View of Katahdin from the AT atop Rainbow Ledges Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area. Photos by Carey Kish
Rainbow Lake view from Rainbow Spring campsite on the AT at Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area.
The Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area features stands of 300-year old trees.
Primitive campsite at Horserace Pond at Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area.
Ladder down into the Ice Caves at Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area.
Horserace Pond at Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area.
Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area sign.
Carey on the Blue Trail at Clifford Pond at Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area.
AT lean-to at Rainbow Stream Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area.
At the far northern end of the 100-Mile Wilderness, just shy of the West Branch of the Penobscot River and Baxter State Park, is the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area. One of the crown jewels of conservation in Maine’s North Woods, this remote, rugged and wildlife-rich 46,271-acre tract features mature forests, pristine waters and bountiful recreation opportunities.
Owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, the entirety of the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area is an ecological reserve that protects the highest concentration of remote ponds in New England as well as undisturbed stands of 300-year-old trees. TNC acquired the property in 2002 from Great Northern Paper Company in a rather complicated transaction.
Suffice it to say that acquisition was a key link in what is now a remarkable and nearly contiguous corridor of conservation lands that ranges from Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument southwest to the area around Moosehead Lake and then west to the Quebec border, some 2 million acres overall.
Visitors to the Debsconeag Lakes can enjoy hiking and backpacking, canoeing and kayaking, and fishing and hunting, all amid extraordinary solitude. Hikers will certainly appreciate the 25 miles of beautiful trails, three campsites and two shelters.
The Appalachian Trail meanders through the Debsconeag for 16 miles, entering near the Murphy Ponds and exiting at the Golden Road just west of Abol Bridge. En route, the AT hugs much of the south shore of Rainbow Lake. Near the eastern end of the lake, a side trail climbs to the open ledges atop 1,638-foot Rainbow Mountain for panoramic views. Beyond, the trail climbs over Rainbow Ledges (1,504 feet) for an outstanding look at majestic Katahdin, nine miles to the northeast. Lean-tos at Rainbow Stream and Hurd Brook, and a tent site at Rainbow Spring, all maintained by the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, allow for multiday backpacking trip options.
Around six miles of trails lead into the northern section of the Debsconeag Wilderness from the Golden Road at Horserace Brook. Horserace Pond Trail reaches the pond of the same name, where there are two primitive tent sites. The Blue Trail diverges early on, leading past Clifford Pond and Woodman Pond to the north shore of Rainbow Lake. Across the lake is the route of the AT, and rising beyond is Rainbow Mountain. The Rainbow Loop Trail links the Blue and Horserace trails for a nice 6.5-mile circuit hike, which altogether is known as the Rainbow Loop.
The most popular Debsconeag hike is the Ice Caves Trail, a short 1.1-mile jaunt that leads to a cavernous hole beneath a jumble of boulders. Accessed via iron rungs, the caves often retain ice well into the summer and even the fall.
The forest habitat of the Debsconeag Wilderness is home to a variety of cover types, from old growth hemlock and white pines, to spruce and balsam fir, beech, maple and birch. Around 215 species of plant life are found here, as are animals like the pine marten, spruce grouse, moose, fisher, bobcat and black bear. The waters hold lake and brook trout, and even rare freshwater mussels.
Road access to trailheads on the northern margin of the Debsconeag is via the Golden Road and Route 157 from Millinocket. Access to the AT in the southwest corner of the Wilderness is by way of a lengthy drive in from Route 11 on the Jo Mary Road and Wadleigh Pond Road through the Nahmakanta Public Lands unit to Pollywog Stream.
My favorite place to stay is the Big Moose Inn, Cabins and Campground, located on Millinocket Lake and just opposite Spencer Cove on Ambejejus Lake, right where Route 157 and the Golden Road pinch together. The place has lean-tos and campsites plus hot showers (or you can upgrade to a comfy cabin or room), and a great bar and restaurant. Owner Laurie Boynton Cormier is hiker-friendly and a real gem. Bonus: The eclectic North Woods Trading Post is right next door.
For more info and a trail map of Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area, visit www.nature.org.