South Branch Pond Loop

Lower South Branch Pond in the morning from trailhead, Baxter State Park, ME

The South Branch Pond Campground in Maine’s Baxter State Park overlooks two pristine ponds in the shadow of the surrounding mountains. The South Branch Pond Loop hike is a 6.6 mile loop that leaves from the southwest corner of the campground and includes South Branch Mountain (2630 ft) and Black Cat Mountain (2611 ft) in its counterclockwise circuit of these lower and upper ponds. A full description of the hike can be found in the Maine Mountain Guide, or as an out-and-back to Black Cat Mountain in Hiking Maine’s Baxter State Park. A map of the South Branch Pond area is available for download from BSP’s website. Leaving early from behind the ranger station, I started the hike with wet shoes, as South Branch Pond Brook, the outlet from Lower South Branch Pond, stands between the trailhead kiosk and the remaining trail, and was running high after the night’s rains. The trail was marked in intervals by fresh moose droppings. Less than a mile in, the first overlook faced the wilds to the north.

View of The Traveler from near peak of South Branch Mountain, Baxter State Park, ME

The thick forest quickly gave way to evergreens, birch, and a carpet of light green moss. More views to the north were visible from South Branch Mountain’s ledges and then a brief ridge hike led to the mountain’s summit, two miles in. It was only in the half mile between South Branch summit and Black Cat Mountain’s summit that I started hearing birds, and then they were suddenly everywhere. I climbed through a sparse field of sunlit birches to the soundtrack of Canada Jays. This was just before Black Cat’s summit, where wide-ranging views of the southern half of Baxter State Park, including Katahdin, filled the crisp morning air.

View of Baxter State Park from summit of Black Cat Mountain

The trail wound down the south side of Black Cat through slides and other obstacles, and I was happy for my hiking poles four or five times in the slick rock and mud. I took a break on a rocky slope looking up at Peak of the Ridges, part of Traveler Mountain, to enjoy a hearty Peak Refuel Beef Chili Mac meal I had cooked at the top of Black Cat. The trail leveled out, becoming flatter and flatter past the turn to the left for the Upper South Branch Pond lean-to, and crossed over some log bridges with the reflected morning light emanating from South Branch Pond to my left. A small path led to a rocky beach at the tip of Upper South Branch Pond, just before the intersection at 4.7 miles with the Pogy Notch Trail.

Upper South Branch Pond, Baxter State Park, ME

A small picnic area lay just north of this intersection on the shore of South Branch Pond. The trail was a pleasant walk through leafy forest with the placid South Branch ponds to the left. This became a bit of a scramble on the rocky ledges on the east side of the pond and leveled out into pine forest and the intersection with the Center Ridge Trail. Descending ledges brought me to another deciduous forest, green like it had been tinted by a filmmaker.

Clear water and cliffs, Upper South Branch Pond, Baxter State Park, ME

Here, a little over three hours into the hike, I saw my first human being, a solo hiker headed the other way, and then more people as I reached the intersection with the Howe Brook Trail (On this particular trip, I added on the Howe Brook Trail, which tacked on another four miles, and will cover that out-and-back waterfall trail in another post). I continued north a short distance along Upper South Branch Pond, moving past the North Traveler Trail, with views through the trees of the pond, ending the loop back at the Campground in under 4 hours. This quiet, secluded loop around glassy ponds in the shadow of Traveler Mountain is a fantastic day hike, with mountain views and wildlife.

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A weekend in Baxter State Park’s northern half

View west on North Traveler Trail, Baxter State Park

(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.

Katahdin from I-95 Overlook, Medway, Maine

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.

View from Horse Mountain, Baxter State Park

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.

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Celia and Jackson Ponds (Baxter State Park)

View across Kidney Pond, Baxter State Park

(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.)

Having completed two strenuous hiking days in the northern part of Baxter State Park, I wanted to explore an easier path on my long, scenic way out through the Togue Pond Gate. Celia and Jackson Ponds, reached in that order, are accessed from the Kidney Pond campground day-use trailhead via a 3.2 mile (1.5 to 2 hours) out-and-back hike using the Sentinel Connector Trail, and Celia and Jackson Ponds Trail. I found this hike using Falcon Guides’ Hiking Maine’s Baxter State Park.

The pleasant smell of woodsmoke from the campground quickly gave way to that of pine, and the path has a definite enchanted woods feel, with soft, greenish light cast on the moss surrounding the trail. Shortly after the trail’s beginning, a large boulder on the left is whimsically marked “Kidney Stone – do not remove.” Kidney Pond can be seen through the trees, and then a small side trail to the shore provides excellent views of Katahdin to the west.

Giant boulder, Celia and Jackson Ponds Trail, Baxter State Park

Turn right at the well-marked trail intersection towards Celia and Jackson Ponds on a piney path with mossy hummocks on each side. A giant, incongruous wedge-shaped boulder is visible shortly along on the right, like an alien spacecraft that crashed to earth. Fresh moose poop (again) littered the trail, but never materialized into a moose sighting.

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Five Ponds Loop (Baxter State Park)

September greenery, Five Ponds Loop, Baxter State Park

(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 day after a strenuous Traveler Mountain hike at Baxter State Park, I chose to take the approximately seven mile Five Ponds Loop, both for its relative ease and for morning opportunities to see wildlife. A detailed description of the trail can be found in the AMC Maine Mountain Guide and Falcon Guides’ Hiking Maine’s Baxter State Park.

I hiked the loop in a clockwise direction from its trailhead at the Trout Brook Farm Campground, familiar to me from my hike of Trout Brook Mountain two days prior. The ponds, in that east to west sequence, are Littlefield Pond, Billfish Pond, Round Pond, High Pond, and Long Pond, accessed through a series of side trails. Billfish and Long each have canoe rentals (through the ranger at Trout Brook Farm campsite).

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Traveler Mountain Loop (Baxter State Park)

Sun rising over Black Cat and South Branch Mountains from Traveler Loop

(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 Traveler is a strenuous 10.1 mile loop hike over the rhyolite peaks of Traveler Mountain, the highest volcanic mountain in New England, with over 4,000 feet of total elevation gain. This full-day (6-10 hour) hike begins at Baxter State Park’s (BSP) South Branch Campground, and based upon advice from the AMC Maine Mountain Guide and Falcon Guides’ Hiking Maine’s Baxter State Park and BSP rangers, is best attempted counterclockwise via the Pogy Notch, Center Ridge, Traveler Mountain, and North Traveler trails. This is to avoid descending the steep, loose rock on the Center Ridge Trail.

Lower South Branch Pond at dawn

This route over Traveler’s bulk, which the AMC Maine Mountain Guide accurately describes as “starfish-shaped,” crosses Peak of the Ridges (3,254 ft), Traveler summit (3,550 ft), and North Traveler summit (3,152 ft). As it says on BSP’s website, “Preparation for a Traveler Loop hike is the same as a Katahdin hike,” due to the exposed nature of the hike, elevation gain, lack of available water, and distance. This is true, and in inclement weather, hikers should explore other options. To navigate, I used Map Adventures’ Katahdin Baxter State Park Waterproof Trail Map, but BSP’s official website also has free downloadable/printable trail maps, and the South Branch Pond map covers this area.

Lower South Branch Pond from canoe launch in morning, Baxter State Park

Unlike Katahdin trailheads, no parking reservation is typically needed for the Traveler, and the closest parking to the trailhead is the South Branch Pond Campground day-use/back country lot. On the cool mid-September morning I did my hike, an early fog hung over South Branch Pond. The trail leads over plank bridges to a winding track along the edge of the pond, where I heard the stuttering sound of a belted kingfisher. About .9 miles in, there are beautiful views of the pond from the south end at the canoe landing for the Howe Brook trail.

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Burnt Mountain (Baxter State Park)

Trail to Burnt Mountain summit, Baxter State Park, Maine

(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.)

You will not find many mountain hikes in Baxter State Park marked as anything other than “difficult” or “strenuous,” but Burnt Mountain (1,810 ft) is a pleasant, gradual woods walk of about 2.6 miles that took me under an hour, with fewer roots and rocks than most other hikes nearby. The best description and map I found was in Hiking Maine’s Baxter State Park. Burnt Mountain Trail’s out-and-back hike begins at the Burnt Mountain Picnic Site. This remote trailhead, which has a picnic table and a toilet, is along the park’s Tote Road, in the northwest corner of the park, close to the Scientific Forest Management Area.

Changing leaves in the light of the opening after the summit, Burnt Mountain, Baxter State Park

The prodigious moose poop along the trail (after reflection, I decided not to add a photo) brought up my hopes of a sighting, without any positive resolution. The only real effort expended, which was bracing after the easy walk and a long day hiking, was a long gradual incline right before the summit.

Overgrown footings left from fire tower, Burnt Mountain summit, Baxter State Park

Don’t be disheartened at the summit if all you see is four old fire tower footings and some tall grass. Continue briefly downhill past the summit to an open vista well worth the hike, with views of multiple mountains in the wild central backcountry of Baxter State Park.

View from overlook past summit, Burnt Mountain, Baxter State Park

(Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links, and as an Amazon Associate Hiking in Maine blog earns from qualifying purchases.)

South Branch Falls (Baxter State Park)

South Branch Falls, Baxter State Park

(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.)

South Branch Falls is a short (about one mile out/back, less than an hour) waterfall hike, close to Baxter State Park’s South Branch Campground, in the northern part of the park, accessible from the Matagamon Gate. This family-friendly hike explores a fast-running section of the South Branch Ponds Brook. Full description, map and photos can be found in Falcon Guides’ Hiking Maine’s Baxter State Park.

South Branch Falls, Baxter State Park

As you wind down the narrow trail through the birches, you will start to hear the sound of rushing water. Stone steps will lead you down to South Branch Ponds Brook, with a couple small side trails giving views of the running water, and the opportunity to scramble over some rocks.

South Branch Falls, Baxter State Park

The pools throughout are usually deep enough for a cold dip. Arriving a little before sunset, I disturbed a swimming flock of what looked to be mergansers, which we at Hiking in Maine call “motor ducks,” for their ability to quickly, efficiently, and loudly hydroplane downstream and away.

South Branch Falls, Baxter State Park

While an ongoing drought made the flow of the falls less rapid, the juxtaposition of rocks and light and water was definitely worth the short hike. A perfect excursion to cool off or enjoy a picnic.

(Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links, and as an Amazon Associate Hiking in Maine blog earns from qualifying purchases.)

Trout Brook Mountain (Baxter State Park)

Trout Brook Mountain Trail, Baxter State Park

(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 trail up Trout Brook Mountain (1,767 ft), 3.3 miles, about 1 hr 45 mins, begins from a small day use parking lot at the Trout Brook Farm Campground at Baxter State Park. Like Horse Mountain, the best maps and descriptions I found were in the AMC Maine Mountain Guide and Falcon Guides’ Hiking Maine’s Baxter State Park. This hike also gets its own treatment in Maine Hikes Off the Beaten Path. For those planning to explore more of Baxter State Park than one place, Map Adventures’ Katahdin Baxter State Park Waterproof Trail Map is a great analog navigation tool in a place where digital devices don’t belong. Baxter’s great official website also has downloadable/printable trail maps, and the Trout Brook Farm map covers this area.

Steeper climbing, Trout Brook Mountain, Baxter State Park

At the beginning of the trail up Trout Brook Mountain, the emerald colors of hobblebush contrast with the darker forest, particular as it transitions to evergreen. The trail winds through this forest and climbs rocky ledges dressed in soft green moss, with excellent northward views toward Trout Brook, Grand Lake Matagamon and the north woods.

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Horse Mountain (Baxter State Park)

Horse Mountain Trail, Baxter State Park

(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.)

Horse Mountain (1,589 ft) is the first trail you will encounter through Baxter State Park’s Matagamon Gate. This hike, about 3.3 miles, taking about an hour and twenty minutes with the inclusion of the East Spur Overlook, starts uphill on a narrow track through a forest dominated by birch. Map and description are available from two indispensable books – the AMC Maine Mountain Guide and Falcon Guides’ Hiking Maine’s Baxter State Park by Greg Westrich. Throughout Baxter State Park, I used Map Adventures’ Katahdin Baxter State Park Waterproof Trail Map to navigate.  Baxter’s great website also has downloadable/printable trail maps, and the Trout Brook Farm map covers this area.

Horse Mountain Trail near summit, Baxter State Park

The sparsely recorded trail log and spiderwebs across the trail attest to its lesser-used nature. In fact, as I was getting ready to hike at the tiny parking area, a man stopped his vehicle and told me that he had hiked every mountain in Baxter State Park except Horse Mountain. I don’t know why he stopped to tell me this, but it provided the proper motivation for me to do something that he had not.

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Hiking Maine’s Baxter State Park, by Greg Westrich

The digital age in hiking has brought us “apps,” which can be concealed in a phone, show us where we are, how far we have gone, and can describe and map hikes.  But these technological wonders have their limitations, particularly in a wild place like Baxter State Park, where cell service is available only intermittently (if at all), and only from the highest elevations.  There is also something incongruous about getting away and outdoors, only to stare at a tiny screen.  Enter Hiking Maine’s Baxter State Park by Greg Westrich (FalconGuides, 2017), an outstanding roadmap to Maine’s favorite wilderness playground, combining the analog permanence and durability of a book, and the accessible map and photo layout of an online guide.

Westrich’s book begins with an introduction and instructions on using the guide.  Following a “Before You Hit The Trail” summary of Baxter State Park’s history, geology, wildlife, seasons, and rules, Westrich describes thirty-seven unique day hikes, numbered roughly from north (Horse Mountain) to south (Roaring Brook Nature Trail) within the park, and three suggested backpacking trip itineraries, ranging from three to four days in duration.  Each hike begins with a short section called “The Run Down,” describing the essential characteristics of the hike at a glance, as well as its difficulty on a scale of Easy to Very Strenuous.  Physical directions and precise GPS location of the trailhead are included, as are individual trail maps and excellent photos.  Westrich describes points of interest, locations for views, and trail-specific features, like water sources, or places to rent canoes.

The genius of this guide is the layout.  Readers can flip through the guide, or use the numbered overview map in the beginning to find a hike based on its location in the park.  Hikes close in proximity in the park are correspondingly adjacent in the book, allowing the reader to string together their own hikes, like we did for Grassy Pond, Daicey Pond Loop, and Niagara Falls.  Another entry point is the “Trail Finder” towards the back of the book, breaking down the best hikes for swimming, views, waterfalls, blueberries, geology, families, wildlife, history, and canoeing.  These categories make for quick suggestions and ideas, and further broaden the appeal of this guidebook.

The subtitle of the book is “A Guide to the Park’s Greatest Hiking Adventures Including Mount Katahdin,” which cleverly (and rightfully) positions the park’s centerpiece as only one of the many places to explore.  Fear not, the legendary routes to Katahdin’s Baxter Peak via the Hunt Trail, Abol Trail, and The Knife Edge each receive their own detailed entries in this guide, which make the book worth owning all by themselves.  But it is impossible to peruse this book without feeling the urge to spend more time in Baxter State Park, seeking out the lesser-known hikes that Westrich so aptly describes.