Climbing Katahdin in the clouds and fog provides a different kind of enjoyment

By Aislinn Sarnacki

We were hiking through a cloud on Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain. All around, a swirling wall of white blocked out the mountain — and the rest of the world. 

Picking our way over jagged, lichen-encrusted rocks, we may as well have been on another planet.

Water filled the air, little droplets that collected on every inch of us, soaking our backpacks and coating our eyelashes. The only sound was the wind whipping the fabric of our waterproof jackets.

It was a Saturday in September, a popular time for hiking the famous Katahdin. But due to the less-than-ideal weather, the mountain was fairly quiet. 

Photo courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki
HUNT TRAIL – Courtney Tague hikes down Hunt Trail on Katahdin on Sept. 9 in Baxter State Park.

Every once in a while, a hiker would emerge from the mist and lumber past, headed in the opposite direction. We’d exchange soggy smiles and sometimes laughter, elated by the alienness of our harsh surroundings.

When the forecast calls for clouds, people often cancel their hiking plans, and I understand why. One of the greatest rewards of hiking is enjoying a view from an open ledge or ridge. Clouds can block that view. But next time you consider canceling your outdoor adventure due to a gloomy weather report, I think you should reconsider.

Often, the weather can appear more uninviting if you’re staring at it through a window than if you’re outdoors. Out in the fresh air, as the trees shelter you from the drizzle, the day seems much more beautiful. In fact, I find that colors in nature are more vibrant on rainy days.

If you think a mountaintop view is going to be blocked by clouds, I suggest hiking a mountain that you’ve already hiked. That way, you won’t be so disappointed if the skies don’t clear. You’ve already enjoyed the vista before.

Such was the case on Katahdin recently. If it had been my first time hiking the mountain, I don’t think I could have helped being bummed about missing the spectacular views at the top. 

Photo courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki
MOUNTAINS REVEALED — The afternoon clouds lift to reveal the mountains of Baxter State Park as seen from the Hunt Trail on Katahdin.

But since I’d seen it plenty of times before, I didn’t feel that I was missing out. In fact, I was happy to experience the mountain while it was being a bit “moody.” I almost didn’t recognize it.

Fortunately, my hiking companions for the day, Jeff and Courtney, had also already climbed Katahdin and enjoyed open views. They, too, were able to be optimistic about the gloomy weather. And that upbeat attitude was important because the hike wasn’t without its challenges.

Several hiking trails climb Katahdin. We selected the Hunt Trail, which is also the northernmost stretch of the Appalachian Trail. Marked with white blazes, the pathway travels over massive boulders and along a narrow, steep ridge to reach the mountain’s alpine Tableland at just under four miles. From there, it’s just over a mile to the summit, Baxter Peak. Out and back, the hike is 10.4 miles.

The forecast called for clouds with the chance of rain showers, so we packed waterproof clothing and layers. And we were mentally prepared to turn around if the weather became too temperamental. None of us wanted to be stuck atop that mountain in a storm.

When we began our hike at around 7 a.m., the sky was hazy. And as the morning wore on, clouds gathered overhead. It sprinkled on us a few times, and eventually, we entered a cloud as we navigated over and around boulders high on the mountain.

Walking inside a cloud, or fog, is a damp experience. We slowly became wetter and wetter. Water dripped off our noses and saturated our hair. 

This could have been dangerous if we hadn’t been prepared with rain jackets and extra clothing. Water — whether it’s from rain, fog or falling in a lake — can quickly cool down your body temperature and put you at risk of hypothermia.

On the Tableland, steady winds added to the challenge, but we kept moving. At the summit, we huddled behind hunks of granite with about a dozen other hikers to take a break and refuel on snacks. 

While posing for a photo at the summit sign, I had to hold the brim of my hat so the wind wouldn’t blow it off my head and off the mountain.

Among those hiking Katahdin that day, there was a special comradery that I don’t necessarily see when the sun’s out. I think there was an unspoken understanding that we were out there together, enjoying the mountain despite the lack of views. We were all working hard to keep our glass half full, because the alternative was sulking in the mist.

With the visibility so low, we paid closer attention to the landscape at our feet than I think we normally would have. As a result, I spotted some ripe wild blueberries and ate a few. I photographed intricate spider webs, the silk dotted with beads of water. 

And the three of us paused a few times to inspect the way wind, water and the boots of hikers have eroded some of the granite boulders along the ridge.

On our way down the mountain, holes began opening up in the clouds, revealing glimpses of the forest and ponds below. Then, all of the sudden, the clouds lifted to reveal a chain of nearby mountains: the Owl, Barren, OJI, Doubletop. 

While we were already happy with our hike in the clouds, I have to say, that final view did make us smile.

Get the Rest of the Story

Thank you for reading your 4 free articles this month. To continue reading, and support local, rural journalism, please subscribe.