Backpacking the Sugarloaf Range … New Bushwhack and “Jail Trees” PART ONE

Last weekend, I knocked six peaks off my Maine 4,000 footer list in a two-day backpacking trip. It was quite an unconventional loop in the Sugarloaf range, tackling (in order) South Crocker, North Crocker, Reddington, Abraham, Spaulding, and Sugarloaf with a major bushwhack in the middle. Though you may consider this loop, I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for the faint of heart.

Our plan was to park on Caribou Valley Road (Google Maps calls it Caribou Pond Road, which confused us, but they are the same road, more to come about Google Maps confusion), and follow the Appalachian Trail to South Crocker and North Crocker. Then we would double back to South Crocker and venture down the known and popular bushwhack to Mt. Reddington (a bushwhack only peak). From Reddington, our real adventure would start – orienting ourselves with a compass towards the AT between the Spaulding Lean-To and the turn-off for Mt. Abraham, and bushwhacking what we expected to be three miles, dropping 900 feet before ascending 200. The bushwhack would cut a major corner, avoiding 9 additional miles and strenuous ups and downs to repeat mountains. We would hike Mt. Abraham and camp at the Spaulding Lean-To. The next day our goal would be to take out Spaulding and Sugarloaf, looping back to the car on Caribou Valley Road. For those unfamiliar with the trail networks by Carrabassett Valley, a map is below, explaining a rough sketch of the loop we planned. The dotted lines are bushwhacks and the solid lines are trails. I circled the parking and camping areas.

A metal bridge on Caribou Valley Road is unstable for cars and there is a gate blocking it, so hikers have to walk 0.5 miles down the road before they reach the intersection with the AT. This is marked by cairns, but is easy to miss, so keep an eye out! We began hiking on trail towards South Crocker, which immediately started off fairly steep.

We start hiking where the gate closes off the road
A quick view on the hike up before ducking back into tree cover

Trekking with an overnight pack made the hike more strenuous. By the time we reached the peak of South Crocker, we decided to take our packs off so we could dart over to North Crocker and back, packless, before continuing towards Reddington. We condensed all our food into the detachable brain of my pack and kept it with us, so that bears wouldn’t rip into our unattended packs. It was freeing to hike with wind rippling my shirt against my sweaty back and my hips and shoulders not weighed down. Light as feathers, we made good pace.

From South Crocker, we began our bushwhack to Reddington, a bushwhack-only peak. But in reality, it wasn’t much of a bushwhack, as many hikers have worn down this social trail and even cut back trees to help others find their way. It functioned like an under-maintained, sort of overgrown trail. I’ll tell you about a real bushwhack in a couple paragraphs.

Tackling the Reddington Bushwhack
The bushwhack came out onto what must be an old logging road for a short bit. It was a little confusing which way to travel, but both entrances are marked by cairns and logs signal which way to travel

As we were hiking up, we looked into the woods on both sides, trying to determine how close together the trees were and how difficult it would be to navigate through them without a worn path. At higher altitudes, the trees were definitely smaller, bushier, and scratchier, with less space between them. At lower altitudes, they seemed spread out for the most part, but every so often we would cross a big patch of bushy pines and rethink our ideas. We arrived at the peak of Reddington, happy to have risen to another 4,000 foot summit – the third of the day. The rain was spitting on us, and I pulled out my rain jacket to keep warm as we tried to determine whether or not we should attempt the bushwhack to the AT between Mt. Spaulding and Mt. Abraham.

Summit Selfie

My dad pulled out a compass and I held the map as we oriented ourselves in the right direction. We decided to go for it. Three miles of downhill was certainty better than 9 of repeating mountains – especially if we wanted to hike to Mt. Abraham on the same day. Rain jacket on to keep me safe from tree pee and scratches, I headed straight into the wilderness.

I remember my dad saying, “Let’s take a picture now while the trees are tight before they open up” Oh, if only we knew what was to come.

Ferns reaching my mid-shin, I weaved myself through the maze of trees and over fallen logs. We were dropping altitude very quickly, and my knees began to ache from absorbing the weight of my pack with each big step downhill. We checked GPS every so often, to make sure we were on track.

We were looking forward to dropping enough altitude for the trees to spread out and to reach a much less dense hardwood forest. But as we descended, the trees only seemed to grow thicker. My pack was getting stuck on branches and I had to shove my way through, using my weight to push the trees apart and take one step forward. Our pace was close to not moving, and we still had far to go. We aimed for small patches of green we could see through the trees, which were marshy moss areas and short spurts of relief from the trees.

Look how nice this tiny clearing is! These were like gifts from the forest, and I greatly appreciated them.. while they lasted. Look how tight the trees are surrounding this small oasis.
I had to push myself and my pack through these for what seemed like forever

I wish I could say the picture above was the worst of it, but the trees just got tighter, competing for space in the dense forest. If only we were in a different part of Maine where hardwood forests dominate. If only we were out west, where trees are far apart. Instead, we found “jail trees,” a term my dad invented to describe skinny pines with trunks 3-4 inches apart. (I didn’t even get to snap a picture of these because we were just trying to keep moving). These were simply impossible to get through, so we had to navigate around these growth areas. Our route became less and less direct as we tried following streams and green patches. But amidst the frustration, I admired the pure wilderness we were in, wondering if/when the last time a human foot touched the place mine touched. The moss was so spongy, growing layers on layers by streams, and my foot sunk six inches into the cloud. The riverbed mud picked up every animal track.

Bear poop?

After many hours, we popped out on a trail. Oh, the relief! No, it wasn’t the AT, which is the trail we wanted to get to, and no, it wasn’t on the map, but it was a trail nonetheless and heading in vaguely the same direction we wanted to head in.

Can you feel my relief radiating through this photo?

The trail seemed to fade in and out, with tall grass looming over us in some sections. We banged our poles together and yelled “Hey, bear” when the grass was over our heads and too thick for us to see on either side. If we alert them we are coming, we won’t startle them. We theorized this trail was used for logging ages ago. We finally dumped out on Caribou Pond Road, the same road we parked on, but this time we were much, much farther up the road and into the mountains. It was more of a beaten up and overgrown trail than a road.

Me hiking on Caribou Pond Road. I’m standing up straight and the grass is chest-high.
Moose tracks. This made me hungry for ice cream.

I was yearning to see a moose on our travels. I have seen several moose from the car, one canoeing, and have seen three when hiking. (2 were on Mt. Moosilauke!) I looked left and right, especially in marshy areas, but the moose did not want to show themselves that day. I saw many tracks and lots of moose poop, though.

Using our Topographic trail map, compass and Google Maps from the phone we tried to minimize the amount of bushwhacking we would have to do and followed the overgrown road to a point where it was closest to the AT trail. Interestingly we found, Google Maps is highly inaccurate. The road fell into trees where the map said it continued. We bushwhacked uphill towards the AT, trying to get back on the ridge. We thought we were close, but our GPS coordinates on Maps passed where it says the AT trail ran. Google Maps useless, we were relying on the Topomap and direction taken off our compass. Even though we were confident that we were heading in the right direction to intersect the AT, the further we went without finding the AT, the more we second guessed our direction. We hiked onward, anyway. Our backup plan would be to turn around and camp on the road if we could not find our way to the AT and Spaulding Lean To. The hardest sections were what we called the storm areas. Trees were knocked down and laid on top of each other. Especially with a pack, climbing over and ducking under these trees was difficult. I was hot, but taking off my rain jacket meant allowing my arms to be exposed and cut by branches. My senior pictures were taken the week after this hike, and I had plenty of scabs and cuts over my arms and legs. I guess I should have planned the timing differently, but at least the pictures tell a story!

At last, we came out to a trail. We celebrated – I even jumped up and down with my pack on! Finally, the AT. We had made it, after a very very difficult adventure. Now, it was just a short hike to the campsite. Maybe we would even go hike Mt. Abraham before nightfall! We hiked, and I looked eagerly for a white trail blaze to confirm we were on the AT. All of a sudden, the trail seemed to stop. It was wildly overgrown and barely a trail. Yellow blazes were irregularly painted on trees and white signs said “US Border, Appalachian Trail.” We even saw metal markers in the ground labeled Appalachian Trail. Where were we? This half cut trail clearly wasn’t the AT, and I was so disappointed. My emotions were just so high and they came crashing down. Still confused, we looked to use modern technology to try to coordinate our location to our Topomap. Unforutnately my AllTrails app did not load, there was no cell coverage, and as mentioned earlier Google Maps was just incorrect. Since the Yellow trail was headed towards Spaulding camp site and it was a partial trail (much better than our bushwack) we decided to stay on the yellow trail anyways. For those who watch Stranger Things, it felt like the AT in the Upside Down. My daydreams on the trek revolved around being stuck in hiker Upside Down and searching for the sole portal that would save us, while battling bears that looked like demogorgons. We continued to battle through many more storm areas and though we were following yellow blazes, it still felt like a bushwhack.

Finally, finally, finally the yellow trail we had been following brushed close enough to the AT allowing us to find the actual trail. No joke. I saw white blazes. Real white blazes. I couldn’t believe my eyes. We made it. The bushwhack was supposed to be 3 miles, but my recording on AllTrails said we hiked 6.1 miles, double our intended distance, thanks to trying to get around the jail trees, following the road, which was not direct on our path, and hiking the yellow trail for a long time. But, it was just a short push to the campsite… unfortunately, we didn’t know exactly where we were on the AT. Was the Lean-To to the left or the right of us? Google Maps said the Lean-To was to our left, so we went left and took off on the trail we thought was towards the Lean-To.

I still don’t know what the yellow trail was and what the AT US Border signs meant, we guessed it to catch thru hikers who get lost when hiking the AT, since many have died in Maine when they lost the trail. (If you (the reader) know the purpose of the yellow trail markers off the AT please add details in the comments). At the end of the days hike and looking at my recorded route, I realized that we hiked alongside the AT on the yellow border trail for a good distance. If we had just hiked up, a little bit, instead of following the yellow trail, we would have made it to the AT much much sooner. If only we knew.

We hiked uphill on the AT for a long time, and felt like we were hiking all the way up to Mt. Spaulding. My stomach dropped when our coordinates passed the spot marked Spaulding Lean To on the GPS. Where was it? Where were we, really?

To Be Continued… Part Two will be released in a few days, continuing the story of my backpacking trip and including trail reports on Mt. Abraham, Spaulding, and Sugarloaf. Follow my blog to receive an email notification when I release Part 2!

2 thoughts on “Backpacking the Sugarloaf Range … New Bushwhack and “Jail Trees” PART ONE

  1. Great hike and story. Glad Dad was along!
    I’ve been in like circumstances in Theodore Roosevelt NP in ND, in the Bob Marshal Wilderness in Mont., and in the Chugach Forest north of Anchorage, hiking solo in each location, talking to the bears (grizzly in AK and Mont.), on and off trails, bushwacking, etc. In all cases I eventually reached my destination. I did have a gps/personal locator/satellite device to call in the rescue forces if needed, but luckily didn’t need to use it. It’s all good experience, but can get mind numbing at times. Friends did know the general areas I was hiking in as well, that’s always a good idea. Oh, also when hiking between mountains along the Pecos River in NM. You’ll have to admt, it’s fun to get off the beaten path… just be careful. I also carried bear spray and a large caliber handgun as backup- just in case! You never know what you’ll run into in the wilderness! Hike On!

    Liked by 1 person

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