You may not have ever heard of Baxter State Park. It’s a gorgeous spot in the North Woods of Maine, centered around Mount Katahdin. While most of our US travel is focused on visiting US National Park Service sites, this state park, like Custer State Park in South Dakota, is every bit as worthy of a visit. That said, this isn’t an easy place to visit, so we’ll help you out with our tips for visiting Baxter State Park.
My dad always says that we really should visit more state parks and National Wildlife Refuges (they are operated by US Fish & Wildlife, not NPS), so I guess it is only fitting that we made a state park the focus of our first stop in Maine, on my Dad’s birthday. Happy Birthday, Dad!
So, why visit Baxter State Park? What’s so special about it? The short answer is because it is one of the most natural, unspoiled plots of land we have ever been to. If you want to not just experience nature but really submerse yourself in nature, this is where to go.
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Updated May 2019
Baxter State Park Is A Hiker’s (and Boater’s) Paradise
The focal point of the park is Mount Katahdin, the tallest mountain in Maine and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. There really isn’t anything to do in this park other than hike, canoe or hang out at one of the campgrounds.
Tip #1: Prepare to be active.
There are several different trails that lead to the summit of Mount Katahdin. We passed on hiking the mountain but, if that’s your thing, you’ve got plenty of options here. There are several mountains that you can choose from in addition to Mount Katahdin.
There are also PLENTY of hikes for those that don’t want to summit a mountain! We did two hikes at Baxter SP, both of them to remote ponds. Neither hike was challenging.
Our first hike, to Sandy Stream Pond, we did as a loop totaling about 3.5 miles. It could have been done as an out-and-back for less than one mile total.
Our second hike combined several trails (one of which was actually part of the Appalachian Trail) and went to Grassy Pond, Daicey Pond, Elbow Pond and Tracy Pond. All together this loop totaled about four miles, but various parts could have been done for much less.
Both of the hikes we did had very little elevation gain and overall were easy. There were some rocks and roots that we had to be careful of and there was some elevation change (both up and down) but nothing major. The fact that you can connect trails so easily to make your hike longer if you want is one thing that we loved.
Most of the ponds have canoes available for a nominal charge. You do have to carry paddles on your hike but that’s much easier than carrying a canoe through the woods! There seriously are tons of ponds to get out and explore, some with little or no hiking required.
Baxter State Park Is Remote in Every Sense of the Word
There are no facilities or services. This means no cell service, no gas station, no running water, no flush toilets, no ATMs, no snacks/drinks. If you think you might need something, bring it with you. There aren’t even any trash cans. You have to take your trash out with you. Yes, they do have pit toilets but you better bring your own hand sanitizer.
They also don’t have any phone lines so that means no credit cards. You will need cash for the entrance fee, any maps you want to purchase or campground charges.
Tip #2: Come prepared with everything you need to be self-sufficient.
The entrance fee is $15 per vehicle. For a single day, that is a pretty steep price. Most parks that charge that much will at least honor it for a few days or maybe even a week. If you are staying in a campground, I think you only pay the entrance fee one time. But, if you are staying outside the park, it’s a new fee each day.
If you live in Maine, however, it’s free! The park was donated, over time, beginning in 1931 by Percival Baxter. He wanted this land to be preserved for folks to enjoy, at any point in the future.
“Man is born to die. His works are short lived. Buildings crumble, monuments decay, wealth vanishes but Katahdin in all its glory forever shall remain the mountain of the people of Maine.”-Percival Baxter
Not a Place to Go Just to “Drive Around” and Look at Scenery
First of all, there are only two roads in Baxter SP and neither one is paved. From the south entrance (16 miles north of Millinocket), one road leads northeast and the other leads northwest. The northwest road eventually turns toward the entrance on the northeast side outside the town of Patten.
Tip #3: Expect a slow and somewhat bumpy drive.
The roads are in decent condition but you still will only be traveling 10-20 mph at the most (the park-wide speed limit is 20 mph). Having four-wheel drive was nice a couple of times but we would have easily survived without it. Also, the roads are very narrow. There is enough space for two vehicles to pass each other but it usually does require a little bit of maneuvering by one or both drivers.
Lastly, most of what you are driving through is forest. There are some ponds close to the road, but even those are generally lined with trees between the road and the water. There are little, if any, wide-open spaces to see things. When driving around, you are generally just looking at a lot of trees.
Tip #4: Don’t expect grand views while driving.
Plan Your Accommodations in Advance
If you are a tenter, this is your place! Not only are there no hookups, but most RVs and trailers aren’t even allowed in the park. There are a good number of campgrounds scattered around the park but they are fairly limited in size. Many of the campgrounds have some three-sided shelters and some cabins. There are campgrounds that are right off the road and also some that are backcountry for long-distance hikes.
Tip #5: Be ready to do some rustic camping if you want to stay in the park.
Tip #6: RVers should be prepared for vehicle size restrictions (9 feet high, 7 feet wide).
We stayed in Millinocket, which is about 90 minutes away. Our campground was great but there are not a ton of options with hookups around.
See a Moose
Of course, I can’t guarantee that you will see a moose, but you’ve probably got a better chance here than most anywhere else, especially in the lower 48.
Moose are one of the somewhat common animals that I rarely see. In Yellowstone National Park, bison and elk are everywhere. There are some moose, but they are such solitary creatures they are often difficult to find. On all our trips together over the past seven years, I haven’t seen a moose, other than some far off in the distance in Alaska.
My mission was to see a moose. “Victory” came about an hour after entering the park, on our first hike, at Sandy Stream Pond. As we approached the water, there he was hanging out in the middle of the pond, chomping on some grass or something he found yummy.
Tip #7: Look for wetlands for the best opportunities for spotting moose.
What makes Baxter so good for moose viewing is a) it is very remote and b) there is a lot of water and forest… perfect moose habitat!
Get To Baxter State Park Early!
We arrived at about 7 a.m. Considering it took us almost an hour to get there from our campground, that was a very early alarm today!
Tip #8: Set an early alarm if you are hoping to see wildlife.
My advice for seeing animals will always be, “the earlier, the better.” Sure enough, it was still fairly early in the day when we spotted the moose! After watching him for a little while (from a couple of different viewpoints) we continued our hike around the pond.
Most of the hike was not within view of the water, so as we finished the loop, we headed towards where the moose was at the beginning. He had already moved on only about 90 minutes later. If we had let ourselves be lazy this morning, we probably would have missed our moose sighting!
Final Thoughts on Baxter State Park
Baxter State Park is really unlike any other park I’ve visited. There is so much to it, yet so little. We truly enjoyed getting away from the distractions of phones and traffic and getting out into the woods. Just be sure to plan your visit before you go so have everything you need.
Maybe one day we’ll come back and do some primitive camping and more hiking!