Published Date Written by Ed ParsonsWhere was I the other day, when I was looking across the valley at the long ridge and summit of southwest Maine's Pleasant Mountain? Come to think of it, I was on another low mountain to the northwest looking through my camera, and the summit opening on Pleasant Mountain appeared much closer than it actually was. The opening and ledge just below the fire tower looked like a stage set. It imparted a strong déjà vu, immediately bringing me back a couple months.
I was there at the end of the warm spell in late March, and many people had come out of hibernation to hike on Pleasant Mountain that day. The summit was crowded the way it often is in the summer — the perfect place for lunch and group banter, kind of like intermission during the mellow drama of hiking Peasant Mountain. No, exactly like it.
Four of us were doing the 4.2 mile loop hike up the Ledges Trail to the summit, across the ridge and down the Bald Peak Trail.
It was a beautiful day, and like the mourning cloak butterfly that comes out from its over-wintering nook under log or ledge during the first warm spell, we were also out, and we saw many mourning cloak butterflies that day.
Earlier we drove from Conway on Route 302 in two cars, and in West Bridgeton we turned right on Mountain Road and past Shawnee Peak Ski Area base lodge. In 1.8 miles from Route 302, we left one car on the right roadside at the base of the Bald Peak Trail (there were a half dozen cars already there), and drove another 1.5 miles to the gravel pull-off on the left across from the Ledges Trail.
There were only a couple cars parked across the street from the Ledges Trail, and we realized that most hikers likely prefer to do the steep Bald Peak Trail first, and later come down the more gentle Ledges Trail.
But it is so true that mountain enthusiasts are people of habit, and I have always down it the other way, and most likely always will, unless at some point, my knees dictate otherwise.
My friends didn't object, so we headed.
The 1.8 mile Ledges Trail is a classic, and should be experienced by anyone with interest in Maine hiking. It starts at a kiosk placed by the Loon Echo Land Trust. Their free folders should be available there, with a great map of the mountain completed by the AMC's cartographer Larry Garland.
The trail follows an old woods road for a short way, then ascends switchbacks to a great eastern lookout ledge in just over a mile."From there, it swings around an open ledgey ridge in an oak/pitch pine forest, with great views out to your left. Then it heads up steep ledges through the woods straight for the summit, soon passing a junction with the Southwest Ridge Trail, and reaching the summit in another 0.2 miles.
If a hike up a modest southwest Maine mountain could be described as a dance, with each lone hiker or group creating their own choreography, the Ledges Trail is a place for it.
The old woods road at the beginning loosened us up for the reality of the steeper switchbacks. It was midday, and we passed a descending family as we slowly wound up the switchbacks. Although a few steep ledges there were wet, there was no snow or ice on this southern exposure. The previous 80 degree week had done its work. As we approached the dramatic first lookout ledge, we knew we had earned it.
The southeast view included Moose Pond directly below, and the rolling foothills of Maine followed by the flat horizon on the coast. To the right of the village of Denmark, located at the end of Moose Pond, Hancock and Barker Ponds were tucked between hills.
We continued upward, swinging around the ridge on smooth ledge. In the ravine directly below us, a dirt road was visible between the trees. It accessed the new cell tower on the mountain's southwest peak, directly to the west of us.
I recalled doing the Ledges Trail with Bob Gordon and the late Sandy Smith of Conway soon after the cell tower was built on the southwest peak. Though Sandy accurately upheld the image of a responsible high school teacher, he was not happy with the new tower, and in his passion, suggested we come back and blow it up.
The trail left the edge of the ravine and we scrambled up ledges through the woods, soon passing the junction with the Southwest Ridge Trail. The summit was close. As we approached, we passed a couple small buildings with solar panels that housed radio relays.
Finally, we walked out on the grass of the summit beneath the tall fire tower. To the west, a striking Mount Washington was snow covered, though the warm week had exposed some dark rocks on the summit cone. Closer, the local lakes were partially covered with gray ice. Little did we know that after this March warm spell, chilly temps would linger into May.
There were 20 people already there, and the "summit intermission" was in full swing. During lunch, some friends of ours showed up, and their humor was the final touch for a good summit experience.
We were reminded that the location of the sun directly effects the swiftness of melting snow and ice when we left the top, walked a short way north down the Fire Warden's Trail, and bore right across the ridge on the Bald Peak Trail. Occasional snow and ice patches in the shade required caution and radiated coolness.
The Bald Peak Trail is another perfect setting for the choreography of this loop hike. It follows the ridge top through open forest on plentiful ledges surrounded by blueberries and moss. There are frequent great vistas to the northeast, with the long Moose Pond below, and the relative flatness of Maine beyond.
Just past a high point the ridge called Bald Peak, the view looks directly down through short red pines to the Route 302 causeway that crosss Moose Pond. One of us remarked that it felt more like out West than New England.
Then we hit the next trail junction and turned sharp right, continuing down the Bald Peak Trail. It dropped steeply for a mile down to the road. A quarter mile from the road, we decided to forgo the short spur trail into a dramatic cleft called the Needle's Eye, located on a steep brook. One of us was having a knee issue on the steep trail after all.
But we continued slowly down to our car, and after driving back to our other car at the Ledges Trail, it was concluded that a great and worthwhile time was had by all.
I am writing this on Sat., May 19th, before a short trip out West. It has been an interesting and unusual spring weather-wise. After the chilly weather we had following the March heat wave, it has been fun to revisit that warm spell by writing this column.