Exploring Baxter State Park, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, and Environs
Most hikers coming to Baxter State Park are intent on ascending Mount Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak. 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. 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.
Baxter State Park lies 85 miles north of Bangor. Take I-95 to Medway (exit 244), then head west 11 miles on Route 11/157 to the mill town of Millinocket, the last major stop for supplies. Go through town and follow signs to Baxter State Park. There’s also another, less-used entrance in the park’s northeast corner. Follow I-95 to exit 259, then take Route 11 north through Patten and west on Route 159, which becomes Grand Lake Road, into the park. Speed limit in the park is 20 mph; motorcycles and ATVs are not allowed here. Park entry is free to Maine residents; visitors driving cars with out-of-state license plates are charged a per-day fee of $14 per car. This fee is charged only once per stay if you’re coming to camp; otherwise, you need to repay each day you enter the park. Tip: A season pass costs $39 per car for out-of-staters. If you’ll be in the park more than 3 days during any given year, buy the pass instead.
To reach nearby Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, leave I-95 at Sherman (exit 264), 20 miles north of Medway. The south entrance, which leads to the scenic driving loop and some dayhiking trailheads, is 13 miles west along Staceyville Road; the north entrance is along the same Grand Lake Road that accesses Baxter’s north entrance (see above). As of this writing, a fee infrastructure is not yet in place at the new national monument, nor have entrance booths been erected, so the monument is a fee-free area.
Grinning & Bearing It in Baxter
There are a few dozen black bears in Baxter State Park, and while they are not out to eat you, they do get ornery when disturbed, and they do get hungry at night. The park has published these tips to help you keep a safe distance:
*Put all food and anything else with an odor (toothpaste, repellent, soap, deodorant, and perfume) in a sealed bag or container and keep it in the car.
*If you’re camping in the backcountry without a car, put all your food, dinner leftovers, and other “smellable” things in a bag and hang it between two trees (far from your tent) so that a bear can’t reach it easily. Never keep any food in your tent.
*Take all your trash with you from the campsite when you leave.
*Do not feed bears or any other animals in the park. They may bite that hand that feeds them! And don’t toss any food on the trail.
SPORTS & OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES
BACKPACKING: Baxter maintains about 180 miles of backcountry hiking trails and more than 25 backcountry campsites, some of them accessible only by canoe. Reservations are required for backcountry camping; many of the best spots fill up quickly in early January when reservations open for a calendar year.
The Appalachian Trail and More
En route to Mount Katahdin, the Appalachian Trail winds through the “100-Mile Wilderness,” a remote 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 Conservancy, 799 Washington Street, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia (www.appalachiantrail.org; tel. 304/535-6331). Where the Appalachian Trail ends at Katahdin, the International Appalachian Trail begins. It’s a still-in-progress footback that winds up to the Gaspe country in Quebec, but 35 of its best miles pass through Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, with rather nicely maintained lean-tos available to backpackers on a first-come-first-served basis. Detailed information available at monument welcome centers and at www.internationalatmaine.org.
CANOEING: 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 (www.maine.gov/allagashwildernesswaterway; 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 flatwater 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 $12 per night, $6 for Maine residents (no fee for kids under 15 and seniors 70 and older).
The East Branch of the Penobscot, along the eastern edge of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, is another of Maine’s classic river trips—and a fine shorter alternative to the Allagash. It’s a 3-day paddle (26 river miles) from Grand Lake Matagamon near the north entrance to where the river meets the monument’s south entrance ford at Whetstone Falls. The first day involves multiple short portages over wild-tumbling rapids and falls; after that, the river smooths out for a mellow 2-day float and chance to spot moose, deer, eagles, and maybe even an elusive lynx. Great fishing for native brook trout, too. About a dozen riverside campsites (free, first-come-first-serve) allow you to break up the trip in a bunch of different ways. Nearby Bowlin Camps (www.bowlincamps.com; tel. 207/267-0884) offers guided trips and shuttles.
HIKING: With 180 miles of maintained backcountry trails and 46 peaks (including 18 that are higher than 3,000 feet), 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. 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 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.
Allow at least 8 hours for the round trip ascent up Mount Katahdin, 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.
Shorter day hikes are the order of the day at the national monument. Two of the best spur off of the scenic Katahdin Loop Road in the southwest corner of the monument. A 4-mile out-and-back hike up the little granite hump of Barnard Mountain shows off some pretty exposed ledges as you ascend the switchbacks. The 9-mile out-and-back hike to the 1,964-foot summit of Deasey Mountain begins an easy ford off the Loop Road, climbs steeply past a massive erratic boulder and through some old-growth woods, then culminates with terrific views of Katahdin’s eastern face.
MOUNTAIN BIKING: Head for the north entrance of the national monument to reach a 5-mile stretch of the International Appalachian Trail called Old Telos Tote Road, ideal for mountain bikes. The route follows the west bank of the East Branch of the Penobscot River, passing five different stretches of cascading whitewater. Highlights include a gnarly 20-foot rock formation called Haskell Rock and the dramatic Grand Pitch, a roaring 30-foot falls that stretches across the river. In winter, the trail is groomed for cross-country skiing. You’ll have to bring your own ride, alas, as there’s no place yet to rent mountain bikes nearby—as people start showing up to the new monument, I expect some entrepreneur in Patten will get on top of this.
WHITEWATER RAFTING: 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. The trade group Raft Maine (www.raftmaine.com; tel. 800/723-8633) can connect you to one of its member outfitters. Among the better-run outfitters in the area is New England Outdoor Center (www.neoc.com; tel. 800/766-7238), on the river southeast of Millinocket. An anchor of the region’s outdoor-recreation ecosystem, NEOC offers trips and experiences of every kind in all seasons—guided fishing, moose-spotting, and photography tours, rafting trips, even its own groomed ski trails come winter—and has a good restaurant and a range of lodgings.