Even if you’ve never set foot in New England, you probably know Katahdin by its reputation: Maine’s highest peak, the storied terminus of the Appalachian Trail, the spot where Thoreau had his melodramatic wilderness epiphany. You might not know that a hiker can’t simply show up at a trailhead there and start hoofing it up the mountain. Or that Katahdin isn’t found, as some reasonably assume, at Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, designated amid some controversy in 2016. (It’s next door.) You almost certainly wouldn’t recognize the names of the other neighboring parks and preserves—each administered by a different outfit and governed by different rules—that together make the Katahdin region arguably the East Coast’s finest wilderness-recreation bloc.
And so, a primer. The patchwork management of Maine’s wild and woolly north woods can be confusing for a first-time visitor. Here’s what a would-be Thoreau needs to know.
Baxter State Park
What’s there: Mile-high Katahdin, for one. More than a half-dozen intersecting trails reach its summit, Baxter Peak, with most of them falling in the alpine zone for miles and requiring some scrambling or climbing on iron rungs. AT thru-hikers start or finish their trek on the mountain’s western slope, but the showstopper is the eastern approach called the Knife Edge, a boulder-strewn ridge walk of just over a mile where the mountain’s spine is sometimes all of three feet wide with a 2,000-foot drop on either side. Less exhilarating but equally sublime is Chimney Pond, tucked into a cirque on the mountain’s north side, near a cluster of coveted backcountry lean-tos.
But there’s more to Baxter than Katahdin. The 330-square-mile wilderness park encompasses more than 40 mountain peaks, backcountry ponds full of native brook trout, and a handful of idyllic cabins and campgrounds—all accessed by one gravel road and some 220 miles of trail. One of Maine’s most underrated hikes is the Traveler Mountain Loop, near the park’s north entrance, which stays above treeline for more than half of its 11 miles. The trail ends at Traveler’s 3,551-foot summit, and it has much of Katahdin’s grandeur and a fraction of its foot traffic.
Who runs it: The state, with limitations. Maine’s governor in the early twenties, Percival Baxter, wanted the state to acquire and protect Katahdin and its surroundings. His initiative failed, but after leaving office he spent 30 years buying the land and deeding it to the people of Maine. So while Baxter is a state park in name, it exists outside of Maine’s park system, legally bound by deeds forbidding anything that might intrude on its unique character.
Getting in: Entrance is free if you’re in a car with Maine plates; otherwise it’s $15. Things get tricky if you want to hike Katahdin. Unless you’re waking up inside the park (campsites and cabins book up months in advance), you’ll need a day-use parking reservation—a DUPR, or “dooper,” in Baxter parlance—to claim a space at a Katahdin trailhead. Non-residents can get a DUPR online for $5 starting two weeks before a planned trip. On the morning of your DUPR, you must be at the park’s south entrance by 7 A.M.—at 7:01, your space goes up for grabs to the DUPR-less hopefuls who often hover outside the gate. Once the park admits enough cars to fill the trailhead lots, Katahdin has reached capacity and you’re looking for an alternate hike.
Know before you go: Baxter has no cell service and no facilities with Wi-Fi. (Or electricity, for that matter.) The entrance gates are within a few miles of campgrounds with stores, but you’ll find nothing for sale inside the park, so come prepared. Pets are forbidden, and kids under six can’t go above treeline—rangers will enforce both rules. Some trails have rather conservative cutoff times, and rangers may turn you around if you’re caught hitting the trail too late in the day. Baxter is a bit of a rule-happy park, and so it pays to read up before heading in.
What’s nearby: The recovering mill town of Millinocket, an AT trail town where you can gear up at Ole Man’s Gear Shop and eat amazing donuts at the Appalachian Trail Café while admiring thru-hikers’ signatures on the ceiling panels. Lodging in town is mostly budget motels, with a few campgrounds and lodges clustered outside the park entrance, including the sprawling New England Outdoor Center.
Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument
What’s there: Katahdin’s forested foothills, several of them bald-topped, their summits accessed along 30 miles of the International Appalachian Trail. Mountain bikers come for a few dozen miles of old forest roads, and paddlers watch for moose along the East Branch of the Penobscot. The monument also has some of the planet’s best stargazing, as recently certified by the International Dark-Sky Association.
Getting in: As of yet, the monument has no entrance stations, so there’s no fee. Camping is free, too, available on a first-come, first-serve basis in a handful of primitive sites and lean-tos scattered throughout the park. Katahdin Woods and Waters abuts Baxter to the east, but it’s a wilderness border—you can't enter one park from the other by car.
Know before you go: As a new NPS unit, the monument is still light on frontcountry attractions, other than a 17-mile scenic driving loop with overlooks and interpretive displays that will tax any lower-clearance vehicle. (As will all the monument’s roads.) There’s no road connecting the monument’s north entrance to its south entrance, and it’s a 90-minute drive between the two on roads outside the park, so seeing the whole place requires some trip planning. There is next to no ranger presence, and, as in Baxter, cell service is nil. Leashed dogs are welcome.
What’s nearby: A rural stretch of Maine, without much for amenities. You can get surprisingly good barbecue at Flatlanders in Patten, then check out a replica 19th-century logging camp at the Patten Lumbermen’s Museum. Near the monument’s north entrance, Mount Chase Lodge is a mellow old sporting camp that serves incredible family-style meals (currently available for takeout only).
Penobscot River Trails
What’s there: Some 16 miles of crushed-stone bike paths (that serve as ski trails in the winter) along the East Branch of the Penobscot River, just south of the national monument. The private park opened just last year, and it’s maybe the most manicured trail system in New England, where bikers still have to watch out for ambling moose and black bears.
Who runs it: The Butler Conservation Fund, a philanthropic foundation set up by retired finance titan Gilbert Butler, who bought the former timberland and funded construction of the trails and a pair of warming huts that look like small national-park lodges.
Getting in: Park in a lot right off the paved state highway, sign in at a visitor center that may or may not be staffed, and hit the trail. There is no fee.
Know before you go: Ordinarily, Penobscot River Trails has a fleet of mountain bikes and kayaks (and in the winter, skis and snowshoes) to rent by donation, although the rental program is on hold during the pandemic. No dogs, ebikes, or camping allowed.
Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area
What’s there: Some 46,000 nearly roadless acres of lakes and ponds, most of them connected by well-maintained portage trails and dotted with lakefront campsites. Also 15 miles of the Appalachian Trail, some stands of old-growth forest, backcountry ice caves, and so, so many loons.
Who runs it: The Nature Conservancy, which acquired the property in 2002 from Great Northern Paper Company, once Maine’s largest landowner.
Getting in: In contrast to Baxter, Debsconeag is sparsely regulated, with no permits, reservations, or fees. (No dogs are allowed, though.) Campsites are first come, first served and accessible via a handful of trailheads and three carry-in boat launches at the edges of the preserve.
Know before you go: As elsewhere, don’t count on cell service. Mountain bikes are verboten. You’ll want a vehicle with decent clearance to access the boat launches.
What’s nearby: The AT leaves the northeast corner of the Deb right next to the Abol Bridge Campground and Store, a clutch outpost for last-minute tent stakes, fishing flies, and beer, as well as a staging area for northbound thru-hikers about to launch their final push towards Katahdin. It’s also a base camp for whitewater rafting trips on the West Branch of the Penobscot, which separates Debsconeag from neighboring Baxter.
Beyond the Katahdin Region: the North Maine Woods
Wait, isn’t it all the north Maine woods? Well yes, but head north or west along the rutted logging roads that spider out from the Katahdin region and sooner or later you’ll reach a gated checkpoint. This is run by North Maine Woods, Inc., which administers recreational access to some 3.5 million acres of forests, mountains, lakes, and streams in the state’s undeveloped northeast corner. Most of the land is owned by commercial timber interests, but there are hundreds of remote campsites, plus a few sporting lodges and housekeeping cabins catering to anglers, hunters, and paddlers. Among other things, North Maine Woods regulates access to the 92-mile Allagash Wilderness Waterway, one of New England’s all-time classic river trips. The Allagash has its own fee structure, but out-of-state visitors elsewhere in the North Maine Woods can expect to pay a $16 entrance fee plus another $15 for each night of camping.
This story was produced in partnership with Down East magazine.