Difficulty: Moderate. The Katahdin Lake Trail travels over relatively even terrain 3.3 miles to Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps, located on the shore of Katahdin Lake. Be cautious on the bog bridges, which are slippery when wet. A few muddy and rocky sections of the trail also require caution.
How to get there: Travel on I-95 to Exit 244. Turn west on Route 157 and travel through Medway, East Millinocket and Millinocket. Proceed through both traffic lights in Millinocket, then bear right at the three-way intersection, following signs directing you to Baxter State Park. Bear left at the next “Y” intersection, staying on the main road. (Route 157 ends in Millinocket, and the road to the park goes by many names, including Baxter State Park Road, Lake Road and Millinocket Lake Road.) Continue about 16 miles to the Togue Pond Gatehouse.
Maine residents gain free admission into the park; non-residents much purchase a day pass ($14 per vehicle) or season pass ($39 per vehicle). To learn about making reservations for camping, visit www.baxterstateparkauthority.com.
Just after passing through the gatehouse, turn right at the “Y” in the road and continue on the Roaring Brook Road (a narrow, dirt road) approximately 6.5 miles to Avalanche Field, 1.6 miles before Roaring Brook Campground. Park at the Avalanche Field parking area on the left and cross the road to reach the trailhead to Katahdin Lake Trail.
Information: From the sandy beaches of Katahdin Lake, the ridges of Katahdin rise above the birch and pines to the west. From such a vantage point, one can easily identify Pamola Peak, the famous Knife Edge and Hamlin Ridge. Farther north is South Turner Mountain, a 3,000-footer dwarfed by Maine’s tallest peak. Sit on the beach awhile, take in the view, and you might understand why former Maine Gov. Percival Baxter found the lake to be so special.
During his lifetime, Percival Baxter (1876-1969) worked to purchase 28 parcels of land totalling more than 200,000 acres. This land — which includes Maine’s tallest mountain, Katahdin — he donated to the people of Maine as Baxter State Park. However, he wasn’t able to purchase and donate the pristine Katahdin Lake as he intended.
“Gov. Baxter originally envisioned this as part of the park. In fact, he referred to this in a couple speeches as ‘the crown jewel’ of his park — what he wanted for his park,” said Holly Hamilton, a registered master Maine guide who operates Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps on the shore of the lake with her husband Bryce Hamilton, also a Maine guide.
In 2006, former Maine Gov. John Baldacci announced the Campaign for Katahdin Lake, a joint effort by the Maine Department of Conservation, Trust for Public Land and The Baxter State Park Authority to add 6,015 acres to Baxter State Park, a parcel that would include the 717-acre Katahdin Lake and surrounding old-growth forest, according to a brochure outlining the campaign issued by the Trust for Public Land.
The campaign raised $14 million to purchase the lake and surrounding land to be conserved as wilderness. More than 1000 donors — including several noted Maine artists who donated their landscape paintings of the lake — contributed to the fundraising effort.
In December 2006, Katahdin Lake and the surrounding forest became a part of Baxter State Park. The public can access the lake by hiking the Katahdin Lake Trail, camp in lean-tos along its shores, fish for trout, paddle rental canoes and watch resident wildlife. Artists continue to frequent the shores to set up their easels and capture the beauty of Katahdin.
The Katahdin Lake Trail starts at Avalanche Field off the park’s Roaring Brook Road. The trail is marked with blue blazes, fairly wide and travels over fairly even terrain (just a few small hills). Long stretches of bog bridges span the soggiest sections of trail; regardless, hikers will likely need to slosh through a few deep puddles along the way.
Near the beginning of the trail, two sturdy bridges span the bubbling Avalanche Brook and Sandy Stream. At 1.7 miles, you will reach a trail juncture where Martin Ponds Trail leads to the left. (This trail is a loop that travels to Martin Ponds –where there is a lean-to — and returns to Katahdin Lake Trail farther east. Martin Ponds Trail also leads to trails that will bring hikers to the north shore of Katahdin Lake — where there is a lean-to — and even farther north to Twin Ponds.) Continue on Katahdin Lake Trail.
At 3 miles, you will reach a trail juncture where Martin Pond Trail returns to Katahdin Lake Trail (on your left). At this juncture, you can continue straight and travel 0.2 mile to a day use picnic area on Katahdin Lake, or you can turn right and travel 0.3 mile to Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps, which has a beach and dock on the south shore of the lake.
For a map of Katahdin Lake Trail and surrounding trails provided by the Baxter State Park Authority, visit www.baxterstateparkauthority.com/pdf/maps/KatahdinLake.pdf.
Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps is a place steeped in history. The camps were established in 1885 by the Cushman family and chiefly served as a basecamp for hunters seeking big game.
“Back in that time period, the draw was mainly moose — of course there were deer and bear — and interestingly enough, the Cushmans were considered expert guides in caribou,” said Holly Hamilton.
Today the camp buildings are owned by Charles Fitzgerald and operated by Holly and Bryce Hamilton on a 25-year lease (17 of which are remaining) with the Baxter State Park Authority. The rustic complex includes seven cabins for visitors and a main building where meals are served.
“Seventeen years is a long time. I don’t know what’s going to happen for sure,” Hamilton said. “But I think you’ll find that these buildings will be here for quite some time.”
The camp opens sometime in January, depending on snow conditions, and takes guest until early spring. In the winter, supplies are driven in by snowmobile and sleds, and in the summer, they’re brought by float plane. Guests can opt to pay for a meal plan ($125 per night, per person) or they can bring their own meals ($35 per night, per person). After mud season, the camp reopens and takes visitors through fall.
Holly Hamilton has observed six loons living on the lake this summer, as well as a pair of bald eagles. Visitors also enjoy watching the lake’s otters. And hares raid the camp’s vegetable garden on a regular basis, Hamilton said.
For information about the camps, visit www.katahdinlakewildernesscamps.com.
Since the Katahdin Lake Trail, nearby lean-tos and wilderness camp are all located in Baxter State Park, there are a few rules you need to be aware of before planning to hike or camp along the trail. For example, pets are not allowed in the park. For information about park rules, regulations and fees, visit www.baxterstateparkauthority.com/index.htm.
Personal note: I woke up in a cabin filled with strangers Saturday morning, crawled out of my sleeping bag and stepped outside the Roaring Brook Bunkhouse to find the sun climbing above the forest of Baxter State Park. Maneuvering around the puddles, evidence of the night’s downpour, I paused to watch a doe walking along the forest edge, then made my way to the lean-tos to meet the 2013 Maine Youth Wilderness Leadership group.
Each year, the Friends of Baxter State Park select 10 Maine high school sophomores and juniors to participate in the Maine Youth Wilderness Leadership Program, nine days and eight nights of backpacking in Baxter State Park and attending educational programs along the way. For the second year, I had been asked to join the students for a day and teach them about outdoor writing and multimedia projects. In addition that day, Maine artist Michael Vermette was to teach them about landscape painting and conservation efforts through art. Katahdin Lake was our destination.
The trail was muddier than usual, thanks to recent rain, and some of the puddles were downright enormous, but the students enjoyed sliding along the sleek surface of the bog bridges, as if they were cross country skiing. As I lead the hike, I overheard several comments about how nice the trail was, and the students also commented on the beauty of the old forest.
At Katahdin Lake Wilderness Camps, we were welcomed by Holly Hamilton, who had prepared for the group a special lunch — fresh sandwich fixings, lemonade, chips and cookies. Everything was a treat after days of trail lunches. The camps’ lawn was also a novelty after days in the northern Maine forest, and several students stretched out on the grass to bask in the sun.
After lunch, the students spent time with Vermette on the sandy beaches of Katahdin Lake. With his guidance, they painted the extraordinary view of Katahdin as the sun descended in the west.
By 4 p.m., we were headed back to Avalanche Field on the Katahdin Lake Trail, and the thick, old-growth forest appeared even more beautiful as the sinking sun streamed through the trees and across the wide footpath.