Maine's Bigelow Preserve

Follow the Appalachian Trail to new heights in the rugged New England high country.
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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.

Contact Information:

Maine Bureau of Public Lands

25 Main St.

Box 327

Farmington, ME 04938

207/778-4111

Maine Appalachian Trail Club

c/o Philip Pepin, Corresponding Secretary

Box 536

Stratton, ME 04982-0536

Location:

Bigelow is in western Maine, 125 miles north of Portland and 40 miles north of Farmington. Five miles away via Hwy. 27, Stratton provides motels and restaurants.

Getting There:

For more information on the surrounding area, contact:

Sugarloaf Area Chamber of Commerce

RR 1, Box 2151

Kingfield, ME 04947

207/235-2500.

From Portland take I-95 north to Augusta. Turn onto ME 27 north and follow that through Farmington to Carrabassett. Bigelow Preserve is accessible from Carrabassett Valley or farther north at Stratton.

Seasonal Information:

Travelers stream to Bigelow year-round, but spring sees the least usage. Since elevations range from 1,000 to 4,000 feet, temperatures and weather conditions vary, but sub-zero is the rule in winter.

Wildlife:

The flora isn't the only reward for hikers. Fauna include deer, bears, squirrels, beavers, and coyotes, plus more than 60 species of birds ranging from American woodcocks to black-capped chickadees to gray jays to hairy woodpeckers. But the most commanding creature, lumbering through the area like a small-town mayor at the county fair, is the moose.

Insects:

For more information contact the park office.

Plant Life:

While traveling the roller coaster routes through the area, you'll meander through forests of maple, birch, poplar, spruce, and fir trees. At higher elevations swatches of delicate alpine flowers ~ goldenrod, bilberry, sweetgrass, and mountain sandwort ~ decorate the trailside.

Facilities:

There are a number of camping areas, including lean-tos at Piazza Rock, Poplar Ridge, Spaulding Mountain, Horns Pond, Bigelow Col, and Little Bigelow, as well as campsites at Crocker Cirque and Safford Notch. Facilities at these sites typically include a lean-to or tent platform, fire ring, and pit toilet. But visitors should bring their own tents, since lean-tos are hard to come by because of the number of campers.

Tenting is available free of charge at the Round Barn campsites on the shore of Flagstaff Lake. These sites are accessible by water or by a short trail originating from the vehicle parking lot. They have fire rings and pit toilets.

From the Round Barn parking area the trail leads easterly along the shore to a half dozen secluded single party campsites. To the west is a large group site that can accommodate up to 30 people.

A nearby day-use area on the shore of Flagstaff Lake offers swimming and picnicking. A hand-carry boat or canoe may be launched from the beach.

A spacious lodge, located near the Round Barn Campsites, is kept open on winter weekends as a warming stopover for skiers and snowmobilers.

Parking:

Vehicles may be parked along the roads at the trailheads on the preserve. Please park as close to the edge of the road and as far out of the travel lane as possible.

Permits:

You'll need a permit from the Maine Forest Service (207/287-2275) to build a campfire at primitive, non-authorized campsites. Call ahead to locate authorized sites (generally car-camping sites). In a move toward more resource protection, some sites that formerly allowed campfires (Horns Pond and Bigelow Col) will soon be declared non-fire sites.

Policies:

  • Snowmobilers must stay on designated trails.
  • Limit your camping stay to 14 days in any 45-day period.
  • Keep pets on a leash while at campsites.

Hazards:

Although bears inhabit Bigelow, preserve officials say visitors should not have any problems as long as they take care to protect their food. ~ Avoid established game trails that could be well-used moose routes to favorite watering holes.

Leave No Trace:

Camp in established areas at least 200 feet from trails and water sources. ~ And, most importantly, remember the cumulative impact of actions; ignorance and lack of respect for the environment are compounded by the numbers of visitors to Bigelow.

All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps:

"The Map and Guide to the Appalachian Trail in Maine" is available for $17.50 (members), $23 (non-members) from:

Maine Appalachian Trail Club

Box 283

Augusta, ME 04330.

AT Trail Club membership is $10.

USGS 15-minute series maps include "Phillips and Rangley," "Kingfield and Phillips," and "Stratton and Little Bigelow" quadrangles. Maps are available from local sporting goods stores or:

Maine Geological Survey

State House Station #22

Augusta, ME 04333.

Other Trip Options:

Sugarloaf is just across the valley with ski hill trails.