Of the 115 peaks in the Northeastern US over 4000 feet, the farthest from us are the ones in Maine. Consequently, they tend to get pushed to the bottom of our respective lists. They shouldn't be, though, because they really aren't that far away (except for the ones in Baxter SP), and because some of these peaks are wonderful: scenic, secluded, and interesting. And, with Ewart having finished with all of his 4000-footers except for the ones in Maine, he was keen on doing some of these peaks with us, too.
Bigelows from ME27
We settled on the peaks of the Bigelow Range - the northernmost and easternmost of the 4000-footers outside of the ones in Baxter State Park. The Bigelow Range is a long and narrow spine of mountains, with two - West Bigelow and Avery Peaks, that reach over 4000 feet. The rest of the range has much of interest, though, so we concocted a plan to do a traverse of almost the entire range, starting in the west from the small town of Stratton, and heading east over to the southeastern shore of Flagstaff Lake.
I was pretty excited about this trip - a new and unknown bit of terrain, and one that looked very interesting - multiple peaks connected by a ridge, some open alpine terrain, mountain ponds nestled along that ridge, and in general an 'off-the-beaten' path sense that hinted at a secluded and adventurous outing.
We headed down to the area and camped the night at the far end of our route - at the lower end of the Safford Brook trail. There's a campground here, right on the shore of Flagstaff lake, and it is a hidden gem. It is free, it has amazing walk-in sites right on the shore of the lake, and the setting of those sites is beautiful. It was next to empty in early November, but I wonder how busy it is in the summer. This place is worth another visit!
Early, early in the morning, before the others got up and got ready for the first day of our traverse, I went down to the shoreline of Flagstaff Lake, pre-dawn, and tried to capture the essence of the place. It was quite cold out - well below freezing - and low, leaden-blue clouds created a gloomy feel. Still, there was a haunting beauty to the place, even though the conditions were cold and stark. As the sun rose, I could see the tops of Bigelow and Avery far above us. White and frosty they looked. Just how much snow was up there, anyway?
Ewart inspects campground
Returning back to the cars, we packed up and parked the CRV in the Safford Brook Trail parking lot (which is just outside the campground). The Safford Brook trail would be our exit trail tomorrow.
Piling into Ewart's car, we made our way along East Flagstaff Road, then the bumpy carriage road, to Maine Highway 27. From here it was a nice highway drive back west to the town of Stratton, where the western end of the Bigelow Range Trail starts. The day had turned crisp and clear, and we could see the profile of our entire ridge ahead of us. Spectacular looking!
After locating the somewhat-hard-to-find turnoff that leads to the Bigelow Range Trailhead, we quickly got ready to go. It was 9:30am, and we had about 10km of ridge hiking to get to our planned evening sleepover location: the Horns Pond campsite. Given that sunset was around 4:30 to 5pm these days, this gave us a comfortable 7 hours of time. Ours was the only car at the trailhead. Good sign!
The Bigelow Range trail started off moderately steeply. Over our left shoulders was Stratton's pulp-and-paper mill, just visible through the trees and definitely smellable.
The trail was pleasantly uneroded - a nice change from the Adirondacks. It wasn't long before we were nicely warmed up and enjoying the hike. The mill soon faded from view and smell, and the trail began to climb in earnest, leading steeply up the flank of our first objective, Cranberry peak. At around the 2500-foot mark, we started to encounter a recent dusting of snow.
The trail up to Cranberry Peak gains altitude quite quickly, to about 3,000 feet, then levels off. Up here, there is a pleasant section of semi-open slabby bedrock, and the trail climbs up and down over these slabs. The first limited views of the beautiful surrounding countryside are seen from here, too.
The trail contoured along the north side of the ridgecrest for a while, and here there was quite a bit more snow and ice - a good inch or so of snow at least, and lots on the trees. This made the going a little slower, and the trail here was a little rougher. Soon, though, we could see the final summit cone of Cranberry Peak - and it was surprisingly open looking for an only 3200-foot peak! Nice!