Katahdin! The name of perhaps the single most outstanding peak in all the Appalachians is a magic word to Appalachian Trail through hikers who walk for 2,000 miles to reach it, to rock-climbers who challenge its rocky
walls, to tourists who gape at its towering form, and to hikers in search of truly rugged mountain majesty.
Mount Katahdin is special due to a variety of factors. It is not a simple mountain, but a broad massif of several peaks, cirques, and ridges, surrounded on almost three sides by a ring of lower summits. This concentrated group of mountains stands utterly alone in the otherwise flat Maine north woods, and the southern face of the main mountain mass rises directly 4,000 feet from the Penobscot River to the highest summit in the entire state. The remote, and, compared to other eastern mountains, almost primeval forest setting of the peak is also very alluring, as is the large area above timberline (about 3800 feet at 46 degrees north). And finally, the spectacular sawtoothed Knife Edge, a serrated crest dropping thousands of feet on both sides, gives Katahdin a special kind of alpine grandeur.
The entire Katahdin group of mountains is part of huge Baxter State Park, the only substantial chunk of public or protected land in the Longfellow Mountains. Established through the generosity and efforts of Maine governor
Percival Baxter, in whose honor the highest peak on Katahdin was named, the park, per Baxter's will, is kept as much as possible in a "forever wild" state. This means that roads, campgrounds, and trails are deliberately kept
primitive, giving the area a rugged feel, but also that access, both for vehicles entering the park and backpackers camping out, is strictly controlled. Perhaps no other mountain area in the country actually turns people away if they have no campground reservations or if the park is already too full, so it is an excellent idea to research the current Baxter State Park regulations before making that ten-hour drive.
Katahdin itself is essentially a high, hourglass-shaped plateau that runs north-south entirely above timberline and drops off steeply on all sides to the forested lowlands below. The northern half of the hourglass is dominated by Hamlin Peak (4751'), second highest major summit in Maine, and features a high ridge leading north that features the minor Howe Peaks, North Howe (4612') and South Howe (4734'). The southern part of this massif is called the Tableland, an open, gradually sloping plain that rises from the Saddle (4260'), the col south of Hamlin Peak, to Baxter Peak (5267'), the apex of Maine and northern end of the Appalachian Trail.
The Table Land ends at Baxter Peak, dropping off severely to the south, but a narrow and spectacular ridge leads east out into space from Baxter Peak. First passing over the minor bump of the South Peak (5260'), it then suddenly becomes the infamous Knife Edge, a narrow, rocky, tortuous, and even dangerous ridgecrest traversed by perhaps the most spectacular maintained hiking trail in the country, a solid mile of exposed scrambling. The Knife Edge terminates at two rocky pinnacles, Chimney Peak (4900') and Pamola Peak (4912'), separated by a very deep cleft. From Pamola (named after the Indian storm god that often lashes this highly exposed ground) the Keep Ridge leads east down into the lowlands.
The Appalachian Trail, in its final miles, climbs to the Table Land from the southwest, using the Hunt Trail up from Katahdin Stream Campground. The Abol trail, ascending a steep slide, was long the main route up the Mountain.
East of the Tableland and north of the Knife Edge is a series of profound cirques, huge, steep walled basins carved by ancient glaciers. The North Basin, below Hamlin and the Howe Peaks, and the South Basin, an
especially awesome chasm with the Knife Edge forming part of its impressive cliffs, are both part of the Great Basin, which has a central lobe between the North and South Basins. Steep trails run up the Hamlin Ridge and Cathedral Ridge, which both separate basins, and up an extremely steep route called the Chimney, climbing the walls of the South Basin to Chimney Peak at the start of the Knife Edge. Chimney pond, in the middle of the Great Basin, is a incredibly scenic, and popular campsite, reachable only by trail.
Surrounding the main Katahdin Massif are a number of subsidiary ranges,
the most important of which runs sort of north-south to the west, separated
from Katahdin by the swampy, remote, and wild Klondike. The Owl (3736'), a fine viewpoint reached by trail, and trailless Barren Mountain (3681') run west from Katahdin to Mount O-J-I (3400'), which received its odd name from a series of landslides on the peak's steep south face that used to spell out its name. From O-J-I the range runs north over Mount Coe (3764'), South Brother (3900'), North Brother (4151' --a 4000-footer!), and Fort Mountain (3861'), and then starts to die down with Mullen Mountain (3450') and Mount Wassataquoik (2984'). A trail runs to North Brother, to aid both peakbaggers and those who want a great, wide-open view of Katahdin up close and personal, and rough spurs run to South Brother and Coe.
The rest of Baxter State Park, stretching away to the north, is a remote
wilderness of lakes, ponds, and relatively low mountains, virtually all
trailless. Doubletop Mountain (3488'), west of the Brothers, is an exception--a trail leads from the perimeter road to an excellent viewpoint of Katahdin. The biggest mountain is the park after Katahdin is the Traveller (3541'), a sprawling, lonely, many-summited massif that dominates the northern reaches of the park, penetrated by only a few trails reaching lower viewpoints. East of Katahdin rises Turner Mountain, with three summits: North Turner (3323'), the highest; South Turner (3123'), with a fine view of Katahdin and the only one with a trail; and East Turner (2441'), which is just barely over the border of Baxter State Park and into Penobscot County, where it beats out far away Chase Mountain (2440') by one foot for the honor as that county's highpoint. All other Baxter State Park summits are under 3,000 feet, and are mostly unvisited and trailless.
The Sunrise Myth
Perhaps the most persistent myth about Katahdin is that it's the first place in the U.S. to see a sunrise every morning. However, detailed analysis of this in an article from the January 1972 issue of Yankee Magazine, by Blanton C. Wiggin, shows that the place varies depending on the time of year. According to Wiggin, the first sunrise in the U.S. occurs as follows:
- October 7 to March 6: Cadillac Mountain, Maine
- March 7 to March 24: West Quoddy Head Lighthouse, Lubec, Maine
- March 25 to September 18: Mars Hill, Maine
- September 19 to October 6: West Quoddy Head Lighthouse, Lubec, Maine
Only on a few mornings in the spring and summer do hills in Canada block the sun from reaching Mars Hill, possibly giving a couple rare mornings to Katahdin.
Note that North Slope of Alaska has midnight sun during late spring and early summer, so during that time the first place in the USA to see the sun every day is a large chunk of Alaska where the sun never sets. However, when talking about a distinct sunrise transition from a set sun to a risen one, Maine will always see a sunrise before any place in Alaska. On about June 16th, the earliest sunrise in Alaska for places just below the Arctic Circle is about 1:45 AM, which is 5:45 AM in eastern Maine, where the sun rises over an hour ealier.
Also, the U.S. territory of Guam has a motto of "Where America's Day Begins", since it is located west of the Date Line and sees the first sunrises of any U.S. owned possessions.