You may not have ever heard of Baxter State Park, but we think it is a place not only worth knowing about, but visiting. Most of our US travel is centered around visiting US National Park Service sites. We will occasionally visit a state park or other attraction, but rarely are those sites our primary reason for going to a particular area.
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 around. If you want to not just experience nature, but really submerse yourself in nature, this is where to go. If this sounds appealing to you, here’s what you need to know:
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 (pictured at the top of the page). There really isn’t anything to do in this park other than hike, canoe or kayak, and hang out at one of the campgrounds.
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. And not just Katahdin… There are several mountains that you can choose from.
There are also PLENTY of hikes for those that don’t want to summit a mountain! We did two hikes today, both of them to remote ponds, that were fairly easy.
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 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 (there are A LOT of ponds here!). All together this loop totaled about four miles, but various parts could have been done for much less.
Both of these hikes that we did had very little elevation gain and overall were fairly 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 (I think it is a $1 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.
Remote, in Every Sense of the Word
There are no facilities. 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.
Not a Place to Go Just to “Drive Around” and Look at Scenery
First of all, there are only two roads and neither one is paved. From the south entrance (16 miles north of Millinocket), one road leads northeast and the other leads northwest (this one eventually turns toward the entrance on the northeast side outside the town of Patten).
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 forest underbrush.
$14 Entrance Fee, Per Vehicle… Unless You Are a Maine Resident
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 it 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. A marker at the Katahdin Stream Campground includes this quote by Baxter: “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.”
Leave the RV at Home
If you are a tenter, this is your place! Not only are there no hookups, RVs and trailers aren’t even allowed in the park (vehicle size is restricted). There are a good number of campgrounds scattered around, but they are fairly limited in size. There are some three-sided shelters at most of the campgrounds and some cabins. There are campgrounds that are right off the road and also some that are backcountry for long-distance hikes.
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, bison and elk are everywhere. There are some moose, but they are such solitary creatures they are often hard to find. On all our 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 today 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.
What makes Baxter so good for moose viewing is a) it is very remote and b) there is a lot of water and forest – just the type of habitat moose love!
Get there 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! My advice for seeing animals will always be, “the earlier, the better.” Sure enough, after watching our moose 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 1-1.5 hours later. If we had let ourselves be lazy this morning, we probably would have missed our moose sighting!
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. Maybe one day we’ll come back and do some primitive camping and more hiking!