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.

 

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

(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.)

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.

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