Steep, tall, and surrounded by forests, Katahdin in Baxter State Park in Maine is an iconic feature of the Appalachian Trail for tens of thousands of aspiring thru-hikers. It’s the northern terminus of the trail, and the park encompasses the final 14 miles of the trail. It sees a lot of foot traffic, and Baxter has responded in the past by implementing caps on the number of AT thru- and section hikers—12—who are allowed to summit Katahdin as a group, at one time. It's a carefully managed park, and it's about to become even more so.
Because of movies like A Walk in the Woods and Wild, as well as increasing numbers of well-known athletes hiking and running the AT, like ultrarunner Scott Jurek, the number of thru- and section hikers is growing fast, and the impact on Katahdin, Baxter, and its other users is being effected, sometimes negatively. According to Tenny Webster, a trail information specialist at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 2016 could be a banner year in terms of numbers of people summiting Katahdin.
“We’re waiting to see what happens this year,” Webster says. “We typically see about 10 percent growth in the number of thru- and section hikers who summit Katahdin each year. But this year may be an anomaly. We’re potentially looking at even greater numbers.”
So what’s a state park to do?
For starters, they’ll begin implementing a registration system for thru-hikers this year.
According to Baxter State Park director Jensen Bissell, the number of daily visitors to Katahdin is intentionally limited by the number of parking spaces available in three parking lots that service the trailheads to the mountain at Roaring Brook, Katahdin Stream, and near Abol Bridge. On busy weekends, without a parking permit, day users have to hike elsewhere in the park, he says. Appalachian Trail thru-hikers, however, have so far only been limited by availability of campsites.
“There are times when the long-distance hiker facility—[a campsite called] the Birches—is full and hikers have to find space in the campground,” Bissell says. But that happens infrequently. The bigger issue, he says, is that the park never planned for AT thru-hikers, let alone the popularity of Katahdin during peak tourist season, from July through October 15. “When I started working with the park 18 years ago, there were a few hundred thru-hikers who came over the course of the summer,” Bissell says. “Now those numbers are surpassing 2,000. We now have to begin to consider what we think would be consistent, equitable, and fair management for thru-hikers and other user groups.”
Under the park's new registration system, thru-hikers will be required to get a permit card before they enter the park. Details of where and when hikers can get those permits are still being worked out, but according to Bissell, hikers should be able to register at park headquarters, at Togue Pond, or with a park trail steward at Abol Bridge (check the park's Facebook page or website for updates on the registration process). Eventually, depending on growth and whether or not thru-hikers adhere to the park’s rules, officials may even start capping the number of thru-hikers who enter the park on a given day.
"We’re asking people to recognize they need to help us try to protect this mountain now so that thru hikers can have the same experience in 50 years that they have now," Bissell says. "I’m pretty sure if we start doubling the use of Katahdin, it won’t be the same.”
Here are a few things long-distance hikers on the Appalachian Trail can do to ensure future access to Baxter State Park:
- Register with the Park. Visit the Park’s Facebook page or website for updates on the registration process. They will be announcing details soon (this March).
- Call Baxter State Park in advance, as soon as you know the approximate date you will arrive and reserve a campground. You don’t need reservations for The Birches site at Katahdin Stream Campground, but it is first come, first served, and only 12 are allowed.
- Do not enter the Park in groups larger than 12 people, period.
- If campsites are unavailable, please find an alternative place to camp for the night outside of the Park.
- Consider alternative itineraries other than starting at Springer Mountain and hiking north.
- Respect the Park’s rules (i.e. do not bring alcohol or large film crews to the summit of Katahdin).
- Adhere to Leave No Trace (LNT) guidelines and pack out all the stuff you’re packing in.