Billings Falls

Difficulty: Moderate to difficult, depending on the trails you choose to hike. While this is not a mountain trail, the trail changes elevation quite a bit as it travels along the edge of the river, over slate cliffs and through the woods. Expect steep slopes, rugged terrain and tricky footing due to rocks and exposed tree roots. Not everyone who hikes to the waterfalls of Gulf Hagas completes the entire loop, which is 8.6 miles if you start from the east trailhead (Gulf Hagas Parking Area) or 9 miles if you start from the west trailhead (Upper Gulf Parking Area). Two cut-off trails give people the option of completing shorter hikes.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XxoL2lPr-gc
Where the AT crosses the West Branch of the Pleasant River
Where the AT crosses the West Branch of the Pleasant River

Warning: If you hike from the east trailhead, you will need to wade across the West Branch of Pleasant River about 0.2 mile from the trailhead; the current of the river can be strong and the water can reach as high as your waist in the spring. By June, it’s usually at about knee level. Also, you will also have to wade across a small brook at about the 1.5 mile mark, just before reaching the Gulf Hagas Rim Trail. The rocks are slippery at the bottom of both the river and brook. Consider using hiking poles or a walking stick to maintain balance. Also consider bringing water shoes to wear for the crossings, exchanging them for a dry pair of hiking boots (and socks) for the rest of the trail.

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On the other hand, if you start from the west trailhead, you do not need to ford any rivers to reach the loop, according to “Hiking Maine” by Greg Westrich.

How to get there: From Brownville Junction, drive north on Route 11 about 3.5 miles and turn left onto Katahdin Ironwork Road. Drive about 6.5 miles to the KI checkpoint and gatehouse, where you are required to register and pay a fee of $7 per Maine resident. After the gatehouse, continue on the road and cross a bridge, then take a sharp right turn. Drive about 3.5 miles and turn left at a fork in the road, following signs to Gulf Hagas. Drive another 2.9 miles and the Gulf Hagas parking area will be on your right. This is the east trailhead for the hike, closest to Screw

Screw Auger Falls
Screw Auger Falls

Auger Falls. To reach the west trailhead, closer to the Head of the Gulf, continue on the road for another 4.4 miles and the Head of Gulf parking area is on the left, just past the trailhead, according to “Hiking Maine” by Greg Westrich.

Information: Known as the “Grand Canyon of Maine” or the “Grand Canyon of the East,” Gulf Hagas is a slate gorge carved out by the West Branch of the Pleasant River near Brownville. Over the course of three miles, the river drops about 500 feet, forming several spectacular waterfalls and swimming holes. In some places, the rock walls the border the river are more than 100 feet tall.

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In the summer, the area attracts approximately 5,000 day visitors, according to the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, which maintains the Gulf Hagas trails and the vast majority of the Appalachian Trail in Maine. Many of the visitors come unprepared for the difficulty and remoteness of the trail, so the MATC now employs a ridge runner to patrol the area during the busy season, helping where needed and educating people about Leave No Trace ethics.

To visit the many waterfalls and swimming holes of Gulf Hagas, hikers must hike into the Rim Trail, which travels over rough, rocky terrain along the edge of the river to many viewpoints.

There are two ways to reach the Gulf Hagas Rim Trail:

  1. Starting from the Gulf Hagas Trailhead (the east trailhead), you can hike 0.2 miles following blue blazes to the edge of the West Branch of the Pleasant River. At the river, you take the Appalachian Trail (blazed in white paint) and wade across the river. On the far side of the river, you follow the Appalachian Trail another 1.3 miles to the Gulf Hagas Rim Trail. Before getting there, you’ll need to wade across a brook.
  2. Starting from the Head of the Gulf Trailhead (the western trailhead), you hike 1.7 miles into the Rim Trail near the Head of the Gulf.
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The Rim Trail is 3 miles long and visits (from east to west) Screw Auger Falls, Lower Falls, Hammond Street Pitch, The Jaws, Buttermilk Falls, Stair Falls, Billings Falls and the Head of the Gulf.

To make it a loop hike, people often hike the Rim Trail out, then return via Pleasant River Road (2.2 miles), which runs parallel to the Rim Trail but is farther from the river’s edge and is much easier to travel. Compared to the Rim Trail, Pleasant River Road (which is actually a trail) is smoother and flatter, with sections of bog bridges that offer a welcome break from navigating around rocks and tree roots.

Billings Falls, my favorite.
Billings Falls, my favorite.

To hike the Rim Trail-Pleasant River Road circuit from the east trailhead is 8.6 miles total; and from the west trailhead is 9 miles total. However, if you’re out there and decide that it’s simply too long of a hike, there are two cut-off trails that span the Rim Trail and Pleasant River Road that you can take for a smaller loop hike.

Many people hike in from the east trailhead to have a picnic at the scenic Screw Auger Falls or Lower Falls, then hike back out, making for a hike that is a little more than 3 miles.

While the trails are well signed and marked, it’s important to carry a trail map on this hike to prevent getting confused at the many trail junctures. Trail maps are located at the trailhead kiosks and are sold for $2 at the K.I. Gatehouse.

The Gulf Hagas Trails are connected to the Appalachian Trail in Maine’s 100-Mile Wilderness, a famous stretch of the Appalachian Trail that doesn’t cross any major roads for approximately 100 miles from Monson to Baxter State Park. The trails are remote. Plan ahead and prepare for your hike.

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Dogs are permitted but must be kept under control at all times. It is important to use a leash on this hike because the Rim Trail passes near cliffs. It’s also advisable to bring athletic tape in your pack’s medical kit, as the sharp rocks on the trail may cut the foot pads of your dog. Some small dogs may have difficulty navigating the steep, rocky slopes, especially on the Rim Trail near the Head of the Gulf, the toughest section of the hike.

To learn more about Leave No Trace ethics, visit lnt.org. To learn more about the Maine Appalachian Trail Club, visit matc.org.

Oreo and I at Screw Auger Falls
Oreo and I at Screw Auger Falls

Personal note: This is the first hike that I’ve repeated so far in my “1-minute hike” series, which I’ve been producing for nearly four years. There are so many hiking trails in Maine that there’s usually no reason for me to cover the same trail twice, but in this case, I felt it was appropriate.

Gulf Hagas is the top search term that has led people to by blog over the years. Despite it being remote, it’s a popular hike. But people want to learn about what they’re getting into before they drive for miles on logging roads to reach the trailhead. I’m glad hikers are doing their research, and I want to provide them with as much information as I can.

I first hiked the trail in 2009 with my friend Garrett Curtis, who had hiked the loop before and acted as my guide. I returned to the hike to produce a “1-minute hike” in 2012 with Derek Runnells, who was my boyfriend at the time and is now my fiance. It was his first time on the trail, and it was my turn to be the guide. Unfortunately, I became sick a few miles into the hike and had to turn around. I still wrote the “1-minute hike” but I was missing a lot of video footage and photos.

Therefore, I decided to return to the trail this year, on June 20, so Derek (and our dog, Oreo) could experience the entire loop and I could do a better job writing, photographing and filming the trail for my readers.

Derek using the long leash to guide Oreo across the river.
Derek using the long leash to guide Oreo across the river.

We started at the eastern trailhead, where most people start, because half of the fun of Gulf Hagas, for me, is wading across the West Branch of Pleasant River. The river reached just above my knees, and its rocky bottom was just as slippery as I remembered it being. BDN reader Colby Libby put it quite nicely when he recently wrote in my blog comments: “I swear the entire river bottom there is made out of banana peels.”

While hiking the 8.6-mile loop, we stopped at each waterfall. Though at some viewpoints, we had to take turns because we didn’t dare bring our dog Oreo close to the cliffs, even on his leash.

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At Screw Auger Falls, we saw three young men fishing. And farther along the trail, we came across three teenagers swimming in a quiet pool. We also passed by a family taking a picnic at Lower Falls, two groups with dogs, a few couples and the MATC ridge runner, a woman who patrols the trails and nearby sections of the Appalachian Trail. She lives in the woods in a tent, she told me, and even has her own privy. I wanted to learn more, but Oreo was getting eaten alive by deer flies and horse flies as we stood talking with the ridge runner by the river, so we had to get moving.

My favorite waterfall of the hike was Billings Falls. The waterfall appeared grand without actually being all that big (15-20 feet tall, depending on the source). Surrounded by vertical rock walls, it plunged into a frothy white pool. We sat taking in the scene for several minutes, before continuing on the Gulf Hagas circuit. If you sit around for too long, the mosquitoes find you.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.