All I knew about White Cap Mountain was that the hike was long and rugged. Turns out, it is so much more.
As summer headed into its final weeks, my friend Jean Camuso and I had four of the six peaks of the Moosehead Pinnacle Pursuit—a hiking challenge in and around Moosehead Lake in Greenville, Maine—under our boots. What remained were the two biggies: Eagle Rock and White Cap. One employee at the Moosehead Chamber of Commerce called them “the most effort for the greatest payback.”
She was right about the payback in scenery from the 3,655 ft. summit, but other White Cap surprises made the payback even sweeter.
We experienced our first unforseen adventure on the final stretch of “road” (I use the term loosely) to the White Cap trailhead. Fortunately, we had insider information with explicit instructions and a caution: bring a car with all-wheel-drive and good clearance. A couple of miles shy of the requisite 14 miles on Frenchtown Road, our route seemed to fizzle out. The dirt road became a rutted track with a grassy center stripe. We forged ahead through watery craters, branches scraping and clutching at the car. It reminded me of an epic taxi ride I took through rural Guatemala. However, a mile later the road widened again and ended at a gate where our instructions told us to park. First triumph of the day, and we hadn’t even left the car.
Our hike began with a quarter-mile stroll down a dirt road, looking for a trail sign. That’s where I got my second surprise. In my fixation on completing the six Moosehead Pinnacle Pursuit hikes, I hadn’t noticed that one of them—White Cap Mountain—is part of the Appalachian Trail.
Late summer is high season for AT through-hikers to finish their 2,200 mile trek in Maine. Jean and I were hiking south up White Cap. That meant we might pass AT hikers heading north. In fact, we counted 10 on their way down the mountain as we hiked up, unmistakable in their heavy packs and well-seasoned clothing. But none of them seemed weary; in fact, they were starry-eyed. The peak of White Cap is the highest point in the remote “100 Mile Wilderness” section of the AT in Maine. Since it was a crystal clear day, many of them had just laid eyes on Katahdin, their final destination, for the very first time. They came from Minnesota, Utah, Florida, New York, and they were days away from the end of their long journey. Some were merely excited, others were ready to slow down and savor their final days in the woods, unsure what life would become on reentry.
“Where are you from?” we asked one hiker.
“Well, all I have is a car and a storage locker in New Jersey, so I don’t know,” he said.
The aura around these audacious hikers filled us with inspired energy. How many footsteps before ours have imprinted this trail? The Appalachian Trail Conservancy lists over nineteen thousand 2,000-milers, and thousands more have hiked pieces of it. What a tangle of experiences must have led them to this path, and what a treasure of stories they must have collected along the trail. The thought of it alone gives me pause, and sharing the trail with a few of them for a day made this hike uniquely meaningful.
From the southbound approach, you reach the official cairned summit of White Cap by hiking around the rocky crown of the mountain. Vast and glorious vistas circle the summit, with virtually no sign of human habitation as far as you can see, just the faint lines of a few lumber trails in the thick forest. White Cap’s isolation is another part of its appeal.
Next to the summit cairn, Jean and I saw white-painted words on the rocks—“View point”—and an arrow. I felt particularly open to a new viewpoint, standing there, so the message was compelling. We followed the arrow to a rocky outcropping with an unobstructed view of Katahdin and we lingered there over lunch, absorbing and contemplating viewpoints both visible and otherwise.
We didn’t expect as many AT hikers on the hike back, but we met quite a few. One young man was fixing himself soup in the Logan Brook lean-to. He had hiked from Georgia to New Hampshire with his brother when he fell and broke his ankle. Weeks later, he returned to the trail to climb Katahdin with his brother as he finished. Now he was making his way solo back to New Hampshire to complete his through-hike going south.
There are so many ways to do the AT. There are northbounders, southbounders, flip-floppers (like our friend at the lean-to), and section hikers. I later learned about the fourteen-state challenge (hike part of the AT in every state), the 4,000-footers, aqua blazing (short cuts by water), slack-packers (hiking the whole AT in day hikes), and LASH-ers (“long-ass-section-hikers”). We met one young man who pronounced as we passed him, “I’m doing the 500!” I haven’t found anyone who knows what that is, but he’s doing it!
White Cap was an adventure full of surprises. What a gift it is to spend a day in the Maine woods, to reach heights and gaze over miles of layered landscapes. But how much greater the gift when the experience comes with surprise viewpoints to expand our inner horizons.