Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous. The 1.8-mile Tunk Mountain Trail features several steep sections, including a spot where hikers must climb up using three iron rungs embedded into the rock. Spurring off this trail, the easy 1-mile Hidden Ponds Trail visits two remote ponds at the base of the mountain. On both trails, expect plenty of roots, rocks and narrow bog bridges.
Information: Rising 1,157 feet above sea level, Tunk Mountain is one of the tallest peaks in eastern Maine. A fairly popular hiking trail explores the mossy forest and pristine ponds at the foot of the mountain, then leads up to open ledges near its summit.
A large portion of the mountain and nearby ponds are located on Donnell Pond Public Lands, 14,000 acres of state-owned land in Hancock County between the towns of Franklin and Cherryfield. This sprawling parcel of conserved land is home to several mountains, ponds and lakes. Open to the public year round for a wide range of outdoor activities, the property is home to several hiking trails, boat launches and campsites.
To hike Tunk Mountain and to nearby ponds, begin at the parking lot off Route 182, also known as Blackwoods Scenic Byway or Blackwoods Road. There a trailhead kiosk displays a trail map and information about the property. To the right of the kiosk, the 1.8-mile Tunk Mountain Trail begins with a series of wooden steps descending a hill to enter a mossy forest.
Marked with blue blazes, Tunk Mountain Trail travels gradually downhill through a mixed forest. This section of the trail features several narrow bog bridges and a narrow wooden bridge that crosses over a brook. Some especially large boulders, topped with ferns, moss and lichen, are also found on this part of the hike.
In about 0.4 mile, the trail comes to an intersection with the Hidden Ponds Trail, which is marked with a sign. This 1-mile loop trail visits both Salmon and Little Long Pond. It’s a great option for those looking for a less strenuous hike.
Veering left at this intersection, you’ll remain on the Tunk Mountain Trail and soon trace the southwest corner of Salmon Pond, which covers about 6 acres and is hemmed in tightly by tall evergreens. Near the edge of the water, about 0.5 mile into the hike, the trail intersects with the Hidden Pond Trail once more. Veer left again to continue on Tunk Mountain Trail, which strikes through a beautiful stand of evergreens to travel along the south and west sides of Mud Pond. This 4-acre pond is edged with dramatic cliffs on its north end. Tunk Mountain looms beyond.
After curving around Mud Pond, the trail strikes north and steeply climbs a hump on the south side of the mountain. This section of the trail features large rocks, stone steps and a few giant boulders. The trail eventually levels off a bit, climbing more gradually to reach the first major outlook about 1.4 miles into the hike. From this ledge, hikers are rewarded with a view to the southeast, which includes Little Long Pond, Tilden Pond, the 594-foot McCabe Mountain and Spring River Lake.
From there, the trail heads back into the woods and starts to climb steeply again, up a series of granite steps and a ladder formed by three iron rungs embedded into the bedrock. The vegetation changes from tall trees to low-lying plants, including wild blueberries. The view opens up, and on open stretches of bedrock, the trail is marked with rock piles called cairns.
About 1.6 miles into the hike, a short side trail branches off to visit a monument located at an overlook. The metal plaque, embedded in a large rock, tells the story of Harold Pierce, whose family donated the land on Tunk Mountain to Maine in 1994.
Back on the main trail, it’s just 0.2 mile further to the north overlook, which is located on a dramatic ledge on the north side of the ridge. This spot offers an open view to the north, which includes an impressive line of wind turbines, a nearby bog, a large patch of farmland and Narraguagus Lake. Mountains are layered along the horizon.
On the way to the north overlook, you’ll come across another great overlook that offers a clear view to the south of Little Long Pond, Tilden Pond, Spring River Lake, Mud Pond, Salmon Pond, Tunk Lake and the ridge of nearby Catherine Mountain. Much of what you see if Donnell Pond Public Land.
Trails are free to use year round. Dogs are permitted but must be kept under control at all times. Keep in mind that the climb up Tunk Mountain may be too steep for dogs. Hunting is permitted. An outhouse is located at the parking area.
For more information, visit maine.gov/donnellpond or call 207-941-4412.
Personal note: I’m going to tell you an embarrassing story because I think it teaches a valuable lesson.
Last Friday morning, as the temperature struggled to rise above the single digits, I dressed in multiple layers of wool, fleece and synthetics in preparation for a hike up Tunk Mountain. Weeks before, I’d planned to hike the mountain with three state government officials: Amanda Beal, commissioner of Maine’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry; Andy Cutko, director of Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands; and Jim Britt, communications director for the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The plan was to learn from each other. While hiking, we’d talk about the importance of Maine Public Lands, ecological reserves and the Land for Maine’s Future program.
The night prior, I’d sent an email notifying them of the severely cold forecast: blustery with a high of 10 degrees Fahrenheit. I gave them the option to reschedule the hike, but they still wanted to give it a try. We could always turn around early if the weather was simply intolerable.
I arrived at the trailhead early and loaded up with chemical hand and foot warmers. I stuffed an extra hat and pair of mittens in my pack, and wrapped my neck with a fleece buff. I was prepared, or so I thought.
After introductions and a brief chat at the trailhead, our group set off down the trail. A fresh layer of snow coated the landscape. The sun shone bright in a clear blue sky. The forest sheltered us from the wind. Everything was going great, until we crossed the bridge.
About 0.2 mile down the trail, a narrow wooden bridge spanned a crystal clear brook. The bridge was a few feet above the water, which was covered with a thin layer of ice. I think you know where this story is going.
I was the last to cross the bridge, which was covered with snow. One misstep was all it took. My foot slipped and I fell, crashing through the ice to land waist deep in water. In a panic, I stood up quickly and scrambled up the snowy bank with the help of my hiking companions. I apologized, fearing my lack of care had ruined our hike. Meanwhile, the water beaded and instantly froze on my pants and clothing.
My hiking companions rose to the challenge. Britt helped me put on my extra mittens, then we hiked back to the trailhead where Beal lent me a pair of socks. Luckily my pants had not entirely soaked through. I had an extra pair of socks and boots (though not insulated) in my car. So I swapped my frozen items for warm, dry ones and we hit the trail once more. The lesson? The cold can be dangerous. Be prepared for the worst case scenario. Even the most experienced can have an accident.
Throughout the hike, Cutko continually asked me if I was warm enough. We were prepared to turn around if anyone felt uncomfortable. But, again, we were lucky. Facing the south, the trail was bathed in sun all day and the mountain blocked the wind. The steep climbing warmed us quickly. Despite my accident, we had a wonderful hike.
In the forest, snow occasionally fell from the tall evergreens, sparkling as it shifted through the air. Upon request, Cukto shared some of his knowledge of the forest, identifying sheep laurel growing beside the trail and pointing out different species of trees. We spotted grouse footprints in the snow, and halfway up the mountain, a hairy woodpecker made an appearance, drilling on a trailside tree.
The views were spectacular on the mountain’s ridge, but what really blew me away was the ice, shaped like tear drops, dangling from the tips of tree branches. The ice captured the sunlight, making the trees appear to glow. And when the wind blew, the ice tinkled like thousands of tiny bells.
How to get there: The Tunk Mountain parking area is located between the towns of Franklin and Cherryfield off Route 182 (Blackwoods Scenic Byway). From the junction of routes 1 and 182 in Franklin, turn east on Route 182 and drive about 14 miles. The parking lot will be on the left, marked with a large blue sign. It might not be plowed in the winter, but because it’s a popular snowshoeing location, vehicles will often pack down the snow in the parking lot throughout the winter.
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.