Maine's western mountains are in a rugged, brawny region that stretches northeast between the White Mountains and the Carrabassett Valley. The Whites are bigger, and the Maine coast is a lot more commercialized and convenient, than this region. The villages here aren't nearly as quaint as those in Vermont. But you will find natural wonders here that those other places can't touch: huge azure lakes and sparkling little ponds; forests thick with spruce and fir; mossy, mossy woods (to borrow from Thoreau); and more mountains and foothills than you could tramp through in a lifetime.

And there's a lot to love here, too: Maine is roughly as big as the other five New England states combined. About half of this huge state is still northern woods without any formal governance (and barely any human population) -- the areas are simply known as "unorganized townships." This makes Maine one of the wildest states in the lower 48, though hardly anyone in America realizes it.

It was like that when Henry David Thoreau came through here in 1846 to climb Mount Katahdin (one of the first Westerners to do so, in fact; he returned twice more), and it still is today. In fact, Maine is still 90% forested as I write, a truly remarkable statistic.

These woods touch an emotional nerve in many Mainers. Nature enthusiasts grapple with contrary sentiments of developers, town planners, local millworkers, and paper-company foresters. Somehow, they've all managed to get along (more or less), but it hasn't been easy. A number of heartfelt appeals to save the Maine Woods have sprung up, and national groups have become involved in the effort, but the fate of these woods still remains perilously tenuous.

Moosehead Lake and Baxter State Park (dominated, but not limited to, the massive stone peak of Mount Katahdin) are the two big names to know here. Both public parks allow for some serious wilderness outdoor pursuits; they're big, empty landscapes that are still mostly wild -- wild enough to get lost in. Literally.

It's true that big timber firms still own, manage, tree-farm, spray, and log much of the rest of the land up here -- a process that began long before, when King George III laid claim to his "Crown Lands" and started cutting the tallest, choicest white pines for ship masts. But public access is now allowed to some of the paper-company lands, sometimes for free and sometimes for a fee, and the state of Maine has protected some other important tracts.

The upshot? Travelers can find a lot to explore in northern Maine, both on foot and by canoe. Some of it is pristine, some of it still nearly so, and much of it is awe-inspiring in a quiet, soul-stilling way.