Northern Franklin County and environs is home to 10 of Maine’s 14 peaks over 4000’ in elevation. In recent years this mountain region, stretching from the Saddleback Range to the west, to the Bigelow Range in the northeast, has become known as Maine’s High Peaks Region – and continues to draw hikers from not only across the USA, but from across the world.

Mt. Abraham (Abram), Spaulding, Sugarloaf, North and South Crocker, and Redington, along with Saddleback and The Horn, and Avery Peak and West Peak on Bigelow, comprise these, our High Peaks.

The other 4 Maine peaks above 4000’? A loner is Old Speck, rising to the west of Grafton Notch in Newry. The remaining three are all in Baxter State Park. A good many people would immediately name Mt. Katahdin, which is Maine’s highest peak at 5268′ but the other two are less well-known. The higher of the two is Hamlin Peak, 4756’, named for former US Vice-President Hannibal Hamlin, of Maine. The other is North Brother, the northernmost of all of Maine’s Four Thousand Footers, 4151’, located in the northwest section of Baxter Park.

Over the years I have hiked all of Maine’s Four Thousand Footers – and in fact all of the 67 such peaks in New England. Recently I decided to have another go at Maine’s high peaks,

So it is that one early summer day I head to Northern Maine to hike once again the three Baxter Park Four Thousand Footers.

North Brother is my first destination. It is the lowest in elevation of the three, but is hardly a warm-up. At 4151’, it is Maine’s 6th highest peak. What is truly remarkable is that the 4.5 mile hike to the summit gains 3100’ of elevation from the valley trailhead near Nesowadnehunk Stream. That is quite an elevation gain! This walk in the Park is not a “walk in the park!”

I start early, 6:30 a.m., with clearing skies on a day after heavy rain, on the Marston Trail. The trailhead is 5.5 miles north of Katahdin Stream Campground on the Nesowadnehunk Tote Road . The area is known as the Slide Dam site, for a former log-drive dam on Nesowadnehunk Stream. I will pass through many a forest eco-system this day, starting with the hardwood forest of maples, white and yellow birch, beech, and ash, later to enter a fir and spruce forest before emerging onto the stunted, weather-beaten low growth “krumholtz” and freeze-thaw fractured rock at the peak of North Brother.

After 1.3 miles I reach a trail junction with the Mt. Coe Trail, which offers a choice of routes. The Mt. Coe Trail heads south to climb Mt. Coe over an even steeper route, swings east and north to pass a spur trail to South Brother, then rejoins the Marston Trail 0.8 miles from the summit of North Brother. I have hiked this loop before, taking in all three summits in one day, but my goal for today is to check out the most direct route to North Brother – so I continue on the Marston Trail. I pass delightfully-named Teardrop Pond, a headwater of (west) Roaring Brook, not to be confused with the Roaring Brook on the east side of the Park.

More steady ascent carries me to the high ridge from which all three peaks – Coe, South Brother, North Brother – rise. As I hike ever higher the trailside fir is so dense that little sunlight hits the forest floor, save for a few rays that shine through narrow gaps in the over story. Mosses abound in the low light and persistent dampness. Much quiet beauty here.

The final mile is steady-steep over rocks, roots, mud. I emerge from treeline to ascend landscape of boulders and rock rubble, gnarled fir and stunted birch, interspersed with high elevation grasses and sedge – the stuff of sub-alpine environments. When I reach the wind-weathered summit sign, I am rewarded with extraordinary views of Katahdin, of the striking glacier-carved Northwest Basin with its two tiny ponds, Lake Cowles and Davis Pond. To the south I look down onto another glacier-formed bowl, and the extensive high country bog known as The Klondike. I look out to the north end of the Park, the Traveler Peaks, headwaters of the Penobscot East Branch, and far, far beyond. Such a view!

The following day I aim for Hamlin Peak, with another 6:30 a.m. start, this time from Roaring Brook Campground, and along the Chimney Pond Trail. The sky continues as clear, but a strong wind has risen overnight, and even at this low elevation I dress in fleece with a wool hat. I take a 50’ spur trail to Basin Ponds for my first unobstructed view of Hamlin Peak. It stands out at the rocky top of a long, rising ridge, marked by a series of high knobs – quite a sight against the clear blue morning sky.

I drop off my overnight gear and food at Chimney Pond Campground where I will spend the night, then resume my hike – now on the Hamlin Ridge Trail. As I climb ever higher I enjoy remarkable views to the west, across the Great Basin, to South Basin, with Chimney Pond at the Basin floor – and up to the summit of Katahdin, and the Knife Edge, the narrow 1.3 mile ridge that runs east from Baxter Peak on Katahdin, ending at Pamola Peak. A discovery! Though it is late June, snowfields linger high on the Basin walls, one below the Knife Edge, the other below the rock formation known as the Cathedrals. Hamlin Peak is worth climbing for this unique straight-across view of Maine’s very highest peak.

There is more to be seen, for the Hamlin Ridge Trail looks north down into the North Basin, where yet another snowfield clings to high, glacier scarred walls, and a small pond rests in the valley floor. This view is out of sight of hikers on Katahdin – but in full view for Hamlin hikers. The steep going, sometimes requiring both hands along with both feet, continues. Up, up I climb, surmounting one rocky knob after another, to reach a high above-treeline “lawn” of alpine sedge along rock-strewn high ground. I reach the well-weathered Hamlin summit sign, do a 360 turn in buffeting winds to take in the 100 mile view.

Past the summit I fill my water bottle at high Caribou Spring (treating the water to purify it),remarkable as it is that water flows only a few hundred feet down the trail from the Hamlin summit. The spring often goes dry by late summer, but it offers up plenty of clear, cold water on this day.

There is still time to reach the summit of Katahdin, which lies just short of two miles distant. I descend from Hamlin, cross the low point between the two peaks known as the Saddle, and ascend the final mile to the very top. The trail runs over the great Tableland with rare Bigelow Sedge among the rocks. On the way I pass Mountain Avens, Diapensia, Cranberry in its pre-flowering stage, and the resilient Bunchberry. Long views to the east, north, and west, under sky completely open save for a few scattered puffy clouds. I have hiked Katahdin many times, in all seasons, including winter – today offers the most clear, see-forever day I have ever known here.

There are other hikers on the mountain, but when I reach the summit, I find only two who are just departing. They oblige by taking my photo, then, remarkably, I find myself alone on the top of Mt. Katahdin, on a summer day! The views extend from the north-lying Boundary Mountains of Canada to the peaks of Mt. Desert Island by the sea. In the west rise the Western Mountains of Maine – among them the Bigelows, Sugarloaf, and Mt. Abraham – and to my great joy, Mt. Blue!

But I am not completely alone. A solitary raven alights beside me, probably looking for a food handout, which I do not provide. “Nevermore!” I speak, citing the raven’s line in the Edgar Allen Poe poem “The Raven.” This raven remained perched on its rock, and held silence. We eye one another, this great, black bird, with its distinctive piercing eye. A far smaller bird, brown with a white breast, flits about the peak, settling on the rock cairn of the summit, taking off again. It is an American Pipit – quite a rare alpine terrain bird. There we are, pipit, raven, and I, in this part of the country, on top of the world.

I would like to hike the Knife Edge on this outing, but I have hiked it previously, and my watch shows that I have reached my turn-around time for heading down the mountain. The Knife Edge remains for another day. Down I head for the Saddle Trail, to descend to Chimney Pond by way of the Saddle Slide. My estimate is that this route will take half the time required for a Knife Edge route to Chimney Pond. I am in camp in plenty of time to cook supper, then sit out by the shore of Chimney Pond as a half-moon rises, and the last light of the sun disappears beyond the heights of Katahdin.

The next morning I rise early to watch the sunrise throw a great amber light on the high cliff walls up of South Basin and Great Basin, and up to the summit itself. Quite a light show! Time now to hike down to Roaring Brook and the drive home.

The three north-most Four Thousand Footers of Maine – North Brother, Hamlin, Katahdin – well worth a visit. Practice high-country hiking in our own nearby High Peaks, then head north for Baxter Park!

A few high country tips: Regardless the forecast, when hiking Four Thousand Footers. I pack a wool hat, gloves, neck gaiter and a face protector, along with wind/rain pants, a fleece jacket, and a breathable rain jacket. No matter the hour, I always bring a headlamp with spare batteries, food and water, a means to purify water, map and compass, first aid supplies, and a signal whistle. Hike safely!

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