In 1846, a not-yet-famous writer named Henry David Thoreau needed two weeks to travel from Massachusetts to the scenic wilderness of northern Maine. Thoreau went by train, steamboat, and stagecoach to a point where all roads ended. The rest of the way, he paddled a canoe upriver and finally walked to Katahdin, the tallest mountain in Maine.
Today, you can drive from Boston to Maine’s Baxter State Park in less than six hours. You can park your car at the foot of Mount Katahdin, enjoy a picnic, hike to a waterfall, and see a moose, all in one day.
Transportation and accommodations may have changed since Thoreau’s era, but the glittering lakes, rocky mountain landscape, and woodlands of 200,000-acre Baxter State Park are still the same. Katahdin is the park’s centerpiece. Sculpted by glaciers, Katahdin offers Alaskan-like scenery right on the East Coast, a surprisingly short drive from Boston and New York. To climb Katahdin is to climb among the clouds. “I arrived upon a side-hill,” Thoreau wrote during his 1846 ascent, “where rocks, gray, silent rocks, were the flocks and herds that pastured, chewing a rocky cud at sunset. They looked at me with hard gray eyes, without a bleat or a low. This brought me to the skirt of a cloud, and bounded my walk that night.”
The lower elevations of Baxter State Park have their own appeal: gurgling streams, moose, deer, and loons. Often overlooked by cross-country travelers and vacationers, Baxter is a state park, not a national park, and therefore receives less publicity than Yellowstone and Yosemite.
You don’t have to go all the way to Alaska to see a moose. Maine has plenty. An easy five-minute walk from Roaring Brook Campground, one of Baxter Park’s ten campgrounds, takes you to a shimmering pond with a steep mountain backdrop and the near-certainty of spotting a moose. Sandy Stream Pond is one of the park’s hidden--but easily accessible--treasures.
Percival P. Baxter, Governor of Maine from 1921 to 1925, tried and failed to convince the state legislature to create a park around Mount Katahdin. Frustrated, the wealthy Baxter bought the land with his own money and deeded it to the state, on condition that the park stay “forever wild.”
Governor Baxter’s strictures make staying inside Baxter State Park a rustic experience. There are no restaurants, no vending machines, no payphones, no electricity, and no running water. The facilities are outhouses. The roads are narrow, unpaved, often potholed, and make driving slow. Certain oversize vehicles will be stopped at the gates.
Visitors wishing to experience Baxter’s beauty while also enjoying the comforts of civilization are advised to stay overnight at motels in nearby Millinocket, or at one of the many commercial campgrounds that ring Baxter Park. There is a modest 12-dollar per-vehicle fee for day-trips into the park. Nearby commercial campgrounds offer RV hookups.
Lean-tos, tent sites, and cabins are only accommodations within the park itself. So “forever wild” is an apt description. From a high ridge on Katahdin, Thoreau gazed down at countless lakes glittering in the unbroken forest far below. He wrote, “The forest looked like a firm grass sward, and the effect of these lakes in its midst has been well compared…to that of a ‘mirror broken into a thousand fragments, and wildly scattered over the grass, reflecting the full blaze of the sun.’”
Mount Katahdin towers over ponds, rivers, and forests that truly are a nature-lover’s (and photographer’s) paradise.