On Monday, my mom and I took a trip to the Bigelow Range near Stratton, Maine, for a long day hike on the Fire Warden’s Trail, Appalachian Trail, and Horns Pond Trail. There had been a fairly long stretch of cool, clear weather in the past few weeks, so peeling myself away from the computer was certainly in order. Despite traversing the range three times on the AT, I’d never been on the Bigelows for a day hike before, which meant much of the day’s hike would be new territory for me.
We arrived with an early start at the Stratton Brook trailhead and made quick work of the first few miles. We passed the beautiful, tranquil Stratton Brook Pond near the beginning, a small pond with lots of marshy wetlands surrounding it. I was a little surprised to be walking on mellow, low-grade trail for the first few miles. The trail was still an old road at this point, with a nice view into the wetland— no moose or other wildlife, but a peaceful and pretty scene anyway.
Soon, the Fire Warden’s trail began to climb more steeply, increasing in grade little by little. Still, it wasn’t nearly as steep as much of the AT in the Bigelow Preserve. Once we got to the real climb, I was happy to see that the Maine Appalachian Trail Club had installed one of their endless stairways. MATC is well known (or should be, if not) for their incredible stonework on steep trails, where they often spend five to ten years at a time building a single stairway to fix the major erosion on the old trails. Judging by the moss on these steps, they had been in place for several years already. I didn’t measure the distance, but I’d guess the stairway was close to half a mile long, with close to 500 feet of elevation gain.
Soon after arriving at the Appalachian Trail between the two peaks of Bigelow Mountain, we ran into the MATC caretaker for the Horns Pond Campsite. He was on his way to the Bigelow Col campsite, where the Fire Warden’s Trail reaches the AT and where the fire warden lived until fire watchtowers became obsolete in the 1970s. We had a nice chat with Ian, the caretaker, about the entertaining (and sometimes frustrating) life of an AT caretaker. Today, he was doing a cleanup trip to the Bigelow Col campsite to haul out a load of trash that had been buried by the fire wardens– apparently, from 1905 to 1975 the accepted practice had been to leave trash in a pile in the woods (this was also accepted practice for hikers for most of that time period as well!), so Ian had taken it upon himself to pack out hundreds of pounds of trash during the summer, on top of his usual work load.
We decided to only climb one of the two peaks, since we weren’t sure how long the rest of the hike would take, so we quickly arrived at West Peak and found a wind-shaded spot for lunch. The climb up the south side of the mountain had been hot and hazy, but once we crested the mountain, a blustering north wind brought the temperatures right down to an autumn-like chill. There was still plenty of haze, but it’s impossible to diminish the amazing views from the Bigelow Range. If you’ve never been there, I can’t recommend it enough.
After lunch, we traversed three miles of Appalachian Trail from West Peak to the Horns Pond along the high ridge line. In those three miles, we crossed paths with over a dozen through-hikers, but only four section- and day-hikers. The through-hikers were mostly in high spirits, having just crossed the 2000-mile mark on one of the last major mountains of the trail in good weather. Amusingly, of the rest of the hiking crowd, I was the only day-hiker below the age of 60. One of the section-hikers was over 70, and nearly finished with his section hike of the entire AT. Mom, who is a very active 62, was very entertained by the age spread.
The climbs down from West Peak, back up to South Horn, and down to Horns Pond, were rugged and steep as I’d remembered from my previous hikes. We moved slowly and steadily, enjoying the high elevation spruce and fir forest, the crisp air and chilly wind, and the tremendous views from the peaks. Once down to Horns Pond, we stopped for a quick break with a view of the pond, then got ready for a long descent back to the car. But we were in for a pleasant surprise– the descent from Horns Pond to Stratton Brook was unusually mellow, with a pretty low-intensity descent through more beautiful forest and a few nice views and mountain brooks to cross.
I’d never been up the Fire Warden’s Trail and Horns Pond Trail to the Bigelow Range before, but I must say it was a really lovely hike. It wasn’t exactly easy, but definitely not as hard as the traverse of the full range on the AT. For day-hikers, I’d highly recommend this loop, with the steep climb up to the col in the morning and an easier descent via Horns Pond Trail in the afternoon. Here is a link to detailed directions at MaineTrailFinder.com, which is the best online resource for hikers in Maine.