(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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!