Hikes

Last week I had an opportunity to visit a place that is often regarded as one of the highlights of Maine’s public lands. It wasn’t Acadia, with the National Park and massive tourism infrastructure. It wasn’t Baxter State Park, with the state’s high point and the end of the Appalachian Trail. It wasn’t even within a hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail. And I’d venture to say that most hikers who come to visit Maine have never heard of the Cutler Coast. Their loss. This was one of the most wonderful hikes I’ve been on.

Cutler Coast's trail system. The red dot on the inset shows the location of the trail area.

Cutler Coast’s trail system. The red dot on the inset shows the location of the trail area.

The Inland Trail passes beaver ponds and grassy wetlands as well as the dense forest.

The Inland Trail passes beaver ponds and grassy wetlands as well as the dense forest.

Cutler Coast Public Reserved Land is part of the Bold Coast region, which is the easternmost part of the Maine coast near New Brunswick. The Public Reserved Land unit was created 25 years ago and seems to have quickly become a poster-child for the system. In almost all of the recent news articles about the Public Reserved Land system in Maine, Cutler is one of the two land units mentioned as examples, the other being the Bigelow Range, which any Appalachian Trail hiker will tell you is one of the finest places on the AT. Both of these preserves have deep, primeval forests, and relatively quiet hiking trails, but while the Bigelows showcase some of the best that Maine’s inland mountains and lakes have to offer, Cutler shows off the beauty of the rugged coastline.

Rugged inland terrain.

Rugged inland terrain.

Primeval forests of northern Maine.

Primeval forests of northern Maine.

My friends, Angela and Ryan (yes, another Ryan), took a vacation to Acadia last week and finished the trip by heading to Cutler for a one-night backpacking trip. I’d been excited to see this area for years, so I jumped at the opportunity, even though it meant driving 4.5 hours each way for a ten mile hike. So after driving to what many people would consider the end of the world, and then continuing two more hours into the land of blueberry fields (according to Wikipedia, Maine produces 25% of all blueberries in North America, and most of them are from right here in Washington County), we arrived at a very well-maintained trailhead and began our hike.

Day one consisted of the Inland Trail portion of the loop, walking through deep forest and along coastal marshlands. It’s still early spring here, so the leaves were missing and the grass was brown, but that barely diminished the beauty in the area. And even though the trail walks along coastal terrain with no mountains, this was no easy walking– Maine’s forest floor is a jumble of rocks, roots, and moss, keeping you on your toes even in the flattest terrain.

We arrived at the three campsites on Fairy Head, all totally deserted on this mid-week evening, and chose what I think is the easternmost backcountry campsite in the continental US. Each of the campsites here looks out over the Bay of Fundy, the ocean crashing against the rocks just below. We were lulled to sleep by the sounds of the ocean, with a cool breeze coming off the sea. In the morning, I listened to loons and lobster boats in the pre-dawn hour, then watched the sun rise while I rested under my tarp. I haven’t had such a restful sleep in months.

Sunrise over Grand Manan from our campsite.

Sunrise over Grand Manan from our campsite.

Sunrise striking the Bold Coast.

Sunrise striking the Bold Coast.

After a long and leisurely time breaking camp, we walked the Coastal Trail. Again, it was only a short hike on “flat” terrain, but we barely broke one mile per hour. The jagged rocks of the coast require plenty of concentration to walk along without hurting yourself, but the sheer abundance of scenery slowed us down just as much. Cobblestone beaches, sixty-foot cliffs down to the crashing waves, jagged rock formations rising out of the water– we all agreed we could spend weeks here without getting bored.

I’ll let the pictures do the last of the talking, but first I’ll leave you with this thought– Maine’s Public Reserved Lands are managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands, which is in danger of being dissolved and the lands given over to an agency primarily devoted to logging rather than a mix of logging and recreation, entirely because of heavy-handed politics. The reaction to this plan from both sides of the political spectrum has been resoundingly negative, showing just how beloved the agency and the land it manages is to Mainers. I’ve written about this, and I’ll continue to update that post as the story progresses. Let this serve as a reminder, wherever you are, the public lands that are a benefit to all of us are also in need of constant protection. Visit them often, love them, and take care of them.

Cobblestone beach at Black Point Cove.

Cobblestone beach at Black Point Cove.

Ryan standing on the cliffs next to our campsite.

Ryan standing on the cliffs next to our campsite.

The trail along the coast.

The trail along the coast.

Hiking through another cobblestone beach at Long Point Cove.

Hiking through another cobblestone beach at Long Point Cove.

After leaving Black Point Cove, we climb the cliffs over it.

After leaving Black Point Cove, we climb the cliffs over it.

Rock formations in an unnamed cove.

Rock formations in an unnamed cove.

More clifftop walking over coves and ocean.

More clifftop walking over coves and ocean.

Many inaccessible coves at the bottom of high cliffs.

Many inaccessible coves at the bottom of high cliffs.

The closest overlook to the parking area, with dizzying drops on either side into the ocean.

The closest overlook to the parking area, with dizzying drops on either side into the ocean.

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.

Last weekend had much better conditions than the previous one, so I tried to make up for the few days I’d taken off in the poorer conditions by doing two great day hikes. The first was a late start to the iconic (and difficult to pronounce) Mt Chocorua. Chocorua is one of the southernmost peaks in the White Mountains, and not particularly tall at only 3500 feet, but it has one of the most distinctive shapes in the area, with a snaggle-tooth rocky peak jutting up from the ridge. That rocky peak, battered by high winds and totally exposed, is similar to many much higher summits, which makes it a great place for epic views and some exciting scrambles.

The first open ledge with a clear view to the summit.

The first open ledge with a clear view to the summit.

Hiker Box, Badass, Siren and I set out late in the morning on the Piper Trail, which is one of the more popular trails up the mountain. For winter, the trailhead isn’t plowed, but an old couple who share a driveway with the trailhead allow hikers to park in their yard for $3 per car. I’m happy to pay the small price, since they’re friendly folks and seem perpetually amused by the crazy people walking up the mountain behind their home.

Arriving at tree line, with North Conway in the background (Cranmore ski area is an easily visible landmark)

Arriving at tree line, with North Conway in the background (Cranmore ski area is an easily visible landmark)

Despite the clearly broken-out trail, the low temperatures and frequent powdery snow from this winter kept the ground soft, making snowshoes a must for the entire ascent. In most winters, microspikes would have been more than sufficient, but they work best after a few freeze/thaw cycles turn the packed trail into something between ice and snow. There hasn’t been any thawing this winter, which is just the way I like it.

Epic climbs! (photo by Hiker Box)

Epic climbs! (photo by Hiker Box)

Walking through the woods for most of the approach, we could see the jagged summit through the trees most of the way. The sky was mostly overcast, but once we broke above tree line the clouds proved to be just high enough to allow some grey views of several mountain ranges, from the Sandwich Range to the Presidentials.

Beginning the walk along the cliffs and ledges near the summit.

Beginning the walk along the cliffs and ledges near the summit.

The last half mile to the summit is entirely exposed ridgeline, walking on rock and ice. We probably should have switched to microspikes or crampons for this section, but rugged snowshoes worked well enough if we slowed down and took care in our footing. There were plenty of other hikers out this day, though no one spent more than a few minutes getting buffeted by wind on the summit.

From the summit, looking north to the Presidential Range and Carter-Moriah Range.

From the summit, looking north to the Presidential Range and Carter-Moriah Range.

We snapped a few pictures, then booked it down the trail for dinner at the Yankee Smokehouse in West Ossipee. It was a late night once we included the drive back from the trail, but even with a 11 AM start on the trail, we managed not to hike in the dark at all. A great start to a great weekend!