Bigelow Mountain sprawls 12 glorious miles from west to east, and the state property that protects it encompasses 36,000 acres of forestland, eight high peaks, more than 30 miles of hiking trails and miles of pristine shorefront on Flagstaff Lake.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Bigelow Preserve, which staved off development, and saved this ecological and recreational treasure.
The Bigelows, a beloved mountain range, were protected by a citizen referendum on June 8, 1976. It was the first time a statewide vote was held to create a public parkland.
In the years leading up to the vote, Bigelow was embroiled in a controversy that pitted development factions against conservation supporters. The Flagstaff Corporation of Massachusetts planned to create a four-season resort centered around a massive ski area on the north slopes, an airport, a marina on Flagstaff Lake, hotels and condominiums, and many other trappings.
The development was dubbed by some as “the Aspen of the East” and “a bunny club for Boston billionaires,” but the plan had the steadfast support of Gov. James Longley, most of the state legislature and much of Maine’s business community.
Undaunted, in 1974 an opposition group named Friends of Bigelow began to organize not only hikers and paddlers, but hunters, anglers and many others into a coalition.
The first thing the group did was climb Bigelow’s Avery Peak that winter to plant a “Save Bigelow” flag on top, a symbolic gesture but a brilliant public-relations stunt “to claim the mountain for the people of Maine,” said Lance Tapley, who founded Friends of Bigelow.
The Bigelow fight was a “battle royal,” Tapley said recently. “It was the biggest news story of the year in Maine during 1975-76.”
Some 550 members of the Friends of Bigelow campaign fanned out across Maine to gather the signatures of 45,000 voters, enough to get the measure on the ballot. And 40 years ago this month, “An Act to Establish a Public Preserve in the Bigelow Mountain Area” passed by a margin of less than 4,000 votes out of nearly 168,000 cast.
The main thoroughfare for foot travel in the Bigelow Range is the Appalachian Trail, and along its corridor you’ll find the shapely peaks of North Horn and South Horn, and the Alpine heights of West Peak and Avery Peak, all close to or just over 4,000 feet. East beyond Safford Notch is the lovely ridgeline of Little Bigelow.
If you’re out for more than a day hike, tent sites at Cranberry Stream, Moose Falls, Bigelow Col and Safford Notch, as well as shelters at Horns Pond and Little Bigelow, offer backpackers some wonderfully wild camping.
Horns Pond Trail leads to the pond and peaks of the same name, and the Fire Warden’s Trail offers a steep and direct route to West and Avery peaks. Safford Brook Trail is the best way to access Old Man’s Head and Little Bigelow.
Cranberry Peak is a gem on the western edge of Bigelow Mountain, and the hike past Cranberry Pond via the Appalachian Trail and Bigelow Range Trail to the craggy top is a delight.
Paddlers can take to Flagstaff Lake, where there are numerous remote shoreline campsites, while car campers can set up shop at Round Barn and Big Eddy. Mountain bikers will enjoy the tracks of the Maine Huts & Trails system, and outdoor enthusiasts will appreciate the fabulous food and comfortable lodging at their four backcountry huts on the margin of Bigelow Preserve.