The park maintains about 180 miles of backcountry hiking trails and more than 25 backcountry campsites, some of them accessible only by canoe. Most hikers coming to the park are intent on ascending Mount Katahdin , Maine's highest peak. But dozens of other peaks are well worth scaling as well, and simply walking through the deep woods here is a sublime experience in stretches; you will hear no chainsaws. Reservations are required for backcountry camping; many of the best spots fill up quickly in early January when reservations open for a calendar year.
En route to Mount Katahdin, the Appalachian Trail winds through the "100-Mile Wilderness," a remote and bosky stretch where the trail crosses few roads and passes no settlements. It's the quiet habitat of loons and moose. Trail descriptions are available from the Appalachian Trail Conference, P.O. Box 807, Harpers Ferry, WV 25425 (tel. 304/535-6331; www.appalachiantrail.org).
Baxter State Park has eight campgrounds accessible by car and two more backcountry camping areas that must be walked into; most are open from mid-May until mid-October. Don't count on finding a spot if you show up without reservations in midsummer; the park starts processing requests on a first-come, first-served basis the first week in January, and dozens of die-hard campers traditionally spend a cold night outside headquarters to secure the best spots. Call well in advance (as in, during the previous year) for the forms to mail in. Camping inside the park costs $9 to $18 per site, with some cabins and bunkhouses available at rates ranging from $10 to $30 per person. Reservations can be made by mail, in person at the headquarters in Millinocket, or (sometimes) by phone -- but only less than 14 days from arrival. Don't call them about any other dates.
North Maine Woods, Inc. also maintains a small network of primitive campsites on its 2-million-acre holdings. While you may have to drive through massive clear-cuts to reach them, some are positioned on secluded coves or picturesque points. A map showing logging-road access and campsite locations is available for a small fee plus postage from the North Maine Woods headquarters. Daily camping fees are minimal, though you must also pay an access fee to the lands.
The state's premier canoe trip is the Allagash River, starting west of Baxter State Park and running northward for nearly 100 miles, finishing at the village of Allagash. The Allagash Wilderness Waterway (tel. 207/941-4014) was the first state-designated wild and scenic river in the country, protected from development since 1970. Most travelers spend between 7 and 10 days making the trip from Chamberlain Lake to Allagash. The trip begins on a chain of lakes involving light portaging. At Churchill Dam, a stretch of Class I-II white water runs for about 9 miles, then it's back to lakes and a mix of flat water and mild rapids. Toward the end, there's a longish portage (about 450 ft.) around picturesque Allagash Falls before finishing up above the village of Allagash.
About 80 simple campsites are scattered along the route; most have outhouses, fire rings, and picnic tables. The camping fee is $5 per night, $4 for Maine residents.
With 180 miles of maintained backcountry trails and 46 peaks (including 18 that are higher than 3,000 ft.), Baxter State Park is a serious destination for serious hikers. The most imposing peak is 5,267-foot Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. An ascent up this rugged, glacially scoured mountain is a trip you'll not soon forget. The raw drama and grandeur of the rocky, windswept summit is equal to anything you'll find in the White Mountains.
Allow at least 8 hours for the round-trip, and abandon your plans if the weather takes a turn for the worse while you're en route. The most popular route departs from Roaring Brook Campground. In fact, it's popular enough that it's often closed to day hikers -- when the parking lot fills, hikers are shunted off to other trails. You ascend first to dramatic Chimney Pond, which is set like a jewel in a glacial cirque, then continue upward toward Katahdin's summit via one of two trails. (The Saddle Trail is the most forgiving, the Cathedral Trail the most dramatic.) From here, descent begins along the aptly named Knife Edge, a narrow, rocky spine between Baxter Peak and Pamola Peak. Do not take this trail if you are afraid of heights: In spots, the trail narrows to 2 or 3 feet with a drop of hundreds of feet on either side. Obviously, it's also not the spot to be if high winds move in or thunderstorms are threatening. From the Knife Edge, the trail follows a long and gentle ridge back down to Roaring Brook.
Katahdin draws the biggest crowds, but the park also maintains numerous other trails where you'll find more solitude and wildlife than on the main peak. One pleasant day hike is to the summit of South Turner Mountain, which offers wonderful views across to Mount Katahdin and blueberries for picking (in late summer). This trail also departs from Roaring Brook Campground, and requires about 3 to 4 hours for a round-trip. To the north, more good hikes begin at the South Branch Pond Campground. My advice? Talk to rangers and buy a trail map at park headquarters first.
Northern Maine is laced with an extensive network of snowmobile trails. If the conditions are right, you can even cross over into Canada and make tracks for Quebec. Though a handful of maps and guides outline the network, the trails are still largely a matter of local knowledge. Ask around. One good place to start is Shin Pond Village, 1489 Shin Pond Rd., Mt. Chase, ME 04765 (tel. 207/528-2900; www.shinpond.com). A half-dozen cottages and guest rooms each are available here, with snowmobile rentals by the day (figure $115-$140). Ask about packages that include accommodations, a rental, most meals, and a snowmobiling suit.
One unique way to view Mount Katahdin is by rafting the west branch of the Penobscot River. Flowing along the park's southern border, this wild river has some of the most technically challenging white water in the East. At least a dozen rafting companies take trips on the Penobscot, with prices around $90 to $115 per person, including a lunch. Among the better-run outfitters in the area is New England Outdoor Center (tel. 800/766-7238; www.neoc.com), on the river southeast of Millinocket. Its River Driver Restaurant is among the best in Millinocket; the owners also run nearby Twin Pine Camps, a rustic lodge on the shores of Millinocket Lake with stellar views of Mount Katahdin (cabins for two start at around $120). For other rafting options, the trade group Raft Maine (tel. 800/723-8633; www.raftmaine.com), in Bethel, can connect you to one of its member outfitters.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.