Grassy Pond, Daicey Pond Loop and Niagara Falls (Baxter State Park)

Little Niagara Falls, Appalachian Trail in Baxter State Park
Little Niagara Falls, Appalachian Trail in Baxter State Park

In season 1, episode 3 of the travel show “An Idiot Abroad,comedian Karl Pilkington, sleeping in a cave across from the impressive facade of the lost city of Petra in Jordan, focuses on his vantage point, rationalizing, “I’d rather live in a cave with a view of a palace than live in a palace with a view of a cave.” When our annual father/daughter trip to climb Katahdin was detoured by injury, we used similar logic in planning a non-Katahdin hike at Baxter State Park – a flatter, less strenuous hike highlighted by the views of Katahdin and the many surrounding mountains of Baxter S.P.  While Katahdin’s peaks are the undisputed centerpiece of this amazing place, this approach showed us a glimpse of the wonders available in the shadow of the mountain.

Mount Katahdin, wreathed in clouds, from Katahdin Stream Campground
Mount Katahdin, wreathed in clouds, from Katahdin Stream Campground

We kept our lean-to reservation at Katahdin Stream Campground, and when morning dawned, we filtered the chilly waters of Katahdin Stream into our water bottles. Instead of heading up the Hunt Trail to Baxter Peak, we turned south on the Appalachian Trail, all the way around Grassy Pond, Elbow Pond, Daicey Pond, down Nesowadnehunk Stream to Little and Big Niagara Falls, then back to the start. We pieced together this hike, totaling about 7.5 miles round-trip (3 hrs 45 mins), from Falcon Guides’ Hiking Maine’s Baxter State Park by Greg Westrich, and used Map Adventures’ Katahdin Baxter State Park Waterproof Trail Map to navigate.  Baxter’s great website also has downloadable/printable trail maps, and the Kidney-Daicey map covers this area.

Moose and Doubletop Mountains across Grassy Pond
Moose and Doubletop Mountains across Grassy Pond, Baxter State Park

Our turn away from Katahdin’s elevation seemed serendipitous, as a steady rain picked up that would have made a steep climb tricky, and we quickly donned our rain gear. An easy rolling trail and plank bridges took us over cold, clear streams tinged sepia tones by cedars, and a hard right turn took us onto the Grassy Pond (blue blazes) and Elbow Pond Trails. We skirted these ponds, trying unsuccessfully to glimpse a morning moose. We settled for birds, frogs and a variety of mushrooms in every color and shape, from small, bright cones to giant discs that looked dangerously like pancakes.

Looking across Elbow Pond to Mt O-J-I and Barren Mountain, Baxter State Park
Looking across Elbow Pond to Mt O-J-I and Barren Mountain, Baxter State Park

Canoes are available to rent at Grassy, Elbow, and Daicey Ponds from the nearest Baxter S.P. ranger station, with plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities.  Daicey Pond has cabins for rent, making it a great base for a week of hiking, if you can snag a reservation.  At Daicey, we re-joined the Appalachian Trail, moving across the day-use parking area to the shores of Nesowadnehunk Stream (towards directional sign marked The Falls). The sides of the trail were carpeted in vibrant green mosses and ferns, creating an emerald forest by the stream.

Little Niagara Falls, Baxter State Park
Little Niagara Falls, Baxter State Park

The remains of the Toll Dam, a vestige of Maine’s logging history, came first, then a short side trail to Little Niagara Falls. The rain and the time of day contributed to a quiet trail, with mostly thru-hikers heading in the other direction, racing the season to summit Katahdin, all friendly and moving quickly. We traveled the slight downhill, and enjoyed the spectacle of the roaring waters of both falls.

Big Niagara Falls, Baxter State Park
Big Niagara Falls, Baxter State Park

Heading back after a snack at Big Niagara Falls, we re-traced our steps north along the A.T., veering south (right) on the Daicey Pond Nature Trail to vary our return route. The trail around the southern side of Daicey Pond was narrow, with wet branches tight to our legs as we moved back towards the A.T. The clouds had moved in to obscure our view of the peaks across Daicey, but a clear day must be spectacular.

View across the south side of Daicey Pond to O-J-I and Barren Mountain
Cloudy view across the south side of Daicey Pond to O-J-I and Barren Mountain

The A.T. took us back to the trailhead, and our nearby vehicle. Normally, we would have enjoyed an outdoor meal on a camp stove, but the rain and cold had us in the truck with the heat on. We headed out of the park to lunch at New England Outdoors Center’s River Drivers Restaurant, overlooking Millinocket Lake (look for signs for a turn left as you head back towards Millinocket), a warm, welcoming place with great pub food and a view of Katahdin – crunchy chicken wrap and fish and chips both got high marks.

Grassy Pond Trail, Baxter State Park
Grassy Pond Trail, Baxter State Park

The trip to Baxter State Park is always a long one, no matter where you are arriving from, as it is remote and wild, and requires you to shed creature comforts and technology.  That, and the reservation system limiting access (smart and sustainable, for the park’s protection) can put a lot of pressure on a day or weekend trip with Katahdin as the goal.  But this great reclaimed wilderness holds a lot more secrets for anyone willing to broaden their outlook beyond the mountain centerpiece, and this change-up hike left us wanting to plan a much longer stay to explore the rest of Baxter State Park.

Pond Loop (Little Lyford Ponds, KI/Jo-Mary)

Little Lyford Upper Pond from the Pond Loop Trail
Little Lyford Upper Pond from the Pond Loop Trail

The Pond Loop Trail, a 1.9 mile hike around Little Lyford Ponds near the Appalachian Mountain Club’s (AMC) Little Lyford Lodge & Cabins, is a pleasant, easy walk with abundant wildlife.  The ponds straddle the townships of Bowdoin College Grant West and Bowdoin College Grant East, close to Moosehead Lake.  For detailed description, check out the AMC Maine Mountain Guide or the online maps available from AMC.  We hiked this short loop the morning after a longer Gulf Hagas hike.  We had camped overnight at a KI/Jo-Mary campsite on the Pleasant River, but a closer stay would be at the AMC Little Lyford Lodge & Cabins, with access to many nearby trails.  As with the rest of the KI/Jo-Mary Multiple Use Management Forest, there is a use fee ($10 per adult Maine Resident per day, $15 non-resident, under 18/over 70 free), payable at one of three checkpoints, the closest of which is the Hedgehog Gate on Greenville Road.  If approaching from the south on Upper Valley Road, the parking area for the Pond Loop Trail is past the sign for the AMC lodge and cabins, on the left-hand side, just before the spur trail marked, “Little Lyford Pond #2 Boat Launch.”

Pond Loop Trail, marked with blue signs
Pond Loop Trail, marked with blue signs

On this sunny Sunday morning in August, we saw no other hikers for the entirety of the loop.  The Pond Loop is known as a good place to see moose, but we were likely up too late in the morning to have a great chance.  Nevertheless, the woods and ponds were alive with smaller animals birds, and butterflies, and the tracks and droppings of moose were evident throughout the hike.  The trail is aptly named, skirting the edges of upper and lower Little Lyford Ponds.

Gerry's Gazebo, Pond Loop Trail
Gerry’s Gazebo, Pond Loop Trail

As suggested by the Maine Mountain Guide, we walked the loop counter-clockwise.  Our circuit took a fortuitous detour (we missed the hard left to go back on the east side of the upper pond), bringing us onto the Pleasant River Trail all the way to the AMC Little Lyford Lodge & Cabins.  Fun fact for dog-lovers: this is the only AMC Lodge that is dog-friendly.

View to the southeast of the Barren-Chairback Range from Little Lyford Lower Pond, along Pleasant River Trail
View to the southeast of the Barren-Chairback Range from Little Lyford Lower Pond, along Pleasant River Trail

This added about 0.4 miles each way, but allowed us to view the cabins, the swimming hole, a beaver dam, and a viewpoint on the lower pond towards the Barren-Chairback Range.  For those staying at the lodge and cabins, this would be a part of the Pond Loop.

Upper Pond outlet, Little Lyford Ponds, from Kendall's Crossing
Upper Pond outlet, Little Lyford Ponds, from Kendall’s Crossing

From the viewpoint at Kendall’s Crossing, we saw loons, ducks, and a heron plying the waters of the upper pond for food.  After a brief walk through a blueberry-lined path through the pines, across log bridges, and a short climb back to Upper Valley Road, we were back at the parking area.

The Pond Loop is a great morning nature hike, a mostly shaded hour on relatively flat terrain, suitable for most ages and abilities.  Be quiet on the trail, listen, and slow down near the viewpoints on the Little Lyford Ponds to take a long look.  You never know what you might see.

Mount Kineo (near Rockwood, ME)

View of Mt. Kineo from the dock in Rockwood, Maine
View across Moosehead Lake of Mount Kineo from the dock in Rockwood, Maine

The woods and waters of Maine’s Moosehead Lake region feature a dizzying array of outdoor activities. For those with limited time (say, a weekend) in this area, sorting through the hiking, biking, boating, fishing, and ATV options can be overwhelming. A journey to the summit of Mount Kineo (1,800 ft), with its 700-plus foot rhyolite cliffs, presents a multi-faceted day trip, combining many of the factors that make Moosehead so special.

This trek starts with a 10 minute boat ride to Kineo from the dock in Rockwood (about a half hour drive from downtown Greenville). In peak summer season, the ferry, run by the Mount Kineo Golf Course, leaves from Rockwood every hour on the hour from 8 am to 6 pm ($13 cash for adults, don’t miss the last shuttle back from Kineo, leaving at 6:45 pm).

View of the Carriage Trail, Mt. Kineo, from above
View of the Carriage Trail, Mount Kineo, from above

The friendly, knowledgeable shuttle captain can give you enough information to complete your hike, but to preview the trail map, check out the Moosehead Lake Chamber of Commerce Moosehead Pinnacle Pursuit. Once ashore at Kineo, the Carriage Road Trail will start to your left. For restrooms, food, water, and free trail maps, go right (watching for golfers teeing off) to the golf clubhouse.

Overlook from the Indian Trail, Mt. Kineo, Moosehead Lake
Overlook from the Indian Trail, Mount Kineo, Moosehead Lake

On this day, I was with two friends, and at the shuttle captain’s suggestion, we hiked up the Indian Trail, then took the Bridle Trail on the descent. This created an approximately 3.2 mile loop hike, which took us a little over two hours, with many breaks to savor the scenery. The Indian Trail is steep, direct, and strenuous, but rewards the hiker with rapidly expanding views of Moosehead Lake and its surroundings.

The Indian Trail then intersects with the more gradual Bridle Trail, which continues to the summit and the fire tower.

View from summit fire tower, Mount Kineo
View from summit fire tower, Mount Kineo
View from summit fire tower, Mt. Kineo
View from summit fire tower, Mount Kineo

The climb up (and down) the fire tower can be challenging for those with vertigo or any fear of heights, but the commanding views on a clear day are incredible. On this day, a sunny Friday in July, there were several other groups of hikers, including a vacationing pair who, after a brief conversation, surprisingly turned out to be readers of this blog. Dogs are allowed (on leash) on the ferry and the trails.

After slowly descending the fire tower steps, a winding downhill walk on the Bridle Trail leads back to the Carriage Trail and the ferry dock. For those looking for a longer day, the easy, flat Carriage Trail extends to the North Trail, which climbs up to the fire tower from the east, encircling the island. According to the shuttle captain, hikers should allow about four and a half hours to complete this longer loop.

Where to go afterwards? Obviously a swim in Moosehead to cool off. Food? Depending on timing, you can grab a beer and/or sandwich at the Mount Kineo golf clubhouse before going back to Rockwood. In Rockwood, the Rockwood Bar and Grill, from which Mount Kineo is visible, has great food and beer, and is a local favorite (the “RBG” stickers you see on cars and ATV’s refer to Rockwood Bar and Grill, not the Supreme Court Justice).

In Greenville, the aptly named Stress Free Moose Pub and Cafe has a friendly waitstaff, a rotating menu of craft beer and pub food, outdoor seating, and frequent live music.

The trek by boat and foot from Rockwood to the fire tower atop Mount Kineo is a special journey, paying off with 360 views of Moosehead Lake and the surrounding Maine woods.

Mount Abraham (Mt. Abram Township, ME)

View down the Fire Warden's Trail, Mount Abram in Kingfield, Maine
View down the Fire Warden’s Trail, Mount Abraham in Kingfield, ME

Sometimes hikes are listed as “Strenuous” simply because of their length or isolation.  Often, it is because of rapid elevation gain, water crossings or the chance of inclement weather at altitude.  Mount Abraham (4,049 ft) in Mt. Abram Twp., one of Maine’s fourteen 4,000 footers, combines all these factors, but still remains an attainable challenge of a day hike, approximately 8.2 miles round-trip out from trailhead to summit and back.  This was about four hours total time on the recent July Saturday I hiked it (I moved quickly because of weather – allow up to six hours or so, based upon your own hiking level), and I used the Maine Mountain Guide and Maine Trailfinder to research the hike.

Fire Warden's Trail, Mount Abram, Kingfield, ME
Fire Warden’s Trail, Mount Abraham, Kingfield, Maine

The mountain itself is in the Mt. Abraham Public Reserved Lands Unit, and contains the second-largest (to Katahdin) alpine zone in Maine.  As of July 2019, the roads were passable all the way to the trailhead, which is at the T-intersection at approximately latitude 44.96817, longitude -70.26049.

From Kingfield, head north from “downtown,” and take a left on West Kingfield Road from Route 27.  Continue straight about six miles (road turns to dirt, and becomes Rapid Stream Road enroute), and take a left at the fork.  After crossing two bridges, take the right fork for about a mile.  At the T-intersection, the trail will be slightly to your right (trailhead sign is set slightly back in the woods), and parking will be by a sign to your left.

Mountain stream, Mount Abram, Kingfield, ME
Mountain stream, Mount Abraham, Kingfield, Maine

The path, marked with blue blazes, showed signs of recent trail work (thanks, trail crew), and had been re-routed out of lower-lying areas.  Recent moose tracks and droppings were frequent, but I did not see the elusive animal on this day.

The Fire Warden’s Trail is pleasantly rugged, a steady, grinding uphill climb across a number of mountain streams, requiring a quick dance across wet, mossy rocks in some spots.  The deciduous forest was thick and humid, an almost jungle-like green tunnel, dense with mosquitoes.  The forest thinned out gradually with elevation, and evergreens substituted in for leafy greenery during the ascent, with a campsite and privy available at about 2.6 miles.

Flowers in the alpine zone, Mount Abram, Kingfield, ME
Flowers in the alpine zone, Mount Abraham, Kingfield, Maine

The breezes and open air of the alpine zone were a brief reprieve from the muggy forest before the steep, rocky climb to the top.  On the summer day I hiked past the cairns lining the ascent, I was racing afternoon thunderstorms, and could see dark clouds rapidly moving, so did not waste time in the mostly unprotected half-mile between the treeline and the summit.

Narrow path in the alpine area of Mount Abram.
Narrow path in the alpine area of Mount Abraham.

I did, however, enjoy the smaller evergreens crowding the narrow trail, the flowering alpine plants across the ridge, and the views of the surrounding mountains and the Carrabassett Valley. The fire tower and shelter at the summit were knocked over and caved in, and a line of cairns marked the connector trail to the Appalachian Trail.

Summit cairn, Mount Abram, Kingfield, ME
Summit cairn, Mount Abraham, Kingfield, Maine

After a quick snack and an obligatory change of socks at the windswept summit, I headed downhill, for a much easier descent back to the trailhead.  The trail was lightly traveled- I saw nobody else on the way up, and only six to eight hikers headed up while I was on my way down (pleasantly light for a sunny Saturday in July).

Where to eat in Kingfield?  In addition to beating the storms, my early-morning start allowed me to lunch at the incomparable Rolling Fatties.  I opted for the delicious Falafel Fatty Bowl, packed with fresh greens and crispy falafel, enjoying it with a Maine Beer Company Woods and Waters IPA at an outdoor table in the sunlight.

Mount Abraham is a pleasantly demanding hike, close to the attractions of the Carrabassett Valley, and paying off with commanding views from Maine’s tenth-highest Mountain.

Libby Hill Forest Trails (Gray, ME)

Libby Hill Trails Trailhead in Gray, ME
Libby Hill Trails Trailhead in Gray, Maine

The Libby Hill Forest in Gray, Maine, maintained by the Friends of Libby Hill, contains nine miles of multi-use trails, spanning properties owned by the Town of Gray, Mathew Morrill Trust, SAD 15, and the Gray Community Endowment (GCE).  The parking area is not far off the Maine Turnpike and Route 26, located at 50 Libby Hill Road in Gray, and the trailhead is behind Gray-New Gloucester Middle School (see trail maps here).  These trails are open year-round, and are designated differently based on width, terrain, and season for hikers, bikers, cross-country skiers, and snowshoe travel.

Moose Odyssey Trail, Libby Hill Forest, Gray, Maine
Moose Odyssey Trail, Libby Hill Forest, Gray, Maine

On the July day we visited, we took the 3.1 mile Moose Odyssey Trail (white blazes), which loops through the center of the trail complex.  This broad, winding path is carpeted by grass and pine needles, and wide enough in most places for two people to walk abreast, making it more of a social trail.  The margins of the gently rolling trail are covered with wild blueberry and sweet fern.

Moose Odyssey Trail, Libby Hill Forest, Gray, Maine
Moose Odyssey Trail, Libby Hill Forest, Gray, Maine

The Libby Hill website contains a variety of maps on its Trail Maps page, including a digital smart phone map, Longest Day 5K race course map, individual trail descriptions and history, orienteering tour, Libby Farmstead tour, and a Tree ID Sign map, perfect for a 17-point scavenger hunt from American Beech (#3, #7) to Yellow Birch (#8).  The forest abounds with birds, and we saw an Eastern Towhee close to the trail.

Harold Libbey Memorial, Libby Hill Forest, Gray, Maine
Harold Libbey Memorial, Libby Hill Forest, Gray, Maine

Once you are on the trail network, navigation is self-correcting, with laminated maps at each intersection.  To the south, the Harold Libbey and Outback trails, accessible from the Moose Odyssey Trail near the Harold Libbey Memorial, continue over wetlands, and contain areas to look for wildlife, including beaver activity (according to the Libby Hill website, Harold’s father changed the spelling from Libby to Libbey to avoid being confused with two others with the same initials and last name).  A note of caution – ticks can abound in the grassy areas, so be sure to take the appropriate precautions, and check yourself after the hike.

For pre- and post-hike snacks, there is a Hannaford at the end of Libby Hill Road, which according to the Libby Hill website, is the former site of William Libby’s Revolutionary War-era farm.  For more outdoor activities, Libby Hill Forest is also in close proximity to the Maine Wildlife Park and Gillespie Farm (Pick Your Own).

Round Top Mountain (Rome, ME)

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View from the Kennebec Highlands Trail, Round Top Mountain, Rome, Maine

Round Top Mountain (1,133 ft) in Rome overlooks Belgrade Lakes and the Kennebec Highlands Public Reserved Lands. The route I chose on a sunny June day was an easy to moderate 4.7 mile counterclockwise loop using the Round Top Trail to the Kennebec Highlands Trail, the Round Top Spur, and then back down the Round Top Trail. I used the great guidebooks Maine Mountain Guide and Maine Hikes Off the Beaten Path for trail maps and hike descriptions. Visit the 7 Lakes Alliance website for a downloadable pdf map.

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Trailhead and Round Top Trail in Rome, Maine

From the trailhead parking lot, this is a pleasant rolling path over a bristling cushion of oak and beech leaves and pine needles to the junction with the Kennebec Highlands Trail. On the early summer day I was there, the air was filled with aggressive mosquitoes, but a combination of Deet and constant movement neutralized their effect.

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Morning light on the Round Top Trail, Rome, Maine
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Wildflowers on Round Top Mountain in Rome, Maine

Thanks to recent rains, the open areas to the margins of the Round Top Trail and of the wider woods road of the Kennebec Highlands were full of a variety of Maine wildflowers, with lady slippers dotting the sides of the more wooded areas.

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Rolling terrain on the Round Top Trail, Rome, Maine

From the left turn off the Kennebec Highlands Path, the ascent to the spur trail to the summit is a climb around switchbacks past blueberries and boulders, with views over the surrounding land.

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View from summit spur trail, Round Top Mountain, Rome, Maine

The (counterclockwise loop) descent down the Round Top Trail is more gradual than that of the Kennebec Highlands Trail, with fewer overlooks. The wooded path winds through the mixed forest, with large boulders lining the hillside like the spine of a dinosaur. The total loop took me about an hour and fifty minutes at a steady but leisurely pace.

This well-maintained trail network creates a unique family-friendly climb in an area of central Maine that is rich in lakes, but lacks the higher elevations of the highlands to the west. This does, however, create many options for a post-hike swim to cool off. For insight regarding things to do and places to stay in the Belgrade Lakes area, check out this great Downeast magazine article.

Rumford Whitecap (Rumford, ME)

View west from the Starr Trail, Rumford Whitecap
View west from the Starr Trail, Rumford Whitecap

Rumford Whitecap Mountain (2,214 ft) in Rumford is accessible through trails maintained by the Mahoosuc Land Trust (MLT), for a 4.9 mile out/back to the summit (slightly longer than five miles due to a trail diversion), or a longer traverse over Black Mountain via the Black/White Trail (requires spotting a car).  MLT’s website advertises Rumford Whitecap as a four-season destination for hiking, snowshoeing, and back country skiing, with blueberries in the summer.  I ascended via the Connector to the Starr Trail (marked with yellow blazes and flagging tape), and returned via the Red/Orange Trail.  I used the guidebooks Maine Mountain Guide and Maine Hikes Off the Beaten Path for detailed trail maps and descriptions.  You can also find a map on the AllTrails app or Maine Trailfinder (link at the MLT website above).

Spring waterfalls on the Connector between the Starr and Red/Orange Trails, Rumford Whitecap
Spring waterfalls on the Connector between the Starr and Red/Orange Trails, Rumford Whitecap

Both trails, divided by a pleasantly running brook in a valley between them, were muddy, but well-maintained.  The Connector crossed the brook, with spring runoff created small waterfalls along the way.  Recent rains created a morning fog, but had also spurred the growth of a variety of wildflowers from the trailhead to the summit.

Spring wildflowers, Rumford Whitecap, Rumford, Maine
Spring wildflowers, Rumford Whitecap, Rumford, Maine

The Starr Trail transitioned from a grassy woods road to a winding climb, becoming more strenuous as the deciduous forest changed to a more sparse, rocky pine forest, and opened up on ledges with spectacular views of the Mahoosucs and White Mountains.

Descent out of the woods into the clouds on the Starr Trail, Rumford Whitecap
Descent out of the woods into the clouds on the Starr Trail, Rumford Whitecap

After the junction with the Red/Orange Trail, the summit was only about another .5 miles, hopping over small cool rivulets of water running down the exposed rock face.  Close to the summit, there was what appeared to be a large deposit of bear poop, but a quick look around didn’t disclose any prints.  The summit itself is open in all directions, and a great spot for a picnic.

The long summit ridge of Rumford Whitecap
The long summit ridge of Rumford Whitecap

After a brief rest at the summit to enjoy the view and chew on some jerky, I headed down the Red/Orange Trail.  The trail ran like a creek in places, with the spring rains, and was diverted for a section.  The hike took about two and a half hours, with plenty of stops to listen to birdsong, inspect wildflowers, watch bumblebees at work, and pick up and inspect pieces of quartz.