North Peaks Trail - Baxter State Park 9/7/15

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peakbagger

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The North Peaks trail at Baxter has eluded my grasp for years. This trail runs from Hamlin Peak north to Russell Pond campground intersecting the Northwest Basin trail. As none of the summits north of Hamlin are on the popular lists, the area north of the Saddle trail with the exception of the Hamlin Ridge trail is ignored by most “listers” as it doesn’t fit into the traditional long weekend at Baxter to "check off the boxes" by doing Baxter peak and Hamlin one day and the Coe, Brothers and Fort loop the next. That is unfortunate as the alpine zone consisting of the North Peaks ridge and the Northwest plateau constitute an area of extensive alpine zone far less disturbed than anything in the whites. It is effectively a second Tableland that few folks visit.

Many newer hikers are probably not aware of the North Peaks trail, as up until recently, it was the Howe’s Peaks spur that dead ended as the entire route to Russell Pond had been officially closed since 2002. The reason for the closure of this trail was attributed to two events, officially it was closed due to extensive stretch of blowdown below treeline, unofficially the closure lined up with an attempt by the International Appalachian Trail (IAT) to route the trail through the park without prior authorization of the park. The routing would go over the Northern Peaks trail and then onto a proposed unofficial route that didn’t exist in the park. Closing this trail effectively thwarted this attempt and subsequently the IAT was banned from the park and now officially starts at the easterly boundary of the park. Even though the North Peaks trail was officially closed, there have been VFTT folks and others who have traveled the old route with various reports on the severity of the blowdown. I have asked rangers over the years and their standard reply is that if could be readily followed but progress would be very slow and most would turn back. The trail was remembered fondly by many long term Russell Pond campers as in combination with the Northwest Basin trail it makes spectacular way to climb to Baxter Peak from the North. Several of these folks were members, officers and supporters of Friends of Baxter State Park, and they would bring up reopening this route whenever long range planning came up on trails. http://www.friendsofbaxter.org/news/PositionPDF/7_12_04.North Peaks.pdf In 2013, the trail was reopened but the official notice of the reopening was in 2014. Some older maps show the trail and the 2nd edition Map Adventures also shows it. Do note the Map Adventures map is not recommended for those hiking north of Hamlin as it skips detailed topo and trail routings between Hamlin and Russell Pond.

Although this trail can be done as a long day hike from Roaring Brook, via Chimney Pond Trail, Hamlin Ridge Trail and then Russell Pond trail to return to Roaring Brook, for most this is a backpack using Chimney Pond and Russell Pond. Prior to the closure I had made reservations one year but very bad weather made taking this very exposed route unsafe. By the time I was ready to retry the trail was closed. During a Labor Day Trip one year I noticed a new sign on Hamlin listed the trail and distance to Russell Pond, I asked a ranger and he admitted that the trail was reopened and passable but the plan was not to publicize it until the next summer. I immediately started planning for a repeat trip and lucked out with the incredible stretch of weather we had this past weekend.
On Sunday we were the first to sign out of Chimney Pond and headed up the Hamlin Ridge Trail. It was hot without much breeze. The only people we saw were folks climbing Baxter, we had the trails to the North to ourselves. We stopped by Caribou Spring (my favorite of all the summit springs) and then headed north on the North Peaks trail. The trail is well blazed for good weather but it doesn’t have adequate cairns to follow it during poor visibility. The trail is very underused and even sticking to the blazed line, much of the path is still covered with alpine vegetation. We attempted to rock hop over these areas and on occasion would lose the main path. I expect someone in obscured conditions would have a tough time navigating this route. The first stretch of the trail from Hamlin to the first Howe Peak was impressive with views opening up of the surrounding mountains. The grade is such that Baxter peak and Pamola are still visible and every time we looked at Baxter Peak the crowds seemed to be getting bigger. We thought we had this route figured out but once we got past the first Howe peak, the peak blocked the view back to the Baxter Peak and Pamola and the views got even better with views into the Northwest Basin. Unlike Baxter Peak which has some limited views of civilization to the south, the area of the ridge has none with the exception of the hydro storage lakes outside the park.
Over the length of the trail below tree line we did see evidence of past blowdown patches. As the trail had sat unused for 10 plus years, it looks like the blowdowns had partially rotted but in some spots, I expect it would have been slow hiking with the blowdowns in place. As it was the trail bed was clear with almost no stepovers. At one point we did cross a scrubby fir section between two alpine areas and it needed trimming. It wasn’t an issue but other than that short section, the trail is actually in far better shape than most WMNF trails as there is little erosion and a very soft trail bed in many spots. The rest of the trail below tree line was well brushed out and cleared 8 to 10 feet wide with some stretches cleared about 4 feet wide. After a stop at an excellent unmarked spring, the trail got steeper until we connected up with a unnamed cascading brook that is one of the branches of Wassataquoik Stream. After following it for quite a while it tied into the main channel of Wassataquoik Stream where we had to ford the stream. This would be a challenge at higher water with no good options to avoid it unless a mile long bushwhack to Russell Pond trail was attempted.

Soon after the crossing we came out on Northwest Basin trail and headed into Russell Pond. As we walked through the campground we saw the first person outside of our group (with the exception of the people far over on Baxter summit), that we had encountered all day. Considering this was Sunday of Labor Day weekend, this is probably a good indication of how little the trail is used. We hiked from about 7:30 to 5 PM. The distance was remarkably short about 7.5 miles but the hiking is slow as the hiking above treeline is rock hopping on somewhat loose rock and the views encourage frequent stops.

One of the folks on the hike with us has hiked in Newfoundland and he said the above treeline section of this trail reminded him far more of Newfoundland than somewhere in New England. Given the logistics of the North Peaks Trail and the Northwest Basin trail I don’t think they ever are going to be mobbed with hikers but the two are without a doubt some of the wildest most interesting spectacular remote trails in Maine and NH. With the potential for a proposed new trail from Center Pond between Mullen and Fort connecting up with the Northwest Basin trail and the proposed new trail running from the Wassataquoik Stream trail up between North and South Turner to the Twin Pond Spur off the Katahdin Lake trail network, the options for multiday backpacking loops in the park will be opening up for those who want to stay away from the Katahdin crowds.

Overall two major thumbs up. Definitely one to add to the must do list.
 
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