Tumbledown Mountain (Weld, ME)

View of Tumbledown from Tumbledown Pond, Weld, Maine
View of Tumbledown peaks from Tumbledown Pond, Weld, ME

Tumbledown Mountain (3,068 ft) in Weld, Maine, is a beloved hike to many Mainers, due to its accessibility and the unique nature of Tumbledown Pond near the summit (this pond is a geological feature called a “tarn”).  Normally, taking a break to swim or fly fish at the top of a mountain is just a daydream.  We first hiked this in April 2017 during our 100-Mile Wilderness training, and again more recently in May 2020, so neither of these warm weather activities were available at elevation.

Ascending the Loop Trail on Tumbledown Mountain, Weld, ME.
Ascending the Loop Trail on Tumbledown Mountain, Weld, ME.
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Sprague Pond Loop Trail, Basin Preserve (Phippsburg, ME)

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Seam of green moss surrounding stream, Basin Preserve, Phippsburg, ME
The Sprague Pond Loop Trail through the Basin Preserve in Phippsburg, ME, is a quiet hike through diverse coastal woodland.  The Basin Preserve consists of over 1800 acres in Phippsburg, Maine, from land donated anonymously to The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in 2006, and adjoins the Sprague Pond Preserve, maintained by the Phippsburg Land Trust. Trail maps of this rolling hike, featuring ridges, mixed hardwood, coastal pitch pine woodland, shrub marsh, and a 10-acre spring-fed pond, are available for download on the TNC website.
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Ridge covered in sunlight and blueberry plants, Basin Preserve, Phippsburg, ME
On a warm spring day, we took the Loop Trail, from the Burnt Ledge Loop trailhead on Basin Road and a portion of the Meditation Trail along Sprague Pond for a 5.8 mile loop (appx 2.5 hrs). Basin Road is closed for winter maintenance until April 15th, and trails (open sunrise to sunset) can also be accessed from the Sprague Pond Preserve trailhead on Route 209.
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Spring runoff in wooded stream, Basin Preserve, Phippsburg, ME
Take time at the Basin Road trailhead to read the sign next to the fenced-in area opposite the trail, where TNC and the Maine Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation maintain a seed orchard, where they are attempting to a produce a blight-resistant chestnut adapted to Maine’s climate. The Sprague Pond Loop Trail is a lollipop loop that divides at Burnt Ledge, and we chose the counter-clockwise loop, heading first down the western side of the trail.
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Rocky terrain and mixed vegetation, Basin Preserve, Phippsburg, ME
This well-marked path, covered in pine needles, winds up and down small ridges, which are covered in blueberry plants.  Despite the recent rains and swollen streams due to snow melt, the trails were dry and well-maintained.  A few fallen trees made for brief scrambles/detours, but this was the exception, rather than the rule.
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Canada geese, south end of Sprague Pond, Phippsburg, ME
We saw and heard songbirds and squirrels throughout the hike, but the animal life peaked at Sprague Pond, where we saw mallard ducks, a great blue heron, Canada geese, a circling bird of prey (unidentified), and a garter snake enjoying the sunny Meditation Trail. Shortly after the pond, a beaver dam and lodge were visible, and a spring torrent fed a rocky waterfall next to the trail.
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Waterfall near Sprague Pond, Phippsburg, ME
After the waterfall, the eastern side of the loop was primarily a mixed hardwood forest, open and light-filled, with desiccated beech leaves rattling in the wind, chattering squirrels and silent birches awaiting spring.  This serene coastal woodland preserve offers a nearly six mile uninterrupted walk through pines, moss, blueberries, and birdsong.  

(Note: no pets or bikes are allowed on the trail)

Fore River Sanctuary (Portland, ME)

On a cold but sunny February day, we hiked Portland, Maine’s Fore River Sanctuary and Jewell Falls via the Forest City Trail and Railroad Loop from the Hillcrest Trailhead, an easy lollipop loop of about 1.2 miles (35 minutes). This preserve, maintained by Portland Trails, is 85 acres of nature inside Maine’s largest city, and contains a waterfall, as well as a lowland marsh area popular with bird watchers. Portland Trails has a digital map page with links to every type of map you would want for completing this hike, and any other in their network.

Portland Trails kiosk at Hillcrest Trailhead

This winter weekend day, we did not see many birds, but many people enjoying the trail with their dogs. The trail was hard-packed snow, with icy sections, and Yaktrax, microspikes, or other traction devices would be advisable. We took a short loop, but the preserve has 5.6 miles of trails, so many other routes are possible.

Jewell Falls, Fore River Sanctuary, Portland, ME

It is a short walk from the Hillcrest trailhead to Jewell Falls, the star attraction of the preserve. Tactically, for those with small children, it may make more sense to use the Rowe Avenue or Starbird Road trailheads, and loop counterclockwise, so that Jewell Falls is the big payoff in the second half of the hike. Jewell Falls in winter is a white cascade of ice, snow, rock, water, and sound, and we picked our way down the stone steps next to the falls to watch and listen.  The falls are named for Tom Jewell, a Portland Trails founder, whose family donated the land around the falls to Portland Trails.

Fore River Sanctuary, Portland, Maine

The winter woods on the Forest City Trail were open and quiet, punctuated by the scampering of red squirrels. This icy path led down across the railroad tracks to the lowland marsh, where water carved its passage through the salty hummocks, a pleasant place to watch for wildlife.

Fore River Sanctuary, Portland, Maine

Crossing back over the railroad tracks, we completed the clockwise loop, stopping briefly again by Jewell Falls to observe the wintry paths of water, before returning to the Hillcrest Street trailhead.

Mill Brook Preserve (Westbrook, ME)

Information kiosk at Northern Trailhead, Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME
Information kiosk at Northern Trailhead, Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME

Westbrook, with its proximity to Portland and its gritty mill background, does not instantly come to mind when thinking about hiking in Maine. But Mill Brook Preserve is a 130 acre section of delightfully unlikely green space in Westbrook along Mill Brook, bounded by Route 302 and Methodist Road.  The five miles of trails in the preserve, suitable for hiking, mountain biking, and snowshoeing, can be accessed from four different trailheads.  The best information and trail map can be found at the website of the Presumpscot Regional Land Trust, which holds this land, and coordinates the 28-mile Sebago to the Sea Trail.

Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME
Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME

In late May and early June, alewives migrate from Casco Bay upstream in the Presumpscot River, then to Highland Lake through this narrow brook, drawing visitors to the flashing, silvery spectacle. Due to the variation in the flow, breadth, and depth of the Brook, two viewing areas (one north, one south) are identified on the trail map for maximum observation of the alewives’ run.

The Northern Fish Viewing Pool is closest to the MAGAN/Willow Dr trailhead, and the Southern Fish Viewing Pool is by the Methodist trailhead. A new bridge connects the southern end of the east side trail to the Perry Court trailhead, avoiding a previously muddy crossing, and this Southern Loop also includes posted Scavenger Hunt signs for kids.

Flora and fauna, Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME
Flora and fauna, Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME

Alewives are not the only wildlife to be found in the forest valley of Mill Brook Preserve. The Preserve abounds with life, from beautiful and unique insects to small mammals and birds, to wildflowers and vines hanging with Concord grapes. One one recent trip in the early fall, I saw a handful of garter snakes sunning themselves on the sandy trail near the Perry Court trailhead.

Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME
Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME

The mosquitoes and biting flies can be intense in the early summer, or in the evenings. The trails are quiet and mostly bug-free in the fall, and the spacing of the trees in the young forest creates a patchwork of light and foliage.

The Presumpscot Regional Land Trust also opened (in October 2019) a new 1.5 mile loop trail through 32 acres of forest in Mill Brook Preserve South, accessible from a parking area at Millbrook Estates off East Bridge Street in Westbrook. This southernmost trail of the Preserve does not currently connect with the northern side.

Afternoon light, Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME
Afternoon light, Mill Brook Preserve, Westbrook, ME

The trails are not difficult, overall, but the narrow, winding path up and down ridges in the middle section between the MAGAN and Methodist trailheads might challenge some hikers. Thankfully, the trails provide enough variety that this should not preclude hikers of any ability from enjoying this suburban forest oasis. Navigation along the trails is also forgiving and self-correcting, with maps posted at critical intersections throughout the Preserve.

Mill Brook Preserve in Westbrook, ME, is an unexpected swath of forest, water, and wildlife in the Portland metro area, with five miles of trails and activities for everyone.

Mariaville Falls Preserve (Mariaville, ME)

Mariaville Falls, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Union River, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME

Mariaville Falls Preserve in Mariaville, Maine, is a conservation area along the banks of the West Branch of the Union River in Hancock County, owned and managed by the Frenchman Bay Conservancy, which has a trail map on its website.  This woods and waters gem, the former site of a small village, lies off 181 between Amherst and Ellsworth (look for the wooden sign on the west side of 181).

Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME

We were fortunate enough to visit on a sunny day during the peak of autumn foliage.  The trails are short, and the Fisherman’s Trail (.85 mi) follows the river, with the New Trail (.48 mi) looping further east from the first parking area (look for the kiosk), and joining the Fisherman’s Trail near the falls.

Fall colors, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Fall colors, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME

Union River, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Union River, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME

We walked slowly, and made the trip out and back from the second (gravel pit) parking area along the Fisherman’s Trail in about 35 to 40 minutes.  The trail is steep in places, but this walk is short enough to be suitable for kids, and the views of the falls are excellent, particularly in foliage season.

Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME

Observation bench, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Observation bench, Fisherman’s Trail, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME

A bench sits high above the rapids, a contemplative spot to pause and enjoy the view.  Those feeling more adventurous can scramble down closer to observe the falls more closely.  Those in transit in the Downeast region, or anyone looking for a short hike in the area, will enjoy this small but beautiful place.

Union River, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME
Union River, Mariaville Falls Preserve, ME

Orin Falls Trail (Katahdin Woods and Waters)

Orin Falls in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine.
Orin Falls in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine.

(Note: The Katahdin Loop Road opened for the 2020 season on Saturday, May 23. U.S. National Park Service advises to drive with caution and be alert for soft spots and rough road sections. Haskell and Big Spring Brook Huts are temporarily closed, and updates will be posted to the NPS website.)

Our trip around the Loop Road at the end of last summer to Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument left us wanting more, and after a rainy but pleasant day at Baxter State Park on Saturday, we set out the next morning for the Monument to hike to Orin Falls.  This 6-mile hike, out and back on old logging roads along Wassataquoik Stream, is a perfect fall walk.  The AMC Maine Mountain Guide has a description of the hike, and Maine Hikes Off the Beaten Path by Aislinn Sarnacki has a longer treatment, as well as a helpful map.  We used the Map Adventures Katahdin Woods & Waters Waterproof Trail Map to navigate this hike and the rest of the Monument, and the trip to the falls took a little over an hour each way.  With the sun shining, biting insects largely gone or simply sluggish, late summer flowers and berries still blooming, and the calls of birds echoing throughout the woods, we took our time getting to the end of the trail, pausing frequently to examine animal tracks and sign, and to simply listen.

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Orin Falls Trailhead, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine

The trailhead and parking area are located at the end (for motorized vehicles) of Orin Falls Road, a spur off the Katahdin Loop Road in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.  Like last year, we got to the Monument from Millinocket using the Stacyville Road.  In large stretches, particularly closer to the Monument, this is a road in name only, as its surface ranges from the consistency of an ATV trail to that of a World War I battlefield.  We cannot discourage highly enough the use of this road unless you have four-wheel drive, high clearance, and a general disdain for your car’s exterior.  The traditional route into the Monument on Swift Brook Road from Route 11 is far safer, and was the route we took departing at the end of the day.  However you get there, to reach the trailhead from Swift Brook Road, turn right (north) on the Katahdin Loop Road (sign for Barnard Mountain), then follow the sign for Orin Falls.

Orin Falls Trail, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine
Orin Falls Trail, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, Maine

At the bottom of the hill below the trailhead is a brand new handicap-accessible toilet.  We quickly saw recent moose tracks and droppings along the trail, but had no luck seeing moose throughout our hike.  The Esker Trail comes in from the right, and then the International Appalachian Trail (IAT) veers off to the right towards a ford across Wassataquoik Stream (and a trail up Deasey Mountain).  We continued straight, and reached a relatively new foot/ATV bridge across Katahdin Brook, startling a large heron that took off upstream in the direction of Katahdin Lake.  This crossing directly precedes the Wassataquoik Shelter, a newer lean-to.  Like everything else on this hike, we had the place to ourselves.

Wildlife on Orin Falls Trail, Katahdin Woods and Waters
Wildlife on Orin Falls Trail, Katahdin Woods and Waters

Although looking at the map may make it seem like the trail is right on the banks, you don’t see Wassataquoik Stream much along the hike until the end, but the portion between the ford and the shelter rides an elevated overlook, and you can look down to the slow, wide Stream through the trees.  There is, however, plenty to observe.  In most places, the trail was wide enough for us to walk side by side, in the wheel ruts of the former road, making for a companionable stroll.

In addition to the heron and the moose tracks, we saw deer tracks, grouse, hawks, kingfishers, jays, mice, caterpillars, many frogs and toads, garter snakes sunning themselves on the trail, massive, skittering fishing spiders, and the large track of a bear.  Raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries were out in force, but were hit-or-miss, seeming to mostly have the bitter taste associated with the end of the season, and a lack of recent rain.

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Orin Falls, Katahdin Woods and Waters

The mosquitoes and biting flies were minimal, but one could see how they could be pervasive during the summer months in the low-lying areas around water, so late summer or fall is a great time for this hike.  Shortly after passing the lean-to, we left the IAT, which veers off to the left (west) towards Barnard Mountain, and Katahdin Loop Road.  We continued straight, past the marker for the Monument line, and finally reached the trail downhill towards Orin Falls.

Orin Falls, Katahdin Woods and Waters
Orin Falls, Katahdin Woods and Waters

We could hear the rush of Wassataquoik Stream from the top of the trail, and emerged from the woodline to a beautiful scene of trees, boulders, flowers, and water, overlooked by the surrounding ridges and peaks of the Monument.  This was a good place to spend an hour building up memories of summer.  We sunned ourselves on boulders, filtered some clean, cold water, explored, rock-hopped, and ate a prepared meal warmed on a camp stove.  Then we packed up everything (leave no trace), and headed back the same way we had arrived, talking about our summer, and future hikes.  The first people we saw were at the trailhead, preparing to hike as we got back to our vehicle.

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is a place we will continue to explore, a reclaimed wilderness with endless potential to surprise and excite.  The Orin Falls Trail is an easy walk, but its intersection of mountains, forest, and water provides a satisfying taste of the wild beauty of Maine’s north woods.

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

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.)

Gulf Hagas Loop (KI/Jo-Mary)

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Gulf Hagas, a gem hidden in the 100 Mile Wilderness of Maine’s Appalachian Trail, has been dubbed the “Grand Canyon of the East.”  Recently, this moderate (in difficulty, not grandeur) hike along the West Branch of the Pleasant River is getting more press, for better or worse, including mentions in Outside Online’s Best Hike In Every State, and in the Sep/Oct 2019 Outside Magazine print edition. Why? Waterfalls! Appalachian Trail! Beautiful rock formations! Swimming holes! Moose (well, moose droppings, anyway)!  This is what you can tell any curmudgeons (I won’t name names) who come bearing excuses like, “too many bugs” or “that sounds like a lot of walking” or “I don’t have hiking boots.”

Gulf Hagas is located near the small town of Brownville, ME, about 3.3 hours from Portland and accessible through the gatehouse at Katahdin Iron Works Road (and two other checkpoints).  The Katahdin Iron Works (KI) Jo-Mary Multiple Use Management Area is a region of about 175,000 acres of privately owned commercial forest, wedged conveniently between Moosehead Lake and Baxter State Park.  All visitors – even those who are not camping – must stop at the gatehouse to pay the day use fee (and the camping fee if you are camping). They accept cash or check – and more cash than you might expect.  On our recent camping and hiking weekend to celebrate the end of summer, four adults and one child camping for two nights and hiking for two days was $176 (under 18 is free). Information on fees can be found at North Maine Woods site.  Also, pay attention while you are driving on those roads- the pot holes will get ya.

The gatekeeper at KI gate was friendly and helpful and happy to answer my questions about swimming holes and the state of the privy/outhouse at the campsite (brand new). I regret not asking him about a good spot to see a moose because I got the sense he would have known. The maps available at the gate (or print in advance here) of the area and of Gulf Hagas are particularly useful.

A small poplar grows at the top of the remaining Katahdin Iron Works furnace by the KI Gate.
A small poplar grows at the top of the remaining Katahdin Iron Works furnace by the KI Gate.

I would recommend camping at the KI/Jo Mary campsites. Unless you are one of the few people that live nearby, you are going to want to relax somewhere after you hike for several hours.  We lucked out and got one of those late summer weekends where the evenings require jackets, the campfire is crowded and the days warm up enough to be in shorts. Late August in Maine!

Our camping site (Pleasant River #1) was sandwiched between a clean, quiet, shallow river and a dusty road that had about 4-5 cars per hour go by during the day. It included a new outhouse which (no joke) smelled like fresh pine when we arrived. The site had enough privacy and except for a few barks from a dog at a nearby camp site, we did not hear the neighbors. The covered picnic table was perfect for providing shade.

Pleasant River Campsite managed by Katahdin Iron Works / Jo-Mary, Inc., near Gulf Hagas
Pleasant River Campsites managed by KI Jo-Mary, Inc., near Gulf Hagas

I was practicing the art of low-maintenance and so decided this would be the trip that I would go without a pillow. I spent the first night with my head on a hard-sided duffel bag, cursing this decision. Alas, nobody will ever say about me that “all she needed was a small patch of land to lay her weary head.” Turns out I need a blow-up mattress and a pillow. And chocolate. And delicious “camping-easy” coffee that even has some health benefits. It is a splurge, but when you are camping without a pillow, you will want that coffee.

We set up three tents in the three nooks of the large site, which had a great mix of sun and shade and was approximately 3.5 miles from the trailhead.  My sole complaint was the road. Given the ruggedness of the road, the dust and the clouds of marijuana smoke billowing from passing cars, my advice would be to drive to the trailhead as opposed to walk. Save your energy for the gorgeous scenery along the Gulf Hagas Rim Trail! This is the hike with all the oohs and ahhs.

The trailhead for the Gulf Hagas Rim Trail is well-marked and on this sunny August Saturday the parking lot was overflowing. Several wooden hiking sticks rested next to the large trail map, to borrow for fording the river which comes at approximately .2 miles into the walk. Fortunately, the river was shallow and only reached mid-calf in the deepest areas. Because of the slippery rocks, I would highly recommend a walking stick or hiking poles and water shoes – my daughter crossed in bare feet but it did not look pleasant. The depth of the water varies from season to season and in dangerous conditions, there are other ways to hike the trail without crossing the river.

Crossing West Branch of Pleasant River on Appalachian Trail on way to Rim Trail, Gulf Hagas
Crossing W. Branch of Pleasant River on AT on way to Rim Trail, Gulf Hagas

After the river crossing, you are on the Appalachian Trail. I was impressed with all those hikers who had walked perhaps since Georgia. Follow those white blazes, through The Hermitage (lots of huge, old white pine trees and hemlocks) and continue to the Rim Trail, where you say goodbye to the folks who are walking the 100-Mile Wilderness of the AT and you follow the blue blazes instead.

We took the Rim Trail along the water and then returned along the Pleasant River Tote Trail. See map here. In total, with all the small side trails to viewpoints, it is about 9 miles and there is an option to make a smaller loop, if you take the Appalachian Trail cutoff.  Alternately, Gulf Hagas can be reached from a parking area for the Head of the Gulf Trail (opposite end from the AT), closer to the Greenville Road.

Many families with small children appeared to turn around at Screw Auger Falls or Buttermilk Falls. Several people were jumping into the water at Screw Auger Falls and it was the busiest spot along the walk. Everyone in our party seemed to be allergic to big groups of people (Husband mumbled something about Disneyland) and so we moved along. Certainly on a hot day this would be a great spot to cool off and I can’t imagine a more picturesque spot.

The hike does not include significant elevation and it is well marked. There are some little scrambles over rocks that a well-placed hiking pole or a tree branch would help with, but otherwise it is what I would call moderate.  The AMC Maine Mountain Guide suggested allowing 4 hrs and 25 minutes for the loop, which is reasonable.  We took plenty of breaks to relax and snack, and completed it in about 6 hours.

The trail has plenty of quiet, scenic areas to stop and sit and rest and stick your feet in the water while eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. My group had a couple of stoves and made sophisticated camping meals and hot tea. Daughter is a huge fan of Mountain House Chili Mac while the breakfast favorite was the Peak Refuel Breakfast Skillet. The JetBoil camping stove continues to impress in its efficiency.

We took the Pleasant River Tote Trail back and it was scenic in its own right – meandering woodland paths – quiet, green and easy. The walk back was much faster than the hike along the Rim Trail and the river crossing that you complete again to get back to the parking lot was refreshing on tired feet.

For post-hike refreshment, we enjoyed the cool river by the campsite, grilled hamburgers and beer and wine, and watching kingfishers and small, fast-moving ducks move by.  But if you are headed back towards Portland, consider stopping at Bissell Brothers Brewing Three Rivers on Elm Street in Milo (turn right at Dot Rd just before the red train car).  According to the cheery bartender, their double IPA, Preserve and Protect, is a tribute to the brothers’ father, Jensen Bissell, who was the Director of Baxter State Park for thirty years.  A Katahdin benchmark is imprinted in the bar, as well.

Katahdin benchmark in the bar at Bissell Brothers Three Rivers in Milo, ME
Katahdin benchmark in the bar at Bissell Brothers Three Rivers in Milo, ME

The now-famous Bissell Brothers beers are all available on tap, and delicious food is also available for purchase outside.  Relax on the outdoor patio, and watch or play cornhole and ping-pong – all without the bustle at their Portland location.  And continuing towards the turnpike in Dover-Foxcroft is Butterfields Ice Cream, serving up unbelievable ice cream flavors (and now, burgers, fries, and lobster rolls) since 1950.

Gulf Hagas is a memorable day-hike with friends and family, customizable to each person’s individual abilities, with memorable scenery unique to Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness.

Maine Huts and Trails

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(Note: As of May 17, 2020, according to MH&T website, all Maine Huts and Trails “huts are closed – there is no access inside the huts for water or bathroom facilities. The bunkhouses are closed. Please know it is for your safety and the well-being of others. Be well, stay healthy.”)

Hello! I am the wife and mother of this happy hiking team in Maine. I tend to exist on the hiking periphery and I’m known mostly for cherry-picking the hikes I attend and forgetting critical supplies, like appropriate snacks and waterproof shoes.

On that note, welcome to the post on our recent 3-day hike from the Long Falls Dam trailhead in New Portland, Maine to the Flagstaff Hut (1.8 mi) to the Grand Falls Hut in West Forks, Maine (11.2 mi) and back (13.0 mi) to the trailhead (described on the Maine Huts and Trails website as the Hut-to-Hut Shoreline Trek).  Maine Huts and Trails, which has four “huts” in the Carrabassett Valley region of western Maine, is a non-profit with a stated mission “to create and operate a world-class system of backcountry trails and eco-lodges for people-powered recreation to enhance the economy, communities and environment of Maine’s Western Mountain region, for the benefit of current and future generations.”  You can view and download trail maps here.

Husband and I (we were sans daughter this trip) took a route that began with a two-mile walk along the Shore Trail from the trailhead along a wooded route bordered to our left by glimpses of nearby Flagstaff Lake to the Flagstaff Hut – a beautiful, modern and welcoming property. Flagstaff Hut is the largest and most popular of the huts in the Maine Huts & Trails system and was built in 2009. I was glad to get there and take off my shoes. I know what you are thinking – she is tired after two miles? The answer is yes- it was incredibly hot. A handwritten dinner menu on a chalkboard awaited us, letting us know that at promptly 6pm we would get meatballs and pasta and blueberry pie!

A patient and friendly staff member who was turning out fresh bread in the kitchen greeted us and told us where our room was (she even switched us to a private room because one was available), answered questions about where we could swim and borrow paddleboards and explained the token system for the shower and how to operate the composting toilets. The main building houses a large community/dining area, a reading room, bathrooms, showers, and a drying room for wet gear. The dormitories are separated from the main lodge at Flagstaff Hut.

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Yes, it looks like a crime scene photo, but this is what a room looks like.

The room was spartan but clean, well-lit and I won’t say “comfortable” but I am comparing that to my bed at home. It’s a thin, plastic mattress, folks. And a plastic pillow. But it sure beats the ground.

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A snowshoe hare in its summer colors looks for food near Flagstaff Hut

Dinner is served family-style promptly at 6:00 pm. The food is fresh, sometimes local and healthy. On the night we were there, there were thirteen of us spread over two tables and the staff accommodated all sorts of dietary restrictions, which is no small feat these days. We also tried lobster mushrooms foraged by the staff.  Guests mostly discussed their plans for the next day or tips about what they had already seen and done in the area. It is a family-friendly environment, with children of various ages reading and running around. After dinner, we took a guided tour to see how energy is used throughout the hut and then we took a .1 mile stroll along the Birch Trail to the end of the small peninsula to watch the sun set over the Bigelow Mountains.

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Kids were swimming and friends were chatting. We returned to the reading room where I read about the history of Flagstaff Lake, which was man-made and a controversial project at the time it was created. Quiet time begins at 9:30. Make sure to bring earplugs because you can hear your neighbor snoring. I would also bring a fitted sheet for the mattress next time, as it can feel like sleeping on a diaper.

The shower is warm and quick and will give you an activity especially if you wake up at 6:15 ready to walk but need to wait until 7:30 when breakfast is served and the sandwich bar is put out so you can make a bag lunch. With sausages, eggs and pancakes in my belly, I was ready to go! We set out at 8:30 am to walk the Maine Hut Trail to the Grand Falls Hut. I must admit that I had some anxiety about the distance because it was 11.2 miles and I’ve never walked that far with a pack on. Let’s be honest here, I haven’t walked one mile with a pack on prior to this. Fortunately, my pack was light and husband graciously carried my water and a few other supplies.

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The narrow trail runs along the Dead River for several miles

 

 

I discovered quickly that this was going to be a single-file walk. The trail is well-marked and clear but too narrow for two people to walk side by side, so conversations are nearly impossible. Also, you may not see anyone on the trail for the entire 11.2 miles, as was the case with us. The first third of the trail hugs Flagstaff Lake and then you enter the wooded Big Eddy area, and finally you follow the Dead River for the remainder of the trail. While there are numerous signs that say “Maine Huts & Trails” there are very few mileage markers or landmarks until you get close to the huts. Just after leaving the hut, the first bit of the trail was boggy and wet and not a good place for expensive, new running shoes. I’m just saying. The Big Eddy area was my favorite walking area because of the soft, pine-covered floors and the sunlight filtering through the tall trees onto the trail. Hiking poles are not necessary but we both found them helpful. There is very little elevation on this route and the only place I would say you have to be careful is the part right around the Grand Falls, which is rocky and steep for a short period. It is not so much a hike as it is a very long walk in the woods and along a river.

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The peaceful morning sun hitting the trail

 

 

Yes, do bring a mosquito net and some Deet. Due to the proximity to the water and the low-lying areas, there were several stretches of trail that I did a lot of cursing and swatting and power-walking and questioning my decision to walk this trail. I came out looking like I had the chicken pox.  Husband is completely unappealing to bugs.

There were brief pit-stops to pick blueberries or raspberries along the way, but we mostly just motored along. The banks are steep, and not conducive to swimming, except at a canoe and kayak launch off Dead River Road, and then a small beach right before Grand Falls.

We stopped for about twenty minutes to eat smushed, warm tuna salad sandwiches, raisins and granola bars, but there were no obvious picnic spots along the way, save for a lone picnic table about 2/3 into the trip and not marked on the map.  The picnic table may actually have been placed there by mosquitoes as a trap.

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Moose use the trails, too.

Although there was evidence of bear and moose, we did not see any.  Shortly after crossing the Dead River on a footbridge, we startled a large predatory bird mid-meal, causing it to drop a headless squirrel Ozzy Osbourne-style right next to us. During the course of the three-day hike we saw a garter snake, a small green snake, kingfishers, a hawk, a school of trout and lots of curious red squirrels.

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The big highlight is the impressive “Grand Falls.” It is certainly mesmerizing, and you can stand close enough to cool off in the mist it throws off.

We got to the Grand Falls Hut at about 2:30pm and quickly stripped off our socks and shoes (no trail shoes in the huts) and met our two new hosts who directed us to our room and said they would be available if we had questions. My first question was “can you drive me back to the trailhead tomorrow?” (no.) “How about a gear shuttle?” (we’ll check on that.) “How about a canoe?” (We’ll check on that.) “Is there a shorter way?” (no.) “Can I have a glass of wine?” (yes.)

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Grand Falls Hut

The hut was quiet and peaceful and had a similar set-up as Flagstaff. The dorms were connected to the main lodge through a walkway. The showers felt deliriously good. How rewarding to walk all day, then get clean, grab a book and sit on a couch in a beautiful, sunny lodge with a glass of wine next to the man you love? It was also nice to be able to have a conversation with him after staring at his back for six hours. It was not as nice to contemplate the fact I had to walk 13 miles back to the car the following morning.

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Next time, we will paddle this stretch of the trail

I would highly recommend renting a canoe in advance from Maine Huts and Trails, putting in at the Big Eddy canoe launch, and canoeing the 6 miles along the Northern Forest Canoe Trail on the Dead River to break up the walking. Everyone else staying at the lodges had canoed or kayaked that stretch. Once you are at Grand Falls Hut you will have your canoe/kayak and at least the option to paddle that stretch (I feel certain if you elected to leave the vessel there at that point and walk back, you could). I would also strongly suggest that you check in with your group and be honest about how nice it would be to have your gear shuttled back to the trailhead. By the time you get to Grand Falls Hut and your feet are tired and your shoulders are sore, you very likely might not have that option anymore, as was the case with us – no canoes left and no gear shuttle available. There may or may not have been some internal cursing when I found that out. I guess this is how I learn my physical limits!

Before dinner, we took a short walk along the Fisherman’s Trail to a swimming spot. We soaked our tired feet in the cool water and enjoyed watching the Dead River rapids. Dinner was plentiful and delicious – roasted chicken with pesto, kale salad, warm berry crisp. Guests traded stories by a big bonfire and quiet time began at 10 pm.

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The dining area at Grand Falls Hut

The next morning we set out at 8:15 after a breakfast of eggs, sausages and fried (local) potatoes to hike all the way back along the same route to the the trailhead. You know it is a long walk when you finally see a sign letting you know that you have five miles left and you are excited. It is about 13 miles from Grand Falls Hut to the Flagstaff trailhead and it felt so nice to get my socks and shoes off, change my clothes and sit in an air conditioned car for a while. We arrived at the trailhead about 2:20 pm (yes, we were moving along!!) and a large, boisterous group of parents with teenage girls was just gearing up to hike into Flagstaff Lake. We let them know that they picked a great adventure!