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I recently spent 10 days in Baxter State Park, and while I found a lot of articles on the various ways to hike Katahdin, there was little about other hikes, places to swim, which campgrounds are the best, etc. Even Maine guidebooks glossed over the park. And there were some things I would have liked to know. So here it is:
There are two entrances to Baxter State Park. The Togue Pond Gate entrance is near Millinocket and the Matagamon Gate entrance is near Patten. Millinocket is 3 hours from Portland; Patten is 3 hours and 15 minutes. Those 15 minutes will make a huge difference. A lot of people go to the park just to hike that one mountain — and yeah, it’s a nice mountain — but there’s a lot more to Baxter than Katahdin. Like 190,000 acres more. But that means people tend to filter to the bottom of the park near Abol or Roaring Brook campgrounds. The next time I take a few days and head up to Baxter, you’ll find me up north. Way north.
South Branch Pond Campground is one of the prettiest in the park. The tent sites themselves are a bit clumped, but if you are lucky enough to get a pondside lean-to (or a walk-in site all alone on the ponds), you’ll be in paradise. The place has 12 lean-tos, 21 tent sites and an 8 person bunkhouse. There are a lot of vacancies — this week, for instance (mid August!), there are more vacant sites than taken sites. And here’s what you get: A spot on a large, clean pond surrounded by 3,000-foot mountains on all sides. It’s like the Chimney Pond of the north, except you can drive all the way to your site and you’ll have one of the best swimming spots in Maine — deep, cool water with $1 canoe or kayak rentals and a stone-bottom (no muck), which kept away the leeches that wee ever-present at other ponds. The other campground up north is Trout Brook Farm, which has a couple amazingly private walk-in sites.
There are a bunch of hikes that leave from South Branch Pond Campground. For something easy and magical, walk 15 minutes (or drive) to the half-mile South Branch Falls Trail. The 15 (more) minute walk through the woods will bring you to a little canyon of sorts. Well, here’s some photos:
You can sit in the series of small waterfalls, if you want. There’s a tub of a pool under the largest waterfall, only about 4-feet high, that’s tippy-toe deep. There’s a wading pool at the end of all the falls if you just want to look at pretty stones through the gently swirling water. When we went there was no one there around noon, only one other person had signed the hiking registry before us and we ran into a family on our way out. So, pretty quiet for a little slice of heaven.
Now for hell. For a strenuous hike, you could do The Traveler Loop. It’s about 10.6 miles and guides will tell you it takes about 9 hours (it took us 7 hours, but we’re young and hated this hike, so we were all but sprinting so that it would be over). We ran into three groups of people hiking this (very quiet). The trail summits three mountains, almost all of the hike is above the tree line, giving sweeping views of the park the entire way. We didn’t know that you’re supposed to hike it starting at Pogy Notch and ending with the North Traveler Trail. We did it the “wrong” way. We scrambled up loose rock to a bare cliff face, where you can sit and look out at lower and upper South Brand ponds. There were blueberries everywhere. After that a beautiful ridge was easy walking with all the views. If I were to do it all again, I’d end there. Turn around, go for a dip in those beautiful ponds. But I went on instead. There were beautiful young birch forests, shrubby fields, long stretched of a ridges with loose rock (so tiring), then a treacherous scramble down steep loose rock to an easy, flat trail back around the ponds.
I know it’s controversial to say, but the North Traveler Loop was much more difficult and tiring than hiking Katahdin. It was hard to move for the next 15 hours or so. I’m an athlete. But after a delicious kielbasa kebab dinner, I threw up. That’s how exhausted and shocked my body was. If I were to ever do it again (I won’t), I’d take my time. Doing it in 7 hours was stupid. Doing it with only my 2 quarts of water on a summer day was stupid.
Baxter has $1 per hour canoe and kayak rentals (or $8 a day).
We rented canoes a few times at South Branch Pond just so that we could sit in them reading while taking in the view and, occasionally jumping off the bow. The ponds were so quiet. We tried to get from Lower South Branch Pond to Upper South Branch Pond by paddling, but we bottomed out and were too tired (from hiking) to portage. So we read more and ate PB&Js in the boat, napped a little, then paddled back and paid our $3.
If you are in the southern part of the park and you like to swim or paddle, you’re guaranteed to run into these guys. Sometimes they’ll swim next to your canoe. If you’re swimming, they will find you. If you try to kick or swat them away, they’ll swim at you with even more enthusiasm. They love shallow, warm, muck-bottom ponds. I stood on an underwater rock at Kidney Pond when I saw several swim toward me. It was like a shark horror movie. I swam like mad. The loons (and their babies) were ecstatic.
I was always told you can easily get leeches off you by pouring salt on them. My coworker said that a flexible credit card (“it has to be my BJs card”) works for scraping them off. I tug them off me in grossed-out panic, but many websites say not to do that because the scared leech will vomit dirty blood back into you.
The best tip I got was from a friend who goes on canoe trips. She said she saves up gallon milk jugs a few weeks before a long trip, fills them with water and freezes them. They act as ice in your coolers, but are later your water. Clever. For 10 days (2 people) we took a big cooler, a purse cooler (which we usually take on weekend trips) and a styrofoam cooler. Baxter campgrounds are, for the most part, 40-60 minutes from either Patten or Millinocket, so about 5 days in we headed to town to restock.
Here’s what we brought for 2 people, 10 days (one restock in Patten):
In the cooler: 2 packages hotdogs, 2 dozen eggs, half gallon milk, 3 sticks butter, 2 packages salami, half pound sliced cheese, drinks, two containers salsa, squeezable jelly, 2 packages thick cut bacon, 2 packages kielbasa
Dry: 5 cans of baked beans, onions, peppers, tomatoes, garlic, marshmallows/choc/crackers, peanut butter, large bag of potatoes, 2 bags corn chips, 2 bags of bread, 1 bag of doughnuts, apples, oranges, trail mix (2 large bags), a box of trail mix bars, 3 pounds of ground coffee, sugar, salt and pepper, 4 bags ramen (emergency food), 4 bags instant noodles (emergency food)
Meals included: kielbasa kebobs (twice), kielbasa and mashed potatoes (twice), french toast and bacon (4-6 times, sometimes as dinner), eggs with salsa and cheese, PB&Js (many lunches), beans and dogs (many times).
The tools we needed were: A tiny camping stove (borrowed), a pot with a lid, a cast-iron pan (for open fires), a spatula, a wood spoon, two sets of silverware, plus a box of plastic ware, one sharp knife, two mugs, paper plates, paper bowls, kebabs, a pot holder (silicone).
We ended up needing about 7 gallons of water for 10 days.
I never packed too much food or too much water. “I’ll be fine! I’m strong! I’m young!” are dangerous thoughts that I, in retrospect, regret. Overpack to be safe. Always have your basics, like a first aid kit and two Nalgenes of water per person on a long hike. The long hikes we did didn’t have water sources.
And maybe this is an odd thing to say, but there’s something very comforting about a snack. When you’re 3,000+ feet up, tired and your body is working hard there’s something soothing and mood-boosting about a few handfuls of peanuts and M&Ms.
“Katahdin – A Guide to Baxter State Park” is the best book for the specifics on any hike. It will tell you the details of when in the trail you’ll climb, what you’ll see and any dangers. It’s writing is direct, not flowery. It also has park history, the depths of every pond and campground reviews. It’s a bit dry, but if you’re about to go on a long hike, it’s the book you’ll want to read to make sure you’re safe and ready. This is at the Portland Public Library.
This map was great. It’s waterproof material somehow was untangleable. I’m the worst map folder and this one was dummy-proof. You can buy it at the park gates (if they’re in stock) or at bookstores for about $11. It was very easy to read and has close-ups of the parts of the park near campgrounds. It shows where canoe rentals are (and if they’re locked or not), the mileage for different legs of each hike and where the backpacking campsites are.
Moon’s “Maine Hiking” book is great, especially for casual hikers. It’s the yin to the first book’s yang. Whereas “Katahdin” is very very detailed about every part of every trail, Moon’s guide is easier. It will tell you how hard the hike is, how pretty it is and how to get to the trail and some basics on what you’ll see. No entry is more than about 400 words. It’s like the Yelp review of trail guides. It lacks a lot of trails, but helped us pick the Hunt Trail as the prettiest way we could hike Katahdin (from where we were in the park and from what we wanted to do and see). Costs about $9. I got my copy at Longfellow Books.
*Since posting this article, I’ve been told the AMC Maine Mountain Guide would be good to add to this list, for a complete reference to Baxter State Park trails. And the guys at Maine-based Chimani told me their free app (a guide to Baxter) works without cellphone reception, so that might be worth checking out too: https://www.chimani.com/#baxter
I’ve wasted hours scanning online campground maps only to end up with a spectacular view of a porter potty and not a tree to guard me from fellow campers — not in Baxter, but it’s happened. I appreciate when people tell me exactly where I should camp. So here it is:
1. I wish I’d camped at South Branch Pond Campground’s walk-in/canoe-in lean-to. It’s site 36. (Shout out to Window To The Woods, who wrote about this amazing place). My second choice would be site 12. If I had to stay in the campground, I’d try for lean-to 2, 1 or 3. After that, I’d just try for a tent site away from the toilets (20 was close to trails and the beach. Lean-to 8 and 9 looked tucked in and peaceful, but far from the pond and trails.
2. Also up north is Trout Brook Farm Campground, which has a few amazingly private, quiet, beautiful spots. Walk-in lean-to 3 might be one of the best in the entire park. You grab a wheelbarrow and pack your stuff in it, then walk over a wooden bridge and along an easy wooded path to the lean-to, which abuts Trout Brook. At your private beach, cool water runs over stones you can walk over, barely getting wet, but the banks sink about 6 feet deep closer to the lean-to, allowing for full-on swimming and floating. My other choices for this campground would be walk-in tent site 2. I didn’t get a good peek at most of the tent sites. Sorry.
3. I loved Kidney Pond. The cabins can cost $75 a night. I stayed in “Katahdin” cabin 4, which was between two others and right by the parking lot. If I were to go again, I’d try for cabin 11 or 2. 11 is far away and you can probably see the mountains from there (same with 10, I’d bet). Cabin 2 looked like it had a great water view (same with 1).
4. I didn’t stay at Daicey Pond Campground, but I visited it for hiking and kayaking (try to Lost Pond trail for a Twilight-like walk to a leech-filled pond that is warm and makes for a fun swim. You know. If you have enough salt.). My impression was that cabins 9 and 1 had it pretty good.
5. We stayed at Katahdin Stream Campground so we could hike the Hunt Trail. I liked our streamside lean-to 10, but I was exhausted enough that I could have accidentally slept in a privy and have been happy. Lean-tos 11 and 12 also looked nice. 3.
6. At Abol Campground there’s little privacy and quiet anywhere. I wouldn’t camp there again. I was at lean-to 3 (a walk-in), which was the second-best lean-to there, right after lean-to 6, which is tucked next to the river.
I’d prepared to hike the Saddle Trail (easiest way to ascend, I heard), but the parking area was packed by 6:30 a.m. on a sunny Saturday, so we instead hiked the Hunt Trail. It had a huge waterfall. It had gentle climbs, tons of steep stone stairs, big boulders to walk around or climb on for views of nearby mountains. The wooded hike turns into a tough rocky scale up boulders and ladders about 3 miles in (there are no markers to tell you how far away or close you are, which led to me eavesdropping on other hikers’ conversations about how far in/away we were). For my hiking partner, this was the most fun part. It’s literally not a walk in the park, it requires every part of your body lunging and grasping, pulling yourself up big rocks. Many large hiker groups turned around by this point. You get almost a mile of flat plateau walking on rocks — it looks like I imagine and then one little bump up to Baxter Peak.
Without exception, the waterfalls were all easy to walk to. They were all about 1-mile walks (one-way) from campgrounds. With the exception of Big Niagara Falls, which had fly fishermen, I was alone at all the falls.
A breakdown of these falls:
Worst for swimming because the water was super freezing. But I hear it’s awesome on a hot, hot day. It’s not deep and there isn’t much room. The falls are beautiful because they tumble maybe 12 feet down pink granite. The pool at the bottom is all pink too. The mile walk in is easy and leaves from Abol Campground.
This was a fun place to walk around and swim in. I did get 100 little leeches on me after laying on a rock and letting the water tumble around me. The pool under the tallest fall (a stumpy 4 feet) was a mini-lagoon maybe 5-feet deep. Water tumbles down bunches of other rocks, making it a cascade of waterfalls. You can sit on many of the volcanic-looking rocks. The water then runs into a shallow, pristine pool. When we went the water was warm. On the walk back, pop into the side trails which show the canyon-like river.
This one is about 50 feet tall. I recently moved to Maine from Oregon and this reminded me of the big falls out west. It’s totally magical; you can imagine unicorns living behind the water curtains.
This was a very good swimming spot. It was very shallow, then very deep — changed by the strong waterfall — then very shallow, making it fun to leap from shallow spot over the deep fissures to shallow spots. It was a little scary when we got too close to the strong falls. The water was warm and the surroundings were beautiful. The mile-long hike from the Daicey Pond parking area also leads to Big Niagara Falls.
We ran into some fly fishermen here. It was super beautiful and worth the short hike. This is a good picnic spot.
-Carey Kish wrote this great piece on which trails will take you up Katahdin (Abol Trail is closed). Some friends told me the Saddle Trail would be the easiest way to go, but my reading told me the Hunt Trail would be more work, but a prettier hike.
-You can make campground reservations here (but not for next summer yet. You have to wait until March-April for that).
-I brought a “learn new card games” book and was grateful. Other entertainment: Logic puzzle book, “Gone Girl” (just read it.), Bananagrams.
-On several ponds you can canoe/kayak to little docks. From there you can hike. Check your map because combo kayak-hike day trips are fun, cheap and easy.
-You can’t just show up. I actually made this mistake. You need camping reservations ahead of time, otherwise you’ll have to hang out at the park gate and wait for them to find you a site. You can only camp in campgrounds or in designated campsites and you’ll need a reservation to do that. We camped next to a couple who were hiking late at night. They, apparently, pulled to the side of the trail and fell asleep. Around midnight, a ranger found them and made them hike down the mountain to a campground. So. They take that seriously.
I’m not an expert hiker or camper. If you are or if you just have an awesome tip about Baxter State Park, please leave it in the comments.