Kurt Diederich’s Climb built in 1915 to pave way for Acadia

Another in a series of historic trail highlights leading up to the Acadia Centennial

If not for the building of Kurt Diederich’s Climb 100 years ago, there may not have been an Acadia Centennial to celebrate in 2016.

Kurt Diederich's Climb

Climb these stone steps to begin Kurt Diederich’s Climb, built 100 years ago in memory of a young man who loved these mountains of Mount Desert Island.

In the spring of 1914, George B. Dorr, the “father of Acadia,” failed in his initial attempt to get President Woodrow Wilson to create a national monument, to protect the mountains of Mount Desert Island that he and so many others loved.

The reason: Too many disconnected parcels of land, according to “Pathmakers: Cultural Landscape Report for the Historic Hiking Trail System of Mount Desert Island,” by the National Park Service’s Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, and Acadia National Park.

That spurred a campaign by Dorr and others to connect the land, by securing donation of more acreage to fill in the gaps, and building a network of trails like Kurt Diederich’s Climb, Kane Path, Precipice Trail, Beachcroft Path and Homans Path, according to “Pathmakers.” That finally created a cohesive whole worthy of federal protection. Acadia’s beginning was secured on July 8, 1916, with President Wilson’s designation of Sieur de Monts National Monument.

kurt diederich

Kurt Diederich’s daughter Elsa, who was about 6 when her father died, is seen here along some of the many steps on Kurt Diederich’s Climb, in a photo taken circa 1920. (NPS Archives)

As Acadia’s Centennial approaches, here’s an appreciation of Kurt Diederich’s Climb, and of the driving forces that helped build and maintain it. Like with so much of Acadia’s history, the story behind Kurt Diederich’s Climb highlights the love so many people have had for Mount Desert Island over the years, and the ongoing struggle to protect the landscape.

The elaborate stone-stepped trail begins at the outlet of the Tarn, and climbs swiftly up the east face of Dorr Mountain, along hundreds of stone steps. The words “Kurt Diederich’s Climb” are carved into one of the steps at the start. A plaque with the phrase “In memory of Kurt Diederich who loved these mountains” once graced the trail, and is now held at park headquarters, according to “The Memorials of Acadia National Park,” by Donald P. Lenahan, who also writes a blog of the same name.

Kurt Diederich’s Climb a memorial to man who loved the mountains

Kurt Diederich's Climb

View at dusk near the top of Kurt Diederich’s Climb, toward Great Meadow and the Porcupine Islands.

Rising 450 feet in 0.5 mile, Kurt Diederich’s Climb is arguably the most difficult way to access Dorr, made a little easier by the graceful steps. As you climb up, you’ll get views across the Tarn toward Huguenot Head, on the shoulder of Champlain Mountain. Near the trail’s end at a junction with Schiff and Emery Paths, you’ll start getting a glimpse of Great Meadow and the Porcupine Islands. That’s just a preview of the spectacular vista to be had atop Dorr, by continuing another 1.1 miles, along Schiff Path and the Dorr South Ridge Trail. On our way down Kurt Diederich’s Climb one time at dusk, we saw bats flitting about.

One could imagine how Kurt Diederich must have loved these mountains. He spent summers with his aunt, Enid Hunt Slater, who had a “cottage” in Bar Harbor. And when Diederich died in his late 20s during surgery, leaving behind a young daughter, his aunt funded the memorial path in his name.

kurt diederich

Kurt Diederich’s last resting place, beneath a stately rhododendron, is in the Hunt-Slater family plot in Milton Cemetery, outside Boston, near where his aunt Enid Hunt Slater is buried.

Dorr himself built Kurt Diederich’s Climb and the trail is a good example of his technique.

Unlike such gravity-defying cliff climbs as the Precipice Trail, built by fellow pathmaker Rudolph E. Brunnow, Dorr’s trails, like Kurt Diederich’s Climb, “are large-gesture switchback routes through talus slopes and across cliffs,” according to “Acadia Trails Treatment Plan: Cultural Landscape Report for the Historic Hiking Trail System of Acadia National Park,” by the National Park Service.

Kurt Diederich

To pay your respects to Kurt Diederich and his aunt Enid Hunt Slater, who funded the trail in his memory, from the main entrance of Milton Cemetery, follow Centennial Avenue, turn right on Woodbine, then left on Laurel Avenue.

“They required nearly continuous construction of stone steps, stone paving, retaining walls and ironwork,” according to the report. And they “luxuriate in the ascent, take long, flat stretches through rock slides, switch back at stunning viewpoints, and reach for control points such as clefts in the rocks, overhangs, and waterfalls.”

In fact, the “wide, smooth, level walkways of Kurt Diederich’s Climb,” along with those along the Brunnow-built Orange & Black Path, “are two of the finest examples of stone pavement” on Mount Desert Island, according to “Acadia Trails Treatment Plan.” Much of that century-old construction is still in remarkable shape.

It’s not just the original trail-building techniques of Kurt Diederich’s Climb that continue to offer lessons. More recent efforts to protect and maintain it also resonate today.

In 1981, Kurt Diederich’s Climb was among the 3.5 miles in Acadia that received National Recreation Trail designation, along with Emery, Schiff and Kane Paths in the Dorr Mountain area, according to “Pathmakers.” That made Kurt Diederich’s Climb eligible for funding through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, created by Congress 50 years ago.

Centennial logo for Acadia National Park

The official Acadia Centennial logo

That’s the same fund that allowed the recent purchase of 37 acres along Lower Hadlock Pond for inclusion in Acadia, to help fill in some of the continued gaps within park boundaries.

And it’s the same fund that expired earlier this year, to the concern of many conservationists, from Friends of Acadia to the Wilderness Society. Congress earlier this month authorized a 3-year extension, but not the permanent funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund that advocates sought.

The story of Kurt Diederich’s Climb is not just a history lesson in how love for the mountains led first to the creation of a trail, then a national monument and, finally, a national park.

It’s also a lesson in how the battle to preserve the landscape is never complete. Even the Antiquities Act, which President Wilson used to designate the Sieur de Monts National Monument, is under fire in some quarters today.

On the eve of the Acadia Centennial, with its theme of “Celebrate Our Past, Inspire Our Future,” may these lessons from Kurt Diederich’s Climb be forever remembered.