Inspiration strikes in mysterious ways. A friend recently posted a “thirty scariest hiking trails” link on Facebook, and what immediately popped into my mind was the Knife Edge – a spooky final ascent to the summit of Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Curiously, the Knife Edge was MIA and even though I had trekked four trails on the list, none of those personally surpassed the adrenalin rush of this favorite (in fact, hiking Snake Gorge in Oman would be my #2 and that was also absent from the list). Fearing this spectacular ascent was lacking publicity, I knew what my next writing assignment needed to cover.
With an elevation of one mile above sea level, Mt. Katahdin is the highest point in Maine. The name properly translates as “greatest mountain” and depending on which direction you take, the peak here is the beginning or end of the 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail. The Knife Edge is one of several options to reach Katahdin’s crest and not part of the Appalachian Trail. However, if you are seeking the thrill of a lifetime, you are on the right trail!
Just as there is more than one way to get to Katahdin’s pinnacle, there are multiple routes to reach the beginning of the Knife Edge. Recognizing you will need to hike several hours, several miles and ascend 3,400 feet just to reach the beginning of the trail may be the first clue this is not a typical outdoor endeavor. The trailhead begins once you have scaled to the top of Pamola, a peak 4,900 feet above sea level and inauspiciously named for a fearsome Abenaki bird spirit. The Abenaki were Native Americans inhabiting the region and Pamola was their god of thunder and protector of Katahdin. Pamola had the body of a man, but with a moose’s head and the wings and talons of an eagle. Pamola disrespected anyone attempting to reach the top of Katahdin. In his writings of hiking in northern Maine, Henry David Thoreau remarked the god was “always angry with those who climb to the summit.”
I have enjoyed the Knife Edge twice and the experience lends appreciation to Pamola’s disdain.
We stopped for a deserved rest at the Pamola summit on the second excursion. I was the only veteran in our group of four and exclaimed “there it is,” gleefully waving my hand towards the Knife Edge, visible for the first time from our lofty perch. Let me be clear about this view. The Knife edge is about a mile long, the pathway never more than a few feet across and in some places barely eighteen inches wide. The steep drop offs on either side are several thousand feet. Did I mention you are a mile above sea level and wind gusts are frequently thirty miles per hour?
Looking upon this wisp of a trail and plunges to certain death can be unnerving and scanning the faces of my compatriots I sensed panic setting in. I was afraid everyone would bail and retreat so I abruptly stood up and screwed the top back onto my water bottle as I marched straight for the trailhead to prevent a mutiny (I do not believe this action was because I was braver, only that I had not paused the first time up and contemplated how totally scary the trail looks from the crest of Pamola).
Of course the most perilous portion of this course is at the very beginning when you descend the Chimney Notch. This is a vertical drop of thirty feet. It does not require technical climbing skill, but unlike so many other popular trails, there are no rungs, ropes or other unnatural aids to assist you in the descent and it requires total focus (and as an aside, you will find no man-made safety additions anywhere along the Knife Edge). There was grim determination on everyone’s face now and we conquered Chimney Notch without peril.
Then it is experiencing the glory of traversing the Knife Edge. For me it is scarier looking upon the trail from Pamola than actually being on it. The views take your breath away and despite concentrating on each and every step, being up close and personal is somehow more comforting. Unless a wind gust catches you. During my first traverse a burst blew the ball cap I was wearing right off my head. To testify how focused I was, at the moment I recognized that normally I would have reflexively clutched out to try and catch my hat before it tumbled into oblivion: but on the Knife Edge I accepted this loss without ever taking eyes off of my feet!
It is simply incredible how far you can see from here and Maine serves up a wonderful landscape to scan. Carved by glacial activity from the most recent Ice Age, looking towards the interior (the bowl created by numerous peaks) allows you to look down upon Chimney Pond, where cabins are available, though you have to hike several miles to reach them. You can also make out the Saddle Trail, the pathway followed on the return back to Roaring Brook, the campsite where we had our tents pitched (and which you can drive to). Peering outside the basin allows you to scan over numerous mountain peaks and spectacular lakes (including Moosehead Lake, Maine’s largest, sixty miles away as the crow flies).
And a mile later when you exit the slice of loose gravel you have been delicately treading for a mile is the summit of Mount Katahdin. This magnifies the sense of accomplishment because not only have you conquered a terrific hike, you have reached a landmark. Both times there was a celebration, though our toasts were made by clinking water bottles together rather than champagne glasses. Then you still have several hours of trekking to get back to your campsite, but this is all downhill and accomplished in the glow of a great achievement. Better yet, both times I descended the Saddle Trail I was blessed to spot a moose. When you live in Maine this is not exceptional, but still rare and a special treat.
Are you sold on this adventure? If so, a few more essentials. Mount Katahdin and the Knife Edge are located within Baxter State Park, an enormous expanse in northern Maine. It is not easy getting there because it is quite remote (closest airport with any regular service is Bangor, eighty miles away). Most roads within the park are unpaved and no drinking water is available (i.e., pack bottled water along or bring filters / purification tablets). No hotels: scoring a cabin at Chimney Pond is splendid, but they go rapidly and you need to apply well in advance. There are a multitude of campgrounds within the park but Roaring Brook is the most strategic location for tackling the Knife Edge. I was a Maine resident both times I stayed here and that bestowed privileges, so I cannot express how easy/difficult reservations are, though I doubt that is a major obstacle.
The most important point is to check in at the ranger station before setting off. I was fortunate the weather was good for both attempts. You do not want to be on the Knife Edge when it is rainy and/or the wind kicks up. The rangers are experts and you should heed their advice – if they close the trail please forget the attempt. Since 1926 forty-four people have died on the Knife Edge, leading one to wonder how many others suffered serious injury. The park is huge and offers a bounty of adventures, most of which may be enjoyed if fate nixes your attempt to savor this natural wonder. But I assure that if you do complete this stunning trek it will become one of your most cherished memories.