[Note: On April 1, 2020, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and Trail Maintaining Clubs formally requested the official closure of the 2,193-mile Appalachian Trail due to the growing risk of spreading COVID-19. This includes closure by the National Park Service of all overnight shelters and privies on land administered by the Appalachian National Scenic Trail Park Office, including those in Maine (22 shelters, 29 privies).]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.