The future of Katahdin Woods & Waters may be uncertain, but there’s plenty to explore right now.
From the balcony seat at a little picnic table on a huge granite outcrop on the summit of 1,558-foot Barnard Mountain, the westward vista is a glorious one, across several miles of forestland to sparkling Katahdin Lake and beyond to the magnificent mass of Mount Katahdin itself. The short hike on old logging roads and a foot trail to this special spot makes a great introduction for visitors to Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, the newest chunk of public conservation and recreation land in Maine.
Using the authority granted by the Antiquities Act of 1906, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument was established by the proclamation of President Barack Obama on Aug. 24, 2016, ostensibly, the very same day as the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service. The new monument preserves 87,500 acres of craggy mountain peaks, deep woods and free-flowing rivers and streams east of Baxter State Park, the sum of parcels assembled by Elliotsville Plantation between 2001 and 2013 and then donated to the federal government, the cause of great debate over its best use.
When President Donald Trump announced that Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument was among 27 federally designated sites the National Park Service would review, the future of the brand new monument became uncertain again. On a recent visit, however, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke indicated support for the lands, though he wouldn’t say whether it would stay in public hands. The Department of the Interior is accepting public comment on the monument’s designation through July 10. So, for now at least, it’s wide open to explore, with recreational opportunities from hiking and backpacking, canoeing and kayaking, mountain biking and fishing, to bird- and wildlife-watching, horseback riding and plenty of good old seat-of-the-pants sightseeing.
A visit to the monument presents a unique opportunity to see this new parkland in Maine’s North Woods in its infancy, its wildly raw and virtually undeveloped state.
“It’s all a work-in-progress,” said National Park Service representative Lynn Sanderson, at the monument’s new visitor center in downtown Millinocket last month. “We’ve started a three-year planning process, are hiring a planner and will be conducting lots of public outreach meetings to get a sense of what people want to see out there.”
Controversial right up to the day of its designation, there’s a growing feeling among locals that the monument is here now and should be supported, a sentiment echoed a few doors down the street by Jaime Renaud, owner of the Appalachian Trail Café.
“It’s a positive thing for the community, for Maine and the nation,” said Renaud.
If you decide to head up this summer, here’s some help navigating the new monument.
GEARING UP, GETTING THERE AND GETTING OUT
The Katahdin Loop Road traces a 17-mile route through the southern section of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, offering visitors a great introduction to the place by touching upon the most hikes, walks and viewpoints available at this time. Access to the Loop Road is via Swift Brook Road from Route 11 in Stacyville. Going north on Interstate 95, reach Stacyville from Exit 264 in Sherman (or, if you’re eager to get off the highway, from Exit 244 in Medway).
Millinocket, East Millinocket and Medway serve as gateway communities to the south of the monument and are home to a full range of visitor goods and services, from campgrounds and lodging to restaurants and grocery stores to hiking, camping and fishing supplies. Guides and canoe and kayak rentals are also available.
Just off the highway in Sherman are two convenience stores with gas; be certain to fill up here before heading west to the monument. And once off the pavement of Route 11, be sure to go slow and yield to truck traffic, as you’ll be on private, active logging roads.
Whetstone Falls will be your first good look at the pristine East Branch of the Penobscot River, which forms most of the eastern boundary of the monument. Farther along, at Sandbank Stream, there’s an information kiosk, two drive-in campsites, picnic tables and a pit toilet. Just ahead on the Loop Road is the short but scenic Sandbank Stream Nature Walk. The Loop Road splits 2 miles beyond; turn left to drive it in the recommended clockwise direction (several steep, narrow sections after Mile 7 are one way).
At Mile 2 is the Lynx Pond Nature Walk; it leads to a boardwalk on the pond. Between Miles 6 and 7 is a scenic overlook with picnic tables, several soon-to-be installed interpretive panels and an amazing view of Katahdin and the woods and mountains of the Hundred Mile Wilderness. Between Miles 7 and 10 are a host of lookouts with the now familiar but always spectacular Katahdin vista.
Trailhead parking for Barnard Mountain is found near Mile 12 (this point can also be reached directly by turning right at the original Loop Road junction). Allow a couple hours for this moderate day hike to grand Katahdin views. This is also the starting trailhead for the International Appalachian Trail, which heads north through Maine, New Brunswick and Quebec before ending at the tip of Newfoundland, some 1,900 miles distant. Ambitious hikers can hike into the heart of the monument via the International Appalachian Train on a fabulous 30-mile route along Wassataquoik Stream and over Deasey and Lunksoos mountains. Three designated lean-tos en route offer shelter.
Located at the junction of routes 11 and 159, Patten is the gateway town for visitors wanting to check out the northern section of the Monument. A variety of goods and services are available here, as well as the Patten Lumberman’s Museum. Dedicated to Maine’s rich and colorful logging history, the museum also serves as a summer visitor center for the monument.
From Patten to the monument’s north entrance at Messer Road, you’ll be on the Katahdin Woods & Waters Scenic Byway. This uber-scenic, 89-mile route makes a wide arc around the monument, from Baxter State Park’s south end at Togue Pond Gate out to Medway, then Patten and on to the park’s north end at Matagamon Gate. Beyond Patten, additional stops for supplies, eats, camping and lodging are found at Shin Pond and at the East Branch of the Penobscot River.
From Grand Lake Road/Route 159, launch a canoe for an exciting paddle down the East Branch, which features a series of Class I-III rapids. Or put in on the nearby Seboeis River for a pleasant Class I-II run to join the East Branch downstream.
From the monument gate, drive 4 miles in via Messer Road, then a hike to Haskell Hut, a classic log cabin in a tranquil setting, then move on to Haskell Rock Pitch on the roaring East Branch. Pack a fly rod and cast a line for brook trout, salmon and smallmouth bass.
Trade hiking boots for a mountain bike and ride to Grand Pitch and beyond, following the monument’s many remote miles of gravel roads and old tote roads. Stop often to watch for moose; droppings are everywhere and so are the big animals.
The outdoor recreation possibilities are practically endless in the new National Monument, and this summer is the perfect time for a visit.
“The Monument is so beautiful, so wild, such a vast and unspoiled landscape,” said Lucas St. Clair, president of Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters. “It’s amazing to have this special opportunity in this part of the U.S.”
Whetstone Bridge in the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument Staff photo by Gregory Rec
East Branch of the Penobscot River at Whetstone Falls near the entrance to the Katahdin Woods and Waters National MonumentStaff photo by Gregory Rec
Some of the land below Katahdin in this photo are part of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Staff photo by Gregory Rec
The idled mill in East Millinocket. Staff photo by Gregory Rec
A view of Billfish Mountain in Baxter State Park from the Haskell Deadwater. Photo by Carey Kish
Reporter Tux Turkel gets into a canoe after hiking Deasey Mountain. Staff photo by Gregory Rec
Sign the guest book at the visitors center in Millinocket. Photo by Carey Kish
Take a hike to Haskell Hut. Photo by Carey Kish
Inside Haskell Hut. Photo by Carey Kish
At Mile 2 of the Loop Road is the Lynx Pond Nature Walk.Photo by Carey Kish
Haskell Rock Pitch is a good place to take our your fly-fishing rod and cast a line for brook trout, salmon and smallmouth bass.Photo by Carey Kish
The Matagamon Wilderness Campround & Camps near the monument's entrance road, about a mile from the Matagamon Gate, also has a general store.Photo by Carey Kish
Shin Pond Village in Mount Chase, between Patten and the monument's northern end, has food and public showers.Photo by Carey Kish
A sign welcoming visitors to the monument, designated as such last summer.Photo by Carey Kish
TIPS AND RESOURCES
Roads are gravel and rough in places, so go slow. Cellphone coverage is poor to nonexistent. Campsites and huts are free and first-come, first-served; an overnight parking reservation is needed, however, as is a Maine Forest Service campfire permit. For parking, contact 852-1291 or firstname.lastname@example.org. For a fire permit, call 435-7963.