We stood at the entrance of the Precipice Trail on Oct. 17 on Mount Desert Island. The gates were wide open. Past the stone steps and a stretch of colorful woodland, the sheer Precipice Cliff rose into the sunny sky.
“Here we go,” I said to my climbing partner, Derek Runnels of Veazie as I moved the strap of my camera bag across my chest and stepped past the trailhead sign.
The Precipice is known as the most challenging trail in Acadia National Park. The almost-vertical, 1,000-foot climb up the east face of Champlain Mountain is closed most of the summer to protect endangered peregrine falcons nesting in the cliffs.
The trail reopened Aug. 13 after the only peregrine fledgling born this year left the nest, leaving a small window of time for people to enjoy the exciting climb without strapping on crampons and donning gloves. I’ve always missed that window — until this year. It was the first time for the both of us.
We followed the up-and-down trail, which is nearly a straight shot through a mostly deciduous forest, to the base of the cliff. The sun was moving from its high point west, over Champlain, and the growing shadow of the mountain placed us in the shade.
Before the cliff climb, a dark boulder stands as the first challenge. You can hike around the boulder, but if you can’t hoist yourself over it using the handholds, you shouldn’t be hiking the trail. It was easier for 6-foot-2-inch Derek; I had to stretch my arms and legs to reach the holds.
We watched our feet as we navigated through a collection of angular boulders and watched our heads as we followed the trail under two enormous boulders.
It didn’t take long for the trail to change from being mostly horizontal to weaving back and forth at a 45-degree angle up the cliff with frequent rungs and handholds for scaling vertical jumps.
The route was a playground of ladders and long bars anchored into rock. If you’re afraid of heights, you won’t be able to “play” safely if your legs start shaking with fear. You’re better off on the more gradual trail of Cadillac Mountain or the predictable stair trail of Dorr Mountain, both on Mount Desert Island.
The Precipice Trail is considered a nontechnical climbing route, which means that the majority of it is hand-over-foot climbing. Large sections of the trail require the three-hold rule: Have three limbs (legs and arms) supported before making a move for the next handhold or foothold.
Derek and I paused on a narrow section of the trail. With the cliff to our back and our hands grasping a long metal bar behind us, we looked out over Acadia forest and the Porcupine Islands of Frenchman Bay.
Every time I stretched my arms or floundered for a handhold, I tried to imagine doing it backward. Halfway up a long ladder series of about 20 rungs, I turned back to Derek and said, “We can’t come down this.”
“No, really,” I said. “We’ll find another way.”
Near the summit of Champlain Mountain, the cliff ended and a more gradual trail through stunted trees continued to the top. Right before the summit, a few last ladders have been thrown in for good measure.
The wind, which had been blocked by Champlain while we climbed the Precipice, whipped over the top of the mountain. At the summit sign set on bare rock, we stood for a moment for the 360-degree view of Mount Desert Island covered with a carpet of crimson, burnt orange and golden leaves. Patches of brown post-peak foliage had started to creep in.
Hikers can reach the Champlain summit by other trails such as the Beehive Trail. A government caution sign stands beside the Precipice Trail to warn descending hikers of the its difficulty.
Hikers have etched their names in every square inch of the yellow sign, but the words still are readable: “Precipice is maintained as a non-technical climbing trail, not a hiking trail. Attempt this route only if you are physically fit, wearing proper footwear, and have experienced climbing near exposed cliffs and heights. … Persons have received serious injuries and others have died on this mountainside!”
It’s an exhilarating, breath-taking climb, but it’s important that hikers know their limits.
We sat beside a pool of water with a sheltering boulder to our backs and refueled on granola bars and water.
A pair of passing hikers told us that the Bear Brook Trail leads down a more gradual face of the mountain and connects to the Black and Orange Trail, which wraps around the mountain and connects to the Precipice Trail about a half-mile from the trailhead.
We decided to take that route and started jogging down the northern ridge of the mountain. The roundabout way back to the parking lot would take more time to traverse than the direct Precipice route, but it was easier on our knees and nerves.
The Precipice Trail is estimated to take 3 hours to hike, but many people climb to the summit and back in less time. For information on the Precipice Trail and other Acadia National Park hikes, visit www.nps.gov/acad or call the Acadia National Park Headquarters at 228-3338.