Discover Maine’s many waterfalls

Posted March 08, 2013, at 11:16 a.m.
Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
Gulf Hagas- referred to as the Grand Canyon of Maine -- is where the West Branch of Pleasant River flows through a slate canyon, forming a series of waterfalls, pools and chuts.
Photo by Dave Small
Gulf Hagas- referred to as the Grand Canyon of Maine -- is where the West Branch of Pleasant River flows through a slate canyon, forming a series of waterfalls, pools and chuts.

The roar, the mist, the power, the movement — something about waterfalls calls to us. And that is why, even waterfalls located deep in the Maine forest, are often accessible by trails, footpaths blazed by people eager to view the cascading water.

These landmarks are set in stone, yet they will not last. Constantly flowing water slowly shapes the landscape, eroding Maine’s tough granite base.

“Maine rivers are relatively young, at least as far as geology is concerned,” wrote Maine author Patricia Hughes, who describes 177 significant Maine falls in “Maine Waterfalls,” a guidebook published in 2009. “As the river grows old, it becomes less steep and the water moves much slower. The channel will widen into a U-shape. The waterfalls and rapids will eventually disappear from all Maine rivers.”

Fortunately, geological time ticks slowly. People are enjoying the same falls today that the native people of this land portaged around thousands of years ago.

In fact, some falls still hold Native American names, such as “Quamphegan Falls” in South Berwick, “quamphegan” meaning “place where fish is taken in nets,” according to Hughes.

Other falls were named after nearby dams (many of which are long gone), neighboring towns or European settlers, such as Lincoln County’s Coopers Mills Falls, which was named after Leonard Cooper, a settler of that area in 1833.

Today, waterfall enthusiasts use a variety of terms to describe how exactly water flows.

A “cascading” waterfall or a “slide” descends over gradually-sloping rocks or small steps. While a “plunge” is water flowing over a ledge and freefalling into a pool. “Parallel” or “segmented” waterfalls are two waterfalls that fall side by side. And a “fan” waterfall is created when a narrow cascade spreads out at the bottom.

Some falls are named after distinctive physical features, such as Franklin County’s Angel Falls, which some people say looks like an angel’s wing in high water. Angel Falls has long been in a stalemate with Somerset County’s Moxie Falls as the state’s tallest waterfall, both reaching about 90 feet in height.

Yet some people disagree with both claims and point toward Baxter State Park, to a remote waterfall on a tributary flowing down the west side of Katahdin near Witherle Ravine. Though this waterfall has not officially been named or measured, some websites and the 2003 guide book “New England Waterfalls” refer to it as Katahdin Falls.

“We can’t confirm the claims that it is the highest waterfall in Maine, as there are many other places on our various basin headwalls that run heavily at times after rain,” said Baxter State Park naturalist Jean Hoekwater, who suggests hikers check out Katahdin Stream Falls, South Branch Falls, Little Abol Falls, Nesowadnehunk Stream Falls and Greene Falls, all accessible by trail.

A few additional popular waterfall hikes:

Gulf Hagas, near Brownville

Deep within the 100-Mile Wilderness, Gulf Hagas — referred to as the Grand Canyon of Maine — is where the West Branch of Pleasant River flows through a slate canyon, forming a series of waterfalls, pools and chutes. The major waterfalls are Screw Auger Falls, Hammond Street Pitch, The Jaws, Buttermilk Falls, Stair Falls and Billings Falls. For information, visit newenglandwaterfalls.com. For a video, visit actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com/2012/06/19.

Access: Turn onto the Katahdin Iron Works Road, a little less than 4 miles north of Brownville Junction. Follow this road 6.8 miles to the gatehouse, where you register and pay a fee of $6 per person. Beyond the gate, take a hard right. The road will reach a fork at two different times — always veer left. The road reaches the trailhead parking area about 6.8 miles from the gate. A kiosk marks the trailhead. Signs along the way point to the Gulf Hagas Rim Trail, a hike that is approximately 9 miles in length, though many hikers simply hike in about a mile to Screw Auger Falls.

Smalls Falls near Rangeley

Four sets of falls located in a colorful gorge on Sandy River make up Smalls Falls. The bottom fall is a 3-foot cascade; the next up, a 14-foot horsetail; the next, a 25-foot segmented waterfall; and the top waterfall is a 12-foot horsetail and slide, according to newendlandwaterfalls.com. Several swimming holes at the base of the falls easily can be accessed for swimming and wading.

Access: A short woodland trail to Smalls Falls starts at the Smalls Falls Rest Area, located off Route 4, about 12 miles south of the intersection of Route 16 and Route 4 in Rangeley. The rest area has bathrooms, picnic tables and changing rooms. The trail is less than 0.1 mile to the top of the falls.

Angel Falls, between Andover and Rangeley

This waterfall of Mountain Brook plunges 90 feet, making it one of the tallest falls in Maine. Also called Angel Wing Falls, the waterfall is surrounded by cliff walls that reach up to 115 feet, with water pouring from the 25-foot gap near the top, according to newenglandwaterfalls.com. Some sources say Angel Falls is named such because of the soft sounds created by the gentle flow of water down the rocks. Other sources claim that the falls are the shape of an angel’s wing in high water.

Access: A 0.8-mile hiking trail leads from a road to the waterfall. According to mainetrailfinder.com, the trailhead can be reached by starting at the intersection of Route 17 and Route 2 in Mexico, Maine. Drive north for about 17.5 miles and turn left onto Houghton Road (a logging road that may require four-wheel drive depending on the conditions). Cross a bridge and at the T-intersection, turn right onto Bemis Road. Drive 3.4 miles and park on the left side of Bemis Road before the yellow sign marking the trailhead.

Dunn Falls, near Andover

Located in western Maine, upper Dunn Falls “horsetails and fans,” dropping 70 feet, while lower Dunn Falls is a straight plunge of 80 feet, according to newenglandwaterfalls.com.

Access: From the center of the town of Andover, where Route 5 and Route 120 meet, turn west onto what is called East B Hill Road on the Delorme Atlas, but also goes by Upton Road, Andover Road and Newton Street. Drive about 8 miles to a parking area on the right. Park and walk about 200 feet downhill, heading east, along the road and look for where the white-blazed Appalachian Trail crosses the road. Take the trail southbound (across the road from the parking area). From the Appalachian Trail, the loop trail will bringing hikers to Dunn Falls, beautiful swimming holes and several smaller, unnamed falls. The total hike is about 2 miles.

Moxie Falls, Moxie Gore

Located on Moxie Stream in Somerset County, these falls are one of the the highest waterfalls in Maine, with a tallest plunge of 90 feet. Above and below the falls are several unnamed cascades and pools that can be accessed for swimming for hikers with the ability to climb down into the gorge, according newenglandwaterfalls.com.

Access: From Route 201 in The Forks, turn west onto Lake Moxie Road, just south of where Route 201 crosses the Kennebec River. Drive a little more than 2 miles to a parking lot on the left. An easy 0.6-mile trail leads to Moxie Falls from a parking lot.

Poplar Stream Falls, Carrabassett Valley

Located not far from Sugarloaf, Poplar Stream Falls has two drops; one set of falls, a 24-foot horsetail with a swimming pool below, is on Poplar Stream. The other falls is a 51-foot horsetail on South Brook. The stream and brook merge just 0.1 mile downstream from each of the falls, according to newenglandwaterfalls.com.

These falls are accessible by trails constructed by Maine Huts and Trails near their Poplar Stream Falls Hut, a backcountry lodge for wilderness enthusiasts to stay while enjoying the organization’s many trails.

Access: From the Maine Huts & Trails office at 496 Main Street in Kingfield, head west on Route 16 (which is also north on Route 27), toward Carrabassett Valley. Drive about 8 miles and turn right onto Carriage Road. In less than half a mile, turn right onto Guage Road. The signed trailhead is less than a half mile down the Guage Road. Follow signs to the waterfalls. The loop hike is a little less than 5 miles. For a free Maine Huts & Trails map to help navigate the trails, visit mainehuts.org/maps, call 265-2400 or visit the organization’s office 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday.

For information about these Maine waterfalls and more, check out “New England Waterfalls: A Guide to More Than 400 Cascades and Waterfalls” by Greg Parsons and Kate B. Watson. Much of this information can also be found at newenglandwaterfalls.com, though driving directions are often missing from the descriptions on the site.

Aislinn Sarnacki:

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