September and October are perfect months to enjoy the great outdoors in the mountains of western Maine, where unlimited fun and adventure await along the multi-use recreation corridor of the Maine Huts & Trails system. As the forest colors change from leafy summer green to autumn orange, red and gold, take to the extensive trails and waters set in the shadow of the lofty Bigelows for some pretty fine days of hiking, mountain biking and paddling combined with relaxing nights of hearty food, good company and comfy backcountry accommodations.
With 50 miles of trails in the Maine Huts & Trails system, plus 30 miles of adjacent trails, there are plenty of opportunities for great hiking, from easy day hikes to moderate overnight trips to strenuous multi-day rambles.
“The hut-to-hut hikes are not through high alpine terrain but rather a nice walk in the woods along the winter ski trails,” said Charlie Woodworth, executive director of Maine Huts & Trails. “You can carry your gear or use the gear shuttle to have it transported ahead.”
From Stratton Brook Hut hikers can access the Firewarden’s Trail for a jaunt up to the 4,000-foot summits of West and Avery peaks on the Appalachian Trail and some of the best views anywhere in Maine. You can also connect to the Horns Pond Trail for a hike to Horns Pond, a lovely alpine tarn on the AT at the base of the twin peaks of North and South Horn.
Larry’s Trail and Warren’s Trail lead into Poplar Hut, from which you can access the long ridgeline of Little Bigelow Mountain traversed by the AT. In and around Flagstaff Hut are the Birch, Shore and Hemlock trails, while at Grand Falls Hut the Fisherman’s Trail makes for a nice jaunt.
With the exception of the Hemlock Trail, whatever trail in the Maine Huts system you can hike can also be traveled on a mountain bike with knobby tires. Gear shuttles are also available to mountainbiking guests looking to lighten their load while riding between huts.
“We’ve got a great partnership with the Town of Carrabassett Valley and Carrabassett Region chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association,” Woodworth noted. “With their vision and our combined investment, we’ve developed miles of great single- and double-track riding, some 75 miles in all.”
Paddlers can enjoy canoeing and kayaking on scenic Flagstaff Lake, which also happens to be a part of the 740-mile Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Canoes and kayaks are available at Flagstaff Hut. Use is free for members; there’s a small fee for non-members.
“Paddling has become a big thing at Flagstaff,” said Woodworth. “Stay two nights at the hut, and we’ll provide a guided paddle with lunch on the lake.”
This is just one of a number of guided opportunities available to hut guests in an effort to get more people outside exploring the trails and waters in the region while providing an extra measure of comfort and safety.
“The guided experience shows people how to best use and enjoy the wilderness we have here in western Maine,” said Woodworth. “It’s great to go out with a knowledgeable local who can show you what’s available in this wilderness playground.”
Paddlers also can follow the placid Dead River six miles down to Grand Falls, stow their boat, and then hike the remaining two easy miles into Grand Falls Hut.
After a fun day outdoors hiking, mountain biking or paddling, you and your group will arrive at one of the huts, which is a misnomer owing to the level of comfort you’ll experience at the off-the-grid facilities, all powered by multiple sources of green energy. Shared bunkrooms, or if you so desire, private rooms – each with mattresses and pillows – are where guests sleep, but you’ll spend precious little waking time there. The hut experience is really centered on the main lodge, where there are always refreshments and fresh-baked goods available for snacking, plus an uber-friendly and helpful staff to answer questions. Here also is where you can luxuriate in a hot shower before relaxing in the dining room or library.
“The essence of the hut experience is the family-style dining, when you get to sit down with complete strangers around a table of good food,” said Woodworth. “That’s when you get to share your common experiences in the outdoors. By the end of the meal you’ll have new friends.”
From the huts of the White Mountains to the refuges of the Swiss Alps, I can say from miles of trekking experiences that the opportunity to gather together on the common ground of the huts and get to know others from around Maine, New England and the world is a powerful attraction and one that does indeed produce lasting friendships and enduring memories.
The huts also allow you to travel light with only a few necessities in your pack, as well as unplug from the Internet world for a while, two things most of us could surely use a little more often in life.
The grand vision of Maine Huts & Trails is to build a year-round, 180-mile long, multi-sport recreational trail system ranging from Bethel north to Moosehead Lake, complete with 12 full-service backcountry lodges en route.
“We’re creating a people-powered recreation corridor through the mountains of western Maine, designed, built and maintained with a system of eco-lodges along the way,” said Woodworth. “Our goal is to draw more people to the outdoors through this experience.”
Seven years into this incredibly ambitious project, the organization has established four huts and some 80 miles of recreation trails between Route 27 in Carrabassett Valley and Route 201 in West Forks, as well as having attracted a loyal following from far and wide. So far, so good, I’d say.
Beyond solidifying its successes in the region of the Bigelow Range, Flagstaff Lake and the Dead River, what happens next for Maine Huts & Trails?
“Our move will probably be south toward Rangeley through the Caribou Valley between Sugarloaf and the Crockers,” said Woodworth. “Rangeley is a vibrant four-season town with an active outdoor community. It will be pretty darn cool.”
Cool indeed, echoes this hiker and skier, as I trace a line into Caribou Pond tucked between Mount Redington and Spaulding Mountain, then west along the lower north slopes of Saddleback and on to Route 4, a chunk of wild country that’s going to be some kind of fun to explore.
For now, however, it’s time to get on up to what’s on the ground right now at Maine Huts & Trails and enjoy some fine late summer and early fall weather on the trail and some comfy overnight stays and the good company of friends, family and fellow wilderness travelers.
And if you like what you find – and I trust you will – you might want to consider becoming a member, which not only supports the organization’s mission but nets you discounts on lodging and various and sundry other perks.
“We’re only as strong as our membership,” noted Woodworth. “We’re encouraging people to come and help us prove that this idea can really take hold and add value to the economy and environment of western Maine and be a resource of state and national significance.”
The huts have two full-service lodging seasons: July through Oct. 31 and the end of December through March 31. In late fall and spring, the huts are open on a self-service basis at a significant discount (think $35 a night). Stay, shower, cook your own meals in the kitchen and have fun.
Stratton Brook: Located at 1,800 feet on a knoll on the south slope of Bigelow Mountain.
Poplar: Tucked into the woods not far from Poplar Stream Falls.
Flagstaff: Situated on the east shore of Flagstaff Lake with expansive views of the Bigelow Range.
Grand Falls: Perched high above Spencer Rips on the Dead River.
Guided Flagstaff Lake Paddling Trip, Sept. 22-25. Combines two overnight stays at the Flagstaff Hut with an adventure canoe paddle and overnight camp-out on Flagstaff Lake.
Annual Harvest at the Hut Dinner, Sept. 27. Join Chef Jordan Rolleston at the new Stratton Brook Hut for a delicious five-course meal of locally sourced and in-season fall foods.
Guided Dead River Paddling Trip, Sept. 28-30.Join a Registered Maine Guide for a 6-mile paddle down the Dead River, then hike two easy miles to Grand Falls Hut for a two-night stay.
Annual fall BBQ, Oct. 12. Our annual thank you to members for helping to support the Maine Huts & Trails vision features squash soup, cornbread, pulled pork, baked beans, apple cider. Free for members, a small fee for non-members.
Maine Huts & Trails: www.mainehuts.org, 265-2400.