and it wouldn’t be a good place to park if snow is coming, since it would block the plow truck. I chose a day with a clear forecast, and parked as far into the corner of the turnaround as possible.

From where I parked, I had about three miles of walking along snowmobile trail, first on West Brook Road, and then on Byron Road. This was easy going on icy, packed crust. I tuned out for most of this section, although near the junction of the two roads is a large gravel pit that has some nice views of the Tumbledown-Jackson ridge and the Walker-Whaleback ridge across the valley.

Busting through the snow.

Busting through the snow.

Once at the Brook Trail, it was much slower going. There was a very old set of snowshoe tracks ahead of me, but it was old enough that I had to break my own trail. The snow had melted and refrozen in the past few days, so there was about an inch of crust on top of loose sugary snow, which makes for some painful postholing, even in snowshoes. It wasn’t too bad until about halfway up the Brook Trail, when the trail begins to climb steeply. This last three-quarters of a mile took almost two hours to climb, with every step twisting my ankles and punching through mostly solid ice.

All the postholing slowed the hike down considerably. This little bit took almost five minutes to walk.

All the postholing slowed the hike down considerably. This little bit took almost five minutes to walk.

Finally up top, I found the pond frozen solid as expected, and a stiff wind kept me hunkered down in the trees most of the afternoon. As with my other overnight trips this winter, there was no liquid water anywhere, so I would have to melt snow for drinking and cooking. I busied myself with building a home for the night, complete with a small kitchen outside my tent, and a wind-break wall. I had planned to climb the high point of the ridge, but the wind and cold convinced me to take the more cautious approach and enjoy the views from the pond itself.

Finally at Tumbledown Pond, wind-blasted and frozen.

Finally at Tumbledown Pond, wind-blasted and frozen.

The view from my tent. Tumbledown Mountain and Pond.

The view from my tent. Tumbledown Mountain and Pond.

It was a long night, but the wind finally calmed and the clouds cleared after the sun went down in a spectacular sunset. The near-full moon lit up the night enough that I could read a book without any artificial light, had I remembered my book. Instead, I holed up in my sleeping bag and stayed warm. It was hard to stay warm, though. The evening’s low temperature was predicted to be around 4 degrees, which shouldn’t have felt as cold as it did.

Clouds cleared after the sun was below the mountains, and I was treated to this at dinner time.

Clouds cleared after the sun was below the mountains, and I was treated to this at dinner time.

Early morning sunlight over the West Brook valley.

Early morning sunlight over the West Brook valley.

When I got back into town the next morning, I spoke with Jerry and some other locals again, and discovered that the temperature in the valley had been measured between -9 and -20, and that was about 2000 feet lower than where I had been camped. Maybe taking this trip as a solo wasn’t the smartest decision, but it turned out well and turned out to be a highlight of an already stellar winter.

Mt Washington, the Mahoosuc Range, and Baldpate in the morning from the outlet of Tumbledown Pond.

Mt Washington, the Mahoosuc Range, and Baldpate in the morning from the outlet of Tumbledown Pond.

Yesterday's tracks still well-defined. The wind must have been non-existent at the bottom of the mountain.

Yesterday’s tracks still well-defined. The wind must have been non-existent at the bottom of the mountain.

Clear skies and another view of the ridge from where I parked.

Clear skies and another view of the ridge from where I parked.

The view of Katahdin and the Travelers from Patten.

The view of Katahdin and the Travelers from Patten.

Last weekend I took a trip far into the north woods, almost to the Matagamon Gate of Baxter State Park. Rather than entering Baxter, though, this trip went into the adjacent, and less well-known, Elliotsville Plantation trails along the Penobscot River. You may have heard of Elliotsville by other names in recent years– particularly in reference to a Maine Woods National Park. For this trip, I joined a group from the Natural Resources Council of Maine to cross-country ski several miles into the northern portion of the Katahdin Woods & Waters park and see what the area had to offer.

Saddling up at the parking lot, just beneath Horse Mountain.

Saddling up at the parking lot, just beneath Horse Mountain.

The drive into Matagamon highlighted the reasons that this area would be ripe for increased tourism. Along the road to Patten, we were treated to stunning views of the entire range of ice-crusted mountains in Baxter Park, from Katahdin all the way to the Travelers. As we neared the gate, the Traveler Range loomed high above. We passed dozens of snowmobile trails and several businesses that catered to snow travelers. They seemed plenty busy on this cold, clear winter day, but the group of skiers added several customers to their ranks.

Starting the trip, skiing toward Bald Mountain.

Starting the trip, skiing toward Bald Mountain.

It was a fairly late start from the northern trailhead, but skiing along groomed trails directly beneath Billfish and Bald Mountains made for speedy travel. The trails were originally logging roads, and are now modeled after Acadia’s carriage roads in terms of recreational opportunities (biking, horseback riding, and walking in summer, skiing and snowshoeing in winter), so the views are a little different from what you’d be used to in Baxter State Park. Rather than high mountain views, we looked up at the mountains from old clear cuts, and at the river from campsites along the banks.

A section of trail alongside the East Branch of Penobscot River.

A section of trail alongside the East Branch of Penobscot River.

Looking up at Bald Mountain and the Traveler from a frozen marsh.

Looking up at Bald Mountain and the Traveler from a frozen marsh.

Some of the oppositional commentary I’ve heard about the National Park idea has focused on the fact that the most spectacular scenery in the region is already in Baxter, but those ideas seem curmudgeonly and stubborn once you’ve had the opportunity to lose yourself in your thoughts in the deep woods here. I, for one, would love to walk the length of the Katahdin Woods, then paddle back along the Penobscot for a woods and waters version of a loop. I can imagine thousands of other visitors benefiting from the same kind of experience. For the long-distance hiker, there’s also the possibility of a sixty-mile loop, combining the International Appalachian Trail in Katahdin Woods & Waters, and several trails in Baxter. This would take some advanced logistics and planning, but would make for a lovely week in the woods.

Haskell Hut, a welcome sight for weary legs.

Haskell Hut, a welcome sight for weary legs.

Warming up in the recently renovated hut.

Warming up in the recently renovated hut.

The trek ended at Haskell Hut, one of several campsites within the park. This was a renovated logging camp at the edge of a deadwaters on the river, complete with bunks, wood stove, and a fine view over the marsh. I imagine that in the summer and spring, this place would be prime for watching birds and other wildlife. For winter, it’s a great spot to stop in and warm up before heading back to Matagamon.

Haskell Rock in the Penobscot.

Haskell Rock in the Penobscot.

Looking upstream from Haskell Rock, toward Billfish Mountain.

Looking upstream from Haskell Rock, toward Billfish Mountain.

The ski out was just as pleasant as the ski in, with more views of the Travelers and Bald Mountain, and the sun dipping low to the horizon as we neared the cars. The day’s miles had extended a little further than planned, which made for either the longest or second longest day of cross country skiing I’ve ever done. The gentle grades of the old logging roads, and the freshly groomed trails certainly helped, but I still needed a few days of rest after this one. I am still a little exhausted, but it was worth every second of aching muscles to be out there.

Heading out in the afternoon, under the looming Traveler.

Heading out in the afternoon, under the looming Traveler.

It's more snow, now, than tree...

It’s more snow, now, than tree…

For Sunday’s hike, Siren and I headed to Crawford Notch and the Mt Willey Range. Siren has been living deep in the mountains of western New Hampshire for the winter, before she heads west to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (which you’ll be able to read about at her blog!). In the meantime, she’s checking off 4000 Footers in the White Mountains, one snow-covered trip at a time.

Such smooth ground cover, it's like walking on clouds.

Such smooth ground cover, it’s like walking on clouds.

Another three to six inches had fallen in the mountains overnight, giving us yet more deep powder to trudge through right out of the parking lot, and coating the trees so thickly that they often resembled strange creatures from a Tim Burton film. I guess there had been relatively little wind around there recently, because many trees had tall snow piles balanced precariously on top of long branches. Occasionally a brush of a backpack on a low-hanging branch would send snow falling from the trees in such large dumps that our entire snowshoe track would be obliterated. I can’t remember the last time I had such wonderful snow conditions in the White Mountains.

Foster the Mountain Dog, through the marshmallow forest.

Foster the Mountain Dog, through the marshmallow forest.

The climb to Mount Tom, the northernmost of the three peaks of the Willey Range, is a mellow hike by local standards, but we saw no one until we neared the summit. Signs and blazes on the trees were set low to the ground, giving a good impression of the snow’s depth, but otherwise there was little sign of humanity. Just the way I like it.

Siren threads the needle through precariously perched snow piles.

Siren threads the needle through precariously perched snow piles.

As we traversed between Mount Tom and Mount Field, the snow covering the trees became denser, like we were walking through a garden of giant marshmallows. With the corridor of the trail mostly below our feet, the marshmallow trees squeezed into the trail much tighter than one would be used to in summer, and breaking trail in the virtually untouched ground cover slowed us to a fairly slow pace. But there’s nothing to complain about in that. This was some of the most beautiful hiking I’ve had in a long time. With the mountains in the clouds, we could focus on closer views of snow mounds.

On Mt Tom, walking in the clouds.

On Mt Tom, walking in the clouds.

Atop Mount Field, the sky cleared a little bit and we ran into a few other hikers. For such a nice day on a fairly popular mountain, I was surprised to see so few people on the trail, but certainly not disappointed. There’s something of an enchanted forest feel to the mountain when it’s so quiet and buried like this. We may have never been more than three miles from the nearest road, but it never felt like we were anywhere near civilization.

On the descent. Notice the height of the blaze, which is normally about eye level.

On the descent. Notice the height of the blaze, which is normally about eye level.

After Mt Field, we decided that two peaks were good enough for the day (it was a long drive back for each of us), and so we descended along the Avalon Trail, with a brief stop for the only views of the day on Mt Avalon. Though it’s the shortest peak we hit that day, I often get the best views from there because it is short enough to keep its head out of the clouds, unlike the higher peaks of the range. And, as an added bonus, the steepness of the trail heading down allowed for some long and exciting butt-sledding– the icing on an already wonderful cake of a day.

Looking down Crawford Notch from Mt Avalon.

Looking down Crawford Notch from Mt Avalon.