In most cases to get to the real good stuff, visitors to any of the lands in America’s National Park System are forced to suffer tour buses, packed park roads, and green-clad park rangers at every turn—at least between the entrance gate and the trailhead. Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, the latest addition to our public land collection, designated by President Obama in late August 2016, has no such trade-off.
Tucked in a remote corner of Maine’s deep, dark north woods, the monument defines the ruggedness of the northeast, offering visitors 87,000 acres of steep, densely-wooded mountains with summits laid bare and rocky—even at less than 2,000 feet—by the harsh northern latitude. The tumultuous East Branch of the Penobscot River frames the park’s boundaries with a wide ribbon of roiling blue and white, slicing through the impenetrable green separating it from the mountains.
Moose, deer, and bear all call the Monument home, many of which you’re more likely to see than another human. With a dirt park road hardly wide enough for cars to pass, limited facilities, and hardly-distinguishable hiking trails, Katahdin Woods and Waters offers a backcountry experience that you won't easily find elsewhere. Here's what you should know about the area.
To call something a classic here requires a little bit of fortune telling, but Katahdin Woods and Waters is full of adventures destined to fill that role, starting with just getting to the park itself. In most National Parks, driving the park road is just a slightly-maddening avenue to the real stuff, but here it’s an adventure on its own.
The Katahdin Loop Road is the main access point to the park’s hilly southern half, but for anyone hoping to head off from one of the trailheads along the road, getting there is part of the journey. Before even arriving at the park, the road narrows to a single lane dirt road, riddled with softball-sized stones, low branches, and downed trees making a high clearance vehicle a must for visiting. The 16-mile lollipop loop rolls up and down hills and through thickets too dense to see more than a few feet into. The road passes a handful of pull-outs and viewpoints, but the spot following milepost 6 is a real vantage, offering a 180-degree view from Millinocket Lake to Katahdin herself, dominating the Northwestern horizon. The picnic tables and outhouse make this an excellent place for breakfast before continuing to explore the road.
The park is littered with former logging roads similar to the Park Loop, but only a handful of them are still driveable. Many of the remaining ones were converted to hiking trails, including the route to Katahdin Lake (which crosses into Baxter State Park) and the trail toward Barnard Mountain, both of which depart from the Loop Road. But the 11.2 mile out-and-back to Deasey Mountain, the park’s highest peak, is a little different.
From a dead-end side road, hikers ford the wide but shallow and rocky Wassataquoik Stream before the trail turns into a faint herd path as it wraps around the backside of the mountain, requiring all your Maine-woods tracker skills. The trees get shorter during a final steep push toward the top, where a ground-level fire observation post offers views off the barren summit toward Katahdin and the entirety of the impenetrable green carpet that is the new National Monument.
Looking toward the north, the hills and peaks of this part of the park fade into the valley surrounding the East Branch of the Penobscot River. Most easily accessed from the north side of the park, the river features a tour of cascades, one after another, tumbling south. The Old Telos Tote Road is the main thoroughfare along the river, from a parking at the end of Messer Pond Road. Aside from hikers, the wide trail is perfect for mountain bikers or skiers in the winter who want to see more of the unique waterfalls. One highlight: At mile 2, Haskell Rock Pitch features a 10 foot tumble of water, followed by the 15 foot tall clenched fist that is Haskell Rock, protruding from the foam.
Luckily for those interested in spending more time exploring the waffling terrain that makes up Katahdin Woods and Waters, two main routes cut the park in half from north to south, each tailored to a different kind of adventurer.
For those willing to get wet, the East Branch of the Penobscot was a popular way to explore back in the days of Henry David Thoreau, who traveled the route in 1857. Paddlers equipped for some whitewater will tumble through the river’s various “pitches” in between serene stretches of isolated deadwater and staying at campsites accessible only from the river.
Next door, Baxter State Park is home to the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail and the beginning of the 1900-mile International Appalachian Trail, an extension of the AT that runs from Katahdin’s summit, straight through the new National Monument on its way to Canada. Hiking from Katahdin Lake, over Deasey and the rest of the park’s peaks, then north along the East Branch, the IAT takes boot-bound explorers to every region of the Monument and into some of its remotest parcels, joining the otherwise isolated northern and southern halves of the park.
Getting the Most Out of Your Trip
Take it slow in the narrow lanes of the park road. Moose crossing signs are too obvious to be included and you wouldn’t want to find one of these behemoth mammals in your path as you fly around a blind turn.
Spend a night at Sandbank Stream, the monument’s only drive-in designated campsite, just before the start of the Park Loop. As you would probably expect, it’s nothing like the campgrounds you’ll see in other parks, but it features a tent platform, outhouse, and a quiet deadwater next door (ideal for dawn moose spotting, not so much for bugs mid-summer) and it’s the perfect last stop before launching into the park road early in the morning and getting to the Mile 6 Viewpoint for sunrise.
Take the north side’s Messer Pond Road halfway south to Oxbow Road, which leads to a canoe launch and picnic area on a calm section the East Branch, perfect for jumping in and washing off the dust of the road.
- The hastily put together NPS website for Katahdin Woods and Waters is pretty bare-bones, but it does feature a pretty complete map of the monument’s roads, trails, campsites, and more. It’s not perfect, but when other maps show just a maze of old logging roads (and with zero cell service in the park), print it out and become best friends.
- When you wrap up at Katahdin Woods and Waters, a stop at Acadia National Park on your way home, though beautiful, could really help you appreciate the solitude of our latest National Monument and give you a fascinating comparison.