On his three journeys into Maine’s north woods, Henry David Thoreau three times skirted the ragged chain of peaks that cuts a northeasterly course from the little town of Monson to the foot of Katahdin. The Wabanaki have been at home in the terrain for thousands of years, and Thoreau’s indigenous guides, Joseph Attean and Joe Polis, led the transcendental adventurer along old canoe routes, to either side of those mountains, as swift rivers and broad lakes were more easily navigated than deep woods and steep climbs.
Today, though, the Appalachian Trail traverses directly through that imposing stretch — and connects to a wider network of trails — drawing outdoors enthusiasts who know the area as the 100 Mile Wilderness. It’s the most remote section of all 2,160 miles on the Appalachian Trail, even though a network of logging roads crisscrosses it. The majority of thru-hikers will spend at least 10 days slogging through.
Most of the 100 Mile Wilderness, though, is accessible to day-trippers too. A handful of lodges and sporting camps are scattered about, and surrounding towns offer a mix of inns and hiker hostels. To navigate the warren of rutted back roads, where cell service is scarce, visitors will want a vehicle with decent clearance, plus a good spare tire, a full tank of gas, and some reliable maps — say, a Gazetteer and a detailed trail map, like the one the Appalachian Mountain Club publishes. They’ll also need to stop at gatehouses on their way in, to register and pay the access fee ($11 per day per Maine resident, $16 per non-resident) to the consortium of timber companies and others that own swaths of the forest.
After that, the quiet ponds, sheer gorges, and rocky summits await. “The mission of men,” Thoreau wrote inThe Maine Woods, “. . . seems to be, like so many busy demons, to drive the forest all out of the country, from every solitary beaver swamp and mountain-side, as soon as possible.” The 100 Mile Wilderness is less a wilderness than it was in Thoreau’s day, certainly. But the forest has, by and large, held its ground. — W.G.
Clockwise from left: the ATC visitor center; enjoying a pint with the locals at Turning Page Farm Brewery; gearing up at Poet’s Gear Emporium. Below: pancake breakfast at Shaw’s. Photos by Cait Bourgault
Trailhead: At the end of Otter Pond Rd., off Mountain Rd., 2.7 miles beyond the Borestone Mountain Trailhead.
Barren is the first mountain AT hikers climb in the 100 Mile, and it’s taxing. The trail ascends steeply after passing through the black-slate Slugundy Gorge, reaching the Barren Slide, a jumble of angular slate blocks perched atop cliffs. Just past the slide, the postcard view from the open shoulder of bedrock called Barren Ledges — over Lake Onawa and towards Borestone — is a classic. You could turn back here and make it a 3.4-mile day; otherwise, it’s a 7-mile round trip if you cross the wooded saddle to the 2,670-foot summit, the site of a fallen fire tower that once offered 360-degree views. Trees are reclaiming the spot where it stood, but even the partial view is worth hiking to.
Trailhead:Off Elliotsville Rd., north of Monson. Follow signs from Rte. 6, nearly 8 miles along Elliotsville Rd. to Mountain Rd., then head to a parking area just past a railroad crossing.
Borestone doesn’t feel like a mountain that tops out at just under 2,000 feet. Its two open, rocky summits offer breathtaking views of northern Maine, which is why it’s the most popular hike in the 100 Mile. Now an Audubon preserve (there’s a $5 nonmember fee), it was once owned by a family that raised foxes for fur. Most hikers follow the Base Trail to the visitor center, near a cluster of pretty ponds, then tackle the Summit Trail — each is a mile long and pretty steep. From the visitor center, you can also follow a short loop through a wetland, past remnants of the wire pens that housed the foxes.
Big Wilson Cliffs
Trailhead: Off Elliotsville Rd., just west of the bridge over Big Wilson Stream, 7½ miles north of Rte. 6.
The southern end of the 100 Mile is underlain by slate, which is obvious along the bit of the AT between Big Wilson Stream and Little Wilson Falls. This six-mile loop follows a gravel road before joining the southbound AT, climbing to a series of slate ridges. The trail scratches and claws its way up, hikers scrambling over bare black rock surrounded by towering evergreens. Then a drop into hardwood, followed by a climb onto the next ridge. And the next. Before the trail meets the gravel road circling back, the last ridge rises to an open view above Little Wilson Stream and a glimpse of the gap that hides Little Wilson Falls. At 75 feet, it’s the highest on the whole AT, and it adds less than a mile to divert from the loop for a peek. — G.W.
In Monson, an oasis for thru-hikers, run by thru-hikers.
In the spring of 2007, Kimberly and Jarrod Hester set out northbound from Georgia on the Appalachian Trail, her trail name “Hippie Chick” (inspired by her wardrobe) and his “Poet” (he left a haiku in each logbook along the way). Six months later, the couple arrived in Monson, hustling toward Katahdin as the hiking season neared its end. Still, they stopped long enough to pop into the trail-famous Shaw’s Hiker Hostel, the oldest continuously operated boarding house along the AT(17 Pleasant St.; 207-997-3597). When the place hit the market, in 2015, the pair of seasoned thru-hikers bought it. Now, they’re also seasoned hostel owners, providing tuckered trekkers with laundry, hot showers, comfy beds, and resupply drops, plus heaping breakfasts and a general aura of camaraderie. We asked the Hesters to, ahem, wax poetical about their experience. — B.B.
Has your time on the trail helped you with running the hostel?
Jarrod: Well, for instance, people really enjoy what we call “shakedowns” in our gear shop, helping people pack lighter. They come in after lugging 50 or 60 pounds through the 100 Mile Wilderness, and they’re ready to quit. To watch somebody later put on a pack that has a base weight of less than 20 pounds, it’s like they almost come to tears. That’s a big part of what hiking is about, learning that sometimes the best time you have in your life is when you have the least.
Do people usually do the whole 100 Mile Wilderness once and that’s enough for them?
Kimberly: We actually get to meet a lot of people twice, and that’s really nice. They come back to this section again because they either went through too fast or the weather wasn’t good or whatever. And because it’s a beautiful section of the trail.
And it seems the town and the trail get along nicely.
Jarrod: You can tell when you thru-hike whether or not a town is hiker-friendly. Every visitor tells us this is one of the most hiker-friendly towns, which feels great. The people who live here are accepting of people’s differences.
Kimberly: Plus, we have a ten-year-old and a six-year-old. We love raising them here because of the amount of people they see every day, from different walks of life.
Jarrod: Earthy, hardworking people living out their dreams. We can’t think of a better group to raise our kids around.
The western gateway to the 100 Mile, at the southern tip of Moosehead Lake, Greenville is a launchpad for outdoorspeople of every stripe. The ones with a flair for history crash at the Greenville Inn and Cottages (40 Norris St.; 207-695-2206), an 1890 mansion on the National Register of Historic Places, with original leaded-glass windows, fireplaces, and other fixtures. Downtown, the Dockside Inn & Tavern (17 Pritham Ave.; 207-695-3663) is the place for fried appetizers, strong drinks, and a lakeside deck with the best view in town. Farmers and vintners Denise and Allen Preston grow their own grapes (also rhubarb, strawberries, plums, and, um, parsnips) for the often-surprising natural wines from Spotted Cat Winery (158 Scammon Rd.; 207-695-2870). No on-site tasting room, but the bottle shop has something for your picnic basket. When it comes to gear, Northwoods Outfitters(5 Lily Bay Rd.; 207-695-3288), can sell or rent everything you need for a hiking, biking, paddling, or fishing excursion. Plus, half the staff are Registered Maine Guides, with plenty of good advice, even if you don’t sign on for a moose safari or guided paddling trip. — A.P.
Clockwise from left: One of Greenville’s many moose; the view from near the summit of Number Four Mountain; Gulf Hagas is home to a series of waterfalls. Photos by Benjamin Williamson (moose) and Chris Bennett (Gulf Hagas, Number Four Mountain)
Trailhead:On the KI Road, between Brownville and Greenville, 11.6 miles west of the Katahdin Iron Works checkpoint.
Heading south from the eastern Gulf Hagas trailhead, it’s just over four gnarly miles to the 2,200-foot summit of Chairback. After ascending to East Chairback Pond, the forest transitioning from maple and beech to spruce and hemlock, the trail crosses a series of bedrock folds that look like corduroy swales on the topo map. The work that it takes to climb over these wrinkles sweetens the view from up top, with the cliffs at the summit offering a magnificent view of the mountains and valleys unfolding to the north and west — you can see all the way from Big Moose Mountain to White Cap.
Trailhead: Just past the Little Lyford Lodge access road, about two miles north of the KI Road.
Indian Mountain rises south of the Lily Bay Mountains, west of the Gulf Hagas–White Cap ridge, and north of Barren–Chairback, and it’s surrounded by picturesque ponds — as a result, the none-too-challenging, 1½-mile hike to its summit offers up amazing views. Halfway up, a short spur trail leads to an overlook called Laurie’s Ledge, which overlooks the Little Lyford ponds and peaks to the east. The summit view is more spectacular, with Horseshoe Pond nestled below against the vertical flank of Elephant Mountain, Moosehead Lake and Big Moose Mountain in the distance, and Baker Mountain looming to the north. Some truly impressive boulders on the way up too.
Number Four Mountain
Trailhead: On Meadow Brook Rd., 4 miles east of Lily Bay Rd. and 2.2 miles south of Frenchtown Rd.
Like many fire wardens’ trails, the hike used to simply follow the fall line, straight up the side of the mountain. The AMC added bog boards to the approach (look for jack-in-the-pulpits) and several switchbacks on the climb. They extended the length of the hike a bit — it’s 3.8 miles round-trip — but make what used to be a steep slog into a fun climb. On the summit ridge, the trail climbs through a forest carpeted with wildflowers. Don’t stop at the summit, with its platform-free tower, but continue another tenth of a mile to an overlook. The bench there offers a spectacular view of Moosehead Lake and the Lily Bay Mountains. If you’re feeling ambitious, the trail continues another four miles to the wooded summit of Baker Mountain. — G.W.
Trailhead:On Penobscot Pond Rd., a mile west of the three-way intersection of Jo-Mary and Wadleigh Pond Rds., in the Nahmakanta Public Reserved Lands.
This is an easy loop hike of less than a mile, but the grandeur starts at the trailhead with a giant boulder and a great view of Katahdin behind it. The trail descends through a forest (littered with wildflowers in spring), zigzags between boulders, then reaches the stream and a large pool, with a half mile worth of ledge falls splashing into it. The trail follows the tumbling water upstream, alongside and sometimes right on the ledges, where the water slides in shallow sheets down the rock, pausing here and there to catch its breath in rocky pools.
Trailheads: At both the east and west ends of Gulf Hagas, both accessed from the KI Road between Brownville and Greenville.
The whole Gulf Hagas loop is more than 10 miles, although you can break it into shorter, more family-friendly loops by hiking from either end and using the cutoff trail that joins the loop in the middle, like a figure eight. However you approach it, it’s a magic hike, alongside the West Branch of the Pleasant River flowing through one of Maine’s deepest gorges. Dark slate walls tower over the river — at its narrowest point, called the Jaws, the canyon is less than 20 feet across. At the gorge’s west end of are a series of beautiful waterfalls, and the trail hugs the rim, offering dramatic views in. Near the eastern end, Gulf Hagas Brook drops and slides dramatically into the gorge to join the river, with places to take a dip. A classic Maine hike.
White Cap Mountain
Trailhead: At the end of Frenchtown Rd., 14 miles east of Lily Bay Rd.
White Cap is the highest mountain on the AT between Mount Bigelow and Katahdin, and both are visible from its open summit. The hike follows the southbound AT, climbing steadily to Logan Brook lean-to, where there’s a pretty waterfall. From there, it’s a steep haul to the tree line; the last section is a long stone staircase through crowded spruces. Eventually, you burst out of the woods onto broken rock. Free of the spruce forest, you can see all of the 100 Mile Wilderness and beyond. On a clear day, you can see Canada. It’s a 6.6-mile round trip and worth every bit of sweat. — G.W.
Toting up Appalachian Mountain Club’s efforts to help protect the 100 Mile Wilderness.
Despite its encompassing name, the 100 Mile Wilderness isn’t a singular entity in the way of, say, a national park or a local preserve. Instead, it’s a patchwork of properties held by — in the jargon of conservation work — various stakeholders, including the National Park Service, the Nature Conservancy, the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, private landowners, and the Appalachian Mountain Club. Twenty years ago, the latter organization launched its Maine Woods Initiative with the purchase of a large tract centered in the southwest section of the 100 Mile Wilderness. The initiative has since grown into the most ambitious ongoing effort at adding pieces to the jigsaw map of protected lands. — W.G.
Acres of former timberlands purchased (thus far) as part of AMC’s Maine Woods Initiative, which mixes habitat restoration, sustainable forestry, and expanded recreational opportunities via trails, boat launches, lodges, and campsites.
Hours that AMC’s Quiet Water Maine paddling guidebook suggests fishing or scouting for wildlife on 643-acre Long Pond, part of the group’s first Maine Woods Initiative parcel. Its east-west orientation shelters it from winds that often sweep in from the north or south.
Miles of trail added to the 100 Mile Wilderness area as part of the Maine Woods Initiative.
Millions of dollars AMC spent last summer to purchase 26,584 acres known as the Pleasant River Headwaters Forest, which includes key habitat for native brook trout and spawning Atlantic salmon.
Approximate length of the AT within the 100 Mile Wilderness (rounding up makes for better branding). On average, the federally protected trail corridor only stretches about 500 feet to either side, leaving other groups to conserve the surrounding forest.
In more ways than one, the Debsconeag Lakes is the crown of the 100 Mile Wilderness.
At the north end of the 100 Mile, the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area is some of the state’s truest backcountry outside of adjacent Baxter State Park — some 46,000 acres, almost entirely roadless, of placid lakes and ponds, portage trails, gorgeous lakefront campsites, and so very many loons. Fifteen miles of the Appalachian Trail wend through “the Deb,” but the best way to experience it is on a paddling trip. The Nature Conservancy stewards the property (which it acquired in 2002, from Great Northern Paper), and in contrast to Baxter and the gated North Maine Woods lands, it’s little regulated, with no permits, reservations, or fees; campsites are available on a first-come basis. Access is via a handful of trailheads and three carry-in boat launches at the edges of the preserve. The Golden Road skirts its northern edge, and both Nahmakanta Lake Wilderness Camps (207-731-8888) and Chewonki’s Debsconeag Lake Camps (207-882-7323) are just outside the reserve’s southern boundary if you’d rather not full-on rough it. But you really should rough it: it’s an easy paddle from the Debsconeag Deadwater, off the Golden Road, onto First Debsconeag Lake, which has three immaculate campsites, a gentle trail to the fascinating Debsconeag Ice Caves, and so much potential for wildlife spotting. This is some of Maine’s moose-iest country. — B.K.
Above: A boardwalk trail near the Debsconeag’s Rainbow Lake. Photos by Chris Shane (boardwalk, canoe) and Chris Bennett (lake)
Debsconeag Ice Caves
Trailhead: On Hurd Pond Rd., off the Golden Road. Just west of Abol Bridge, turn south and drive four miles.
On the north shore of First Debsconeag Lake is a ridge of loose boulders, covered with a thin veneer of soil and moss. Clamber into the large gaps between the boulders to find caves that hold ice all summer. The main cave is obvious to spot and has iron rungs drilled into the rock, allowing you to descend 20 feet (bring a headlamp). The mile-long trail to the caves winds through a forest of mature hemlocks and pines, littered with moss and fern-covered boulders as big as cabins. Before reaching the caves, the trail gently climbs a hill to an overlook with a fine view of the lake.
Trailhead:Off the Golden Road, 5.2 miles west of Abol Bridge. Look for a short, signed access road.
In the northwest corner of the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area, this fairly strenuous, 6½-mile loop climbs up and over a ridge with knockout views of Katahdin and Mount O-J-I to the north, the mountains and lakes of the 100 Mile Wilderness to the south. A 1.4-mile spur, well worth the extra miles, leads to an overlook above pristine Rainbow Lake, the largest pond in the Deb. You can make it an overnight at one of two campsites on Horserace Pond, where the trail zigzags among giant granite boulders along the shore — great places to lizard in the sun after a dip in the cool, deep water.
Trailhead:Off Wadleigh Pond Rd., in the Nahmakanta Public Reserved Land. From the Jo-Mary checkpoint (and fee station), off Rte. 11, follow Jo-Mary Rd. 19.7 miles to Wadleigh Pond Rd. (you’ll exit the KI Jo-Mary Forest at the unstaffed Henderson checkpoint). Bear right and drive 5.1 miles to Pollywog Pond Rd., on the left. Follow a half mile to where it ends at a parking area.
This short, easy hike follows Pollywog Stream, which roars out of its namesake pond and over a granite dome less than a half mile from the parking area. When the water is high, Upper Pollywog Falls consists of several dramatic cascades. In lower water, it’s still impressive, and you can explore the granite ledges surrounding it. Another half-mile downstream, a side trail descends through mossy forest to reach the Lower Falls, a more traditional horsetail falls. It’s a bit of a drive to reach Pollywog, but it’s a whole lot of waterfall for very little walking, and there’s a picnic area near the trailhead, to make a day of it. — G.W.
Not Your Average Jo
There are gems to be found along the oh-so-bumpy roads of the KI Jo-Mary Forest.
East of the Appalachian Trail — and outside the lands owned by the Appalachian Mountain Club — lies the bulk of what’s officially known as the KI Jo-Mary Multiple Use Management Forest. “Management” here is a euphemism for logging, and the eastern reaches of KI Jo-Mary are decidedly a working forest, full of clearings with parked timber-harvesting machinery and crisscrossed by industry-maintained roads down which logging trucks regularly barrel (these always have the right-of-way). Access is administered by North Maine Woods, Inc., which charges day-use and camping fees at one of two checkpoints off Route 11 — Katahdin Iron Works (hence the KI), to the south, and Jo-Mary, to the north. While the area has less recreational infrastructure than elsewhere in the 100 Mile, a few standout sites are well worth a visit.
On the south end of Upper Jo-Mary Lake, a long sandy crescent next to RV-friendly Jo-Mary Lake Campground(207-943-6255) is one of Maine’s more picturesque beaches, with Katahdin etched against the skyline on the far shore. From there, it’s a two-mile paddle, tracing the lake’s eastern edge, to reach Balancing Rock, a massive glacial erratic poised on a ledge poking out of the water, like a gnarly sculpture on a pedestal. Off the wide, dusty Jo-Mary Road, a tangle of forest roads accesses a string of lovely primitive campsites along the East Branch of the Pleasant River. The best are just upstream from Gauntlet Falls, where the river plunges in a series of cascades through a cool slate canyon. Trails lead from a day-use parking area to rocky ledges overlooking the river (heavily spray-painted by generations of Piscataquis County teens) and a few soaking pools. Fly-fishermen chasing native brookies love the East Branch, as well as B Pond, 14 miles from the Jo-Mary Gate, which has a boat launch on its northern shore and is a fine place to drift in a canoe and admire the green whaleback silhouette of Jo-Mary Mountain. — B.K
The Hermitage is a rare patch of venerable forest — and the legacy of more than a century of human caretakers.
One of the most spectacular parcels in the 100 Mile Wilderness was none too wilderness-y throughout most of the 20th century. In fact, its consistent human presence helped save the six-acre plot of majestic old-growth white pines known as the Hermitage. At the eastern outlet of the Gulf Hagas river gorge, the stately grove took its name from the solitary residency of one Campbell Young, who built a cabin among the then–young-ish trees around 1890. We don’t know much about him except that he was Scottish, red-headed, and apparently misanthropic enough to adopt a hermit’s life along the West Branch of the Pleasant River.
After Young moved on, the Pleasant River Pulp Company owned the land, but while its loggers felled pines elsewhere around Gulf Hagas, it leased the hermit’s old haunt to rusticators for camps. And it may have helped stay the axes that the company president built his own swank hunting lodge there.
Then, in 1941, the company sold the land to Sara Green, a jill-of-all-trades among the region’s rough-and-tumble lumber camps. Green had lost her husband in 1929 to a sawmill accident on the site of the defunct Katahdin Iron Works, six miles east of the Hermitage. For decades after, she was known as the “mayor of Katahdin Iron Works” (a tongue-in-cheek honorific, as it was essentially a ghost town) and “the last of Maine’s truly pioneer women.” She bossed lumber crews, delivered mail, staffed a warden’s station, and ran a sporting camp at the Hermitage, where she forbade the cutting of trees. In 1967, two years before her death, Green donated the property to the Maine chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
TNC removed the cabins and other structures and, in 2002, gave the property — including 29 surrounding acres of kettle ponds and river frontage — to the National Park Service, which administers the Appalachian Trail. All that stands on the site today are sentinel pines over 150 years old, some more than 120 feet tall and 10 feet around. Gulf Hagas hikers coming from the east pass through the cathedral-like woods, and while there’s no camping among the pines, a spur trail leads to good riverside sites a quarter mile east, with fire rings, decent outhouses, and covered picnic tables. — B.K
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