appalachian mountain club

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Katahdin over Rainbow Lake, seen from one of The Nature Conservancy's campsites near the AT.

Katahdin over Rainbow Lake, seen from one of The Nature Conservancy’s campsites near the AT.

As I prepare to finish mapping the Maine AT for my smartphone apps, I’m faced with hiking the 100 Mile Wilderness for the third time. Planning this backpacking trip is normally not the easiest task– the trail is remote, and transportation between the two ends requires nearly three hours of driving each way. I’m complicating things even more by adding much more than the official Appalachian Trail route to my plans. I’d like to share some of my planning resources for anyone who wants to see more of this magical region than just the Appalachian Trail– this section of the AT is one of the most beautiful and rewarding of the entire trail, but it’s possible to add quite a bit more to the experience.

Jo-Mary Mountain over Cooper Pond, an obscure AT side trail.

Jo-Mary Mountain over Cooper Pond, an obscure AT side trail.

What is the 100 Mile Wilderness?
The word “wilderness”, and the 100 Mile Wilderness existed long before the National Wilderness Act, but people seem to have forgotten this. Many people from away imagine that the 100 Mile Wilderness will be a place free of motorized traffic, untouched by humans, undeveloped in any way. This is not the case. And yet, the area is still more wild than many National Wilderness areas.

The wilderness in question here refers to the most remote section of the Appalachian Trail– between Route 15 near Monson and the Golden Road near Millinocket, the trail crosses no major roadways, and hikers cannot access towns in the way that they can further south on the trail. But there is human development in this area– this region of northern Maine has historically been home to major logging operations, sporting camps, and homesteads, some of which are still present today. Hikers cross several maintained logging roads which are used by loggers as well as visitors to sporting camps and primitive campsites. Besides the AT the area is a wealth of lakes, rivers, and deep forests, all of which are popular with hunters, fishers, paddlers, campers, and hikers.

Nahmakanta Lake from Nesuntabunt Mountain.

Nahmakanta Lake from Nesuntabunt Mountain.

Who Owns the 100 Mile Wilderness?
Until relatively recently, the region was mostly privately owned by logging companies and individuals. Since the 1970s, there has been a big push to protect much of the land for conservation and recreation. Much of the land you see from Whitecap Mountain or the Barren-Chairback Range is still privately owned (though open to the public in most cases), but there is also a large patchwork of conservation land in the region. It can be confusing to sort out, but there’s plenty of information out there. In no particular order, here’s what I’ve found.

Hikers looking down on Billings Falls, part of the Gulf Hagas gorge.

Hikers looking down on Billings Falls, part of the Gulf Hagas gorge.

  • The National Park Service has acquired a strip of land around the Appalachian Trail for most of the Maine Appalachian Trail where it doesn’t run through other public land. For most of the AT in Maine, this is a narrow strip of land, at least 1000 feet wide around the AT. It also surrounds the entire Gulf Hagas trail system in the 100 Mile Wilderness, since the Gulf is a National Natural Landmark.
  • Baxter State Park is the crown jewel of Maine’s parks, originally centered around the state’s high point, Katahdin. The park, nearly 210,000 acres, is not exactly a state park– it receives no state funding, but is instead funded by visitor fees and a private trust set up by Governor Percival Baxter in the 1930s. As such, the rules and regulations of the park are similar but different from the rest of the state park system in Maine. The park is home to several massive lakes, huge tracts of forest, and many of Maine’s highest and most rugged peaks.
  • The Nature Conservancy owns the massive Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area just south of Baxter Park, and almost as large. The Wilderness area has fewer mountains, but makes up for it with equally gorgeous forests and lakes. The AT passes through the area, but there are dozens of primitive campsites and boat launches, as well as some hiking trails besides the AT.
  • The Appalachian Mountain Club recently become a major player in the conservation of the southern end of the 100 Mile Wilderness. They’ve gone about it in their usual fashion, which involves reviving several old sporting camps and building miles of new hiking trails to make the area a full-fledged outdoor recreation destination. Many uninformed AT hikers get all up in a huff about this, thinking the AMC is going to take over the AT like in the White Mountains, but this is not the case. AMC’s camps and trails are separate from the AT, though the trails do intersect and are open to the public
  • Maine Bureau of Public Lands holds a large parcel between TNC’s Debsconeag Lakes and AMC’s Roach Pond lands, centered on Nahmakanta Lake (link here, search for Nahmakanta Public Reserve Land). The Nahmakanta Land has many miles of hiking and multi-use trails, several campsites, and many opportunities for backpacking and paddling.
  • North Maine Woods is the most confusing part of the picture for me, but they basically collect tolls for access to the maze of private roads in the 100 Mile Wilderness area. NMW is an organization that consolidates the fees and regulations of several private landowners (mostly logging companies) in order to provide recreational access.
Rainbow Stream Lean-to on the Appalachian Trail.

Rainbow Stream Lean-to on the Appalachian Trail.

Are There Strict Regulations?
With the various land owners in the 100 Mile Wilderness, planning a trip isn’t quite as easy as many places on the Appalachian Trail. Due to Baxter Park’s reservation system and North Maine Woods’s checkpoints, you’ll likely end up paying fees for day use and camping in the region, but I’ve decided this is a good thing– remember, Baxter Park receives no state funding, and all of the roads in the 100 Mile Wilderness are private, open to the public as a courtesy. The money for maintaining NMW campsites and boat launches comes from checkpoint fees, and the money for Baxter Park’s campsites, trail system, and other operations comes in large part from those day use and camping fees.

If you’re planning to hike from Monson to Katahdin, without driving in on any of the roads between, your only worries will be camping in Baxter Park, and getting home afterward. There’s a trailhead near Monson where you can leave a car, and you might be able to leave a car at Abol Bridge campground (a private campground at the south edge of Baxter Park). Hikers ending their trek through the 100 Mile Wilderness at Baxter Park can register when they arrive at the Katahdin Stream Campground to camp at The Birches campsite, but otherwise all overnight camping must be reserved ahead of time. The Baxter Park Authority is great about helping you make a reservation, though, so this is quite easy. Just don’t wait until the last minute to reserve a site– the more popular campgrounds fill up very quickly.

Boarstone Mountain and Lake Onawa from the Barren Ledges.

Boarstone Mountain and Lake Onawa from the Barren Ledges.

For road access to any of the rest of the 100 Mile Wilderness, you’ll likely pass through a North Maine Woods checkpoint, which means you’ll need to pay a day use or camping fee. NMW’s website is much more helpful now than it was a few years ago, though, so figuring out the best way to deal with fees is not hard.

Looking at Long Pond and Baker Peak from Monument Cliffs on Chairback Mountain.

Looking at Long Pond and Baker Peak from Monument Cliffs on Chairback Mountain.

What Maps and Guides Should I Get?
If you’re planning to hike the Appalachian Trail in the 100 Mile Wilderness, there is no better map and guide than the Maine Appalachian Trail Club’s Appalachian Trail Guide to Maine. This is the official ATC guide for Maine. I must say it is, by far, the best official ATC map and guide set out of the bunch. The maps have just the right coloring and detail level, with great elevation profiles. And on the back of each map is a trail description, with mileage and just the right amount of trivia for various points of interest along the way.

For more info on hiking trails in Baxter Park, Map Adventures’ Katahdin Map and AMC’s Baxter Park map are both great. AMC’s map also details AMC’s extensive new trail system in the area near Gulf Hagas and the Barren-Chairback Range.

For a great overview of the 100 Mile Wilderness region, get AMC’s Southern Piscataquis Recreation map, which isn’t waterproof but is a great resource. And, of course, you should check out AMC’s Maine Mountain Guide for good trail information for the area, not to mention the rest of the state.

That’s all for now. Get out there and enjoy the trail!