The week before BDN staffers John Holyoke and Aislinn Sarnacki headed to Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument to gather information for the stories we’re publishing this week, the monument’s friends group unveiled an interpretive map of the 16-mile Katahdin Loop Road.
The map consists of eight curated stops for visitors to explore while driving around the loop, and explains some of the flora and fauna that visitors can expect at each area. Some of the stops are trailheads for substantial hikes. Others are much more manageable jaunts, as short as 50 yards.
How do you use the map? Well, if you’re smart (and you listen to us very carefully), you head out Swift Brook Road until you reach the monument, start working your way along Katahdin Loop Road in a clockwise direction, and have your navigator (in this case, Aislinn) tell you where to stop.
Even if you’re not going to take all of the hikes that are listed, stop for a few minutes, stretch your legs, and listen.
Yes, listen. You’ll be amazed at how quiet the woods of Maine can be, and there aren’t many better spots to feel like you’ve taken a big leap out of the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
One more thing to remember: John is a 50-something angler and hunter with a fine sense of humor. Aislinn is a 20-something woman who is very active and overly curious about all creatures, big or small.
Now, join us on our semi-guided tour around the Katahdin Loop Road.
STOP 1: John: Before I let Aislinn get to the good stuff — and there’s plenty, because the esker path is awesome and will impress your kids — let me don my “town grump” hat and say this: In this one, small way, the interpretive map is wrong: The trailhead to the ultra-cool esker path is NOT across the road from the parking area. Instead, if you park in the designated spot on the left, the trailhead is directly in front of you. Just follow the path. Trust me. We talked to Lucas St. Clair, the president of Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, about this little mistake. He seemed glad that we didn’t go bushwhacking through the forest, and thereby avoided becoming lost near a mountain in Maine. Then we went back the next day, found the trail, and did the mini-hike. Glad we did.
Aislinn: The currently unnamed trail at STOP 1 is a pretty little walk through the woods. Splitting early on, the trail to your left travels downhill over a series of rock steps to the edge of Sandbank Stream, where you’ll find a wooden bench at an ideal wildlife watching spot. The trail to your right climbs gradually to the top of an esker, which is a deposit of gravel and sand left by a retreating glacier thousands of years ago. (Pretty cool, huh?) Measuring about a half mile long, the trail traces the ridge of the esker, peaking at a spot where you can turn east and see Katahdin, the tallest mountain in Maine, peeking over the treetops.
STOP 2: Aislinn: A simple sign with a binoculars symbol marked this stop on the drive, which should have been a great place to view Katahdin. Located to the east, in nearby Baxter State Park, the 5,267-foot mountain is a popular hiking destination for locals and tourists alike. I have hiked it a number of times in a number of ways. Nevertheless, the sight of it always wows me. Unfortunately, while the sky was blue all around us, clouds had gathered over Katahdin that morning, which really isn’t that unusual. The mighty mountain, I’ve heard it said, has its own weather.
John: I guess I’m a sucker for great views (and shiny things). That’s why I loved this little turnout. On a clear day, this would be a doozy of a stop, offering visitors one of their first views of Katahdin. Alas, it was gray, and the mountain proved elusive. What better reason to stop back on another day?
STOP 3: John: The great thing about this interpretive map is that it gives visitors a reason to slow down, hop out of the car, and take a more complete accounting of what’s out here. In many places, in fact, the gifts that are revealed are far from obvious, and would be missed completely unless someone said, “Stop!” With that said, you don’t have to stop at all for this one. Just keep driving (slowly) and appreciate the trees that surround you. This, my friends, is an early growth successional forest. Bet you didn’t know that. (I didn’t, either, until I read the map).
Aislinn: There were also a lot of flowers along the side of the road in this particular area — about 1.5 mile into the tour. I couldn’t have identified them, and I think most gardeners would refer to them as weeds, but they certainly added some color to the landscape. John wasn’t as wowed by the purple, yellow and white blossoms, but when I pointed out the many raspberry and blackberry bushes along the side of the road, he got excited that maybe we’d see a black bear (which tend to pick wild berries over most other foods). But we didn’t see a bear, just pretty flowers.
STOP 4: John: This is my kind of hike (a true 1-minute hike, if you will), a 70-yard jaunt into a place called Lynx Pond. Of the many wild areas you’ll find in the monument, this one stands out. The pond is marshy and feels downright moose-y … I was amazed that there weren’t any moose standing ready to pose for photos when we arrived. Another draw: There are blueberries along the trail. At least, there were when we arrived. Turns out that Aislinn is a bit of a berry hog, and she depleted the supply a bit. Sit on the bench. Take a load off. Look at the birds. Wait for the moose (I’m sure they’re out there somewhere). Enjoy.
Aislinn: OK, I might have eaten a few blueberries along this trail, but at least I didn’t eat the trillium berries, which were also ripe and happen to be mildly toxic. I don’t know when I started to become so interested in native Maine plants, but I find it fun to learn about them, one at a time. The pitcher plant, for instance, is an easy plant to identify and remember. It’s a carnivorous plant. Bugs crawl down into its pitcher-shaped plant body (that’s the technical term), get trapped and are digested by the plant juices (another technical term) therein. This plant, and many more, can be found in the boggy area surrounding Lynx Pond. I tried to give John a lesson, but he was too busy looking for moose.
STOP 5: Aislinn: Cinnamon ferns, wild azalea and other bog plants are the highlight of this stop, which was created for people just like me — nature nerds. It’s also a cool place to look for a variety of woodland birds. There’s a small parking spot, then you just walk along the road, and enjoy the swampy area from the road. John, still intent on finding a moose, passed the time calling moose by producing strange grunting noises. Deep in the spruce-fir swamp, a frog called back to him.
John: This spot is a little bit abstract for a guy like me, who loves it when nature jumps up and slaps him in the face (figuratively, of course), shouting “Look at me!” It’s swampy lowland, with some spruce and fir trees. Pretty, but unspectacular. One thing that won’t happen: Your kids won’t shout “Yippee!” here. At least, that’s what I thought until Aislinn saw the fresh moose tracks in the road. Forget that earlier stuff: Moose tracks are always spectacular.
STOP 6: John: This is the most popular vantage point in the entire national monument, and it’s called “The Lookout.” Views of Katahdin are amazing. Do yourself a favor: Pack a lunch. Sit at one of the picnic tables. Stay awhile. Wow.
Aislinn: Looking through my camera lens, what made the view of Katahdin and Millinocket Lake so special from this spot was the many layers of beauty in the landscape. Surrounding the picnic area were wildflowers, including tall, purple fireweed blossoms being pollinated by busy bumblebees. Then, a short distance off were a couple of tall evergreens, standing out in the open. And beyond, patches of shadow and sunlight moved over the forest as clouds passed over the mountain.
STOP 7: John: Perhaps the most popular hike in the monument — Barnard Mountain — starts here, but I was saving my energy for the hike at Stop 8, which also has (or so I’ve heard) a fishing opportunity. Aislinn has hiked the mountain and can vouch for its beauty. One observation: Nearby, a low-slung Mercedes sedan was parked. So much for tales of impassable roads and the need for four-wheel-drive vehicles. Truth is, with dry conditions dominating this month, you can get into the monument with most any vehicle you have. (Some caution, of course, will come in handy).
Aislinn: At Stop 7, I stood at the trailhead to Barnard Mountain and described to John my experience of the hike a couple years ago, when the land was yet to become a national monument. The hike of Barnard starts on the logging road, then takes a turn onto a traditional hiking path that climbs the mountain gradually to end at an overlook near its top. I’d rate the 4-mile out-and-back hike as moderate in difficulty.
STOP 8: Aislinn: When John said he’d accompany me on my hike to Orin Falls, I was surprised. It was a lot of walking — about 6 miles, in fact — and while I often refer to me jokingly as a “professional walker,” John has often expressed to me his preference for other activities, such as fly fishing. But hike he did, and as you can see, we made it back to tell the tale. I may have breathed a sigh of relief when we arrived at Orin Falls to find a beautiful stretch of whitewater on Wassataquoik Stream, well worth the trek.
John: Ah, Orin Falls. I loved you. And I nearly loved the three-mile hike in, and the three-mile hike back out. Unfortunately, I’m out of shape, and a six-mile round-trip was a bit much for my old feet. Add in some of the most bloodthirsty mosquitoes I’ve met in many a year, and the hike wasn’t without its challenges. But was it worth it? You bet. The falls — a set of rapids that roll through massive boulders — are simply breathtaking. Pack a second lunch (since you already ate back at The Lookout). Or at least a snack. Sit on a boulder. Think about life. Smile. Make plans to come back again some day.
Interested in our other Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument content? Thus far, Aislinn has written a blog about the wildlife we saw, and has written and produced videos for two 1-minute hikes we took during the trip, on the esker trail listed at Stop 1 and the Orin Falls hike at Stop 8. Two years ago, she also hiked Barnard Mountain, which is at Stop 7. John wrote his own account of the grueling Orin Falls trip, and shared a blog on three interesting people we found visiting the monument. He’ll write more later this week. Stay tuned.