The summit marker on West Peak, in the Bigelow Range in Maine. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Hiking 4,000 Footers in Maine

Although Maine does not have the highest mountains in the US, there are 14 Maine mountains that are 4,000 feet or higher. I never thought too much about climbing them; I just went hiking to nearby mountains, and over the years I have climbed all but two: Mount Redington, that does not even have a trail, and North Brother, in Baxter State Park. As many times as I have been hiking in Baxter State Park, Katahdin or Russell Pond always seemed the preferred hikes for our family or hiking group.

The first 4,000 footers that I climbed were Sugarloaf and the Bigelow chain, West and Avery Peak. It was many years ago, and I was an 11 year old Girl Scout at a Girl Scout camp in Readfield, Maine. One of the first days at camp, our counselors set us down in front of their tent to discuss badges, and we prepared to earn the Hiking Badge. Every day, rain or shine, we would go on a hike to prepare for our big adventure. We would walk out on dirt country roads until one of the counselors thought we had gone far enough, then turn around and run back. None of the girls that I knew had any experience in hiking and certainly no running or track! On some of the hot, humid days it was quite exhausting, and we all stumbled into camp and headed straight to our cots in our tents to rest. We carried canteens, but while running back there was no stopping for a drink.

After a couple of weeks of practice, we gathered in front of the counselors’ tent to see if we had made the list to go on the big adventure, and they told us what we needed to bring in our packs. The next morning we were loaded into two vans for a long drive to Stratton, a valley between two mountains, both on the Appalachian Trail. Here it had been arranged that we would stay in private camps: these belonged to families and were used as ski lodges back in the 50s, when ski areas were just beginning to be developed. This was free lodging for us, and we cooked group meals together on wood stoves. We did little beyond hike, cook, eat, and sleep.

After an early breakfast at our camps, we hiked Sugarloaf. I remember it was the highest mountain I had ever climbed, and it was a sunny, hot day. It is the second highest mountain in Maine. I don’t remember any complaining, but I think the girls were all tired. The counselors thought it would be a great idea to have us jump into a mountain stream. That was another new experience. The water was rushing down and it was frigid cold. No one wanted to do it. Everyone lined up, and one by one each jumped in on a countdown, and we pulled each other out. We were shaking and our teeth rattled on the way back down. The camps were not heated, but we built up the fires in the wood stoves and all helped to fix dinner.

The next day we were up before dawn, built the fires in the wood stoves, fixed breakfasts, packed day packs with food, and off we went to hike the Bigelow Range. This was much longer hiking day and much harder climbing. We were young girls and it was an adventure. It was 13 miles, as we had a long hike to the base of the range, then up and across the Bigelows from West Peak to Avery Peak, then down and out to the trailhead. No one got sick or was injured. I don’t remember the counselors giving the girls much praise, but we formed our own cheering squad and supported each other.

On that first excursion, I had hiked three of the highest peaks in Maine: Sugarloaf, the second highest mountain in the state; Bigelow West, the seventh highest, and Bigelow Avery, the ninth highest; they were all over 4,000’. I earned my hiking badge that summer, and I gained a great respect for hiking and the effort it takes to achieve goals.

I didn’t hike any high mountains again for a few years, but I skied on the top of the snow fields at Sugarloaf and Saddleback Mountains. It is a beautiful sight on a clear winter day. The views are magnificent and the air pristine and clear.

It is an awesome experience in any season to hike these grand mountains and experience nature at its finest. Now that I have hiked twelve of the fourteen 4,000’ peaks in Maine, my goal is to finish the last two.

(posted October 27, 2015)