baxter state park

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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.

Chimney Pond Campsite on Katahdin

Chimney Pond Campsite on Katahdin

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 Currently, the map is a little out of date, with some backcountry sites not shown, but there is a link to the Park Store, where there are very good map options.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.

Newowadnehunk Field Campground in Baxter State Park.

Newowadnehunk Field Campground in Baxter State 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.

One of the Fowler Pond Campsites in the northeast corner of Baxter State Park.

One of the Fowler Pond Campsites in the northeast corner of Baxter State Park.

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.

For my second annual Baxter State Park backpacking trip, I had planned to bring friends from all over the country to Maine late in the season to show off the parts of the park that few out-of-staters ever see. Most of my friends had to bail, but a small core group stuck with the plan, and we spent a large chunk of Columbus Day weekend hiking across the park. I take great pleasure in bringing visitors to my home state and acting as a sort of outdoor tour guide. Partially, it’s an excuse for me to take trips that are on my bucket list, but it’s also nice to be reminded how much of a treasure the state’s wilderness is.

Map of the backpacking trip through Baxter State Park (created with CalTopo.com)

Map of the backpacking trip through Baxter State Park (created with CalTopo.com)

Grant, the president of Gossamer Gear, his stepson, Ian, and my fellow Portlander, Hans made up the small group. Grant had last been in Maine at the end of his AT hike in 2002. Hans had been to Baxter State Park several times, but never as deep into the park as we went on this trip. Most of the hike was new terrain for everyone.

Day one consisted of driving four hours from Portland into the Park, then shuttling cars from Roaring Brook Campground to Nesowadnehunk Field Campground (by far the most beautiful and remote roadside campground in the park). Despite long hours of driving, there was plenty of good sightseeing along the road. And since it was a car-camping night, we had an epic feast of lobster-mac and maple-apple-cobbler to get the trip started right.

Day two started with a hard frost and sunrise views over Doubletop Mountain, then a long hike through deep forest to the newest BSP campsite on the west end of Wassataquoik Lake (Grant shortened the name to a more pronounceable “WTF Lake”). Foliage colors were a little duller than peak, but still gorgeous, especially as seen from a high ledge overlooking the lake in the evening. Once at the campsite, we spent a bit of time canoeing across the lake as sunset put the final light of the day on Turner Mountain.

Frosty morning at Nesowadnehunk Field Campground.

Frosty morning at Nesowadnehunk Field Campground.

A trailside bog on the Wassataquoik Lake Trail.

A trailside bog on the Wassataquoik Lake Trail.

Wassataquoik Lake from an overlook at the west end of the lake.

Wassataquoik Lake from an overlook at the west end of the lake.

Day three was a short hike to Russell Pond, with a perfectly timed day of cold rain. Despite the damp and cold, it was a beautiful hike along Wassataquoik Lake, with waterfalls and deep, mossy fir forests. We spent the afternoon and evening drinking hot cocoa and reading in our sleeping bags while the rain fell outside our lean-to.

Sunrise from the shores of Wassataquoik Lake.

Sunrise from the shores of Wassataquoik Lake.

Green Falls on the south shore of Wassataquoik Lake.

Green Falls on the south shore of Wassataquoik Lake.

Damp, mossy forest in the depths of Baxter State Park.

Damp, mossy forest in the depths of Baxter State Park.

Day four was the long day, climbing Katahdin via the North Peaks Trail (which started with an icy ford of Wassataquoik Stream) and traversing about six miles of frosty alpine terrain. The rain of the previous day had brought the foliage colors out with a vengeance, but also coated the summit in a thick layer of rime ice. I nervously watched the time all day, since we were taking one of the longest routes to Baxter Peak, and one of the hardest descents, but the tour-guide in me decided getting down from the mountain after dark wasn’t the worst thing that could happen. We took our time to enjoy the scenery and the biting wind, and got to the car at Roaring Brook an hour after dark, then took another hour to drive back to Nesowadnehunk Field for the night.

Early morning on Russell Pond after a day of rain.

Early morning on Russell Pond after a day of rain.

An icy ford of Wassataquoik Stream.

An icy ford of Wassataquoik Stream.

Climbing Baxter Peak on Katahdin despite the rime ice.

Climbing Baxter Peak on Katahdin despite the rime ice.

Starting Katahdin's Knife Edge in the afternoon.

Starting Katahdin’s Knife Edge in the afternoon.

Because of how BSP’s reservations system works, backpacking trips like this have to be planned in advance with an eye toward worst-case-scenarios. I got incredibly lucky for the second year in a row with this trip, having the rainy days fall only on short hiking days or on days when hiking only in low elevation forests. Even if it had rained for all three days of the trip, though, it would have been an enjoyable trip in some of the finest wilderness the east coast has to offer. I’m already thinking of plans for next year’s trip.

Bad behavior leads to consequences for the hiking community.

Bad behavior leads to consequences for the hiking community.

If you’ve been following social media about the Appalachian Trail over the past year, you’ve probably heard about problems caused by hikers behaving badly in towns or on the trail. It all culminated last fall when Baxter State Park Authority, the managing agency responsible for the northernmost 14 miles of the Appalachian Trail, sent an open letter to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy railing against behavior by many through-hikers. If you haven’t read the letter, you should, but here are a few of the issues it outlined:

  • Camping outside of designated sites, and/or avoiding the overnight camping fee in the Park, fully knowing that this isn’t allowed.
  • Bringing dogs into the Park, despite clear restrictions against them. This includes counterfeiting Service Animal registration in order to trick Park employees into letting the pets into the Park.
  • Flooding the summit of Katahdin in groups upward of 30 people (the Park’s group size limit is 12 people).
  • Drinking or doing drugs on the summit.
  • Carving names or initials into shelters and signs within the Park.

None of this behavior is acceptable. You’ve probably already heard that, because I’m not the first to say it. What I want to discuss is the reaction from the community at large.

The reaction from the hiking community has generally been split into three camps. The first set of reactions sounds like “we need to teach new hikers how to respect the gift that is the Appalachian Trail”, which I’ll call the “educators”, since their approach assumes the hikers with poor behavior just need to better understand the issues. The other reaction sounds like “we need to stop the hikers who are behaving badly”. I’ll call the second group the “enforcers”, since their approach is to fight against the behavior. The third sounds like “kids these days act like they own the world”, which I’ll call the “curmudgeons”. These viewpoints are very well displayed in the Spring newsletter from ALDHA (see the Letters to the Editor on page 8).

In person, you’ll usually find my reactions more on the “enforcer” side, but I try to keep a solid footing in the “educator” side, too. Enforcers and educators are both important in changing the culture of through-hiking, first by educating the hikers who don’t know that a certain behavior is harmful, and then by enforcing rules when someone continues with the harmful behavior regardless. Baxter State Park essentially threatened enforcement in their letter by stating they would consider closing the Park to through-hikers if behavior doesn’t improve.

The type of response to the new trends that has no place in the discussion, however, is the curmudgeonly response. When someone starts a complaint with “when I hiked the Appalachian Trail…” it’s usually about how things were better before lots of people started hiking the trail. As I pointed out last month, the number of people using the Appalachian Trail has been growing a lot, and it will never go back to the way it was. Just like people who wish for the days before computers and Internet and globalization, you can wish in one hand, shit in the other, and see which hand fills up first.

The other common complaint of curmudgeons is the “hikers today have too much of a sense of entitlement.” These statements let the accuser dodge any responsibility, though the problem is really a cultural shift that has evolved over decades. If you want to get people to feel like they’re no more special than others, maybe you should stop treating them that way by giving them rides into town, free food, or places to stay. But it doesn’t matter what you do individually unless you influence other people as well. Otherwise, you’re just a complainer. Complaining doesn’t often influence anyone in a useful way. This is why the education component is so important.

I’ve mostly sworn off hiking on the AT during peak season because I know the crowds aren’t going away, and I don’t enjoy them. There are plenty of other places to go that are just as nice and have fewer crowds. And if I happen to see a through-hiker acting like a twit, I’ll be first in line to knock him down a peg or two, but until that time, that hiker is no different from any other hiker– whether he’s going 20 miles or 200 or 2000.

So I’ll say this to the curmudgeons who want to continue railing against a sense of entitlement or too many people on the trail: Find a way to fix the problems, or find another place where they don’t exist. You may enjoy yourself a lot more. Embrace change, and move forward.

The view of Katahdin and the Travelers from Patten.

The view of Katahdin and the Travelers from Patten.

Last weekend I took a trip far into the north woods, almost to the Matagamon Gate of Baxter State Park. Rather than entering Baxter, though, this trip went into the adjacent, and less well-known, Elliotsville Plantation trails along the Penobscot River. You may have heard of Elliotsville by other names in recent years– particularly in reference to a Maine Woods National Park. For this trip, I joined a group from the Natural Resources Council of Maine to cross-country ski several miles into the northern portion of the Katahdin Woods & Waters park and see what the area had to offer.

Saddling up at the parking lot, just beneath Horse Mountain.

Saddling up at the parking lot, just beneath Horse Mountain.

The drive into Matagamon highlighted the reasons that this area would be ripe for increased tourism. Along the road to Patten, we were treated to stunning views of the entire range of ice-crusted mountains in Baxter Park, from Katahdin all the way to the Travelers. As we neared the gate, the Traveler Range loomed high above. We passed dozens of snowmobile trails and several businesses that catered to snow travelers. They seemed plenty busy on this cold, clear winter day, but the group of skiers added several customers to their ranks.

Starting the trip, skiing toward Bald Mountain.

Starting the trip, skiing toward Bald Mountain.

It was a fairly late start from the northern trailhead, but skiing along groomed trails directly beneath Billfish and Bald Mountains made for speedy travel. The trails were originally logging roads, and are now modeled after Acadia’s carriage roads in terms of recreational opportunities (biking, horseback riding, and walking in summer, skiing and snowshoeing in winter), so the views are a little different from what you’d be used to in Baxter State Park. Rather than high mountain views, we looked up at the mountains from old clear cuts, and at the river from campsites along the banks.

A section of trail alongside the East Branch of Penobscot River.

A section of trail alongside the East Branch of Penobscot River.

Looking up at Bald Mountain and the Traveler from a frozen marsh.

Looking up at Bald Mountain and the Traveler from a frozen marsh.

Some of the oppositional commentary I’ve heard about the National Park idea has focused on the fact that the most spectacular scenery in the region is already in Baxter, but those ideas seem curmudgeonly and stubborn once you’ve had the opportunity to lose yourself in your thoughts in the deep woods here. I, for one, would love to walk the length of the Katahdin Woods, then paddle back along the Penobscot for a woods and waters version of a loop. I can imagine thousands of other visitors benefiting from the same kind of experience. For the long-distance hiker, there’s also the possibility of a sixty-mile loop, combining the International Appalachian Trail in Katahdin Woods & Waters, and several trails in Baxter. This would take some advanced logistics and planning, but would make for a lovely week in the woods.

Haskell Hut, a welcome sight for weary legs.

Haskell Hut, a welcome sight for weary legs.

Warming up in the recently renovated hut.

Warming up in the recently renovated hut.

The trek ended at Haskell Hut, one of several campsites within the park. This was a renovated logging camp at the edge of a deadwaters on the river, complete with bunks, wood stove, and a fine view over the marsh. I imagine that in the summer and spring, this place would be prime for watching birds and other wildlife. For winter, it’s a great spot to stop in and warm up before heading back to Matagamon.

Haskell Rock in the Penobscot.

Haskell Rock in the Penobscot.

Looking upstream from Haskell Rock, toward Billfish Mountain.

Looking upstream from Haskell Rock, toward Billfish Mountain.

The ski out was just as pleasant as the ski in, with more views of the Travelers and Bald Mountain, and the sun dipping low to the horizon as we neared the cars. The day’s miles had extended a little further than planned, which made for either the longest or second longest day of cross country skiing I’ve ever done. The gentle grades of the old logging roads, and the freshly groomed trails certainly helped, but I still needed a few days of rest after this one. I am still a little exhausted, but it was worth every second of aching muscles to be out there.

Heading out in the afternoon, under the looming Traveler.

Heading out in the afternoon, under the looming Traveler.

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.