In mid-January, I announced a Penobscot Paddle & Chowder Society mountain hike on Burnt Mountain in Carrabassett Valley. The moderately difficult scenic trek with an expansive exposed summit is situated adjacent to Sugarloaf Mountain and a club favorite. The trailhead begins on the west side of Sugarloaf Village.
A few years had passed since I’d completed a winter hike on Burnt Mountain, so I checked a trail information website for directions to the trailhead. The report was vague and didn’t match my recollection of how we had accessed the trailhead in the past. A long story short, it appears expansion of Sugarloaf’s downhill skiing now interferes with traditional winter hiking access to Burnt Mountain and hikers are no longer welcome. A phone call for clarification was not returned.
When five of us met in Carrabassett Valley early on a cold, gray morning with light winds, we contemplated the recently discovered hiking dilemma. Chowderheads know how to adapt to adversity. We unanimously agreed to forego potential conflicts on Burnt Mountain and changed our choice to Cranberry Peak, a comparable hike on the western end of the nearby Bigelow Mountain Range. My book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine,” narrates an exciting race against an impending early winter snowstorm during a climb of North and South peaks on the Bigelow Range.
A short drive north on Route 27 brought us to the Bigelow Range Trail winter trailhead at the end of Currie Street in Stratton. The steep road and parking area was plowed, and there was space for perhaps six vehicles.
A hiker (left) negotiates under a blowdown on the Bigelow Range Trail. Rugged terrain (right) is common on the Bigelow Range Trail. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase
The Bigelow Range Trail leads to and over Cranberry Peak. An inspection of the trail revealed there were a few inches of fresh powder over a packed surface. We decided to wear snowshoes from the outset and that continued throughout our trek.
We began our journey to the summit of the 3,213-foot Cranberry Peak, which has more than 2,000 feet of elevation gain, by following a snowmobile trail for about three-tenths of a mile to the summer trailhead. Initially, we ascended gradually in a dense conifer forest in a marvelous winter wonderland. We needed to attentively negotiate a couple of blowdowns and a partially open stream.
After about a mile, the path narrowed and steepened. Our progress slowed as we struggled to gain purchase with our snowshoe claws on the slippery, precipitous, hard-packed surface. The hilly gradient continued for about a half mile to a series of open ledges offering partial views to the west of Cranberry Peak.
After lingering to enjoy the views, we renewed our quest continuing easterly along the north-facing slope of steep rugged terrain under a spectacular canopy of snow-covered spruce trees. The rolling irregular path was rough going as we progressed toward the ridge line leading to the top of Cranberry Peak.
The cone of Cranberry Peak (left) can be seen in the distance. That glimpse powered the Chowderheads through the rough (top right) but wonderful (bottom right) winter terrain. Credit: Courtesy of Ron Chase
Shortly after climbing steeply to the top of the ridge, we caught our first glimpse of the barren, snow-covered, conical summit of Cranberry Peak. Invigorated by the view of our goal, we hurriedly traversed the ridge all the while appreciating periodic views of Flagstaff Lake. Snowshoe claws were a substantial benefit during our abrupt ascent on ice and hard-packed snow to the alpine-like mountaintop.
Strong winds and the severe chill were significant risks during my two most recent winter visits to the pinnacle of Cranberry Peak. Not this time. A mild breeze allowed us an extended respite at the top for snacks and a break. Our lengthy pause was enhanced by a panoramic vista of the entire length of Flagstaff Lake. Unfortunately, Sugarloaf, the Crocker Mountain Range and the elusive Burnt Mountain were enveloped in clouds.
During the climb, our group had solidly packed the trail for the descent from Cranberry Peak. Some of the precipitous sections required careful maneuvering to avoid tumbling into potential hazards below. When we returned to the trailhead in Stratton, we had snowshoed approximately 6.5 miles.
My first full day of snowshoeing this winter, I experienced foot discomfort when descending. But that minor inconvenience didn’t distract from an exceptional day of winter mountaineering on Cranberry Peak.
Some interesting Cranberry Peak history: Maine trail blazing legend Helon Taylor is credited with opening the Bigelow Range Trail in 1934-35. After crossing the summit of Cranberry Peak, the path continues east for another 1.7 miles to the Appalachian Trail, which traverses the remainder of the Bigelow Range.