Difficulty: Moderate. Out and back, the hike is about 3 miles. The trail climbs gradually but steadily. Watch your step for exposed tree roots and rocks. Footing is especially tricky near the East Spur Overlook. Take your time traveling over the exposed bedrock.
How to get there: Take Interstate 95 Exit 264, then head north on Route 11 toward the town of Patten. Drive 9.3 miles, then take a left onto Route 159. Drive 9.9 miles, and you’ll arrive at Shin Pond Village. Drive another 14.3 miles, staying on Route 159, and you’ll reach Matagamon Wilderness Campground, then cross a bridge over the East Branch of the Penobscot River. Continue another 1.8 miles to Matagamon Gate, the north entrance to Baxter State Park. Register at Matagamon Gate, then drive about 0.6 mile on the Tote Road to the trailhead parking area for Horse Mountain, which will be on your left.
Information: Located in the northeast corner of Baxter State Park, Horse Mountain is the first peak to greet you when driving through the park’s Matagamon Gate. Rising above the treetops, it’s an impressive sight, with dramatic cliffs on its steep eastern side.
The mountain tops off at 1,589 feet above sea level, making it one of the smaller mountains in the park. However, from a bald outcropping on its eastern side, hikers are rewarded with a wide open view of the mountains in the north end of the park.
Starting at a small parking area off the park’s gravel Tote Road, Horse Mountain Trail is marked with a sign and a wooden cubby that contains a trail register. Before hiking, be sure to sign in. And when finished, sign out.
Traveling gradually but steadily up the north side of the mountain, Horse Mountain Trail travels through a mixed forest. At the base of the mountain, the forest is composed mainly of deciduous trees, including beech, striped maple, red maple, white oak and white birch trees. And as the trail gains elevation, that forest changes in composition to include more conifers, such as spruce and pine trees.
About 1.1 miles into the hike, there is a 0.4-mile side trail to East Spur Overlook. An outcropping on the east side of the mountain, this overlook is nearly as high as the mountain’s summit. It’s marked with a wooden sign and offers an open view to the east and a partially obstructed view to the south. To the east, the terrain is mostly flat, though on a clear day you will be able to make out a few distant mountains. To the south is a cluster of nearby mountains, which are located in the north end of Baxter State Park. These mountains include Billfish, Bald, Barrel Ridge and the Travelers.
To get a more open view of the mountains to the south, you may need to clamber over some uneven bedrock and carefully pick your way around a few evergreen trees and clusters of hardy low-lying plants.
In terms of beauty and views, the overlook is the apex of the hike. Many people turn around from there and hike down the mountain. However, if you’d like to also bag the forested summit of Horse Mountain, you can continue south on Horse Mountain Trail and you’ll soon come to a trail intersection. There you can turn right to hike about 0.3 mile to the summit, where the trail deadends.
In late September of 2019, the summit was not marked with a sign, however, if you look closely, you can make out four blocks that are the remains of a Maine Forest Service fire lookout tower.
According to the Maine Chapter of the Forest Fire Lookout Association, the original tower was constructed of wood in 1913 and was 10 feet tall. In 1917, that was replaced by a 16-foot-tall steel tower. And in 1999, the tower was demolished by the Baxter State Park Authority. This isn’t at all unusual. Many fire lookout towers throughout the state have been destroyed because they’re no longer used to spot forest fires (that’s now done by helicopter), and as they deteriorate, many pose a risk to the hikers that are compelled to climb them.
While planning your next adventure in Baxter State Park, remember that dogs are not permitted. For Maine residents, entrance to the park is free. For non-residents, it’s $15 per day or $40 for an annual pass. And for both Maine residents and non-residents, camping in the park requires a reservation and a fee that varies depending on the type of camping: lean-to, tent site, bunkhouse or cabin.
For more information about park regulations, camping and seasonal closing of roads, call 207-723-5140 or visit baxterstatepark.org.
Personal note: I was practically bouncing on the balls of my feet on the afternoon of Sept. 27, as my family set up their tents in Trout Brook Campground. I’d been looking forward to our trip to the north end of Baxter State Park for weeks.
The sun was shining. And the leaves were starting to turn magnificent shades of yellow, orange and red. All I wanted to do is get out and see as much of the beautiful park as possible.
My husband, Derek, was starting to come down with a cold. So understandably, he was content to relax in a fold out chair and talk with my uncles. But my mother, Joyce, was happy to accompany me on a short hike before dinner, and I knew just the place.
Just down the road, we parked at the trailhead of Horse Mountain Trail and started our little adventure. We’d only been hiking for a couple of minutes when a large bird swooped down and flew up the trail to settle in the trees ahead. An enthusiastic amateur wildlife photographer, I paused to switch the lens on my camera, then crept forward on the trail. After a few steps, I saw it through the trees — a barred owl! Whispering, I pointed out the large raptor to my mother.
The bird craned its head and looked straight at us with its dark, round eyes. It’s fluffy feathers were a mixture of white and brown. Continuing on the trail, we walked fairly close to the bird, but it didn’t move from its perch. It simply watched us as we hiked by.
Just beyond that, we came across a patch of large orange mushrooms covered with white spots. I photographed them, I let my mom know that they’re poisonous. I also promised not to touch them, let alone eat them.
The sunlight had that golden afternoon quality to it when we reached East Spur Overlook. The nearby mountains seemed to glow, and the blue sky yawned overhead, with just a few small clouds floating here and there.
“Doesn’t get much nicer than this,” my mom said, a hand shielding her eyes from the sun as she looked out over the forest.
I agree. It really doesn’t.
For more of Aislinn Sarnacki’s adventures, visit bangordailynews.com/act-out. Follow Aislinn Sarnacki on Twitter: @1minhikegirl, and Instagram: @actoutdoors. Her guidebooks “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine,” “Maine Hikes Off the Beaten Path” and “Dog-Friendly Hikes in Maine” are available at local bookstores and wherever books are sold.