For the end of the first leg of our Baxter Backpacking trip, Tom and I set out over The Traveler Loop. I’d been admiring The Traveler for years, hearing about how gorgeous the mountain was, and looking at it from Katahdin. Traveler is a little over 3500 feet high, but two things are quite apparent when you look at it from Katahdin– first, its rocky alpine area is vast, and second, it is the highest peak in the northern half of the park (which also means it’s higher than any peak north of Baxter State Park in Maine).
There was rain in the night, and low clouds when I awoke in the morning, which was discouraging. Yesterday had been cloudy, but today was the only chance I had for a climb on The Traveler, and it looked like the view would be a bust. Tom remained optimistic, though, and after a slower-than-usual breakfast we were rewarded with clearing skies and cool temperatures. Conditions couldn’t possibly have been better.
Starting up the Center Ridge Trail, we’re almost immediately climbing high above South Branch Pond Mountain and Upper South Branch Pond.
The Center Ridge Trail starts from a cliff on the east side of Upper South Branch Pond, and climbs immediately on jagged rocks up over the pond. The forest around us was as beautiful as we could have imagined, though. Tom and I both agreed that this was our favorite kind of hiking– the trails out here don’t pander. You hike on their terms, or not at all.
Getting high on Peak Of The Ridges, looking far into the vast northern wilderness.
In less than a mile, we had already broken above tree line on the ridge, with a breathtaking view down to the South Branch Ponds. It soon also became apparent that most of the clear skies were directly above us– a huge bank of clouds was stacked on top of Traveler, but breaking as it continued west. More clouds were forming to the west of us, and further south was the same. Tom claimed my hiking karma must have been in top form, after dealing with the sweltering humidity in Virginia early this summer and the somewhat stressful NOLS course. Whatever luck I had, I’ll take it.
The last ascent to Peak Of The Ridges. The clouds are opening only right above us.
We reached Peak Of The Ridges, the first peak in the loop, for our first stop. The peak is lower than Traveler, so the view east was blocked by the higher peak, but we still had some amazing views from the cliffs down into southern Baxter Park and north far outside of the park. It was silent except for the wind. And we noticed another remarkable thing– try as we might, we couldn’t see a single sign of humanity from the peak. No roads anywhere. No tiny reflections of light from windows of remote cabins in the deep woods. No airplanes, no patches of the forest lightened from logging, no people at all. Even in the densest wildernesses of the east coast, it’s almost impossible to find such a complete void of human existence. Usually I can at least spot a thin strip of a logging road from the peaks in northern Maine, but this time there was nothing. This is what we strive for.
Tom surveys the land from the mini-Knife Edge between Peak Of The Ridges and The Traveler.
The clouds coming over The Traveler from the east clear just as they break over the peak, but it’s hard to tell if the peak will be clear when we get there.
After tearing ourselves away from the scene, we continued around the loop. First, we had a miniature knife edge to traverse, then a quick dip into the trees between Peak Of The Ridges and Traveler. The rocky parts of the Traveler Loop are a more extreme version of what I found on the north peaks of Katahdin the other day– while you can see the next blaze when you’re standing at one, there is no clear route between the two. You have to choose your own adventure, and hope it’s the right one. And then, when we dipped into the dense, moss-covered spruce forest between the peaks, we entered the kind of forest that seems to me like something from before humanity. Stunted, gnarly trees, with moss covering the ground so thickly you think it might swallow you whole. Tom called it the primordial forest. I think that suits it just fine.
Back into the primordial denseness of alpine trails of northern Maine. Upward and onward to The Traveler!
The last ascent to Traveler was slow enough that the clouds continued to open for us, and our views from the top were everything I’d hoped for. With a better view to the east, we were finally able to see some small signs of humanity (the single logging road here, the shine of a cabin on a lake there), but it was still about as wild as you could wish for. As we continued on, we only stayed in the trees for a few minutes at a time, coming out on the wind-scoured rocks of the ridge between Traveler and North Traveler, and then the exposed cliffs on the ridge coming down from North Traveler to Lower South Branch Pond. We saw not a single person until about 4 PM, when we were close to our finishing point. I can’t think of a better way to spend a day.
Here is Uncle Tom’s account of the day.
There’s not much more I can say that the pictures don’t, so I’ll leave it at that for now.
Finally atop The Traveler, and the clouds have broken to give us a full view of the range, and deep into the northern Maine wilderness.
Back into the primordial wilderness, a mossy and tangled mass of stubby trees and boulders.
Now we’re starting down from North Traveler, with the open ridge of the trail laid out below us.
Just before going back into the trees, we look down on South Branch Pond, our destination for the night.