Later this month I’ll be taking my third annual week-long trip into Baxter State Park, home of Maine’s highest peak and northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. BSP has been in the news in recent years because of friction with Appalachian Trail hikers who are used to very light management of the land the AT passes through– because of how the Park was created and its focus on preservation of the wilderness, the Park adopts a very strict management system. I feel strongly that the heavy management is part of what makes the Park such a special place, but I’ll admit that it does turn sometimes turn off first-time visitors.
With that in mind, here’s my advice to folks planning to visit to Maine’s most wonderful wild place. I’m writing this in September 2016, so if things change in the future, I’ll try to keep this up to date.
First, let’s start with two important links.
1- Baxter State Park’s Hiking Map page has an overview of the park, including campsites. Currently, the map is a little out of date, with some backcountry sites not shown, but there is a link to the Park Store, where there are very good map options. The Baxter State Park Map is the most up-to-date, since it is produced by the Park and updated frequently. The National Geographic and Map Adventures maps are both good, as well.
2- Baxter State Park’s Summer Reservations Guide has all the nuts-and-bolts information on how to make a reservation for a campsite in the park. You should refer to this once you’ve read the information below.
Day-Trips into Baxter State Park
If you’re just going in for the day and not camping, you’ll want to arrive at the Entrance Gate early, since the Park limits the number of vehicles allowed in each day. Many people drive up from points south and sleep in their cars in line at the Entrance Gate in order to get ahead of the line. This is more common at the Togue Pond Gate (south, access to Katahdin) than Matagamon Gate (north, access to Traveler and other parts). This is also not the way I recommend enjoying the Park, so that’s all I’ll say about it for now.
Camping Reservations in Baxter State Park
The best way to experience the Park is to make a campsite reservation and spend a few days in there. Reserving a campsite ensures that you have a place to stay, guarantees you entrance to the Park, and cuts down on the morning drive to trailheads.
Start planning by looking at the available campsites on the map, and deciding which are closest to where you want to visit. The closest sites to trails up Katahdin are most likely to be filled, so also try looking for campsites that are a little further away.
Once you have an idea which sites you’d like to camp at, and you know the dates of your trip, go to the Reservations site (see link above) and see if those sites have already been reserved for those dates. It may take a few tries to get things just right, but once you have a list of sites and dates that they’re open, then comes the next step.
Call the Park Office. You can make the reservations online, but I can’t stress enough that calling the Park is the best way to make reservations. The staff there is super friendly, they can help you make sense of the process, and they’ll offer helpful advice along the way. Phone lines have been pretty busy through the summer recently, so you may need to be patient, but trust me– it’s worth the wait, especially if this is your first or second camping trip into the park.
Advice for Specific Cases
If You’re Finishing the 100-Mile Wilderness or Appalachian Trail
Long distance hikers heading north and finishing at Katahdin are the only overnight visitors exempted from the reservations rule, since you are allowed to camp at The Birches near Katahdin Stream Campground. However, long-distance hikers are required to register with a park ranger and get a permit for entering the park. If you don’t see a ranger upon entering the park near Abol Bridge, make sure to find one at Katahdin Stream Campground to get the permit.
Either way, you should also check in at the Monson Visitors Center, which opened recently (2016) to provide detailed information for through-hikers heading toward Baxter. You can pre-register for a permit here, but you still need to see a ranger when you arrive in the Park. For now, you can get more information on the permits here.
If You’re Meeting Someone Finishing the 100-Mile Wilderness or Appalachian Trail
Many families and friends stay in the Park or go in for the day to pick up a long-distance hiker. If you know the exact day your friend is finishing, you can always go in for the day and pick them up at the end of their hike. If you’re making a campsite reservation far in advance, though, you might be in the Park with no cell signal when your friend shows up. So I recommend, regardless of where you end up camping, to coordinate with your friend before he or she leaves Monson and the 100-Mile Wilderness to set up a time and place to meet. Again, I highly recommend getting a map of the Park to help in the planning.
As for campgrounds, Katahdin Stream Campground is by far the most popular for this kind of thing, since the AT passes right through it. But there are a lot of other great options: Abol Campground is a few miles away and also quite popular. Daicey Pond has cabins right on the AT. Kidney Pond also has cabins, and is a short hike from the AT. Nesowadnehunk Field Campground is a half-hour drive from Katahdin Stream, but almost always has unreserved sites. Roaring Brook and Chimney Pond are very popular, but they can make for a more interesting hike for the AT hiker since they can go up one side of Katahdin and down the other.
If You’re Only Planning on Hiking Katahdin
You’ll be missing out on so much that the Park has to offer, but I understand. I visited the Park four times before I finally did anything else besides hike Katahdin. If you want to climb via the Appalachian Trail (aka The Hunt Trail) or Abol Slide Trail, camping at any of the campgrounds from Nesowadnehunk Field to Abol will set you up for a relatively quick drive or walk to the trailhead in the morning. If you go up from the east side of the mountain, you basically have two options: Roaring Brook Campsite or Chimney Pond. Chimney Pond is a great option for the easiest ascent: hike three moderate miles to the campground on day one, camp overnight, and then do the strenuous 2.5 to 3 mile climb to the peak on day two, then descend and either spend the night again at Chimney Pond or go all the way back to Roaring Brook.
If You Want To Maximize Your Chances of a Clear Summit
Imagine you’ve reserved one night in the Park, and you arrive on a sunny afternoon to set up camp, then the next day– your day to hike Katahdin– the mountain is stuck in rain clouds dumping sleet and freezing rain. That’s not an uncommon situation. The more days you reserve in the Park, the better chance you have of finding one good day to hike to a beautiful summit. My recommendation is to camp at one of the roadside campgrounds for two or three nights, and plan on arriving early on the first day. That way, you can spend some time enjoying low-elevation trails along lakes and streams on cloudy or rainy days, and check the weather each day (Rangers post weather reports each morning) to decide what to do the next day.
Backpacking Trips Through the Park
This is my favorite way to enjoy the Park, but it requires a lot more planning than your average backpacking trip, since even backcountry sites must be reserved ahead of time. One bonus to backcountry sites is that, unlike roadside sites, most have only one lean-to or tent site, so if you reserve that spot you can be reasonably sure you’ll be the only group camping within a few miles.
To make a backpacking trip itinerary, there are two general rules I like to follow. The first is to aim for campsites that are closer together than you think you can hike in a day. That way you can hike further by adding side trips each day, but you aren’t required to hike very far in case of nasty weather. The second general rule, also related to bad weather or injury, is to make sure you don’t absolutely need to go over a peak to keep your itinerary. If you’re at Katahdin Stream Campground one night, and you have to be at Roaring Brook the next, you wouldn’t want to have to go over Katahdin in a thunderstorm to get there.