Learn How to Climb Mount Kahtadin, Maine's Highest Mountain

Climbing Facts About Mount Katahdin

Baxter State Park, Maine-2, Mount Katahdin
A guide to climbing Mount Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine. Tom Narwid / Getty Images

Mount Katahdin is the highest mountain in Maine, the highest point in Baxter State Park, and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Katahdin is the 22nd highest state high point. Kahtadin is also a sacred mountain to Native Americans in New England including the Penobscot Indians.

  • Elevation: 5,270 feet (1,606 meters)
  • Prominence: 4,288 feet (1,307 meters) Most prominent mountain in Maine
  • Location: Appalachian Mountains; Baxter State Park; Piscataquis County; Maine.
  • Coordinates: 45.9043556° N / 68.921275° W
  • First Ascent: First recorded ascent by Charles Turner Jr. and friends on August 13, 1804.

Katahdin’s Five Peaks

Mount Katahdin is a huge horseshoe-shaped mountain with five separate peaks—Howe Peak (two summits—4,612-foot North Howe and 4,734-foot South Howe), 4,751-foot Hamlin Peak, 5,267-foot Baxter Peak (highest point), South Peak, and 4,912-foot Pamola Peak. The open end of the horseshoe faces northeast. Timberline on Mount Katahdin is at roughly 3,500 to 3,800 feet.

Mount Katahdin Geology

Katahdin is a laccolith, an underground magma intrusion, that formed over 400 million years ago in the Acadian orogeny. The mountain is formed of various kinds of rocks, including Katahdin granite, basalt, rhyolite, and sedimentary rock. The mountain was shaped and sculpted by glaciers, some as recent as 15,000 years ago, carving immense cirques and leaving behind eskers and moraines.

Mount Katahdin’s Name

The name Katahdin, meaning “The Greatest Mountain,” was given by the Penobscot Indians, part of the Wabanaki Nations, which also include the Passamaquoddy Nation, the Abenaki Nation, the Micmac Nation, and the Maliseet Nation. The name was spelled Catahrdin by Charles Turner, who made the first recorded ascent, and Ktaadn by naturalist Henry David Thoreau.

Baxter State Park

Mount Katahdin is the centerpiece of 235,000-acre Baxter State Park, the fourth largest state-owned park in the US and the largest park in New England. The area was preserved through the efforts of Percival Baxter, two-time governor of Maine and mayor of Portland, Maine. Baxter lobbied the Maine legislature to protect the area from logging, so 90,000 acres were set aside. That wasn’t enough so Baxter began acquiring acreage bit by bit from 1931 to 1962, buying it from the lumber companies and then deeding it to the state to create a nature preserve to be kept in a “natural, wild state.”

1804: First Recorded Ascent

The first recorded and possibly first non-Native American ascent of Mount Katahdin was a party of ten, including two Indian guides, led by Charles Turner Jr. (1760-1839) on August 13, 1804.

Turner described the ascent: “On Monday, August 13, 1804, at 8 o’clock A.M. we left our canoes at the head of boat waters, in a small clear stream of spring water, which came in different rivulets from the mountain, the principal of which…issued from a large gully near the top of the mountain. At 5 o'clock, P.M. we reached the summit of the mountain.”

Turner also described some bad water: “The day was very calm and sultry, and our toil so great, that when we had found several springs of very clear cold water, our company were inclined to drink of them too freely. Some felt the ill effects immediately, and others were taken to vomiting in the course of the night following…. Though to us, in our thirsty and fatigued condition, the pure spring brought to our minds the fabled Nectar of the Poets.”

1846: Thoreau Climbs Katahdin

In early September 1846, the great 19th-century nature writer Henry David Thoreau climbed Mount Katahdin, later writing a chapter about his ascent in the book Maine Woods. Leaving his home in Concord, Massachusetts on the last day of August, Thoreau traveled by train and then steamship to Bangor, Maine with four companions to begin his adventure. On September 5, the men paddled up the West Branch of the Penobscot River toward the great mountain. The next day the party headed up Abol Stream and camped.

The following day, September 7, he left his friends to solo the mountain. Thoreau climbed past South Peak to a wide grassy ridge between it and the main summit. Clouds obscured everything, parting every so often to reveal rocky crags and abrupt drop-offs. He noted that the mountain was "...vast, Titanic, and such as man never inhabits. Some part of the beholder, even some vital part, seems to escape through the loose grating of his ribs as he ascends." Thoreau sat up there in the “cloud-factory” waiting for some clearing so he could jog over to the highest summit but it never came. Instead, he was “compelled to descend” to his companions so they could hike back to the river.

Is Katahdin the First Place the Rising Sun Hits?

It is commonly thought that Mount Katahdin is the first place in the United States that the sun strikes as it rises every morning. This is, however, a myth since the sunlight first reaches three other parts of Maine, depending on the season. From March 7 to March 24, the sunrise occurs on West Quoddy Head at Lubec, Maine. From March 25 to September 18, the sunrise occurs on Mars Hill, Maine. From September 19 to October 6, the sunrise returns to West Quoddy Head in northern Maine. From October 7 to March 6, the sunrise occurs on Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park in eastern Maine.

The Legend of Pamola

Mount Katahdin, according to Penobscot legend, is inhabited by Pamola, a wandering bird spirit who is the thunder god, maker of cold weather, and protector of the mountain. Pamola, with the body of a man, head of a moose, and wings and feet of an eagle, roams about the mountain. Humans who ventured onto the mountain were often killed so climbing the mountain was strictly taboo. Early Penobscot guides refused to venture farther than the base of Katahdin and were usually surprised when the climbing party returned alive and well. Another legend describes Panola’s home inside the mountain as a comfortable wigwam that is well furnished for his wife and children.

The Knife Edge

The Knife Edge, a sharp and rocky ridge connecting Baxter Peak and Pamola Peak, is one of Mount Katahdin’s most famous features. The ridge, often traversed by climbing parties, is about one-third mile long, only a few feet wide, and very exposed. Several climbers have died after falling off the ridge. It is closed during high winds. The usual route to the Knife Edge climbs from Roaring Brook Campground on the east side of Katahdin up the Helon Taylor Trail for 4.3 miles to the summit. The trail climbs Pamola Peak and crosses the airy Knife Edge to the high point.

Ships Named After Kahtadin

The United States Navy has named two ships the USS Katahdin. The first was a gunboat built in 1861 and used during the Civil War. The second was an ironclad semi-submersible ram that served from 1897 to 1909. The ship, a precursor of submarines, served as harbor defense in the Spanish-American War. A steamboat owned and operated by the Moosehead Marine Museum on Moosehead Lake is also named Katahdin.

Katahdin Potato

The Katahdin potato, named after the mountain, has been baked, roasted, and mashed in New England since 1932. This Maine potato is moist, white-fleshed, has a thin skin, and is drought-resistant.