Best known for being the home of Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail and the highest peak in Maine, Baxter State Park is truly a wilderness treasure-trove for more than just long-distance backpackers. Through the ongoing efforts of dedicated staff and visitors alike, this park has become a choice Northeast recreation destination. In this guide, we’ll introduce you to the best features this wilderness preservation has to offer.
The Legacy of a Life
In 1930, Baxter State Park was still just a dream when Percival P. Baxter, former Governor of Maine from 1921 to 1924, purchased nearly 6,000 acres in north-central Maine (which included Mount Katahdin). He formally donated the land to the State of Maine the following year, and over the next 31 years, Baxter built his park by purchasing and donating 27 more lots of adjacent lands.
Additional purchases and land gifts since Baxter’s death have built the park to its current 209,644 acres. Most of that land is managed as a wildlife sanctuary, but 29,537 acres in the northwest corner of the park are set aside as a Scientific Forest Management Area, where sustainable and profitable forest management practices are studied and tested.
From the interlinked ponds in the southeast corner to Grand Lake Matagamon in the northeast – and all the mountains, rivers, lakes, and streams between – Baxter State Park is truly a wild sanctuary for the avid Northeast explorer.
Getting There is a Journey of its Own
Baxter State Park is about a hundred miles north of Bangor, Maine. If you’re headed to the popular Mount Katahdin at the south end of the park, you’ll want to take Interstate 95 north out of Bangor to Highway 157 at Medway. Highway 157 will take you west to Millinocket. Follow signs out of Millinocket to reach the Togue Pond Gatehouse approximately 16 miles north of town.
If you want to escape the crowds at the north end of the park, then bypass Medway on Interstate 95 and continue on to Sherman, where you will turn onto Highway 11 and continue north to Patten. Take route 159 west out of Patten and follow it for 26 miles to the Matagamon Gatehouse.
Registration is required at a staffed gatehouse or self-registration station before 8:30 PM, so be sure to plan your route and arrival accordingly.
Explore the Wild
Baxter State Park was entrusted to the people of Maine to be a wilderness preservation enjoyed for generations to come. In this spirit, park officials maintain policies that put wilderness preservation before recreation, and the rewards are there for all to share.
With over 40 peaks to climb, 215 miles of trails to explore, and numerous lakes and streams for fishing, Baxter State Park is one of the best camping and backpacking destinations in the Northeast.
Camping is only allowed in designated campsites, so the park maintains eight roadside campgrounds and two backcountry campgrounds, along with several individual backcountry campsites. Altogether, Baxter State Park hosts 337 campsites. You can also rent cabins, lean-tos, and bunkhouses for those extended stays or winter trips. Campsites are generally located near water sources and trailheads, which make them scenic and highly convenient. The Baxter State Park camping page offers downloadable maps of all their campsites and rental units.
If you plan on spending a few days in the park, consider base camping at Russel Pond. Located on the north side of Katahdin and in the heart of the park, Russel Pond is a crossroads of trails perfect for day hikes and extended backpacking trips, plus it’s a prime spot for renting a canoe and going fishing.
Summiting Mount Katahdin is only one of the hiking adventures you can have within Baxter State Park, but it’s still one of the best. There are a few approaches to reach the summit, including the Abol Trail and the infamous Knife Edge Trail, but the Appalachian Trail approaches Katahdin from the southwest along the Hunt Trail. It’s a 5.2-mile climb beginning at Katahdin Stream Campground and ending at 5,269 feet atop Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the famed Appalachian Trail.
For a less crowded backpacking experience, consider tackling one of the loop options farther north. The Traveler Loop bags three peaks on the east side of the South Branch Ponds, and it is known for being a rigorous challenge with rewarding views. Or you could wander the shores of Second Matagamon Lake on the Freezeout Trail near the north boundary of the park.
Visit the Baxter State Park hiking page for trail maps, Katahdin-specific summit trail descriptions, and more to plan your perfect Northeast backpacking adventure.
Of course, there’s more to do than hike and pitch a tent in Baxter State Park. Hunting and trapping is allowed to the north in the Scientific Forest Management Area and around Matagamon Lake, as well as around Togue Pond to the south. However, moose hunting and hunting over bait is not allowed.
Fish from shore on a plethora of streams and lakes, or rent a kayak or canoe and fish from further out. Boats can be rented at all pond-side campgrounds for $1 per hour (on the honor system). You can also mix it up and rent a canoe to paddle across Wassataquoik Lake while hiking the Wassataquoik Trail through the west side of the park.
Bikes are allowed on all roads in Baxter Park, but they are not allowed on the hiking trails except for fat biking on the Abol Stream Trail and Tote Road in the winter.
For some fun rock climbing, hike about 3 miles to Chimney Pond from the Roaring Brook Campgrounds and have a go at popular routes like Pamola and The Diamonds.
Whether you’re wrapping up a 2,100-mile long-distance hike on the Appalachian Trail or just hanging out for a weekend of wilderness backpacking and camping fun, Baxter State Park is sure to become one of your absolute favorite Northeast recreation destinations.