Via. The Appalachian Trail (14.6 miles round trip) Route 4 trailhead to the Horn summit and back
Saddleback mountain is located in Sandy River Plantation, Maine, southeast of the resort town of Rangeley, Maine. It is best known for its ski resort but is also a fantastic hiking mountain. It is an expansive mountain with a long ridge oriented east – west with many sub-peaks that have pronounced saddles between them. The Horn and Saddleback are two of the summits which make the list of Maine 4,000 footers. These are all above treelined so the views are un-compromised,and very exposed making it dangerous in inclement weather. From a distance the mountain resembles a sea serpent so be prepared for some false summits on your ascent, but the views from all points of the trail above the tree line are amazing.
There are several ways to approach the summits of Saddleback. From the resort it is a 1.7 mile steep hike up the ski trails to the summit of Saddleback. This is the quickest ascent but also less scenic as you remain on ski trails until the alpine area is attained. Another approach is from the north east on the Appalachian Trail, this is a long hike. The Caribou Valley Road offers access to the trail north of Sugarloaf, but this is great hike for a several day excursion as it is rugged and long. Another way is from the west on the Appalachian Trail from its junction with ME route 4, from here the summit of Saddleback is 5.7 miles from the road and has an elevation gain of 2,750 feet. The Horn is an additional 1.6 miles one way and approximately another 900 feet of elevation. This route also offers some added attractions including Piazza Rock, a large overhanging boulder and nearby, the Caves offer exploration. Along the way there are also three large ponds, Ethel, Mud and Eddy pond, that offer opportunities for wildlife viewing. This is a long hike and is quite strenuous to attempt in a day but there is a lean to and tent site called the Piazza Rock Lean-to 1.8 miles in from the trailhead. There are also stealthy campsites along the ponds and along the way to the alpine zone. This was the way we chose to ascend so it will be covered in more detail below.
To reach the trailhead on ME 4, drive north about 30 miles from the town of Farmington, Maine. The Appalachian Trail (AT) crosses the road in a winding section where there is a small parking area that is well signed on the left or western side of the road (from the south). There is room for about 15 cars and no facilities available. Across the road is the start of this section of the AT. It climbs up the valley and crosses a bridge across the Sandy River immediately, a gravel logging road is crossed at mile 1.1 and the Piazza Rock Lean-to at mile 1.8. There are 6 tenting platforms, a privy and lean-to that can sleep 8 people here. A nearby stream offers reliable water. We hiked in our gear and set up camp at one of the tent sites before continuing. A side trail .1 miles leads to Piazza Rock and the nearby caves. Beyond which the trail rises steeply, as you pass the first of the three ponds, Ethel’s western shore. Next is Mud Pond, the trail goes through a new cut where fresh roots and newly cut trees line the side of the trail. Eddy pond is the last reliable water along the ascent and is a spectacular pond. There are some campsites nearby about 3.7 miles from the road.
Beyond the pond is another gravel road crossing, the trail continues to the right and begins to climb steeply through spruce and conifers, emerging on a scrub slope. From here Eddy pond looks far away and low. The remainder of the trail is completely exposed, offering stunning panoramas. Signature white blazes and numerous cairns make following the trail relatively easy, and the footing is good, mostly solid rock with little scree. The summit of Saddleback is marked with a sign and a large rock cairn. A rock shelter and some steel remnants remain as well. The views are breathtaking and should be enjoyed fully.
The AT then continues descending steeply the col to the saddle between Saddleback and The Horn. Here there is an unreliable pond, that in a wet season will contain sufficient water for filtering or processing. The Horn’s summit is reached in 1.6 miles. This section is easy to follow, and adds another approximately 900 feet in elevation to the overall hike. This summit offers different perspectives than Saddleback, as you are closer to Abraham and Sugarloaf. This was the point where we turned around and headed down the way we ascended. From the Horn, it is about 9.4 miles to the Fire Warden’s trail, a side path that heads to the summit of Abraham. This section of the AT winds across the remaining sub peaks of Saddleback including, Saddleback Junior and Poplar Ridge. As we hike more of the AT from ME 27 to ME 4 I will include updates to the site and offer any pertinent information about hiking with dogs here.
Descending the Horn was easy, and there were no obstacles that were daunting or challenging for the dogs, other than the distance. We hiked back along the AT and returned to the Piazza Rock Lean-to where we had set up camp earlier in the day. Given the exposed nature of the route I would advise caution in bad weather and also bring water because there is little above the ponds. When we hiked there were some residual rain pools around on the ridge that offered some water for the pups but on drier days it is likely these would not be present. Even though this is a remote location, far from large human populations there are a lot of hikers on the trail network, including many Appalachian Trail through hikers. It is also good etiquette to give them priority in space in the lean to and at campsites. I am sure they also would appreciate a summit beer if you have a spare.
Distances from ME 4 parking:
Piazza Rock Lean-To: 1.8 miles
Saddleback Summit: 5.7 miles
The Horn Summit: 7.3 miles