BRAD VILES

Visiting Baxter State Park in winter

Posted Dec. 09, 2011, at 11:21 a.m.

If you plan on visiting Baxter State Park this winter, it’s important that you know the rules and regulations.

The winter rules went into effect on Dec 1. The park has a website, baxterstateparkauthority.com, that explains it all, but people still have questions. Questions such as: Do I need a permit to visit the park on a day trip, skiing or snowshoeing? Where can I stay for an overnight? Are reservations required? Are fires allowed? Can I park my snowmobile at a trailhead and hike in to Chimney Pond or Abol Trail to the summit?

Most of those can be answered by making a quick trip to the park’s website but not everyone has a Web connection. Still others have more specific questions about snowmobile use.

For those who haven’t visited the park or the website in a few years, you may not know that there were major rule changes that went into effect beginning in the winter of 2009-10.

The most significant change was the rule for overnight camping. That changed to not requiring a four-person minimum party size. There were lots of other changes regarding equipment required for your safety and other rules such as for solo overnights for experienced winter mountaineers. Before the rule changed, for example, solo mountaineering was not allowed at all. You now are required to get a solo permit so you can camp and climb solo.

To find out more about how the rules have changed and for an explanation of some of them, I talked with Chief Ranger Ben Woodard and Park Director Jensen Bissell. Even though it appears that some of the rules have been relaxed, especially the one regarding group size and solo climbing, Woodard hasn’t seen an increase in the number of incidents in which parties need rescue.

“There has not been an increase in the number of incidents, because winter users recognize that the park is much more remote in winter and that their own safety is their responsibility,” he said.

Since the change, winter camping reservations have increased from around 2,900 camper nights the year before the change to around 3,500 last winter, according to Bissell.

“These numbers refer to the number of camper nights. For example, if you and a companion stay for two nights that would be two people times two nights, to equal four camper nights,” he explained.

When asked about snowmobile riders accessing the trails from their sleds, Bissell answered by saying, “Snowmobile use is limited to the ungroomed Park Tote Road. It would be an acceptable mixed-use to park it at the Abol Trail head, off the road at the picnic area, sign in at the day-use register and hike the mountain. However, if visitors do that, it’s required that they get a permit in advance to ascend above treeline.”

For day users with or without snowmobiles, using skis or snowshoes, there is no requirement that they inform the park of their plan as long as they don’t go above tree line, he said. The park only has one staffed campground in winter, at Chimney Pond. So rescue on the south side of the mountain could involve the time-consuming process of rounding up searchers if they’re needed. Although not required, informing the staff at park headquarters of your planned day-use itinerary could save valuable search time in case you run into trouble.

Even day-use visitors to the trails below the treeline are strongly advised to register at trail head sign-in boxes.

“[That way] we can locate them if we notice that their vehicle is in the lot for more than a day, across from the Abol Bridge Campground outside the park on the Golden Road. Or if we get a call from a concerned family member saying that they are overdue at home. Then we’ll begin a search for them,” he said. “We routinely check that lot.”

As far as where you can stay, there are plenty of options. You’re still required to make a camping reservation, just like in summer. Unlike summer, where you must book as early as two months ahead for the most popular sites, you need to book your winter camping reservation only seven days before your arrival. Most overnight campers prefer staying in one of seven bunkhouses. As part of the bunkhouse fee, wood for the woodstove is included. Each cabin also has a propane lantern.

If you prefer to really rough it, stay in any of the lean-tos in the campgrounds or backcountry sites, which have fire rings where fires are allowed. The only exception to the fire rule is at Chimney Pond where no fires are allowed during summer or winter.

You also can reserve cabins at Daicey and Kidney Ponds. They are a little more expensive than the bunkhouse. But because you pay for them per cabin, it may only be a little more expensive than a bunkhouse depending on the number of people in your group. The capacity varies from two to six people per cabin.

Some visitors drive their snowmobiles as far as the entrance to the Daicey and Kidney ponds cabins, transfer their equipment to their packs or haul sleds, then trek on snowshoes to the cabins.

The park has produced a 28-page winter use booklet, which you can request from headquarters. The booklet includes all the pertinent information, from equipment recommendations to what you can expect for conditions. Their winter hours are from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“We recommend that campers read the booklet in the planning phase and not on their way to the park. We’d rather not mail them, but we will if people don’t have an Internet connection. If someone makes a reservation online, they can access the winter booklet online as well,” Bissell said.

Winter is a great season for exploring the park. Even day users enjoy the solitude, deep snow cover and remoteness. If you’ve never been, read through the equipment checklist and go equipped for anything. That way, you might have a winter experience like I did a couple of years ago, standing on the summit of Mount Katahdin surrounded by snow-covered beauty.

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