Among Maine’s many mountains, the word “little” gets thrown around a lot, and it can be a bit misleading. Little Spencer, Little Kineo, Little Moose, Little Bigelow — they’re all sizable mountains by New England standards. And Little Kineo is actually taller than Kineo, for crying out loud.
So when I recently traveled to hike Little Bigelow Mountain, which rises 3,070 feet above sea level, I didn’t let the word “little” lull me into the false impression that the hike would be easy. After all, 3,000 feet is pretty big for a Maine mountain.
Out in the state’s western wilderness, Little Bigelow is the sixth and easternmost prominent peak in the Bigelow Mountain Range. Years ago, I visited the range to hike to its highest peak, Avery, at 4,046 feet. That night, I tented out just below the peak, then rose in the morning to trek over to West Peak and the Horns. But I didn’t even consider visiting Little Bigelow on that trip.
I think the name “little” causes it to slide under the radar.
The entire mountain range is located in the 36,000-acre Bigelow Preserve, a state-owned chunk of public land that features about 30 miles of hiking trails and several backcountry tent sites.
The mountain range was named after Maj. Timothy Bigelow. While on a 1775 expedition to Quebec with Benedict Arnold, he scaled its slopes in hope of spotting the spires of Quebec, according to a brochure published by the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands.
If exploring that area, one thing to keep in mind is the lack of cell phone reception. For safety, I carried a Garmin InReach satellite tracker, which would allow me to send messages if I needed help. Plus, I let someone know where I was going and when I’d return.
To hike Little Bigelow in early January, I started at a parking lot on East Flagstaff Road. Or that was the plan. Part of the road wasn’t plowed, so I parked at its intersection with Bog Brook Road and walked two-tenths of a mile on a snowy road to the parking lot and trail.
The trail climbs the eastern slope of the mountain. Marked with white paint, it’s actually a section of the famous Appalachian Trail, a 2,190-mile footpath that spans from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Katahdin in Maine. The AT travels up and along the Bigelow Range, with lean-tos and tent sites for hikers to stay at along the way.
The hike I planned was just more than 6 miles, out and back. The first part was a gradual climb through a mixed forest, with the trail traveling alongside a small waterway called Chase Brook. In the summer, the tiny brook can slow to a trickle, but that day, it was rushing with frigid water, bordered by a jagged shelf of ice.
A few inches of crusty snow covered the forest floor, but the trail had been packed down by previous hikers, making snowshoes unnecessary. Instead, I wore low-profile ice cleats so as not to slip on patches of ice or tightly packed snow.
At 1.3 miles (not counting my short road walk), a 0.1-mile side trail led across Chase Brook to Little Bigelow Lean-to. From that point onward, the hike was noticeably steeper as it climbed through a rocky, mossy, evergreen forest. In places, the forest opened up and the trail crossed exposed bedrock. From those areas, I enjoyed views of Flagstaff Lake and surrounding mountains and hills. But the best view, by far, was from the top of the climb.
At about 3 miles (that’s 1.7 miles from the lean-to side trail), the trail reached the eastern end of the ridge-like crest that runs along the top of Little Bigelow. There, on a hump of granite bedrock, I was awed by an open view of Carrabassett Valley, Sugarloaf Mountain and — closer at hand — the rest of the Bigelow Range off to the west.
A thick bed of gray clouds hovered overhead and swirled around Avery Peak. As I sat there on the cold, rough rock, a beam of sunlight fought through to illuminate a patch of snow-dusted forest in Carrabassett Valley. And along the horizon, a thin band of cloudless sky glowed yellowy-orange, as if all the sunshine had collected in one place. I’ve seen that phenomenon a few times over the past couple of weeks.
The weather was warm for early January. The temperature hovered in the low 30s, and the wind barely blew. But I had managed to sweat right through one of my jackets on the hike up the mountain. And in the winter, sweat is dangerous. It can cool your body temperature down quickly.
Fortunately, I had another jacket to change into. I also packed a hat and extra gloves. And my long johns kept my legs plenty warm. Still, the cold forced me to say goodbye to the overlook sooner than I would have liked. I knew it was time to retrace my steps down the mountain.
If I’d been looking for a longer hike, I could have continued another 1.4 miles along Little Bigelow’s lengthy top to its western edge, where a side trail leads to another viewpoint. From there, the AT continues, down to Safford Notch, then up to Avery Peak and onward, all the way to Georgia.
I’ll save that for another day.