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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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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