My favorite route to New Hampshire is on Route 113, which winds along near the Saco River on its way from Standish to Fryeburg.

It’s a beautiful meander through western Maine, even before coffee, passing through fields, woods and the haunting, monolithic water tower in Baldwin. But the standout section of the road is in Hiram, where Mount Cutler rises high above the Saco, with plunging cliffs that look as if they were pushed into place from Hiram by some giant bulldozer.

Mount Cutler is often on the way as I’m headed elsewhere, but those cliffs have an enticing call. I decided to slow down, pull over and spend time in Hiram.

Cutler’s trailhead, maintained by property owners near Route 113’s bridge over the Saco, has a hairpin turn on the west side, then a right turn onto Mountain View Avenue with no fee, well-marked trails and multiple routes up the mountain.

From the parking lot I crossed the railroad tracks and headed up the Barnes Trail. After five to 10 minutes of moderate elevation gain, the trail heads up sharply. Those beautiful cliffs that plunge toward Route 113? This is where you start going directly up them.

I love a good rock scramble and this rivals some of the ledge hiking in the White Mountains. It may be tough for kids, dogs or anyone with a fear of heights. There’s one pitch where you climb nearly vertically, but once you’re past this you’re treated to a beautiful view of Hiram and the Saco River, plus the rolling peaks off to the east.

Continue over moderate, easy footing into the woods, switching back to the south up above the rocks you scaled. Just one mile from the trailhead you come upon one of the best views in the area, looking over the southern foothills with unobstructed, panoramic views. This flat, wide-open ledge makes a perfect lunch stop or even a destination.

From the outlook, the trail turns back into the woods and heads toward the summit of Mount Cutler, with easy grades that include some slight ups and downs. A quarter-mile from the ledges, the trees open on either side for another panoramic view to the south and a clear, prominent view of Mount Washington to the northwest.

If you’re looking for an easy out-and-back hike, you can turn back here. The trail never hits the true summit of Mount Cutler and this wide-open viewpoint on the false summit is about as much elevation as you’ll gain. The hike back, retracing your steps down the Barnes Trail, is easy on the knees – except for that scramble over the east-facing rocks, which can be tricky to navigate going down.

An alternate option is to continue on the trail, which will lead you on a loop over an adjacent ridge and then back to the trailhead from the south. The trail descends into a small col between the false summit and the real high point of Cutler, and a hairpin turn brings you steadily down to the southeast. A small rise takes you to the ridgeline, with fine views to the east and large stone cairns on open rock.

Descending moderately, you’ll pass two great outlooks to the southeast before hitting a trail junction on Saco Ridge. There’s a somewhat restricted outlook here on a small spur, offering a unique perspective on the river, camps and railroad tracks below.

Follow the Saco Ridge Trail down to the north, steeply – being sure to avoid what the signs call the Old Trail to the south, which is poorly marked and even steeper. You’ll shed much of your elevation quickly, then connect with a snowmobile trail that leads back to the parking lot. This whole loop is less than three miles, and even with the significant scramble at the start it can be completed in just a few hours.

On many of my weekend hikes, the White Mountains are my destination – and a jaw-dropping one at that, with the notches and the Kancamagus Highway and the northeast’s highest peak. But spots like Cutler, along the way, are destinations in their own right.

With challenging sections, great views of western Maine and well-maintained trails, Mount Cutler easily graduates from being on the way to being worth a trip in its own right.

Jake Christie is a freelance writer living in Portland. Along with his brother, Josh, he writes about great Maine destinations for outdoors enthusiasts. Jake can be reached at:

[email protected]

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