Falling for Tumbledown

In my opinion, Tumbledown Mountain in western Maine is the most spectacular moderate mountain hike in New England. That was the primary reason for its inclusion in my mountain guidebook, Mountains for Mortals – New England. The goal of Mountains for Mortals was to provide detailed guidance on the easiest trails to the thirty most unique and scenic summits in New England. Parker Ridge Trail, the least challenging route to Tumbledown, met that criterion.

Another reason for incorporating Tumbledown in the book is that it is one of my favorite mountain hikes. I try to return each fall. Located a few miles northwest of Weld, its three craggy, barren alpine peaks dominate the landscape. At an elevation of 3,088 feet, it is not exactly lofty but a hike to the summit of East and West Peaks is fairly difficult. Climbers will encounter some hand-over-hand rock scrambling just before emerging above tree line and again when scaling the peaks.

Once on Parker Ridge, the remainder of the ascent is in an extensive alpine zone with significant exposure to the elements. Weather is an important consideration on Tumbledown as it is often cold and windy. Fall can bring snow, sleet and freezing rainstorms. One of the advantages of semi-retirement is greater flexibility to choose the best weather for outdoor adventures. Recently, I identified what appeared to be a perfect autumn day for a Tumbledown attempt. A weekday, I was able to recruit another retired friend for the excursion.

We met at an old cemetery on the Byron Notch Road near Morgan Road. Land ownership issues have threatened access to Tumbledown in the past. In 2000, the Tumbledown Conservation Alliance (TCA) organized to protect mountains in the Weld area. Galvanized by TCA, a coalition of organizations, local groups, individuals and the State of Maine have made substantial progress. Now, the Tumbledown summit area and southern slopes where most of the trails are located are secured for hikers.

Leading to trailheads for Parker Ridge and Little Jackson Mountain, Morgan Road is privately owned. Several years ago, the rutted rocky dirt road was temporarily blocked but is now open. After a rough one mile drive, we arrived at a small parking area adjacent to the trailhead.

Wary of extreme weather at higher elevations, we packed for winter conditions carrying parkas, mitts, additional warm clothes, micro spikes and headlights. Over forty years of fall hiking have taught me that a few safety precautions can make the difference between a great day on the mountain and a nightmarish ordeal. I’m too old for ordeals.

Initially, we had effortless hiking on a modest gradient passing Little Jackson Mountain Trail on our right followed by a connector path with Brook Trail on the left. Shortly after, a succession of precipitous ledges and rock slides were encountered. Omnipresent piles of talus at the foot of all south side approaches are the likely source of the name Tumbledown.

After some rock clambering, we advanced above tree line and negotiated over huge granite boulders on Parker Ridge. Gazing back, breathtaking views of Webb Lake and surrounding mountains were our reward. Proceeding over the ridge, we had our first glimpse of the stunning tarn called Tumbledown Pond. Immersed in alpine beauty, the pond is surrounded by Little Jackson Mountain and the peaks of Tumbledown. Initially assuming it had a volcanic origin, I was wrong…. again. My research indicates the pond was created by the gouging and plucking action of glaciers. Sounds more like cleaning a turkey than forming a crater. Regardless, the pond is one of the most extraordinary locations in Maine.

Descending towards the picturesque tarn, the upper terminus of Brook Trail merged. After continuing past the pond, we persevered up the exposed immutable face of East Peak. Fortuitously, winds were light and views from the summit phenomenal. Dropping abruptly west and joining the Loop Trail in a narrow col between East and West Peaks, we met a group of hikers. Announcing that the shaded chimney section of the Loop Trail was ice covered and treacherous, they had resolved to go down Brook Trail and walk Byron Notch Road back to their vehicles to avoid a hazardous return.

After a short steep climb, the summit of West Peak was achieved. Relaxing on south facing cliffs, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch with marvelous panoramic vistas. Knowing it was ice free, a return via Parker Ridge Trail was our decision which entailed again crossing East Peak and revisiting Tumbledown Pond. Following another glorious traverse of Parker Ridge, the five mile expedition was accomplished.

Two days later, Tumbledown received over a foot of snow! Seems the two ancient mountaineers had shrewdly chosen the right day to hike. Age begets wisdom, sometimes.

Ron Chase

About Ron Chase

At age 70, Ron Chase is old. But, he’s not under the grass…yet. Retired from a career with the Internal Revenue Service, he has embarked on a new life as a freelance writer and tax consultant. Don’t be misled; in reality, he works a little and plays a lot. When not busy kayaking, canoeing, biking, mountain climbing and skiing, he sometimes finds time to write and assist his tax clients. A lifelong Mainer now living in Topsham, he is the recent author of The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery, a biography of Vietnam War hero and bank robber Bernard Patterson.