Since returning home to Maine, I’ve been fortunate enough to spend some of my free time in Acadia National Park and Baxter State Park, arguably two of the most beautiful natural areas in the country. Besides the bald mountains and glaciated landscapes, though, the two parks couldn’t be more different. I’ve had a lot of time to think about the differences as I walk on the rough granite bedrock, and the mossy, root-choked forest trails, finding solitude where I can.

That solitude is the defining difference. Acadia, a premier national park, follows the philosophy of providing the most accessibility to the largest number of people. Millions of visitors flock to Mount Desert Island every year to witness the beauty of the island’s granite domes, the jagged coastline, the idyllic carriage roads along the mountain sides. To get them along to their destinations, the carriage roads and the Park Loop Road are well maintained and scattered with viewpoints, rest stops, picnic areas, and the occasional unique attraction like the stone gatehouses or the Jordan Pond restaurant. Two primitive campgrounds within the park, and several private campgrounds nearby, allow for the semblance of ‘roughing it’ without having to give up running water or flushing toilets.

The crowds on Cadillac Mountain are best viewed from afar.

The crowds on Cadillac Mountain are best viewed from afar.

There is no solitude or wildness in Acadia. The island is overflowing with natural beauty, but it’s nearly impossible to find a spot on a mountainside that you can call your own for a full hour, let alone a full day.

Baxter State Park, at the other end of the spectrum, is quiet. The Park Tote Road leads along the edge, bringing visitors to more than half a dozen primitive campgrounds and several scenic roadside attractions, but the amenities are far more sparse. There is no potable water at the campgrounds, nor flushing toilets. No bus roams around the park, and no RVs (vehicles that size aren’t even allowed in the park, since the road is so narrow and winding they would undoubtedly get stuck). Even getting into the park is a task, with daily limits on the number of cars allowed past each gate, and no camping allowed without prior reservation. And while many ponds are close to roads and can be easily accessed, none of the park’s many mountains has any sort of road to the top, paved or otherwise.

Some deep wilderness on Nesowadnehunk Stream in Baxter State Park. No humans for miles around.

Some deep woods on Nesowadnehunk Stream in Baxter State Park. No humans for miles around.

Spend a full day at the highest point in each park, and your experiences will be vastly different. On Baxter Peak of Katahdin, you might see thirty or forty people on a very busy day, each one having climbed one of the incredibly steep trails to the summit. That’s no small number, but on Cadillac Mountain, you’d see hundreds of people, shuttled to the summit on tour buses, vans, cars, SUVs, and motorcycles. You’d see a few hikers and bicyclists, too, but mostly a torrent of car-bound tourists. A better comparison, though, would be to take the second-highest peak in the park. Hamlin Peak in Baxter might see half a dozen people on a busy day. Sargent Mountain in Acadia, still close to a hundred.

Before I go much further, I’ll say that the increased access at the National Park isn’t always a bad thing. It makes planning a trip to the park much simpler, and it shows off the natural beauty of the area to many more people. The gateway communities on the way to Acadia see a huge inflow of cash every summer and autumn as millions of tourists flock to the park, their money burning holes in their pockets. And, of course, why should my grandparents, who are no longer able to hike very car from a car, not be able to share in the glory of Acadia? There’s certainly something to be said for ease of access to the country’s most beautiful places.

But we have to remember what is lost in the opening of the wild to the masses. I sometimes wonder what John Muir, the champion of Yosemite National Park, would say if he saw the cheek-to-jowl lines on Half Dome, or the traffic jams backed up through Yosemite Valley, few people venturing much further than an arm’s length from their vehicles in order to snap photos before going back to the air conditioning. Muir spoke of the mountains as a cathedral, and as a link to the divine– but how can you have any kind of connection with the landscape when you’re focused on your car or your noisy neighbors?

As much as I love the landscape in Acadia, I have to limit how often I go there and at what times of year. The spiritual recharge that I get in the deep woods or on the top of a remote mountain feels muted and imperfect when there’s a constant flow of people around. The sounds I need to hear in the wild are the birds singing, crickets chirping, and the wind whispering; not roaring motorcycles, boisterous parties, and people trying to keep their dogs in line.

Cars, trucks, and buses, packed onto the top of Cadillac Mountain like sardines.

Cars, trucks, and buses, packed onto the top of Cadillac Mountain like sardines.

My most recent experiences at campgrounds in both parks are indicative of the basic attitudes at each. On a night in Roaring Brook campground in Baxter, when the campground was completely full, I was pleasantly surprised to find the area silent by 8 PM, except for the sounds of the brook and the occasional crackle of a campfire. At Blackwoods, in Acadia, I was awoken at midnight by my neighbors having a bongo jam along with their stereo blasting Grateful Dead all throughout the campground. Both campground have rules about nighttime quiet hours, but neither are enforced by much more than the honor system (and people like me who get up and lecture the offenders).

Greater accessibility has its upsides, but less of it seems to lead more often to a greater respect for what brings us to the outdoors in the first place. Whether that’s the peace and quiet of the wild, or the joy of a fine view, it’s good to remember why we preserve those places.

I summited my final New England 4000-footer earlier this week during a last-minute trip to Baxter State Park. It wasn’t a long trip like the one last month, but even a 24-hour period spent in the park is enough to settle my soul and recharge all the energy I’d spent frantically working on my apps since the last trip.

Awakening to a frosty morning at Nesowadnehunk Field campground, a view of Doubletop directly from the lean-to.

Awakening to a frosty morning at Nesowadnehunk Field campground, a view of Doubletop directly from the lean-to.

The New England 4000-Footer peakbagging list (48 peaks in New Hampshire, 5 in Vermont, and 14 in Maine) has never been a major goal of mine, but I enjoy checking items off a list. After hitting Hamlin Peak last month, I only had one to go, but I was in no hurry. I didn’t even plan on going to The Brothers Range this year. My friends, Angela and Ryan, had a few free days and wanted to get out to Baxter State Park, and the conditions proved to be just right, so we went for it.

Starting the hike directly below the cliffs of Doubletop Mountain.

Starting the hike directly below the cliffs of Doubletop Mountain.

We camped at my favorite Baxter State Park campground, Nesowadnehunk Field, and woke up to a thick layer of frost coating the car and field. Autumn has definitely arrived, with leaves just starting to change color, and high temperatures during the day varying between low 70s and mid 60s. This day was as perfect as you could wish for, with cool temperatures, crystal clear skies, and just enough wind to dry my sweat.

Reaching the tarn at the base of the Marston Trail's climb to The Brothers.

Reaching the tarn at the base of the Marston Trail’s climb to The Brothers.

The loop over the Brothers Range is, in typical Baxter State Park fashion, incredibly beautiful and unforgiving in its difficulty. We started from the Slide Dam picnic area on Nesowadnehunk Stream, looking straight up to the cliffs of Doubletop, and then a slow, gradual climb through dense forest to a tarn at the base of North Brother. This was the easy part of the day. From there came the stairmaster-climb to a saddle between North and South Brother, complete with dense moss beds and stunted fir trees.

After a long, steep climb to North Brother, the first views at tree line of Katahdin, the Klondike, and the rest of the Brothers range.

After a long, steep climb to North Brother, the first views at tree line of Katahdin, the Klondike, and the rest of the Brothers range.

Throughout the day, we saw not a single human, nor heard any human sounds. A few small camps on lake sides in the far distance were the only discernible evidence of humanity. From the tops of the three mountains on the loop, the only sounds between our conversations were the whispering of a light breeze, and the occasional chickadee singing in the trees. I can think of no better way to spend a day. No mountain top has been more peaceful for me in recent memory, even The Traveler, or Katahdin’s north peaks. When we returned to the cars at the end of the day, the trailhead register showed nobody had set foot on the trail aside from us.

There’s not much more I can say about this hike, other than it was absolute paradise. I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking.

West from North Brother toward the Nesowadnehunk valley, and the lakes west of Baxter.

West from North Brother toward the Nesowadnehunk valley, and the lakes west of Baxter.

Victory photo atop North Brother.

Victory photo atop North Brother.

Now on South Brother, with an impressive view of Katahdin and its Northwest Basin.

Now on South Brother, with an impressive view of Katahdin and its Northwest Basin.

From Mt Coe, looking back to North and South Brother, with fir waves like tiger stripes.

From Mt Coe, looking back to North and South Brother, with fir waves like tiger stripes.

Starting to descend the Mt Coe slide at the end of the day.

Starting to descend the Mt Coe slide at the end of the day.

Almost done, dropping into the forest and looking at the newly changing foliage above.

Almost done, dropping into the forest and looking at the newly changing foliage above.

A pleasant walk alongside a mountain brook to end the day.

A pleasant walk alongside a mountain brook to end the day.

We broke camp on our last full day in the park unhurriedly and not sure what our plans would be. I hiked out to the road, taking my time and seeing a few ponds along the way. Even by the time we got in the car and started driving through the park, though, we hadn’t settled on a plan for the day. We drove down to Nesowadnehunk Field Campground (still my favorite road-side campground in the park) to get set up in our camp for the evening and have lunch, but even then it wasn’t even noon. We had beautiful, clear skies and a view up to Doubletop Mountain from our campsite. Soon enough, we decided to scrap our plan for an easy, low-elevation hike for the day, and move tomorrow’s plans up to this afternoon.

Hiking out of the northern end of the park via Lower Fowler Pond, with a view of Bald Mountain. The quiet of the north was great while it lasted.

Hiking out of the northern end of the park via Lower Fowler Pond, with a view of Bald Mountain. The quiet of the north was great while it lasted.

So after a quick lunch, Tom and I started hiking south from the Nesowadnehunk Field Campground toward the north peak of Doubletop Mountain. It was already hotter than any other day on this trip, although we still had fine weather and what promised to be fine views. The walk through the low-elevation woods was even quite pleasant, with a dense canopy overhead to keep us in the shade. Eventually the trail began to climb straight up the side of the mountain, eventually gaining over a thousand feet of elevation in half a mile of continuous scrambling. As always, the insane climbs of New England’s mountains are a joy to hike.

Starting up the Doubletop Trail from Nesowadnehunk Field Campground, with a fine view of the Brothers Range over the stream.

Starting up the Doubletop Trail from Nesowadnehunk Field Campground, with a fine view of the Brothers Range over the stream.

The best part of climbing Doubletop from the north was that the final short walk to the peak ended as we came out of the trees at the very top of the summit, with a sudden explosive view across the Nesowadnehunk Stream valley to the Brothers Range and Katahdin. The photographs don’t do the view justice, but it’s a stunning change in scenery– from alpine forest to suddenly a giant view with several incredibly large mountains right in your face. The view down to the valley was equally astounding, since the eastern side of Doubletop is a nearly vertical cliff, almost 2500 feet tall. We were able to see the tote road directly below us, at the bottom of a pretty dizzying drop.

Without any warning, we emerge from the trees on Doubletop to find this: a panorama of the Brothers, OJI, and Katahdin.

Without any warning, we emerge from the trees on Doubletop to find this: a panorama of the Brothers, OJI, and Katahdin.

Tom surveys the trail ahead to the south peak of Doubletop. He turned back here, since we already had the view. I continued on to see more terrain.

Tom surveys the trail ahead to the south peak of Doubletop. He turned back here, since we already had the view. I continued on to see more terrain.

We enjoyed the view for a while, and a completely empty summit, before Tom headed back down the way we’d come, and I continued south over the south peak and toward the ponds of southwest Baxter Park. The south peak of Doubletop is slightly shorter than the north, but with even more dramatic cliffs and views all around. Here I ran into three people, the only folks I’d seen on the top of the mountain, and chatted for a bit before I had to peel myself away from the incredible views. This would be my last great view on this trip, as we would leave the park early the next morning, so it was a bittersweet parting. Doubletop is one of the park’s hidden gems– just under 3500 feet tall, it seems like a much higher mountain with such a difficult climb and such tremendous views. Maybe the nearby Katahdin stops most visitors from even considering the climb, and that’s just fine. Oftentimes, the shorter peaks are even more rewarding than the higher, if they’re as beautiful as this one.

At the edge of the world on the south peak of Doubletop. Between me and Baxter Peak is a long drop down-- either straight down by the cliff, or almost straight down by trail.

At the edge of the world on the south peak of Doubletop. Between me and Baxter Peak is a long drop down– either straight down by the cliff, or almost straight down by trail.

The trip down the south side started with an 800 foot descent in less than a third of a mile, but then mellowed out into a long walk through idyllic forest. As with the northeast corner of the park, the southwest corner is mostly flatland with dozens of small ponds and trails running between them. I found my way to Kidney Pond to meet Chris for a ride back to camp for the evening, but not before stopping at four remote ponds between the base of Doubletop and Kidney. As always, the deep forests around the ponds were silent, peaceful, and incredibly relaxing. I even had a fine view up to Doubletop from a few of them.

Down below, at Deer Pond, an evening view of Doubletop and Mount OJI.

Down below, at Deer Pond, an evening view of Doubletop and Mount OJI.

The last hurrah for the trip came at Deer Pond near the end of the day. After falling into a creek while crossing (oops), and then sinking into a muddy bog up to my knee while trying to get a good picture of Doubletop and Mt OJI, I was startled when a large creature crashed into the pond directly next to me. I jumped away, but then realized I might be able to get a good picture if I could sneak up on it. I slowly made my way through the trees next to the trail to find a bull moose no more than twenty feet away, wading in the grassy edge of the pond. He looked a little wary of me at first, but after a few minutes he resumed his grazing and ignored me. I stood and watched for more than fifteen minutes, until I realized I was going to be late for my ride. That was the first time I’ve been able to watch a moose for more than a few seconds without it running away, so I was in bliss for the rest of the night.

I startled this beast leaving Deer Pond, but after the initial shock wore off he let me watch him for about fifteen minutes before I left.

I startled this beast leaving Deer Pond, but after the initial shock wore off he let me watch him for about fifteen minutes before I left.

We had a nice, cool night at Nesowadnehunk Field, with a star-filled sky and a deep contentment from having spent a most excellent week in one of the greatest places on the planet. In the morning, as most people were rushing into the park for a chance to climb Katahdin, we drove out to Millinocket for a big breakfast, and then headed home.

Here is Uncle Tom’s account of the day.

So far I had lived out of my backpack for four five days, and then we camped next to Tom’s car at South Branch Pond campground. We had left his car there on the first day in the park, in order to hike from the south end to the north end, but we still had another day in this less-traveled section. In the morning, I packed one more night’s worth of supplies that had been left in the car, and set off on another little-used trail. Tom and Chris would drive to another trailhead for a shorter hike to tonight’s campsite, while I explored a few more backcountry ponds.

Up on the short Barrell Ridge, a cloudy morning view of Bald Mountain and the other northern outposts of the park.

Up on the short Barrell Ridge, a cloudy morning view of Bald Mountain and the other northern outposts of the park.

The northeastern corner of Baxter State Park is mostly taken up by Grand Lake Matagamon, but there’s a cluster of small mountains and ponds just to the south of the lake. Most of the ponds have small campsites on the shore that are popular with anglers and folks looking to get away from crowds. We fit the latter category.

Not your "soft" granite of the White Mountains. Actually, I don't know what kind of rock this is, but the blocky chunks tear up the shoes faster than even the sandpapery granite I'm used to.

Not your “soft” granite of the White Mountains. Actually, I don’t know what kind of rock this is, but the blocky chunks tear up the shoes faster than even the sandpapery granite I’m used to.

But to get to that region, I first had to cross over the northern shoulder of The Traveler Range and into the basin of Middle Fowler Pond. On the way I crossed a few ledges and Barrell Ridge, a rocky mini-summit with plenty of bare bedrock and views into the east. As I walked up the sharp rocks, I reminded myself that I need to find the proper name for this kind of low-elevation rocky outcrop, covered in reindeer lichen, short alpine plants, and occasional krummholz. Internet to the rescue! Low- and mid-elevation balds, and rocky summit heaths are some of my favorite hiking terrains.

Middle Fowler Pond's north shore, with warm water and fine swimming before lunch.

Middle Fowler Pond’s north shore, with warm water and fine swimming before lunch.

After Barrell Ridge, I tromped through increasingly disused trail down to the Fowler Ponds, wondering how long it had been since someone had hiked this route. Lots of people might think of this as a bad thing, but I thoroughly enjoyed the solitude. On a bedrock slab at the north end of the pond, the water was so inviting that I just had to go for a swim. As with a few days before in Howe Brook, a quick swim in mountain waters was like jumping into the fountain of youth. Afterward, I lay out on the rocks in the sun for a while, relaxed as I could be. Two day hikers showed up after a while, but they were equally impressed by the silence of the pond. By the end of the day, I could count on one hand the number of people I’d encountered, so I still felt pretty good about the wilderness feel of the area.

The viewpoint furthest to the northeast in Baxter Park, Horse Mountain. The valley of the East Branch of Penobscot River is as densely forested as you can imagine.

The viewpoint furthest to the northeast in Baxter Park, Horse Mountain. The valley of the East Branch of Penobscot River is as densely forested as you can imagine.

Eventually I left Fowler Pond and continued through the woods, passing along several other pond shores on my way to the next short mountain. Horse Mountain, the northeasternmost mountain in the park, is quite short, and has no view from the summit since a fire tower was removed many years ago, but the cliffs on the eastern side of the mountain had a fine, quite view of the Penobscot River valley. While the view showed some evidence of humanity, in the occasional logging road or a float plane flying by down below, it was a fairly relaxed evidence of humanity. I sat and enjoyed the solitude for nearly an hour before heading back down.

An early evening campsite at Long Pond Pines.

An early evening campsite at Long Pond Pines.

I ended the day by meeting up with Tom and Chris once again at Long Pond Pines campsite, which many park rangers had mentioned as a favorite. A piney grove on the eastern edge of a small (but long) pond was only a few miles from the park tote road, but it felt like a purely wild area. We sat around a blazing campfire in the evening, listening to nothing more than the crackle of dry wood and the plaintive calls of a lone loon making his way up and down the pond. That was something I’d been missing all summer, since I hadn’t spent any time on remote mountain ponds in the northeast– a quiet pondside campsite, the lone loon calling, and the silence of the wilds make for the most relaxing kind of camping on a backpacking trip.

Long Pond, silent in the evening but for the cries of the loon and the whine of the mosquito.

Long Pond, silent in the evening but for the cries of the loon and the whine of the mosquito.

This would be our last night with a full day of hiking ahead of us, so I went to sleep knowing that the end of this glorious trip was near. Despite having had no contact with the outside world in almost a week, I had no desire to get back to it anytime soon. I could stay at this campsite all my life if I had to.

A bog next to Long Pond, separated by a tiny ridge (esker), which made for fine camping.

A bog next to Long Pond, separated by a tiny ridge (esker), which made for fine camping.

For the end of the first leg of our Baxter Backpacking trip, Tom and I set out over The Traveler Loop. I’d been admiring The Traveler for years, hearing about how gorgeous the mountain was, and looking at it from Katahdin. Traveler is a little over 3500 feet high, but two things are quite apparent when you look at it from Katahdin– first, its rocky alpine area is vast, and second, it is the highest peak in the northern half of the park (which also means it’s higher than any peak north of Baxter State Park in Maine).

There was rain in the night, and low clouds when I awoke in the morning, which was discouraging. Yesterday had been cloudy, but today was the only chance I had for a climb on The Traveler, and it looked like the view would be a bust. Tom remained optimistic, though, and after a slower-than-usual breakfast we were rewarded with clearing skies and cool temperatures. Conditions couldn’t possibly have been better.

Starting up the Center Ridge Trail, we're almost immediately climbing high above Black Cat Mountain and Upper South Branch Pond.

Starting up the Center Ridge Trail, we’re almost immediately climbing high above South Branch Pond Mountain and Upper South Branch Pond.

The Center Ridge Trail starts from a cliff on the east side of Upper South Branch Pond, and climbs immediately on jagged rocks up over the pond. The forest around us was as beautiful as we could have imagined, though. Tom and I both agreed that this was our favorite kind of hiking– the trails out here don’t pander. You hike on their terms, or not at all.

Getting high on Peak Of The Ridges, looking far into the vast northern wilderness.

Getting high on Peak Of The Ridges, looking far into the vast northern wilderness.

In less than a mile, we had already broken above tree line on the ridge, with a breathtaking view down to the South Branch Ponds. It soon also became apparent that most of the clear skies were directly above us– a huge bank of clouds was stacked on top of Traveler, but breaking as it continued west. More clouds were forming to the west of us, and further south was the same. Tom claimed my hiking karma must have been in top form, after dealing with the sweltering humidity in Virginia early this summer and the somewhat stressful NOLS course. Whatever luck I had, I’ll take it.

The last ascent to Peak Of The Ridges. The clouds are opening only right above us.

The last ascent to Peak Of The Ridges. The clouds are opening only right above us.

We reached Peak Of The Ridges, the first peak in the loop, for our first stop. The peak is lower than Traveler, so the view east was blocked by the higher peak, but we still had some amazing views from the cliffs down into southern Baxter Park and north far outside of the park. It was silent except for the wind. And we noticed another remarkable thing– try as we might, we couldn’t see a single sign of humanity from the peak. No roads anywhere. No tiny reflections of light from windows of remote cabins in the deep woods. No airplanes, no patches of the forest lightened from logging, no people at all. Even in the densest wildernesses of the east coast, it’s almost impossible to find such a complete void of human existence. Usually I can at least spot a thin strip of a logging road from the peaks in northern Maine, but this time there was nothing. This is what we strive for.

Tom surveys the land from the mini-Knife Edge between Peak Of The Ridges and The Traveler.

Tom surveys the land from the mini-Knife Edge between Peak Of The Ridges and The Traveler.

The clouds coming over The Traveler from the east clear just as they break over the peak, but it's hard to tell if the peak will be clear when we get there.

The clouds coming over The Traveler from the east clear just as they break over the peak, but it’s hard to tell if the peak will be clear when we get there.

After tearing ourselves away from the scene, we continued around the loop. First, we had a miniature knife edge to traverse, then a quick dip into the trees between Peak Of The Ridges and Traveler. The rocky parts of the Traveler Loop are a more extreme version of what I found on the north peaks of Katahdin the other day– while you can see the next blaze when you’re standing at one, there is no clear route between the two. You have to choose your own adventure, and hope it’s the right one. And then, when we dipped into the dense, moss-covered spruce forest between the peaks, we entered the kind of forest that seems to me like something from before humanity. Stunted, gnarly trees, with moss covering the ground so thickly you think it might swallow you whole. Tom called it the primordial forest. I think that suits it just fine.

Back into the primordial denseness of alpine trails of northern Maine. Upward and onward to The Traveler!

Back into the primordial denseness of alpine trails of northern Maine. Upward and onward to The Traveler!

The last ascent to Traveler was slow enough that the clouds continued to open for us, and our views from the top were everything I’d hoped for. With a better view to the east, we were finally able to see some small signs of humanity (the single logging road here, the shine of a cabin on a lake there), but it was still about as wild as you could wish for. As we continued on, we only stayed in the trees for a few minutes at a time, coming out on the wind-scoured rocks of the ridge between Traveler and North Traveler, and then the exposed cliffs on the ridge coming down from North Traveler to Lower South Branch Pond. We saw not a single person until about 4 PM, when we were close to our finishing point. I can’t think of a better way to spend a day.

Here is Uncle Tom’s account of the day.

There’s not much more I can say that the pictures don’t, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

Finally atop The Traveler, and the clouds have broken to give us a full view of the range, and deep into the northern Maine wilderness.

Finally atop The Traveler, and the clouds have broken to give us a full view of the range, and deep into the northern Maine wilderness.

Back into the primordial wilderness, a mossy and tangled mass of stubby trees and boulders.

Back into the primordial wilderness, a mossy and tangled mass of stubby trees and boulders.

Now we're starting down from North Traveler, with the open ridge of the trail laid out below us.

Now we’re starting down from North Traveler, with the open ridge of the trail laid out below us.

Just before going back into the trees, we look down on South Branch Pond, our destination for the night.

Just before going back into the trees, we look down on South Branch Pond, our destination for the night.