Winter in Maine this year started with a bang– first there was a big dumping of snow, then one of the worst ice storms in years, followed by more snow. All along, I’d been planning a relaxed winter camping trip for the last weekend of the year with several friends from the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. Most were coming to Maine from down south, so I was even more proud than usual about my home state being a winter wonderland.
After picking up most of the group in Portland, we gathered in Rockland for a spectacular seafood dinner at Conte’s, a restaurant that seems perfectly suited to a bunch of hikers. Big portions, rowdy atmosphere, and quirky staff add up to something that wouldn’t be out of place in a trail town. We filled up with seafood and wine, then drove the last few miles to the trailhead at Camden Hills State Park.
The Camden Hills are home to some rugged and wild hiking trails, but our first goal was something a little more posh than we were all used to. Several years ago, the park rebuilt an old CCC cabin in the heart of the hills, which can be rented out for overnight use. In winter, it’s especially nice, with a big wood stove and no traffic nearby to disturb the peace. So we hit the trail at 9 PM, hiking three miles by starlight before reaching the cabin, already warmed up by my PCT buddy, Tom. After a few months of living in the city, I cherish every moment of clear night sky I can get, and this particular hike was beyond words. There was no moon, but the stars reflected off the ice-coated branches like an enchanted forest.
In the morning, we left most of our overnight gear in the cabin and started hiking up Mount Megunticook, the highest peak in the region. The peak is less than a mile and a half from the coastline, and stands 1385 feet above sea level, giving it a unique vantage point over the Atlantic Ocean. We climbed steeply, marveling the whole way at the scenery. The trees were coated with half an inch of ice and then up to two inches of snow, weighing them down into the trail and making for difficult travel. The ice formations on the trees were pretty amazing. Icicles coated just about everything; dead beech leaves were stuck in gravity-defying positions; fir boughs had turned to ice tubes; whole saplings were bent over to the ground.
The first big view of the day was Ocean Lookout, a tall cliff on the eastern end of the Megunticook ridge. With a fine view over the town of Camden, the mouth of Penobscot Bay, and the shorter peak of Mount Battie just below, this is usually one of my favorite spots to have a little picnic in the Hills. This time, though, a biting wind off the ocean convinced us to get out of the way in a hurry.
From Ocean Lookout, we headed back along the Megunticook ridge toward Maiden Cliff, probably the most popular spot for day-hikers in Camden Hills. Sometime after noon, we ran into the only other hikers we saw all day, just before arriving at the scenic ledges. The hike was much longer than I’d remembered, possibly because it was my first time on snowshoes this season, so when the sky started to clear when we got to the cliff, it seemed like a perfect time for a long lunch break. We enjoyed a big lunch with views of Ragged Mountain and Lake Megunticook– some of the finest views to be had in the state.
After lunch, with the sky still clearing, we headed back over Millerite Ledges on the aptly named Scenic Trail, then through the dimming twilight back to the cabin. When we arrived, we were happy to see that someone had been there during the day, probably to use it as a warming hut, and the stove had been stoked just in time for us to return. With the cabin already warm, we had a relaxing evening by the wood stove, and a proper hiker bedtime of 7:30 PM.
On Sunday, the weather warmed, and ice finally began to fall out of the trees, just in time for more snow to fall in the evening. By then, we were out of the park and looking forward to the rest of winter. If the new year is as gorgeous as the previous has been, I’m anticipating some great hiking in the coming months. For now, it’s back to work and waiting for the next trip into the mountains.