Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument encompasses 87,500 acres of craggy mountain peaks, deep woods and free-flowing rivers and streams immediately east of Baxter State Park, an area long recognized for its ecological, recreational and cultural significance.
The Monument, established just over a year ago, is the latest addition to a diverse matrix of public and private conservation lands in Maine’s North Woods that range southwest across the 100-Mile Wilderness to Moosehead Lake and west to the Canadian border.
The southern terminus of the renowned International Appalachian Trail is at Mile 12 on the Katahdin Loop Road, the gravel circuit through the southern reaches of the Monument. The IAT meanders for 30 surprisingly rugged miles to Grand Lake Road near the north entrance of Baxter at Matagamon Gate. From there, the IAT continues across northern Maine and through New Brunswick and Quebec to its North American terminus at Crow Head in Newfoundland, some 1,900 miles from end-to-end.
The initial section of the IAT had been on this hiker’s bucket list for several years, and when the Monument became a reality on the ground, well, I just had to get up there and take a good look around. Over four glorious days and three frosty nights last Veterans Day weekend, two companions and I did just that, on what I now consider one of the best multi-day backpacking treks in Maine. With abundant solitude, fabulous scenery, bountiful wildlife and cozy log shelters en route, I simply can’t recommend this hike enough.
A squall descended upon us as the warm shuttle van drove away. Hoisting our backpacks, we turned and sauntered northbound into the swirling November snow. A half-mile along, we hurriedly pulled into the shelter along Katahdin Brook. Cold fingers worked pack straps and zippers, and we each donned an extra layer of fleece and a wind shell. “Are we almost there?” I jokingly quipped to my buddies, who offered only icy stares before venturing on.
Barnard Mountain is a short side hike off the IAT, and by the time we reached the large open ledge on top, the sun was out. To the west, Katahdin Lake sparkled, and beyond, against a backdrop of steely gray skies, rose magnificent Mt. Katahdin dusted in white. The temperature plummeted that night, and by 6 p.m. it was too cold for a campfire or even a cribbage game, so we retreated to our down bags.
It was still in the 20s the next morning when we swapped boots and socks for camp shoes and made the shin-deep, 100-foot ford across Wassataquoik Stream. Numb toes slowly warmed as we made a wide arc around Deasey Mountain, then scampered up to the mostly open summit and another grand view of Katahdin. We lunched in the warmish sun next to the restored 1929 groundhouse firetower, which like the name implies, sits right on the rocky ground. To the east, we could see shapely Sugarloaf and Mt. Chase, and by using the planisphere inside the firetower, we could identify many more peaks.
The trail continued along the high, undulating ridge to the next objective, Lunksoos Mountain. Here, we reveled in the 360-degree panorama – the best of the trip, before negotiating the trail to the welcome lean-to in the valley far below, which we reached in the fading pink light of evening.
The second half of the walk is mostly on old tote roads through the wild valley of the pristine East Branch of the Penobscot River. We spent the final night close to thundering Grand Pitch, and on the last day, thoroughly enjoyed the odd-shaped Haskell Rock set amid the rapids. At Haskell Hut – a lovely log cabin on Haskell Deadwater open to the public for overnight stays – we snacked on the meager morsels left in our packs.
By late afternoon, we were at the car and celebrating with huge cheeseburgers at Matagamon Wilderness Campground.
This is a backpacking trip you’ve got to do, be it this fall or next spring or summer. A parking permit is required if leaving a vehicle overnight at any Monument trailhead. If you’re planning to hike the entire 30-mile stretch of the IAT, a car spot or shuttle is necessary. Maine Quest Adventures and the Appalachian Trail Lodge operate shuttles out of Millinocket. Find more information and maps at nps.gov/kaww and internationalatmaine.org.