GREENVILLE, Maine — The terminal stretch of the Appalachian Trail in northern Maine is a wild tract of land. Known as the 100-mile Wilderness, this stretch of verdant forest traverses a chunk of territory with no towns, stores, or paved roads. It’s a place where animals wander the forest, gin-clear mountain streams thread the valley floors, and the snow piles deep. In the middle of this wilderness rest the Little Lyford Lodge and Cabins.
Established in 1874 as an outpost for loggers working this faraway forest, the camps have since become more of a sporting retreat for those seeking fishing in the summer, cross-country skiing in the winter, and relaxation year round. The camps have changed hands about 10 times over the years, eventually being procured by the Appalachian Mountain Club in 2003. The AMC has systematically secured more than 66,000 acres of wilderness in the 100-mile section of land in an effort to conserve it for future generations, a project known as the Maine Woods Initiative. The group also established a system of more than 80 miles of ski and hiking trails that laces through a series of ponds and alongside roiling rivers.
My wife, Lori, and I visited Little Lyford Lodge and Cabins in early January. From a winter parking lot 30 minutes from Greenville, we skied 6.2 miles along old logging roads and serpentine trails. The AMC has put a great deal of energy into providing a comfortable approach. A fleet of snowmachines grooms about 50 miles of the trail system, providing a forgiving surface of corduroy on which to slide. It also offers a service where your luggage is shuttled in by snowmachine, allowing you to ski light and enjoy the day, shouldering only your extra layers, water, and snacks.
The final glide into the camps brought us to an idyllic hamlet of tiny cabins clustered around a central lodge where home-cooked meals are served. Our cabin, Red Quill, was situated between the main lodge and the bathhouse, which has hot showers and a wood-fired sauna. Grey smoke escaped from the chimney of our cabin, where AMC staff had started a fire in anticipation of our arrival. Two hewn-log framed beds flanked the cabin’s interior with a table, sink, and woodstove included in the classic, turn-of-the-century structure. Plaid curtains screened the setting sun’s reflection off the snow.
We headed to the lodge for a hot meal and the chance to get to know the other guests. By a crackling fire, we sat around the expansive tables, sipped hot coffee and red wine, and read books about the sporting life in Maine. An antique fly rod hung over the breezeway. The smell of fresh bread filled the lodge.
In keeping with AMC hut tradition, the evening meal was an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner, complete with stuffing and gravy and capped off with a slice of fresh pumpkin pie. Lyford is staffed by eight employees in the winter, when the only access is on ski, snowshoe, or snowmobile. Cooks and naturalists cater to guests’ needs, providing every comfort from trail lunches to tutorials on animal tracks.
Noah Kleiner, 27, is one of those naturalists. A native of Union, Maine, he is Lyford’s assistant manager and environmental guide.
“This is a really unique place,” Kleiner said. “There’s not much like it in the Northeast. It’s genuine. Real.”
He’s right. Visiting Lyford is like stepping back in time. One can almost picture trappers and loggers socializing on the porches of the shelters in their weathered chaps and wool pants. And while the AMC has preserved the old-Maine atmosphere at Lyford, the trail system has crept north and south and connected with two other sporting camps.
The AMC Gorman Chairback Lodge and Cabins is nearly 7 miles south of Lyford. Originally built as a private camp in 1867, the facility now offers a modern central lodge where meals and relaxation are offered. To the north, the AMC has teamed up with the privately owned West Branch Pond Camps, yet another classic Maine sporting camp.
On the second day of our visit we explored the surrounding terrain. Short loops circumnavigated the nearby Lyford Ponds, their backdrop framed in snow-cloaked mountains such as Baker, a broad peak striped with a few prominent landslide paths. While Lori rested after a loop of her own, I struck out along the Pleasant River Trail, coursing through marshes and stands of hardwood forest.
The night before our departure was crisp and clear. We’d just finished a huge meal of lasagna and beet salad, and I stood outside staring up at nature’s display. Bands of stars shimmered over the camps and the wind settled to a silent absence. In the distant dark woods the crunch of snow gave way to the hooves of a large animal. As I adjusted my tripod and prepared to capture the inspiration of the evening, a shooting star fell, dragging an iridescent trail of light from the sky’s apex all the way to the tips of the trees that rim the property of one of the most magical destinations in the Great North Woods.
Brian Irwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.