AT Section Hike in Maine

July 12, 2005

by Papa Bear

(Photo of Old Growth)
Old Growth Spruce in the Old Blue - Elephant Col
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The Maine Blitz moves to the AT

Tuesday July 12th - South Arm Road to Route 17

The Maine Blitz moves to the AT


his summer there was a good possibility that I would go to Labrador for an extended trip. However, for various reasons, that trip did not happen. So I had a whole summer to fill with hiking (among other things). I thought, perhaps I could finish up on the peakbagging lists I was working on. Those were the New England Hundred Highest (including the NH 4000 footers) and the New England Fifty Finest. I had already decided that Mount Carrigain would be my last peak on these lists since it was on both lists (as well as the NH 48 and the NE 67 which are included in the HH). I would shoot for Carrigain for October. My birthday is near the Columbus weekend so that was a nice medium term goal. Before this trip, this is where I stood:

Maine: Hundred Highest - all done, Fifty Finest - 4 to go
Vermont: Hundred Highest - 8 to go, Fifty Finest - 1 to go
New Hampshire (not including Carrigain): Hundred Highest - 14 to go, Fifty Finest - all done

Thanks to all my VFTT friends who hiked me over this blitz. It's always more fun when you do things with friends.

This report is the third of four which cover my hikes and climbs during two weeks in July. The first report covers the peakbagging I did in New Hampshire from July 5 - 10 and the 11 peaks I climbed that busy week. The second recounts some peakbagging I did in Maine and the last covers the the peaks in New Hampshire on the weekend of July 15-17. To go to the other reports, click on the entry below:

Blitz part 1: New Hampshire - 11 peaks in a week
Blitz part 2: Peakbagging in Maine
Blitz part 3: An AT Section Hike in Maine (this report)
Blitz part 4: A Long Weekend in the White Mountains

AT Section Hike: South Arm Road to Route 17 - July 12, 2005


ou might say this was the third try at hiking this relatively easy section of the AT. In September of 2002 I hiked the AT from Gorham, NH to Stratton, ME with my daughter (2002 AT Section report). When we first attempted the section from Grafton Notch to East B Hill Road (which includes the Baldpates) we were rained out, so I had to repeat that section the next day. This left a deficit of one day in our schedule, so we decided to skip the South Arm Road to Route 17 section so we would get to Stratton in time to grab a bus and get down to my grandson's first birthday party (we made it: First Birthday).

Then in 2003 I had a brilliant idea to combine this section with a bushwhack of Elephant. (2003 Elephant report) With two VFTT friends, I would hike in from South Arm Road, over Old Blue, across to where the trail cuts across Elephant's flank, then bushwhack in first to the east, and then to the west peak. Then we would return to the AT and finish the section. Simple! Stupid is more like it. But by the time we got to the west peak of Elephant and signed the register we were exhausted and it was mid afternoon. So we just went down the clear cuts and skid roads to Elephant Road, called our car shuttle and got back to Andover in a downpour.

Now this time there would be no side trips. I stashed my car on Monday afternoon at the parking lot on Route 17
(photo of South Arm Road)
View of South Arm Road and Black Brook
down the hill from the AT crossing, got picked up by Paul Trainor from Pine Ellis Hostel in Andover, and spent a pleasant night there. Tuesday morning, I was dropped of at the AT trailhead on South Arm Road and at 8:36 AM I was off!

The trail north from South Arm Road is a tough one for the first thing in the morning. Why is it that you always have to literally "climb out of bed" mornings on the trail? I guess, because most campsites (and of course Hostels and road crossings) are in valleys. Almost immediately I was confronted by a series of steep rocky ledges. I noticed on one long difficult ledge, a series of iron rungs that looked new and which I didn't recall from my 2003 hike here. Sure enough, later as I neared the top of Old Blue there was a trail crew putting in iron rungs on the face of another steep ledge. So I used these new rungs the very day they were put in. Perhaps I was the first to use them. I thanked the crew for their work (I always try to do that unless they're dropping boulders on me ). There is one spot on this climb that I recall from before, a lookout just off the trail to the right where you can see down the valley to the south. The winding courses of South Arm Road and of Black Brook down the green valley make for a remarkable vista.

There follows a section of relatively easy grade after the steep initial climb. The trail actually drops a bit into a sort of col before resuming the climb of Old Blue. Then follows once again a fairly steep section with rocks and ledges (and more new iron rungs) until near the top where the peak levels off to a broad dome. It's not exactly above tree line at the summit of this 3600 foot peak, but the trees are all rather short and there are lots of open ledges. There are also what looks like trails going all over the place, so you have to be careful to watch the blazes to stay on track. I reached the summit of Old Blue at 10:42 AM. There are good views of Elephant Mountain to the north with both peaks visible, and of Bemis with its multiple bumps peeking out from behind towards
(photo of Elephant and Bemis)
Elephant and Bemis from Old Blue
the northeast. The trees were of such a height that I had to stand on the highest rock and hold my camera over my head to get a clear shot of these peaks.

Around this time I was passed by another AT hiker who had started from Hall Mountain lean-to, about 4 miles south of the road crossing where I had started. We would play leap frog over the next several hours. I think his name was Klaus.

The trail down from Old Blue and up over the flank of Elephant is one of the most beautiful in all of this part of Maine. As you drop down into the col, you first cross through a boggy area with long sections of puncheon and then you enter an area of old growth Spruce, one of the few surviving such tracts in all of Maine. I don't know how this area escaped the loggers axe, but it did. The old trees continue through the col and up on the side of Elephant. I passed the point where the old Clearwater Brook Trail (now abandoned) used to come up from South Arm Road. At one time this was the official route of the AT before it was rerouted over Old Blue. Elephant whackers could make their way about a quarter mile down the remnant of this trail to a logging yard to approach that Hundred Highest peak, or OTOH, they could just drive up on Elephant Road with their SUV and save a lot of effort .

Soon I passed the point where in 2003 we started our bushwhack up to the east peak of Elephant. We had followed the Franklin/Oxford county boundary cut for part of that whack, but I didn't notice it today. According to the MATC map the trail never quite crosses that line although it comes very close so the map is probably right. Now I was in new territory.

The trail rises and eventually leaves Elephant behind and crosses the high col and heads over to the multiple bumps of Bemis Mountain. The Bemis Stream Trail drops down to the right from this col as the AT heads up the easy slope (except of course the last few tenths of a mile) of Bemis. The first bump is also the highest and I reached this summit at 1:25 PM. At 3592', this is just 8 feet lower than Old Blue, but of course Elephant, which the AT bypasses, whose two peaks both rise to around 3770', is the highest in the range.

(photo of Ledges)
Endless open ledges
The high point is wooded, but soon a long series of open ledges (over 4 miles of them) started which would lead most of the way down the ridge. With the sun now fully out, this walk, although easy on the legs, became quite hot and oppressive. My notes say "Sun is baking me". Bring plenty of water for this section if it's a hot sunny day like I had. There are a number of bumps labeled on the map as "First Peak", "Second peak", etc. but I soon lost track of how many peaks I crossed. Besides they were hardly peaks, they were bumps! I passed Klaus again and he had developed very bad blisters on his toes. I said he should get off the trail for a day or so and let them heal. I suggested trying to get a ride at Route 17 into Rangeley and find Bob O'Brien's Gull Pond Lodge and he we receptive to that idea. He had originally planned to head to the Sabbath Day lean-to, another 3 or 4 miles past the road.

I reached the Bemis Mountain lean-to and found 4 guys lounging around there. I pumped some water and chatted with them briefly. After I got going again along the ridges I met first a 40ish woman (one of the lean-to lounger's aunt, it turns out) and then a series of groups of young camp kids (about 12 - 14 years old) all heading south and all planning to camp the night at the lean-to. They were looking pretty tuckered out from the heat, as was I, but at least I had the sense to wear a hat and drink plenty of water. Ah youth! After I had passed them all, I estimated there would be something close to 20 campers at that lean-to this night. Sheesh!

Eventually I got below the exhausting open slabs, and descended steeply over rocks and ledges into the Bemis Stream valley. There is a great irony to this section: as you descend off the ridge, you can see the highway way across the valley, up on the side of the hill! The trail drops nearly 1000' off the last bump on the ridge, and
(photo of Route 17)
Route 17 across the valley
then climbs about 800' to get back up to the highway. Very disconcerting! The entire section from South Arm Road was very steep up at the start and looked to be very steep up at the end as well. The other irony was that down in the valley, just before I crossed the stream, there is a well groomed road (actually following an old RR right-of-way) which led south to a point very close to where my car was parked, but I resisted the temptation to cheat on the last mile or two, and plugged on up the other side of the valley to the highway. This last climb was a killer, given the heat and my long day. But finally I reached the road crossing at 5:44 PM.

The AT crosses Route 17 near the height of land overlooking Lake Mooselookmeguntick. There is a turn-off here, and it seems that every tourist driving this road, and not a few natives, take the opportunity to stop and take in the vista. If you get here in the early morning, as we did in 2002, there is very often a cloud just sitting on the lake below. A super photo-op if there ever was one! But my car was nearly a mile away down the hill, so I still had the long walk down Route 17. Finally I reached my car around 6:00 PM. It had been a very long and hot day, but I was done.

I drove back up to the high point and stopped briefly. Klaus was there and he managed to convinced some folks who had stopped to ogle, to drive him to Rangeley. I was glad he would get relief from his foot problems. For myself, I was off to Audrey and Pat's. I had more Maine peakbagging to do over the rest of the week.

AT Section: South Arm Road to Route 17, Maine
Distance hiked: 14.3 miles (including Route 17 road walk)
Elevation gained: 4300' (estimate from MATC map)
Time: 9:24
Photos: AT Section Hike Album

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