Hiking in Maine is usually associated with Baxter State Park or Acadia National Park, and those are two of the most beautiful parks in the American Northeast. However, there are several other gems in the easternmost state, many of which are located in the Rangeley Area. That part of Western Maine is primarily known for two quality ski resorts, Sugarloaf Mountain and Sunday River, but it has a lot more to offer in terms of hiking.
Directly north of Sugarloaf Mountain, across from ME-27, the Bigelow Preserve remains undeveloped and is home to some of the nicest mountains in Maine. This outing takes you on a terrific lasso loop on the exposed summits of West Peak and Avery Peak, commonly referred to as the Bigelows.
The outing starts on the Stratton Brook Pond Road. Parking is at a snowplow turnaround in winter, which adds an extra 3-miles round trip, but the regular trailhead can be reached in the warmer months. The road is used by snowmobiles and skiers, so share it safely.
The first few miles are on mostly flat terrain, and the trail skirts Stratton Brook Pond with nice views of Sugarloaf Mountain in the background. As the pond becomes a brook, the trail leaves the water and gains 500 feet of elevation rather quickly before reaching an intersection. To the left is the Horns Pond Trail, which will be used for the descent, and to the right is the Firewarden’s Trail, which is used to reach the Bigelow col.
The ascent to the Bigelow col is 2.3 miles and gets quite steep at the end. Along the way, there are at least two designated campsites (Moose Falls and Myron Avery, both free) which are in great condition and could turn this outing into a nice backpack. At the col, the Firewarden’s Trail connects with the Appalachian Trail.
Avery Peak (4,088 feet) is a short 0.4-mile side-trip east. It offers fantastic views in all directions and features the remains of a fire tower. The wind is often strong and the rocks are likely exposed and icy, so crampons may be more comfortable than snowshoes. Back at the col, West Peak (4,145 feet) is another short 0.3-mile ascent west and again, and climbers are rewarded with unobstructed 360-degree views. The Bigelows are likely to become favorites of anyone paying them a visit.
From West Peak, the Appalachian Trail continues west for 2.9 miles to the summit of the Horns. Along the ridge there are several terrific views, most notably of the Horns and Sugarloaf Mountain. In winter this trail is seldom traveled, so trail breaking may be necessary. On the summit of the Horns (3,805 feet), look back at the ridge trail and the rocky ridge of West Peak.
Descend west by the Horns Pond, where a lean-to and free campsites are available, and then south using the Horns Pond Trail. This 2.4-mile trail is likely to require breaking in winter. It leads back to the intersection with the Firewarden's Trail that was crossed earlier in the day. From that point, descend back to Stratton Brook Pond and then to the road.
Looking for a shorter outing? The Horns and the Bigelows can be completed on two separate trips using the indications above. They would become out-and-backs of around 11 miles each.
Winter backcountry adventures can be dangerous outdoor activities that pose significant risks as conditions affecting safety (i.e. weather, snowpack stability, avalanche hazard) are constantly changing. Prior to engaging in these activities each individual should get the proper training to make safe decisions and be equipped to use avalanche safety resources and tools. Please visit our Backcountry Skiing and Avalanche Safety post to learn more.