Solitude and adventure in Katahdin Woods and Waters

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Sunrise on the East Branch of the Penobscot River in Katahdin Woods and Waters in northern Maine.
Sunrise on the East Branch of the Penobscot River in Katahdin Woods and Waters in northern Maine.(Michael J. Bailey)

One in a series of occasional stories marking the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.

MILLINOCKET — There are 330 miles from Boston to the newest land national monument, Katahdin Woods and Waters. Yet the moment of transcendence came on a bridge no longer than two SUVs.

The one-lane span over a marsh consisted of a pair of runners — six railroad ties that crackled as I walked over them. (Yes, any driver coming to it would get out and walk across the bridge to make sure it's intact). Between and beside the runners, pieces of battered and buckling plywood and particleboard were strewn. Step on one of those and I'll go through.


As I drove across, a reinforced area at the end of the bridge lifted the SUV, then dropped it with a thump. And I felt a million miles away from home.

Katahdin Woods is for those folks who smile when they shut their tailgates and dirt sheets down, who don't mind bugs Jackson Pollocking their windshield, who know that the scent of mountain air is often a mashup of body odor and bug spray.

It is not for folks whose idea of an experience with nature is pulling off the road at overlooks and taking pictures of the stunning landscape. Here, motorized vehicles quickly become a hindrance.

That homely bridge leads to one of the centerpieces of the monument, the 17-mile Katahdin Loop Road. Gravelly and dusty but without ruts and large rocks, the road is ideal for absorbing the surroundings. Its 15 miles per hour limit reinforces the overriding virtue of this place: its propensity to slow life down a little, to let you observe and perceive and breathe.

The road is one-way in parts, so it's best to drive clockwise. It does have some of those scenic pullouts; several showcase majestic Mount Katahdin, five miles away.


The best way, however, to see Katahdin is from atop Barnard Mountain. You'll need to park at a gate on the loop and hike two old logging roads two miles to the trailhead. If you have a mountain bike or a stout hybrid and you're willing to zip down and power up a hill, that's even better.

The 0.8-mile hike from the trailhead is easy to follow even though it's rarely used and has no blazes (it could become more difficult in the fall, with leaves carpeting the path). At one point, it slices through a fissure in a massive boulder, forming a quick-hit slot canyon.

The path opens to a ledge atop Barnard. If you can ignore the ill-conceived placement of a picnic table at the edge of the overlook, the view is spectacular. Katahdin is bracketed in blue, with Lake Katahdin at its feet and the sky overhead, its summit lost in a crown of clouds, its rollicking knife-edged ridge cut cleanly against the horizon. Grasshoppers click behind you and the winds sound below. You could spend an afternoon here, watching the clouds animate Katahdin, shadowing and shrouding its bowls and ravines, and consider it an afternoon richly spent.

After completing the loop, you can camp at a clearing near Sandbank Stream. Better yet, drive north an hour and a half along Route 11, through Amish farmland, and Route 159, whipsawing through forests to a northern entrance.


You'll need to leave your car behind soon after the entrance, but take along your inner Thoreau. This is a remote place made for journeys of both the foot and the heart.

Clusters of campsites accompany the East Branch of the Penobscot River. A 3.6-mile rough bike ride paralleling the river will take you to a camping spot at Grand Pitch. Along the way, you'll pass Haskell Hut, a great launching pad for a snowshoe hike, and Haskell Rock rapids, a series of cascades as inviting to the ear as to the eye.

You'll also be passing along the path Henry David Thoreau took in 1857, an expedition that makes up part of his book "The Maine Woods.''

What kindled his spirit then still tarries along the Penobscot. After dinner at Grand Pitch, I went down in the dark to quickly wash my hands at a clearing near the falls. I stayed for almost an hour.

The sensations, minimal as they were, held me under the canopy of a trio of cedars, their gnarled roots extending beyond the bank. The beam of my headlamp attracted denizens of the night. A green frog darted through the water, to my feet, staring, transfixed by the light. Dozens of chub squeezed the shore, toward me. A tree arched from the bank, dipping its leaves into the Penobscot. Beyond where black swallowed the light from my lamp, the whoosh of waters heaving over Grand Pitch was unbroken.

In the morning, I spent the bulk of an hour standing on a granite outpost into the Penobscot, its waters whirlpooling two inches beneath my feet, and watched as the rising sun cut through the mist to light, one by one, the tips of spruces and cedars across the river.


In 36 hours over two sunny midweek days, I saw three people in Katahdin Woods. Yet what is an asset for those seeking solitude is an albatross for those hoping the monument will draw tourists and salve a local economy battered by the decline of logging.

Such hopes were expressed locally when President Obama declared these lands donated by the Quimby foundation, the legacy of the owners of Burt's Bees, a national monument. Others expressed disdain, declaring the move a federal takeover, replete with onerous restrictions.

It will be a challenge for the National Park Service going forward. How will it preserve the most precious qualities of these lands while making them more accessible to tourists and keeping them open for those treasured activities — hunting, trapping, snowmobiling — of generations of locals?

That's the 87,000-acre question.

As for that tiny tumble-down threshold, the park service said that within days of my visit the bridge would be ripped out and replaced by one more rugged. And less rhapsodic.

Michael J. Bailey can be reached at