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Follow the Appalachian Trail to new heights in the rugged New England high country.
Little-Known Fact: Bigelow Preserve was created as a grass roots effort against a Bigelow Range ski resort.
High on the polished rock of Saddleback Mountain, the air carries the fragrance of flowers. It's a sunny day with only a few clouds rolling across the sky like tumbling gymnasts. The green canopy of trees stretches down across the lowlands, and to the northwest cobalt blue Rangley Lake sparkles in the sunlight.
Sitting here taking in all this scenery, it's hard to imagine a better lookout in the Northeast. But Saddleback is just the beginning of an impressive chain of 10 mountain peaks, five of them topping out at more than 4,000 feet, and all strung together by the Appalachian Trail. Located in western Maine, this section of the famous East Coast trail travels more than 50 miles northeast from the Saddleback Range to the Bigelow Range, and features some of the most rugged, varied hiking in New England. Only the Presidentials in New Hampshire have greater vertical gain.
All of the mountains along this trail have distinctive characteristics. First, there's Saddleback with its three summits that rise above treeline, then sharply plummet into saddles. Further along, the rocky ridge of Mt. Abraham ascends to 4,049 feet, giving rise to one of largest alpine zones in the state.
Tainted somewhat by a communications tower and ski development, pyramid-shaped Sugarloaf offers mind-spinning vistas that include ponds and forests, and dark silhouettes of the surrounding mountains. And finally, the snow white coppice of birch trees, scenic beaver ponds, and a glacially scoured cirque of the North and South peaks testify to the splendor of Crocker Mountain.
Descending Crocker Mountain, the Appalachian Trail crosses into the Bigelow State Preserve and heads up Bigelow Mountain. The 35,000-acre preserve, established in 1976 by referendum to prevent development of a ski resort, includes scenic tarns, terrific views of Flagstaff Lake, and two pairs of symmetrical peaks.
But you don't have to stay on the AT to enjoy the Saddleback-Bigelow areas of Maine. Side trails make it easy to carve this vast area into smaller, weekend-size hikes. Your options range from dayhikes to longer backpacking trips of more than 40 miles. The choice hinges largely on your experience and determination.
Shorter backpacking options include traversing sections of the 17-mile Bigelow Range, a 20-mile round-trip over Saddleback to Poplar Ridge and back, or a 30-mile hike from Saddleback to Sugarloaf over Crocker Mountain. For those with a bit more time, there's the 50-mile section beginning at Saddleback and continuing all the way through the Bigelow Preserve to the Long Falls Dam Road on the shore of Flagstaff Lake.
As I hike in the forest of the Bigelow Preserve, butterflies dance in the air like flying ballerinas, a chorus of birds sings out, and squirrels chatter away like backyard fence gossips. It is a cheery little Dr. Doolittle moment. Then suddenly, in the dim light of the forest, I glimpse a snarling animal charging toward me. I scream not once but twice, expecting the worst. A bobcat? A bear?
It is a partridge.
I had imagined myself an intrepid adventurer who was fearful of nothing, so it's humbling to suddenly discover that I'm apparently frightened of small birds. Most likely protecting its young, the female partridge continues defensive maneuvers by dragging her wing on the ground as if it were broken. I move on quickly so she can return to her family. I hike through the forest on the way up to the high mountain peaks, occasionally pausing to let my heart return to its normal rhythm. The best time to climb these mountains is in the spring and the fall, when you are less likely to meet other hikers. But if you head into the hills in spring, keep this in mind: Beware the partridge.