What’s the most spectacular mountain hike in Maine? I suspect most people believe Mount Katahdin claims that distinction. In my opinion, a close second is the peaks of Tumbledown and Little Jackson Mountains.
While the ragged, alpine summits and sheer cliffs of Tumbledown dominate the skyline northwest of Webb Lake near Weld, nearby taller more remote Little Jackson is substantially hidden from view. Tumbledown is one of Maine’s most well-known and popular mountain hikes. Given its relative anonymity, Little Jackson is much less frequently climbed usually the destination of more seasoned hikers. Combining the two imposing mountains into one expedition is a rare exceptional endeavor.
Cool brisk days, radiant autumn colors and the absence of black flies make fall prime time for an ascent of Little Jackson. Recently, two retired friends agreed to join me on a proposed Penobscot Paddle and Chowder Society club hike. Don’t be misled by the name, we do much more than paddle while devouring copious amounts of delicious chowder. The club has a year round trip schedule that includes whitewater and flat water paddling, canoe trips, sea kayaking, biking, skiing, hiking and winter mountaineering. We love virtually all things outdoors.
Although John and Brent are both retired, over 20 years separate them. John is a youthful 79 while Brent a recent retiree. Consider me the difficult middle child in this elderly triad. Their ages notwithstanding, both are very strong hikers so I anticipated a strenuous workout. Having recently received another cortisone injection for my arthritic hips, I was at least theoretically prepared for the challenge. If you’re a regular reader of my column, you know whining is a recurrent theme to be ignored.
The three of us met in front of an ancient cemetery on the gravel Byron Road a few miles west of Weld early on a chilly, sunny morning. Just beyond the cemetery, the rough poorly maintained Morgan Road turns right and travels for about a mile to Little Jackson Trailhead, also the start of Tumbledown Mountain Parker Ridge Trail.
Based on reports I’ve read, the distance to the summit is in dispute. We didn’t carry a GPS so the best I can do is add to the confusion. The rocky trail ascends steadily in a densely wooded environment with several brook crossings for what I calculate to be about 2.5 miles before scaling a boulder-strewn pitch and arriving on exposed ledges. The remaining distance approximating one mile to the summit is essentially above tree-line and glorious.
A forecast predicting light breezes was badly flawed. Instead, cold gusty winds blew out of the northwest necessitating mittens, parkas and stocking caps. Arriving at the blustery mountain top, we joined others seeking shelter in a stone windbreak built by hikers past.
After some discussion, the consensus was to descend an unofficial but fairly obvious trail that drops dramatically off the southwest slope of Little Jackson to Tumbledown Pond. An immediate benefit of the decision was protection from the wind. Views of the pond and the three Tumbledown peaks below were phenomenal.
Approaching the remarkably picturesque mountain tarn, we turned right onto another unofficial trail marked by cairns that crosses barren infrequently climbed North Peak; at 3,090 feet the highpoint on Tumbledown. While sometimes difficult to follow, the path continued down into a thick conifer forest and then abruptly up rugged West Peak.
Emblematic of the entire day, views were extraordinary. Numerous hikers could be observed negotiating the cliffs of our next objective, East Peak. Passing Loop Trail junction, two large parties joined us. Unlike Little Jackson and North Peak, the remainder of our journey was teeming with alpine travelers. We shared the precipitous scramble up East Peak with numerous enthusiastic trekkers. From the bald rounded crest, more incredible views of Tumbledown Pond along with Webb Pond and Mount Blue in the east were savored.
Distinctive Tumbledown Pond warrants an expression of concern. The exceptionally majestic beauty of the location attracts large numbers of hikers and some overnight campers. Dog and human waste are a sanitation problem and garbage sometimes accumulates. If visitors don’t learn to exercise self-discipline, draconian rules and regulations will undoubtedly follow diminishing a truly outstanding wilderness experience.
Departing the pond, we finished our trek navigating over impressive Parker Ridge completing a unique unplanned circuitous loop. Our day was most assuredly one of Maine’s most exceptional mountain excursions; arguably second best.
What’s the verdict on the hips? I see more whining in my future.
Author of “The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery” and “Mountains for Mortals – New England,” Ron Chase resides in Topsham. Visit his website at www.ronchaseoutdoors.com or he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.