Magnificent doesn’t even begin to cut it.
Baxter State Park, located in northern Maine’s Piscataquis County in the North Maine Woods, is hands-down our favorite park that we’ve visited on the East Coast (and maybe even the United States!)
A pristine nature reserve reminiscent of JRR Tolkien’s Shire, Baxter is simply breathtaking!
Perhaps best-known as the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, Baxter is indeed home to imposing Mt. Katahdin, Maine’s tallest peak at 5269 feet.
However, there are countless other hikes to explore if Katahdin seems like a bit too much. Keep in mind that Katahdin is not an amateur hike: it is known for howling winds, snow squalls and dense fogs that come out of nowhere, and a trail aptly called the “Knife’s Edge” due to its narrowness. We haven’t attempted Katahdin yet, but are hoping to in the next year or so– we’ll keep you posted!
And now, time for a controversial opinion…
Overall, if we were visiting Maine with limited time, and had to choose between Baxter and Acadia… we would choose Baxter every time. We were blown away by how gorgeous and pristine everything in Baxter was, and cannot wait to go back.
However, you should absolutely visit both and make this choice for yourself! Check out our guide to Acadia here to start planning your visit.
Tips for Your Visit:
- Baxter is first and foremost a wilderness preserve, with a fragile ecosystem that the park rangers are singleminded in their focus to protect. The park, like many others, has a “carry in, carry out” system for trash, and while there are a few outhouses located around the trailheads, there are no trash cans available. No alcohol is allowed. We really recommend bringing lots of extra water, too, as there isn’t places to refill it. Maximum group size allowed is 12, also strictly enforced.
- This one is crucial– there are no dogs (or any pets) allowed anywhere within the park. While service animals are allowed, the rangers will closely examine your paperwork and quiz you on the specifics of service animal certification– e.g. “(1) is the dog a service animal required because of a disability, and (2) what work or task has the dog been trained to perform.” (quote from Maine false service animal statute.)
And yes, you read that right– it is a state law in Maine that you will be fined $1000 and not allowed back in the park again (ever!) if your paperwork is false or unofficial. Dogs really are strictly forbidden here– don’t try to sneak a dog in! The park is home to lots of protected wildlife and really rare plants and other vegetation. As much as we are the first people to say that doggies are the best thing in the world, they will trample this fragile wildlife without a thought, and don’t belong here.
- Y’all, it is WAY colder in Baxter than in Acadia and surrounding towns like Bangor or Bar Harbor. Bring layers, bring gloves, bring rain jackets… bring it all. We had a gorgeous 60-degree day in Acadia on Saturday and it was 20 degrees in Baxter on Sunday. Thank goodness the park ranger at Acadia warned us, otherwise we would’ve been quite cold. Don’t skimp on those layers!
- It costs $15 to enter the park for non-Maine residents, and is free for Maine residents. There are two entrances: Togue Pond Gate (near Millinocket, Maine) and Matagamon Gate (near Patton, Maine.) We entered via Togue Pond, but will likely try out less-crowded Matagamon next time. We recommend reserving ahead of time because it saves you some time at the entrance to the park. You can do that here. Note that if you’re going to the Katahdin trailhead (even if you don’t hike Katahdin and just hike to the base camp), you need to reserve a parking spot for $5. You can do that here.
- Speaking of the entrance– be prepared for a lot of questions from the rangers. Even if you reserve in advance, they will still ask you several questions and collect emergency contact information from you due to the complete (and blissful, honestly) lack of cell service in the park. This process can cause the line at the Togue Pond entrance to get relatively long. Again, the rangers take the rules extremely seriously, perhaps more seriously than any other park we’ve visited– be prepared to spend some time answering questions and getting your visit set up. They give you a parking pass that you drop back off in a silver bin on your way out of the park.
- That said, arrive early. We know we always say this… but in this case we didn’t listen to our own advice! We decided to go for a short hike elsewhere prior to entering Baxter, and we regret that decision. By the time we arrived at the entrance at around 10AM, almost all the parking lots were full, and we had to settle for an entirely different trail than what we thought we were going to do. While we firmly believe that absolutely anything in Baxter is going to rock your world, we had researched and planned the route we wanted to take and it was a little stressful to have to change plans at the last minute in an area with no cell service.
- “Parking lot” is a bit of a misnomer, as most of the parking areas only had space for a few cars. Where we ended up parking (Elbow Pond) only had 4 parking spots total. Keep in mind that Baxter is not like Acadia, with huge paved parking areas, it is a bona fide nature preserve where a few trees have been sacrificed for a few parking spots, but there is a good chance you will not get to park in your first choice area if you don’t arrive right when the park opens.
- It is about a 45 minute drive from the Togue Pond entrance to the parking areas/trailheads. The drive is dazzlingly beautiful (especially with fall foliage!), but it’s important to remember to incorporate that extra time when you’re looking at Google Maps to plan your day. For example, while it was an hour drive from where we were staying in Orono, you really have to tack on that extra 45 minutes from the park entrance to the parking area.
- The road, while generally in very good condition, is quite narrow. You will likely have to pull over frequently to let cars driving the opposite direction pass, or they will do so for you. You will often be making fairly slow progress– we didn’t go above about 20 MPH the whole time. We did experience a few cars driving really fast, and we were forced off the road a few times– which was nerve-wracking! Take the turns slowly and be cautious (and honk if it makes you feel better!)
- Relatedly, depending on the time of year you visit, this 45 minutes becomes even more crucial when planning your visit. Given its northern Maine location, expect the sun to set earlier here, especially in the fall. Believe us, you do not want to be walking OR driving around here after dark! Like we said before, the roads are pretty narrow, and the trails can be deceptive, even in daylight, with lots of exposed roots. The park rangers have reported skyrocketing amounts of distress calls in recent months due to folks not planning ahead.
How we wish we could’ve spent days and days here! But since we were only here for one day, we had to be strategic.
When planning your visit, the first choice you’ll have to make is whether or not you are going to hike Katahdin. If you are, there’s a whole set of prep work to do for that, and it’s recommended that you arrive at the parking area before 6AM to ensure you have enough daylight for the ascent and descent. Relatedly, to avoid the hike to the Chimney Pond basecamp campground, it’s recommended to camp there the night before, as it shaves several hours off your round-trip of Katahdin. Once we decided we weren’t doing Katahdin this trip, a wealth of other options opened up.
As we mentioned above, we had planned to do the Little Abol Falls Trail, but when we arrived, the rangers informed us that our only option to park was Elbow Pond— a bit far from the Abol trailhead given our time frame. The upside was (despite having to change plans) it’s easy to hop on a variety of trails near Elbow Pond, so we took our map and cobbled together something new.
Despite our initial disappointment (get there early, folks…!) this ended up being an insanely gorgeous hike and we absolutely cannot wait to go back and tackle other trails (namely that elusive Little Abol!)
So here’s what we did. We predominantly stayed on the Appalachian Trail, which allowed us to explore around Grassy Pond, Elbow Pond, Daicey Pond, and down the Nesowadnehunk Stream to the (rather confusingly-named) Little and Big Niagara Falls waterfalls. We then doubled back to where we started.
Our cobbled-together adventure ended up being a little under 7 miles all together, and was largely flat with a few inclines and switchbacks– a welcome respite after an accidental ascent of Pemetic Mountain in Acadia the day before (more on that particular story here.)
Make sure to spend some time exploring the 2 waterfalls! While certainly not as majestic as that other Niagara Falls, they were surprisingly large and surrounded by gorgeous trees and mountain views. In the summer, it’s apparently lovely to swim there, as there are less leeches than in the ponds (yeah… no thank you.)
One of our favorite things about Baxter was that there was almost no one there. The lack of parking and long wait time at the entrance gate spooked us a bit, but we ended up having the trails and waterfalls almost entirely to ourselves– truly a treat given how crowded Acadia was. If you’re searching for a quiet sojourn with nature, Baxter is it.