“Forever Wild” — Remember those words as we explore the maverick that is Baxter State Park in The Maine Highlands. The formidable landscape includes the tallest peak in Maine — Mt. Katahdin (“k’taa-din”) — and the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail across 200,000 acres of pristine wilderness.
Baxter State Park breaks the mold of any other park that you’ll ever visit. It bears the name of its founder, former Maine Governor Percival C. Baxter. He believed with dogged determination, “Katahdin should and must always remain the wild, storm-swept, untouched-by-man region it now is; that is its great charm.”
A visit to Baxter State Park is the ultimate litmus test for how “outdoorsy” you really are because it has very few roads, no power, and no water supply. Even getting there tests your grit.
Whether you’re intimidated or intrigued, we have a lot to unpack.
History of Baxter State Park
The story of Baxter State Park is as wild as its landscape. Percival Baxter came from a wealthy Portland family and fell in love with the North Maine Woods during his formative years. While attending Bowdoin College and then Harvard, the woods kept calling him back.
Baxter believed with a relentless passion and “magnificent obsession” that the land hosting Maine’s tallest mountain should be kept in its wild, raw state. To that end, he purchased the land around the mountain in 1930 and immediately donated it to the state — with stipulations.
“Maine is famous for its 2500 miles of seacoast with its countless islands, for its myriad lakes and ponds, and for its forest and rivers, but Mount Katahdin Park will be the State’s crowning glory.”Percival C. Baxter
Baxter State Park’s Founding Principles
Baxter’s goals for the state park were clear:
- Self-Sufficiency: The park would have its own funding and not require state money.
- Autonomy: Without public dollars, the park would be managed by a three-person group designated as the Baxter State Park Authority.
- No Commercialization: Baxter vehemently opposed commercial development within the park, such as resorts, lodges, and souvenir shops.
That last point came to a head in 1937 when the National Park Service came sniffing around the Katahdin area. Baxter went politically feral, calling the Katahdin National Park plan an “undesirable invasion” of state rights.
The national park idea went belly up while Baxter State Park grew with more land donations. Baxter’s 6,000 initial acres ballooned to 201,000 by the time of his death in 1962. Every day, Baxter’s legacy lives on that the park “shall forever be left in the natural wild state.”
Baxter State Park’s Location
The tourism industry calls it The Maine Highlands, but it’s more commonly referred to as the North Maine Woods. Baxter State Park is in Piscataquis County with a city address of Millinocket.
Before going to the park, stop at the Baxter State Park Headquarters at 64 Balsam Drive in Millinocket. In addition, call 207-723-9500 to get the park conditions before making the long drive.
First-timers should know that this region has several wilderness areas abutted with various management and restrictions. Do not get any of them confused with Baxter State Park. Here’s a list to help you plan:
- Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area
- Maine 100 Mile Wilderness
- Nahmakanta Public Land
- Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument
NOTE: Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument is NOT where Mount Katahdin is located. The tallest peak in Maine is in Baxter State Park. You do get a great view of the mountain from the National Park Service property, though.
Baxter State Park’s Entrances
From Millinocket Maine, you can access Baxter State Park through one of two entrances in the summer and fall.
Tongue Pond Gatehouse
This entrance is the southern entrance to the park, 17 miles from Millinocket and about a 30-minute drive. A paved road leads to this entrance.
NOTE: Tongue Pond Gatehouse usually closes to vehicle traffic in the winter, around late November until May. Weather conditions determine the closing and opening dates. Usually, the road closure doesn’t impact people who are walking, skiing, or snowmobiling into the park.
This is the north entrance, and you’re in for quite a ride to get here. It’s 71 miles from Millinocket, so plan for that drive to take you about 2.5 to 3 hours.
You’ll follow the famous Golden Road for a good chunk of this drive. Don’t let the name fool you because it’s as remote and rugged as you’ll find in Maine. The road is gravel and without amenities along the way.
Also, it’s a logging road, so you’ll share the narrow road (one lane in some sections) with massive logging trucks. Those trucks ALWAYS have the right of way, and you need to stay as far right as possible to let them pass.
NOTE: Be sure to plan a stop at the Abol Bridge, which is famous for its views, as well as for crossing the Appalachian Trail.
10 Things You Must Know Before Visiting Baxter State Park
Prepare for the most rustic and remote retreat of your life, but a few things bear emphasis when it comes to the unique nature of this park. Here are 10 things that you should know before you go:
- You cannot find information about Baxter State Park on the Maine government website. You can only get information from the dedicated Baxter State Park website or the Friends of Baxter State Park website. As such, Maine state park passes won’t work here, although state residents get in for free. Out-of-state residents will pay fee and should bring cash or buy a pass ahead of time.
- No electricity is available at the park — not even streetlights — and you cannot bring a generator. The only light you’ll have is the sun, stars, and a campfire if you snag a campsite (and, of course, battery-powered lighting).
- No potable water is available at the park. You should bring your own water or have the skills to purify water from the land.
- No cleaning products are allowed in the park. You can’t wash dishes, clothes, or yourself with any kind of detergent.
- If you plan to summit Katahdin, you’ll need a parking reservation. Three parking areas lead to the summit trails — Roaring Brook, Abol, and Katahdin Stream. (But plenty more trails don’t require reservations.)
- The park gates open at 6 a.m. Parking reservations are only held until 7:05 a.m. After that, you’ve forfeited your chance, and the spot becomes first come, first served. All other parking areas don’t require a reservation.
- You MUST check in at the gate when you arrive and fill out a form. You’ll be asked to show proof that you brought a flashlight, as they are required on the trails. A headlamp works too.
- If you’re an Appalachian Trail hiker, you’ll need an AT Hiker Permit. The number of permits is limited to protect the delicate environment.
- Do NOT bring firewood with you. Only use firewood purchased in the park.
- The speed limit on all Baxter State Park roads is 20 mph. Factor in this drive time because the narrow, winding nature of the roads won’t allow you to go much faster.
Camping at Baxter State Park
Camping in the wilds of Baxter State Park also requires reservations. Campsites are conveniently located throughout the park based on your destination. Options include tent sites, lean-tos, cabins, and bunkhouses.
Chimney Pond and Russell Pond are the two backcountry sites in the park. Chimney Pond offers close access to the summit, making it more popular. Meanwhile, Russell Pond offers the most remote overnight site in the park.
Mid-May to mid-October
Every overnight option inside Baxter State Park is subject to weather conditions. You’ll have set check-in and check-out times. If you don’t arrive at the park by 8:30 p.m., your campsite will be forfeited.
December to March
Before you consider a winter camping trip at Baxter State Park, read the winter camping handbook on the park’s website. No trails are groomed. Even the park rangers warn, “Consequences are magnified in winter. Rescue may be days away.”
NOTE: The gap in the camping dates between April and mid-May is because of “Mud Season,” what you likely refer to as spring. The park closes when wet trail conditions can lead to damage or destruction of the natural habitat. Here, protecting the wilderness comes before human recreation.
Summiting Mount Katahdin
As noted above, you’ll need a parking reservation at the trailheads that lead to the summit of Mount Katahdin. The parking area is small on purpose to limit the number of people. Have you ever seen the lines to climb Half Dome in Yosemite? You won’t see that here.
Be prepared for an eight to 12-hour hike with an elevation gain of 4,000 feet. Those who choose to camp the night before a summit don’t need a parking reservation.
You’ll want to stay at Katahdin Stream Campground, Abol Campground, or Roaring Brook Campground. Choose your path up the mountain, then select the campsite from there.
Every trail to Baxter Peak on Mount Katahdin is considered strenuous or very strenuous. Once you’re above the tree line, you’ll be exposed to the elements, and conditions can be rough here any time of the year. Prepare to scramble, slide, and climb.
The shortest route is from the Abol campground. The Hunt Trail is one of the most scenic and popular, while the Saddle Trail is great for those who don’t want the steep grade.
The Knife Edge
The Knife Edge is, by far, the most intense part of any summit trail. For those familiar with Clouds Rest in Rocky Mountain National Park, it’s a much narrower version of that arete. The trail slims down to just 4 feet wide in some spots, while 2,000-foot drops await on either side.
You’ll navigate rocky ridges for just over 1 mile, fully exposed to weather conditions. This requires expert technical skills. The park website warns that “several people have died or have been seriously injured while attempting a traverse in inclement weather and/or high winds.”
Baxter State Park Hikes Beyond Mount Katahdin
You don’t have to attempt the summit to enjoy the wilderness of Baxter State Park. As rugged as the region is, trails are available for all skill levels — even beginners.
In fact, just 35 miles of the park’s 200 miles of trail lead to Katahdin. In addition, another 40 or more peaks are there to be tackled. Review the trails on the park’s website, use the Avenza Maps app (offline maps), or get the trail guide produced by the people who know these trails best.
Most of the trails available in the summer are open in the winter too. It’s important to remember that the trails won’t be groomed, and the roads won’t be plowed. Be prepared with snowshoes to walk in up to several feet of snow.
NOTE: The park has Winter Use info available online with a wealth of information.
More Things to Do Near Baxter State Park
You have other seasonal activities to consider when visiting Baxter State Park. Here are a few to consider.
Various Winter Activities
Winter opens the door to cross-country skiing, but be prepared for different weather conditions across the park. Snowmobiling is allowed only on Park Tote Road, and you can bring a fat bike for that road or the Abol Stream Trail.
Ice fishing is allowed from January through March, but a license is required. Ice climbing is possible but hard to make a day trip due to the winter weather, so plan at least two days in the wilderness.
Mud Season Activities
Once ice-out is called and Mud Season passes, you’ll find rental canoes at most lakes and ponds in the park. It’s a modest fee per hour to use. Also, cycling is allowed on Park Tote Road and Dewlley Pond Trail.
Some of the best rock climbing in New England awaits — some with trails, others requiring bushwhacking to access. Options range from bouldering to climbing multiple pitches. Review some climbing guidelines for the park before you go.
Baxter State Park Guided Tours
You don’t have to absorb all the wilderness route planning, rules, and safety steps on your own. Several outfitters nearby specialize in four seasons of fun, including guided summits to Mount Katahdin.
The New England Outdoor Center is one of the most experienced operations in this area. Also, it’s conveniently located between Baxter State Park and Millinocket.
I would recommend parlaying a trip to Baxter with a white water rafting trip down the Allagash Wilderness Waterway if you have the time.
Dining Near Baxter State Park
Whether you want a hearty meal after your trip or need to pick up food on the way, you have a handful of options in Millinocket. While it’s a town of less than 5,000 people, it’s also the last chance for supplies before heading into the North Woods.
Some of the best food in The Maine Highlands comes from convenience stores. Katahdin General Store has hot food, non-perishables, gear, fishing licenses, and even a checklist of what you need to visit Baxter State Park.
One of the benefits of visiting Millinocket is that you’ll get to celebrate hikers finishing the famed Appalachian Trail, and they like to hang out at the cafe bearing its name. Home cooking with daily specials makes this a perfect stop for breakfast or lunch.
As the oldest restaurant in town, the Scootic In Restaurant keeps coming up with menu items that reflect all of Maine’s culinary delights — from lobster rolls to poutine. You’ll find this to be one of the liveliest places in town come supper time.
Final Tips for Experiencing Baxter State Park
Baxter State Park offers what so many other parks can’t — impeccable wilderness that won’t bow to development or amenities. While wilderness comes first and recreation second, park rangers go above and beyond to help you while you’re there.
That said, they are a stickler for rules. For example, dogs aren’t allowed anywhere in the park. If you get caught with your dog, you could face a lifetime ban at the park.
And one last thing — You might see people hitchhiking on the roads to or from Baxter State Park. They are likely AT hikers looking for a ride into town. It’s fairly common around here to give them a ride. Additionally, you can hire a shuttle service in Millinocket to get back and forth.
FAQs About Baxter State Park
Where can I see a moose in Baxter State Park?
Chances are, the moose in Baxter State Park will find you. However, two of the best wildlife viewing spots are Sandy Stream and Stump Ponds. Keep at least 25 yards from all wildlife, and don’t make noise to get their attention. If they notice you, you’re too close.
Is there mobile phone service in Baxter State Park?
As soon as you enter Baxter State Park, you’re likely to lose any hope of a mobile signal. Some say that there’s a signal at the top of Katahdin. However, you need to plan to be without service as soon as you leave Millinocket.
Are there trash cans at Baxter State Park or campsites?
No. Baxter State Park requires you to carry out all trash, including toilet paper, cleaning wipes, and leftover food. In fact, that’s one thing Baxter has in common with all Maine state parks — carry in and carry out all trash, waste, and personal items.
Will I need bug spray when visiting Baxter State Park?
Maine’s biting black flies make mosquitoes appear tame, especially during the hottest months of the year. Then, the deer flies and moose flies swoop in. Ticks wait at the edge of lush leaves to attach to the skin, and noseeums and midges thrive here too. You need bug spray and netting to protect your exposed skin.
Before Teddy Roosevelt became president, he climbed Katahdin. In a letter to his sister, he wrote, “Black flies were plentiful. Culter (his climbing partner) was exceedingly annoyed, his face gradually getting to look like a roughly executed map of the Rocky Mountains.”
Planning for Your Baxter State Park Trip
As much as we want this guide to help you get a footstep closer to your dream, the team at Baxter State Park has a guide for everything. They leave no stone unturned when it comes to maximizing your experience while prompting safety.
Perhaps Percival Baxter said it best:
“Man is born to die. His works are short-lived. Buildings crumble, monuments decay, and wealth vanishes, but Katahdin in all its glory forever shall remain the mountain of the people of Maine.”