Open daily, Northwoods Outfitters on Main Street in Greenville (tel. 866/223-1380 or 207/695-3288; www.maineoutfitter.com) can help plan a trip up the lake or into the woods and load you up with enough equipment to stay out for weeks. The shop rents complete adventure equipment sets, which include canoes, paddles, life jackets, a tent, sleeping bags, pads, camp stoves, axes, cook kits, and more. Shuttle service and individual pieces of equipment are also available for rent, including canoes and mountain bikes.
In Rockwood, family-run Moose River Landing (tel. 207/534-7577) has various boats for rent to help explore the lake. You can rent a 20-foot pontoon boat seating eight to ten adults; it comes outfitted with a marine radio for emergencies. The proprietors can also make suggestions for beaches and quiet coves to visit on the lake, as they maintain a very helpful information center on the same property.
The Best Views? Whatever Floats Your Boat -- The first thing one needs to know about Moosehead Lake is that it's not meant to be seen by car. Some great views can be had from a handful of roads -- especially from Route 6/15 as you near Rockwood, and from high elevations on the way to Lily Bay -- but for the most part, roads are at a distance from the shores and the driving is dull. Instead, to see the lake at its best get out on the water by steamship or canoe. (If you really prefer sightseeing by car, head instead for the mountains of western Maine or the fishing village on the coast.)
Follow Thoreau's footsteps into the Maine woods on a canoe excursion down the West Branch of the Penobscot River. This 44-mile trip is typically done in 3 days. Here's how most folks do it: They put in at Roll Dam, north of Moosehead Lake and east of Pittston Farm, paddling north on the generally smooth waters of the Penobscot. After choosing one of several campsites along the river, they spend the night, watching for moose as evening descends; on the second day, they paddle to huge, wild Chesuncook Lake. Near where the river enters the lake is the Chesuncook Lake House (tel. 207/745-5330), a farmhouse dating from 1864 with a handful of rooms and 3 cabins for rent. Double rooms in the main inn cost $220 per night, the cabins $100 to $140 per night double occupancy (there are kitchens, bathrooms, and running water in these cabins in summer and fall only). The final day of the journey involves a paddle down Chesuncook Lake, with its views of Mount Katahdin to the east, and a final take-out near Ripogenus Dam.
To help arrange a canoe excursion, consult Allagash Canoe Trips (tel. 207/237-3077; www.allagashcanoetrips.com), which has been leading guided canoe trips in the North Woods -- including the Allagash, Moose, Penobscot and St. John's rivers -- since 1953. A 5-day guided camping trip down the West Branch -- including all equipment, meals, and transportation -- costs $595 per person for adults, less for children.
A good destination for a day hike, especially for families, is the Borestone Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary (tel. 207/631-4050 or 207/781-2330), south of Greenville and north of the town of Monson. The mountain, which has not been cut for timber in more than a century, is owned by the Maine Audubon Society. It's about 3 miles to the top of this gentle prominence; a booklet helps explain some of the natural attractions along the way. About halfway up is a staffed nature center at Sunrise Pond, with natural history exhibits and artifacts.
To find the mountain, drive 10 miles north of Monson on Route 6/15 (en route to Greenville) and look for the sign for Eliotsville Road on your right; turn here and continue until you cross a bridge over a river; and then turn left and head uphill for 3/4 mile until you see signs for the sanctuary. It's open dawn to dusk, from Memorial Day through the end of October. No pets are allowed on the property.
Closer to Greenville, 3,196-foot Big Moose Mountain (which is also home to the Big Squaw ski resort) offers superb views of Moosehead Lake and the surrounding area from its summit. A hike to the top requires about 4 hours; the trail begins about 5 miles northwest of Greenville on Route 6/15 (turn west on the gravel road and continue 1 mile to the trail head). Ask for detailed directions at the visitor information center in Greenville.
One of the best hikes in the region is up Mount Kineo, the massive, broad cliff that rises from the shores of Moosehead. This hike is accessible via water; near the town of Rockwood, look for signs advertising shuttles across the lake to Kineo from the town landing (folks offering this service seem to change from year to year, so ask around; it usually costs about $5 round-trip). Once on the other side, you can explore the grounds of the famed old Kineo Mountain House (alas, the grand, 500-guest-room hotel was demolished in 1938), then cut across the golf course and follow the shoreline to the trail that leads to the 1,800-foot summit. Views from the cliffs are dazzling but might give you vertigo if you don't like looking down sheer drop-offs. If you like sheer drops, though, continue along the trail to the old fire tower, which you can ascend for a hawk's-eye view that's even more exciting.
The famed "100-Mile Wilderness" of the Appalachian Trail begins in the town of Monson, south of Greenville, and runs northeast to Abol Bridge near Baxter State Park. This is a spectacularly remote part of the state and allows for some of the best deep-woods hiking in Maine. The trip is primarily for independent and experienced backpackers -- there are no points along the route to resupply -- though day trips in and out are a possibility if you've got a friend and a car.
One especially beautiful stretch of this trail passes along Gulf Hagas, sometimes called "Maine's Grand Canyon" (a description that's a bit grandiose). The Pleasant River has carved a canyon as deep as 400 feet through the bedrock slate here; the trail runs along its lip, with side trails extending down to the river, where people sometimes swim (carefully) in the eddies and cascades. The gulf is accessible as a day hike if you enter the forest via logging roads. Drive north from Milo on Route 11 (east of Greenville) and follow signs to the Katahdin Iron Works, an intriguing historic site worth exploring in its own right. Pay the fee at the timber company gate and ask for directions to the gulf.
A number of other hikes can be enjoyed in the area, too, but get good guidance since the trails aren't as well marked here as they are in the White Mountains or in Baxter State Park. Ask at the visitor information center, or pick up a copy of 50 Hikes in Northern Maine, which contains good descriptions of several area hikes.
The King's Pines -- Despite its being 90% covered by forest, Maine doesn't have many truly big trees left. That's mostly thanks to the British Royal Navy, who needed the biggest, straightest trees to build tall wooden ships in England -- Maine white pines were considered the ideal wood for the masts of those ships. The trouble began in 1691, when the Massachusetts Bay Charter was issued by British King William and Queen Mary. This document established New Hampshire (which included Maine at the time) as a separate territory from Massachusetts. But it also contained a so-called "mast-preservation clause," allowing the Navy to reserve for itself any tree that measured 24 inches or more in diameter at a height of 1 foot, growing on any piece of land that had not already been granted to any private person.
Forest runners moved through broad swaths of previously untouched forest land, marking the best trees with distinctively broad arrow-shaped axe slashes which meant, in essence, "hands off." The free-spirited colonists, who were actually living on the edge of the wilderness, were furious at the long reach of London's arm into their backyard (a theme that would be heard again soon), but there was little they could do, and the Navy set out felling trees at a breakneck pace. Today, just a handful of those giant old-growth pines remain, none of them on public view (unless you know where to go).
Greenville has become a snowmobilers' mecca, with hundreds of sledders descending on the town during winter and striking out into the remote woods. Along the Moosehead Trail, a 170-mile route that runs around the perimeter of the lake, you'll find lodging and meals at various stops along the way. If you want to rent a snowmobile, one recommended base is the modern Evergreen Lodge (Rte. 15, Greenville; tel. 888/624-3993 or 207/695-3241), which has six comfortable guest rooms. Northwoods Outfitters, on Main Street in Greenville (tel. 866/223-1380 or 207/695-3288), rents various types of snowmobile by the day.
For more information on snowmobile rentals and tours, check out Sled Maine, a consortium of white-water outfitters who switch to snow tours in winter. Visit the group's website, www.sledmaine.com.
Hard-core rafters love the heart-thumping run through Kennebec Gorge at the headwaters of the Kennebec River, southwest of Greenville. Dozens of rafters line up along the churning river below the dam, awaiting the siren that signals the release. (Your guide will tell you to hop in.) Once you're off, heading through huge, roiling waves and down precipitous drops with such names as Whitewasher and Magic Falls, buckle in. Most of the excitement is over in the first hour; after that, it's a lazy relaxing trip down the river, interrupted only by lunch and an occasional water fight with neighboring rafts. Nearby is the less thrilling (but more technical) Dead River, with a half-dozen dam release dates, mostly in early summer.
Commercial white-water outfitters have trips in summer at a cost of about $90 to $120 per person (usually on the higher end Sat-Sun). Northern Outdoors (tel. 800/765-7238; www.northernoutdoors.com) is the oldest of the bunch and has rock-climbing and fishing expeditions as well, plus snowmobiling in winter. Their base is in The Forks (pop. 35), about 20 miles north of Waterville on U.S. 201.
Other reputable rafting companies include Wilderness Expeditions (tel. 800/825-9453), which is affiliated with the rustic Birches Resort, and the New England Outdoor Center (tel. 800/766-7238).
Downhill & Cross-Country Skiing
You can enjoy cross-country skiing at The Birches Resort (tel. 800/825-9453; www.birches.com), a rustic resort on the shores of Moosehead north of Rockwood, which has more than a dozen log cabins along with limited lodge accommodations. About 25 miles of rolling backcountry trails here are groomed daily.
Everywhere around you. If you're staying in any of the accommodations around Moosehead Lake, you'll probably soon figure out how it got its name. The prime times to spot them are, fortunately, from around Memorial Day until the middle of September -- which is prime time for travelers to visit the region, too. From fall until the following spring, as the moose go into their winter routines (which involves a whole lot less perambulating and a whole lot more sleeping), they get harder to spot. Some local outfitters might try to rope you into a "moose-spotting" tour, but I wouldn't pay for these. Instead, just set out on a drive outside Greenville (bring a map and a cellphone just in case).