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 Currently, the map is a little out of date, with some backcountry sites not shown, but there is a link to the Park Store, where there are very good map options.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

Last week I had an opportunity to visit a place that is often regarded as one of the highlights of Maine’s public lands. It wasn’t Acadia, with the National Park and massive tourism infrastructure. It wasn’t Baxter State Park, with the state’s high point and the end of the Appalachian Trail. It wasn’t even within a hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail. And I’d venture to say that most hikers who come to visit Maine have never heard of the Cutler Coast. Their loss. This was one of the most wonderful hikes I’ve been on.

Cutler Coast's trail system. The red dot on the inset shows the location of the trail area.

Cutler Coast’s trail system. The red dot on the inset shows the location of the trail area.

The Inland Trail passes beaver ponds and grassy wetlands as well as the dense forest.

The Inland Trail passes beaver ponds and grassy wetlands as well as the dense forest.

Cutler Coast Public Reserved Land is part of the Bold Coast region, which is the easternmost part of the Maine coast near New Brunswick. The Public Reserved Land unit was created 25 years ago and seems to have quickly become a poster-child for the system. In almost all of the recent news articles about the Public Reserved Land system in Maine, Cutler is one of the two land units mentioned as examples, the other being the Bigelow Range, which any Appalachian Trail hiker will tell you is one of the finest places on the AT. Both of these preserves have deep, primeval forests, and relatively quiet hiking trails, but while the Bigelows showcase some of the best that Maine’s inland mountains and lakes have to offer, Cutler shows off the beauty of the rugged coastline.

Rugged inland terrain.

Rugged inland terrain.

Primeval forests of northern Maine.

Primeval forests of northern Maine.

My friends, Angela and Ryan (yes, another Ryan), took a vacation to Acadia last week and finished the trip by heading to Cutler for a one-night backpacking trip. I’d been excited to see this area for years, so I jumped at the opportunity, even though it meant driving 4.5 hours each way for a ten mile hike. So after driving to what many people would consider the end of the world, and then continuing two more hours into the land of blueberry fields (according to Wikipedia, Maine produces 25% of all blueberries in North America, and most of them are from right here in Washington County), we arrived at a very well-maintained trailhead and began our hike.

Day one consisted of the Inland Trail portion of the loop, walking through deep forest and along coastal marshlands. It’s still early spring here, so the leaves were missing and the grass was brown, but that barely diminished the beauty in the area. And even though the trail walks along coastal terrain with no mountains, this was no easy walking– Maine’s forest floor is a jumble of rocks, roots, and moss, keeping you on your toes even in the flattest terrain.

We arrived at the three campsites on Fairy Head, all totally deserted on this mid-week evening, and chose what I think is the easternmost backcountry campsite in the continental US. Each of the campsites here looks out over the Bay of Fundy, the ocean crashing against the rocks just below. We were lulled to sleep by the sounds of the ocean, with a cool breeze coming off the sea. In the morning, I listened to loons and lobster boats in the pre-dawn hour, then watched the sun rise while I rested under my tarp. I haven’t had such a restful sleep in months.

Sunrise over Grand Manan from our campsite.

Sunrise over Grand Manan from our campsite.

Sunrise striking the Bold Coast.

Sunrise striking the Bold Coast.

After a long and leisurely time breaking camp, we walked the Coastal Trail. Again, it was only a short hike on “flat” terrain, but we barely broke one mile per hour. The jagged rocks of the coast require plenty of concentration to walk along without hurting yourself, but the sheer abundance of scenery slowed us down just as much. Cobblestone beaches, sixty-foot cliffs down to the crashing waves, jagged rock formations rising out of the water– we all agreed we could spend weeks here without getting bored.

I’ll let the pictures do the last of the talking, but first I’ll leave you with this thought– Maine’s Public Reserved Lands are managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands, which is in danger of being dissolved and the lands given over to an agency primarily devoted to logging rather than a mix of logging and recreation, entirely because of heavy-handed politics. The reaction to this plan from both sides of the political spectrum has been resoundingly negative, showing just how beloved the agency and the land it manages is to Mainers. I’ve written about this, and I’ll continue to update that post as the story progresses. Let this serve as a reminder, wherever you are, the public lands that are a benefit to all of us are also in need of constant protection. Visit them often, love them, and take care of them.

Cobblestone beach at Black Point Cove.

Cobblestone beach at Black Point Cove.

Ryan standing on the cliffs next to our campsite.

Ryan standing on the cliffs next to our campsite.

The trail along the coast.

The trail along the coast.

Hiking through another cobblestone beach at Long Point Cove.

Hiking through another cobblestone beach at Long Point Cove.

After leaving Black Point Cove, we climb the cliffs over it.

After leaving Black Point Cove, we climb the cliffs over it.

Rock formations in an unnamed cove.

Rock formations in an unnamed cove.

More clifftop walking over coves and ocean.

More clifftop walking over coves and ocean.

Many inaccessible coves at the bottom of high cliffs.

Many inaccessible coves at the bottom of high cliffs.

The closest overlook to the parking area, with dizzying drops on either side into the ocean.

The closest overlook to the parking area, with dizzying drops on either side into the ocean.

As a backpacking instructor for NOLS, one of the lessons I try to impart on students is that we can’t take for granted the beautiful mountains and forests we play in. When I was first a student on a NOLS course, I spent three months in various wild areas, assuming that these remote mountains and canyons had forever been used only for hiking, paddling, backpacking, or other wilderness ventures. But with each area we entered, there were new cognitive dissonances. Paddling by oil derricks on the Green River, or hearing warnings of an angry, shotgun-toting neighbor next to a Forest Service trailhead in the Wind River Mountains. These things didn’t fit with the wilderness I thought I was in.

Since then, I’ve learned more about the trails that I hike on, and the land I recreate in. Most hikers still take for granted that the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail exist, meandering through scenic mountains for thousands of miles. They don’t give too much thought to who owns the land under them while they’re standing on a mountain or paddling a river. But who owns the land, and how it’s managed, and how it came to be like that, are issues that matter very much if we plan to continue visiting the mountains.

Maine's public lands managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands. Click here for the original.

Maine’s public lands managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands. Click here for the original.

These issues pop up mostly on the local level– they don’t get national attention when headlines are more concerned with high-profile political squabbling. I’ve been watching a few of these debates play out in Maine over the past year, mirroring debates from national lands in the west. You might not hear about these if you live outside the state, but I can almost guarantee something similar is going on near your home.

Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands (BPL) is a well-regarded agency that oversees Maine’s State Parks and Public Reserved Lands. The Public Reserved Lands are analogous to National Forests, with the land being managed for wildlife habitat, recreation, and sustainable timber harvesting. BPL uses income from the timber harvest to pay its overhead, and most everyone is happy with the arrangement. Locals and tourists get beautiful mountains and lakes to visit, and management costs come out of sustainable logging, which doesn’t significantly impact the recreation or wildlife habitat. It’s a harmonious balance between the three primary goals of the Bureau.

Heading up Parker Ridge, with a view of Tumbledown Pond and Mountain.

Tumbledown Pond and Mountain, one of the most loved Public Reserved Lands.

But as with all balances between recreation and resource extraction, politics rears its ugly head. In the past several years our governor has tried to tip the balance in public lands more toward logging, which has led to increased harvests despite sustainable logging limits set by BPL. A few weeks ago came his latest attempt (as reported in Bangor and Portland), which involves dissolving BPL, and moving management of the Public Reserved Lands to the Maine Forest Service– an agency that is primarily concerned with logging on private lands, not recreation on public lands. Practically everyone sees this as a veiled attempt to cut more trees for short-term economic gain.

Looking over Flagstaff Lake from the Bigelow Range (possibly my favorite Public Reserved Land)

Looking over Flagstaff Lake from the Bigelow Range (possibly my favorite Public Reserved Land)

The reaction to the governor’s plan hasn’t been particularly positive (editorials in the Bangor Daily and Free Press, testimony by Natural Resources Council of Maine, and some backlash in Augusta), but the fight continues. There’s a lot of quick money in resource extraction and real estate development, while the economic benefit of recreation on public land is a bit harder to measure, so short-sighted politicians often see public land as a pile of cash being squandered by whiny environmentalists.

The Appalachian Trail touches five Public Reserved Lands (Mahoosuc, Four Ponds, Bigelow, Abraham, and Nahmakanta), which means over a thousand through-hikers each year visit these lands, not to mention various section hikers. More importantly, there are millions of tourists who come to Maine each year, most of whom spend at least some of their time enjoying the great outdoors. Whenever I meet someone from away, I hope they come to love the land as much as I do, and even come back again and again because of it. It’s harder to imagine that person seeing Maine as such a special place if the balance between conservation and resource extraction tips too far away from conservation.

Edit: I’ll post some articles about how the issue progresses as they come in.
3/23/15: A well-balanced article from the Portland Press Herald that highlights the history of BPL, the varied opposition to the plan, the governor’s plan for where the increased revenue would go, and his strong-arming tactics for getting a widely unpopular plan into effect.
4/4/15: Maine Legislature’s Agriculture Committee almost unanimously rejected the proposal in a bipartisan vote (the full legislature still has to vote on the proposal, but this is a good indication of where the proposal belongs). According to the committee chair, “We didn’t get any emails, calls, letters from anyone in the state who supported it… Every correspondence we received was opposed to it.”
4/16/15: The legislative committee gave a resounding and nearly unanimous NO to LePage’s proposal, and even added some extra rules to make his plans less likely to succeed.

My childhood friend, Jeremy, was back in Maine for a long weekend, so we decided to bring back an old tradition– “Let’s do something stupid.” Jeremy and I have a long history of coming up with hiking plans that are way too ambitious, and failing spectacularly. The plan I came up with this time was to walk from the village green of Bar Harbor to the marina in Northeast Harbor, summiting each of the six 1000-foot peaks in between (about 18 miles of rugged, rocky, steep trail).

Starting out at the village green in Bar Harbor, though it's not so green right now.

Starting out at the village green in Bar Harbor, though it’s not so green right now.

We probably could have succeeded handily if not for the snow that fell on Friday, but November is a rough time for hiking in New England; you never know exactly what you’ll get for conditions. On Saturday morning, as I got in my car in Belfast (only 40 miles from Bar Harbor) there was a dusting of snow left on the ground. But those few miles made a big difference in snow levels, with up to six inches in some places by the time I arrived on the island. Neither Jeremy nor I was prepared for serious snow, but we figured we’d give it a shot anyway.

The Park Loop Road is definitely shut for the season.

The Park Loop Road is definitely shut for the season.

After about three miles on roads from downtown Bar Harbor to the Orange & Black Path, we started wading through the snow in earnest. By stepping carefully, we were able to climb at a decent pace onto Champlain Mountain, with only a few detours off trail since blazes and cairns were buried. We also had to make a few slight adjustments to the trail since Kacey, my parents’ dog, was along (this was a last minute decision, since she had insisted on joining us. She’s a mighty resilient animal, but slick ice on steep rock can be tricky for her). By the time we arrived at the summit of Champlain, it was already 11 AM, which didn’t bode so well for our 18-mile challenge.

Kacey seemed a little confused about why we weren't just staying indoors by the fire today.

Kacey seemed a little confused about why we weren’t just staying indoors by the fire today.

As we walked across the summit in the snow, I heard Jeremy say “I think we lost a dog”. I turned around and saw that there was a hole in the snow where Kacey had been. Uh oh! The snow had been deep enough to cover a six-foot deep crevice like an old-school booby trap, and Kacey had vanished without a sound. When I looked down in to see her staring bug-eyed up at me, she seemed more confused than hurt (“what the hell happened?”), which was a good sign. I threw off my pack and squeezed down into the hole to wrestle her out while Jeremy lifted from the top. The whole process took about five minutes, after which Kacey did a little sprint around the summit, almost falling into the pit again, but ultimately calming down after a big handful of treats.

The crevice on Champlain Mountain.

The crevice on Champlain Mountain.

We continued down Champlain Mountain by the Beachcroft Trail, which took longer to descend than our ascent from the east side of the mountain, owing to slick, wet snow. By the time we arrived at The Tarn between Champlain and Dorr, it was clear we probably wouldn’t hit all six summits, but we still might walk to Northeast Harbor and at least get to two more summits. The temperature was on the rise, though there was still plenty of snow. The ascent along the Schiff Path turned out to be much easier than either the ascent or descent of Champlain Mountain, so our optimism came back once again.

Champlain Mountain in the morning. A classic, clear winter day in Maine.

Champlain Mountain in the morning. A classic, clear winter day in Maine.

The gorge between Dorr Mountain and Cadillac Mountain is pretty shallow, so it was a quick descent from Dorr, though still pretty tricky. With many steep, rocky sections still covered in deep snow, we had to lead Kacey around in several places where in summer she could have easily leaped from rock to rock. It was still fairly early in the day when we reached the bottom, then made our way to the ascent. Not more than a hundred feet into the climb, however, we were thwarted by a heavily snow-covered boulder field. There was no good way around for Kacey to get up, and we decided that this would be our last good opportunity to bail out and walk back to Bar Harbor.

It might as well be winter on Dorr Mountain.

It might as well be winter on Dorr Mountain.

So out we walked via the Gorge Trail, not the least bit disappointed in only completing two of the intended six summits. We still ended up with ten miles of hiking through deeper snow than anticipated, and fully succeeded in our goal of trying to do something stupid. And we could be happy in the knowledge that we would have made the goal easily if not for the snow conditions. No loss of pride, no damage to reputation, no serious injury. I’d say that’s a good outcome all around.

Calling it a day early, Kacey decided a nap was in order.

Calling it a day early, Kacey decided a nap was in order.

Oh, hello. I haven’t seen you in a while. Well, I’m still here. I’ve just been hiding in my little hidey-hole for the past month. Blogging has been getting lower on my priority-list since my peak in 2012, as I’m realizing I don’t have too much I need to say these days. I’m also finding that I really enjoy hiking a hike just for myself, rather than to write about it. And, finally, I’m also writing less because I’m spending so much of my computer time working on programming for my apps. That said, I still enjoy writing a blog post now and again when I have a really great experience like the week in Baxter State Park at the end of August. For now, here’s a little overview of what I’ve been up to this autumn.

Mapping Acadia National Park
I’ve been living at my parents’ place in Downeast Maine for the past few months before I move to the far south (Portland) this winter, so I’ve spent a lot of time in Acadia National Park, running the GPS along trails and taking notes as I normally would for the Appalachian Trail apps. I’ll add Acadia to my New England Hiker app, and probably make a standalone Acadia app, as well, but that won’t be done until early next year. In order to map out the trails on the island, I’ve hiked almost 200 miles, and biked over 50, often in exceptionally convoluted loops of 17-22 miles, with bone-crushing ascents on those small, coastal mountains. In some cases, I’ve climbed the same mountain three times in one day from three different directions, in order to get trail info for the spaghetti-pile network of trails out there.

This has been a major highlight of the fall– a memorial plaque on the A. Murray Young Trail near Dorr Mountain says it all: “…this island where God has given of his beauty with a lavish hand.” If you haven’t been to Acadia and witnessed that beauty, do yourself a favor and get your ass up there!

A late fall day in Acadia

A late fall day in Acadia

 

Long Pond on the west side of Mt Desert Island.

Long Pond on the west side of Mt Desert Island.

A typical (sort of) day-hike mapping route in Acadia.

A typical (sort of) day-hike mapping route in Acadia.

Some Other Hikes
My friend, Nancy, and I took a weekend trip into the Dry River Wilderness late in October. Much of the Wilderness area, and almost all of the Dry River Trail, was closed in late 2011 when Tropical Storm Irene laid waste to the mountains of New England. The trail was reopened only a few weeks earlier, so we got some late-season foliage and a few freezing nights in one of the nicest lean-tos in the White Mountains. It’s always a pleasure to spend three days in such a popular National Forest and see not a single person. We didn’t get high enough in the trip to break above tree line, but this was an example of a truly beautiful area. I’ll be back here a lot in the spring and summer.

Late fall in the Dry River Wilderness

Late fall in the Dry River Wilderness

Hopping across (or into) the Dry River

Hopping across (or into) the Dry River

All Play and No Work? Not Really.
Of course, if all I’d been doing for the past few months was hiking and hiding away in the woods, that would be awfully irresponsible. So the majority of my time has actually been spent working at the computer. I’ll write more about this later, but I’ve been upgrading the hiking apps to improve efficiency in the code, add new topo maps, fix bugs, and add some new features. I’ve also been working with FloridaHikes.com to create an app for the Florida National Scenic Trail, which is getting close to completion. To fill in all my spare time (mostly nonexistent) I’m doing some contract work and also coming up with some ideas for new apps. No rest for the wicked!