The way into the new national monument is full of scenic views and hiking possibilities.
By Josh Christie
Portland Press Herald news story
On Aug. 24, President Barack Obama established a huge swath of Maine’s northern woods as a national monument. Named the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, the 87,500 acres cover a vast stretch of Maine east of Baxter State Park. The establishment follows years of lobbying from the landowner, Roxanne Quimby, who began purchasing land in the area at the turn of the century in the hope of eventually establishing a national park.
While a lot has been written about the conservation purposes of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, relatively little has been said about recreation. The website established for the area by the National Park Service (www.nps.gov/kaww) lists activities visitors can enjoy (canoeing, kayaking, hiking, bird-watching, and fishing among them), but offers little guidance on how and where to do them. The “recreation map” is frustratingly spare, listing camps and parking areas without context.
The intent of this column is to provide first-time visitors with an introduction to this national monument. By exploring the attractions on the Katahdin Loop Road, you can get a small taste of what awaits you in this massive expanse.
Before even starting on this trip, it’s important to make sure you have supplies. As in all Maine adventures, you’ll want the DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer. The Katahdin area is well beyond the reach of many cell phones and GPS devices, and the detailed maps in the Gazetteer (Map 51, in this case) will keep you on the right path.
Also important is a car with high clearance. Most of the roads in the monument are not only unpaved but unimproved. This includes the Katahdin Loop Road, where you’re headed for this trip. If the weather has been anything but dry and clear, four-wheel drive is also recommended.
Finally, you’ll want food, water and a tank of gas. There aren’t any services except a few outhouses within the monument, so you’re stuck with whatever you bring once you get past Millinocket and Patten.
The bulk of the monument is to the west of the Penobscot River and shares its western border with Baxter State Park. To the east of the river, a patchwork of square parcels makes up the rest of the acreage. (Those eastern pieces are also where hunting is still allowed on the land.) My suggested introduction to the area, the Katahdin Loop Road, is in the southernmost part of Katahdin Woods and Waters, accessible by Route 11.
Starting at the intersection of Main Street and Medway Road in Medway, head north on Route 11 for 20 miles. In Stacyville, Swift Brook Road leaves Route 11 to the left. Stay on Swift Brook Road, avoiding side paths, for five miles, then turn left onto the Grindstone/Stacyville Road.
After 12 miles, you’ll arrive at the gate for the Katahdin Loop Road.
The Katahdin Loop is a 17-mile gravel road that affords access to a number of trailheads, ponds and scenic overlooks. Each mile is marked with an indicator post, which provides reference for where you are and what’s around you. It’s a nice touch, certainly easier than keeping your eye on the odometer to know how far you’ve traveled.
After the drive in from Millinocket on barely marked logging roads, it’s surprising just how well signed and maintained the Katahdin Loop is. All along the 17 miles, wooden signs alert drivers to scenic overlooks and trailheads. Benches and wooden walkways also show the care that’s been put into marking the area – it’s easy enough to forget there are any other humans within 100 miles once you’re in. It’s also an astoundingly open drive. While there are stretches of road within deep woods, the western part of the loop in particular rides along open ledges with views of Katahdin and Baxter State Park.
Two short hikes near the gate to the Katahdin Loop provide opportunities to observe the plentiful wildlife of the region. Signs right before the gate mark the Sandbank Nature Walk, a quarter-mile loop along Sandbank Stream and a pond. Just past the 2-mile marker, the half-mile Lynx Pond Walk is another easy path to a quiet pond, showcasing one of many wooden boardwalks built for visitors in the area.
Mile markers 6, 7 and 10 don’t offer much in terms of hiking, but provide convenient pull-offs for scenic overlooks.
The best hike off the Katahdin Loop is Barnard Mountain. At mile 12, a large parking area off the main road marks the start of the trail. After following a gravel logging road for about a mile and a half, the Barnard trailhead is on the right. The mile-long hike rises steeply, climbing a mix of switchbacks and steep steps that were added in the past few years.
From the summit, hikers can enjoy great views of Mount Katahdin, Katahdin Lake and the Turner Mountains. There’s even a picnic table at the summit, an incentive to time your hike for lunch or dinner.
Also starting at mile 12, a three-mile hike leads to a spur trail for Orin Falls. The 1.5-mile path rewards hikers with a fast-flowing stretch of the Wassataquoik spotted with falls and deep pools.
While the Katahdin Loop is far from the only attraction in the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, it’s a relatively easily accessible entry point into Maine’s northern woods.
Further feuding about the future of the lands is inevitable, but more Mainers could stand to visit the area to know exactly what’s being fought over and preserved.
Josh Christie is a freelance writer living in Portland. Along with his brother, Jake, he writes about great Maine destinations for outdoors enthusiasts.