On a late September afternoon last fall, I was driving the last miles from Millinocket to Baxter State Park, intent on settling in to my campsite at Abol Campground. But at North Woods Trading Post, I veered off the state road onto Golden Road and drove beyond the park to check out one of my favorite views anywhere in Maine.
From Abol Bridge Store, I sauntered out on the bridge, rested my elbows on the railing, and stared northward over the Penobscot River to the majestic mass of Katahdin. Across the forested expanse, my eye was immediately drawn, as it always is, to the familiar gash in the mountain’s south flank, the Abol Slide.
For 200 years, Abol Slide has been route of trampers wanting to conquer Maine’s highest peak from this compass direction. That was my plan come morning, to climb the storied Abol Trail. That journey would no longer include the famous slide, however, which was closed in late 2013 due to landslide activity that moved untold tons of rocks, gravel and other debris, leaving the steep slope unstable and too dangerous for hiking.
Thanks to dedicated park staff and the tireless work of young Maine Conservation Corps members, the trail was routed away from Abol Slide to the ridge immediately west during the summers of 2014 and 2015. Park director Jensen Bissell scouted and flagged much of the new route, “the most fun I’ve had in many years,” he told me in a recent email.
The Abol Trail reopened in the summer of 2015, but this was my first opportunity for a try and I could hardly wait.
According to John Neff’s fabulous book, “Katahdin: An Historic Journey,” a huge avalanche created Abol Slide in 1816, making it a prominent landmark that has drawn the attention of countless explorers looking for the path of least resistance over the seemingly impenetrable heights of Katahdin.
The first recorded ascent of Abol Slide was in 1819 by a party of British surveyors. A trail utilizing Abol Slide, the “Ktaadn Path,” is shown on an 1881 survey map by J.W. and John Sewall of Old Town. A formal trail was cut later in the 1880s and named Abol Trail.
Abol Trail was abandoned in the 1930s because of large-scale logging on the mountain, and neglected until 1949, when an Appalachian Mountain Club crew cleared the way. Fire danger from heavy slash remaining from a 1963 storm again closed the trail; it reopened in 1965 and has been in continuous use ever since.
While there is no “easy” trail on Katahdin, Abol Trail is the shortest and most direct of the half-dozen routes to the top, and therefore often considered the easiest.
The rerouted Abol Trail is 3.4 miles, 0.6 miles longer than before, and still gains 3,982 feet of elevation over that distance. In my view, easy is never part of the equation when it comes to climbing Katahdin, a thought clearly on my mind as I sweated up the trail the next morning.
At 2,600 feet, just above the spring and in sight of the lower portion of the slide, the rerouted trail diverges left. The ascent is moderate to steep, but the long rising traverse with lots of rock steps makes the going much more straighforward than the old Abol Slide. At close to 3,000 feet, the trail switchbacks east, climbing steeply on more good footway. The trail above is amazing, snaking straight up the mountain via tight switchbacks, around boulders and through krummholz. It’s all really a bit of a marvel of modern trail engineering.
At treeline at just over 4,000 feet, the trail offers excellent panoramic views over the 100-Mile Wilderness and a great look west to the Hunt Spur and the Appalachian Trail. Abol Trail turns east here to reach the top of Abol Slide and a sweeping look down the former route. From here to the Tableland, the original rock scramble remains, 600 feet of tough hand-over-hand climbing.
At Thoreau Spring, Abol Trail merges with Hunt Trail, and with the big prize in sight, I meandered along following the white blazes of the AT for the final mile to the oh-so-familiar sign atop Baxter Peak and another keepsake summit photo.
Abol Trail opened for the season on Memorial Day weekend. Get your gear together and go on up to Baxter and take a look-see for yourself.