(Note: As of October 23, 2020, Baxter State Park offices and headquarters remain closed to the public, but reservations can still be made online and by calling (207) 723-5140. Togue and Matagamon Gates are open 6am to 7pm. Katahdin and Traveler trails are closed at their trailheads to protect alpine resources.)
The last couple years, dad and daughter have picked a late-summer weekend to climb Mount Katahdin together at Baxter State Park (BSP). On last year’s trip, we diverted to explore some easier trails from Katahdin Stream Campground, and this year, due to daughter’s same lingering knee injury from last year and her recovery from late August knee surgery, it was a solo trip for dad. Not wanting to climb Katahdin without my hiking buddy, I set my sights on the Traveler Loop. South Branch Pond Campground was full, so I canceled our mid-September Roaring Brook parking reservation, and found a tent site instead at Trout Brook Farm Campground.
The drive in to Matagamon Gate from the south was a gradual journey back in time. I stopped at the scenic overlook off I-95 in Medway to peer through the morning clouds at the Katahdin massif looming ever larger to the west, over Salmon Stream Lake and the East Branch of the Penobscot. Off the highway, I slowed on Rte 11 for Amish horse-drawn carriages and tractors, and passed through the vintage downtown of Patten. Turning west toward Baxter State Park, I made mental notes as I drove by interesting spots for future hikes – Mount Chase, Owl’s Head, Seboeis River Trail, and Mount Deasey and Barnard in Katahdin Woods and Waters.
Being an early riser, I got through Matagamon Gate too early to check in at my campsite (check-in is at 1 PM), so I turned into the first available trailhead, for Horse Mountain. Following a great view and a quick descent, I signed in at the ranger station, and began to set up camp at Trout Brook. The site, with a picnic table and fire ring, was on Park Tote Road, but far enough away from other campsites, and with the tent spot recessed sufficiently to provide some privacy. A large apple tree stood in the tree line and attracted woodland animals, remnant of a long-ago orchard. The site was also very close to the trailheads for Trout Brook Mountain and the Five Ponds Loop.
Some gear and logistics background – we are not shills or influencers. I find gear and links helpful, and post them where we got them, whether it benefits us or not. I used a Kelty Salida 2-person tent – it’s not the lightest or most high-tech, but I can set it up quickly, and it is durable and big enough for one person and their gear. Dad and daughter used it for the 100 Mile Wilderness when daughter was smaller, but it’s probably a little too cozy for two average-size adults. When we broke one of the tent poles, Kelty replaced it immediately, free, and without any question, so high marks for customer support. It looks like this model is no longer being made, so we enjoy having a unique tent.
Because I was car camping, I used a much thicker, heavier L.L. Bean 20 degree sleeping bag for comfort, and was warm and snug. I laid this over my trusty Therm-a-Rest ProLite Mattress, and brought a regular-sized pillow from home.
For meals at the tent site, I brought a portable propane grill, and froze bison burgers in a cooler. My dehydrated meals on trail, heated with my JetBoil, were both gifts from friends – Indian Korma from Maine-based Good To-Go, and Beef Chili Mac from Peak Refuel. These were each “double” servings, which I find to be single servings while hiking, based upon my appetite. The Korma, while vegetarian, was hearty, flavorful, and spicy, with a great consistency. The Beef Chili Mac was rich and full-bodied, and I found it superior to the Mountain House brand that daughter and I had previously enjoyed.
For breakfast, I usually keep it simple, with Laird Superfood Instant Coffee in water heated on the JetBoil for a little caffeine boost, and a MetRx Big 100 Protein Bar. One thing I have added to my hiking pantry is LMNT Recharge Electrolyte Hydration Powder. This small pouch, which dissolves quickly in water, contains a blend of sodium, potassium, and magnesium that prevents cramping and dehydration, particular for those on paleo or keto diets. I typically take them before and after a long hike, and have not had any issues with legs cramping up.
BSP’s official website has free downloadable/printable trail maps, and I used their Trout Brook Farm map and South Branch Pond map. A more durable, trail-ready tool was Map Adventures’ Katahdin Baxter State Park Waterproof Trail Map. To select hikes, I brought along the AMC Maine Mountain Guide, which has an entire first section dedicated to Baxter State Park and Katahdin, and Falcon Guides’ Hiking Maine’s Baxter State Park, with detailed descriptions and maps of BSP’s trails.
For online/digital exploration, Maine by Foot has an excellent (and recent) overview of the trails at Trout Brook Farm and South Branch Pond. I use the AllTrails Pro application on my phone, as it works offline, using GPS even when there is no cell service, to track hiking mileage, elevation, and route. Also, check out Maine By Foot’s recently updated description of BSP hikes from both Trout Brook and South Branch.
This trip was the first for my new, smaller daypack, the Osprey Packs Stratos 24. This pack is almost improbably light, and allows for air flow between your back and the frame. This worked so well, that for the first half hour of carrying it, I thought my water reservoir was leaking, as my lower back was so cool. I kept it light, packing a bivy sack and some survival gear in event of emergency, as well as warm clothing, and snacks, with multiple exterior pockets for easy access. The pack distributed the weight perfectly, and I would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a light, durable daypack.
I also used my L.L. Bean Ridgehiker Hiking Poles. As previously discussed on this blog, I was a slow adopter, preferring to have my hands free, but a couple falls (Katahdin, and more recently, and ironically, Tumbledown) descending in snow, ice, or rain helped me into the light. These are lightweight, easily adjustable, and retractable enough to stow on your pack when you’re not using them. They also have the cork grips I prefer.
Day 1, continued…
So, after setting up camp, I explored Trout Brook Mountain, then Burnt Mountain, and finally, as daylight started to wane, South Branch Falls. I also scouted out the day-use parking lot at South Branch Campground for the next morning. Back at the campsite, I read by the campfire, and spoke to a couple I had encountered on the Trout Brook Mountain trail, and we shared hiking recommendations and wildlife sightings.
I did not see the BSP ranger the entire time I was at the site, and assumed he was busy dealing with the group sites to the north, where a steady (and decidedly un-Baxter-like) bass thump emanated into the night, with accompanying loud voices and singing. I heard a steady rustling outside the tent every time I woke up during the night, but mostly had a good night’s sleep.
On Day 2, I was up early, and got to the trailhead for the Traveler Mountain loop as the sun began to rise. This 10-plus mile loop took me about 6 hours of strenuous hiking, and I enjoyed every minute. The burgers on the grill back at the tent site were everything I had dreamed they would be on the drive back from the trailhead, and after reading by the campfire and briefly stretching, I was out like a light.
The following morning, before sunrise, I investigated the rustling sounds I had been hearing. A small field mouse, hopping on its hind legs, was gathering dried leaves, and methodically placing each of them in its hole to line it for winter. I evaluated my sore legs, my long drive back south, and my now-empty food supply, and decided to keep things simple today, rather than to attempt another long hike.
I quietly took down my campsite, packed up my truck, then explored the long, relatively flat Five Ponds Loop. Bidding goodbye to Trout Brook Farm Campground, I headed down the Park Tote Road, passing by Ledge Falls, Slide Dam picnic site, and the marker for the Unknown River Driver on my way to the Kidney Pond campground day-use parking lot, where I enjoyed another easy forest walk on the Celia and Jackson Pond Trails.
I certainly left some hikes for next time – Middle Fowler Pond, Barrell Ridge, Howe Brook Falls, and Black Cat all come to mind. And more time would also allow for paddling on the quiet lakes and ponds. I should have also packed more food, to allow for the refueling necessary during and after the Traveler Loop hike.
But this three-day itinerary allowed me to see highlights in the quieter north half of Baxter State Park, as well as exploring the long, slow drive from Matagamon Gate to Togue Pond Gate on the way out. It’s easy to become fixated on Katahdin’s trails, but Baxter State Park contains so much more, and those seeking more solitude in its mountains and waterfalls should set out to discover its northern half.
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