Baxter State Park

Throwback Thursday #4 – Ice Caves Trail and canoeing on Grand Lake Matagammon.

In early August the warm and clear weather provided me a chance to go to see the Ice Caves, a trail that isn’t long but has frozen caves with ice nearly all year long.  I’d heard about this trail from some of the hiker’s families and had been wanting to go, so I was excited to finally get the opportunity.  NoKey wasn’t feeling well this morning, so I set out to see the caves myself.  The drive from Millinocket isn’t bad at all. Taking 11 North to the Golden Road and driving out to Abol Bridge, across the bridge, and then taking the first left after the bridge will get you out to the road on which the Ice Caves Trail is located.  The trailhead is about 2 miles down this 1.5-lane gravel road, which also has some beautiful campsites maintained by the Maine State Parks, some of which have a stunning view of Katahdin.  I was surprised, and a bit happy, to see I was the only car in the parking lot this morning.  Last time I drove out here to find the trailhead, there was not a single place to park, let alone turn my car around!

I started the hike by crossing a former logging bridge and then turning left to follow the blue blazed trail.  This is an easy 1.2 miles to the Ice Caves without much elevation gain at all.  Immediately you get the serene feeling you can only find in the Maine woods.  The smell of pine needles with the softness of the pine bed underfoot is immediately calming and makes for great hiking, not to mention the quiet of the 100 Mile Wilderness located just across the lake!  After walking 0.9 miles, there is a trail junction where you can go go up to an overlook, down to the Ice Caves, or even further down to First Debsconeag Lake.  First, I went up to the overlook which stands over the lake and looks at Rainbow Mountain.  I could see a canoe slowly making its way across the lake and sat on a rock to soak up some sunshine.  After a short break, I decided to venture down to the Ice Caves, which were not at all what I expected! I saw the sign marking the caves and a small hole in the ground with an iron bar to guide me down… I didn’t think I’d fit!  Thankfully, I was able to get down into the caves without any problems but was disappointed to see there was only a thin layer of ice left, which is understandable for August.  The cave had a layer of thick mist hanging in the air and was a nice cool sanctuary for the humid August morning.  After looking around for a bit and getting creeped out at being alone, I climbed back out of the cave and headed down the 0.2 miles to First Debsconeag Lake.  This part of the trail was fairly newly dug with lots of switchbacks and some nice step work leading down to the lake. The trail ended directly in the lake I had looked at half an hour earlier from the overlook.  

When I arrived home, NoKey was feeling better and ready to get out of the house so we decided to make the long drive up to the north end of Baxter State Park since we’d heard they rent canoes for the bargain price of $1 per hour!  It’s nearly 2 hours of drive time to the north end from Millinocket, taking I-95 north to exit 264, turning left, and following the signs through Sherman, Patten, and Shin Pond.  When we arrived at the Matagammon Gate, we encountered Dana, a friendly ranger who had been with the park since the 1950s.  He was a great conversationalist and was probably a bit lonely working this end of the park, since hardly anyone is ever up here!  He let us in without charging us the out-of-state fee ($14 per car) and threw us a canoe key.  It was about 2:00 p.m. when we got out onto the lake and while there was some sunshine to the east of us, to the west we could tell a storm was blowing in.  We canoed around the lake for a little over an hour before the choppiness of the water let us know the storm was close enough and we got out of the park.  We headed to Craig’s Clam Shop for the first time and thus began our love affair with them!

The photos above: 1) The trail junction on the Ice Caves Trail; 2) Looking down into the ice caves; 3) A view of Katahdin over the Penobscot River; 4) Our canoe stealthily locked away in the woods; 5) Katahdin from the north side with the rain clouds looming. 


Canoeing South Branch Pond and hiking North Traveler Mountain, Throwback Thursday #3

In late August, we were seeking solitude from the massive number of people we had seen in the previous weeks due to Northbounder season being in full swing.  The north end of Baxter State Park provided the perfect escape and dose of nature we needed to maintain our sanity! We drove the 2 hours north and around through rural northern Maine to the Matagamon Gate of the park, and then another 45 minutes or so on the winding and narrow Tote Road to South Branch Pond.  In the park, for a bargain price of $1 per hour you can rent a canoe.  We did just that and canoed around South Branch Pond for two hours enjoying the sunshine and a cool breeze.  The pond has a small outlet into a second smaller pond, where we beached our boat and walked the short path for a stunning view of the Knife Edge of Katahdin from the northern side, one many people, especially visitors to the area, don’t get to see.  After a few hours and some worn out arms, we turned in our canoeing gear, threw on our packs, and headed up North Traveler Mountain.  This is a challenging loop trail you can complete, but in August it’s recommended you start before 8 a.m.  Since it was late in the day, we only went to the peak and then back down.  The climb was actually tougher than I had expected, but most climbs in Maine usually are!  We were treated to a stunning view of South Branch and Black Cat Mountains, as well as the Knife Edge in the far background.  Looking north, the land is farms and small hills mostly, but incredibly unspoiled.  We had found our solitude!

After coming back down the mountain and getting back to the car we had decided we weren’t quite yet done for the day.  Consulting the map showed us that South Branch Falls would be a short 1.5 mile addition to our day, so off we went for that hike.  We hiked mostly level and a little downhill to the falls, which weren’t quite full, but still beautiful nonetheless.  We did some bouldering and soaked up some sun on the warm rocks before calling it a day.  When we returned to the small parking area, we met some people who had noticed our AT sticker on the car and asked us about our thru hike.  They lived south of us, near Pleasant Pond Mountain (just outside Caratunk, ME) and did some maintaining for the MATC.  The trail truly can connect us anywhere, even when we’re not on it!

After leaving, we drove the Tote Road a little further south before turning around and calling it a day.  The best part of going to the north end of the park may be the beauty and solitude, but the second best is the food!  Craig’s Clam Shop (affectionately known to us as “The Clam Slam”) is in Patten, Maine, and the food there is outta this world!  We stop in for milkshakes, burgers, and handcut fries made from potatoes in the fields less than a mile away.  It’s always a great end to a day in northern Maine!

The photos today are from the beach of South Branch Pond before pushing off in our canoe, looking at the Traveler Mountain range, a sign warning you that rescue can be hours away (and they aren’t kidding, this place is REMOTE!), and the view from North Traveler looking at Black Cat Mountain with Knife Edge on the far right side. 

Today NoKey and I went hiking in Baxter State Park after more than a week of rain and being stuck indoors.  This was our first official hike together since we finished the AT more than 7 months ago.  We hiked north from the AT from the Abol Bridge after taking in the morning view.  There was a ton of snow as it had snowed up there Friday and Saturday nights.  We were able to keep dry feet for about 4.5 miles when we ran into a SoBo, our first official trail SoBo, who let us know that Neswadonahunk Stream was running high and we’d definitely have to take the high water trail.  Even this trail had high water!  We got our feet pretty wet before coming back to the AT and passing both Big and Little Niagra Falls.  We walked around Daicey Pond and were less than a mile from Katahdin Stream Campground when we thought we heard someone in the woods.  We kept going, but heard a voice behind us… it was Erick, a hiker who stayed with us for a few days waiting for the high water to receed before starting his section hike.  He made the statement “Only you two could make a SoBo hike north on the AT to catch you!”  We gave him half of a giant sub and some Little Debbie cakes for trail magic before we ran into another one of our hikers from the weekend, Stinky Jesus! (We named him SJ because a hiker came in hypothermic and he helped him take off his boots to help him into the shower.)  We gave SJ some trail magic too and wished him well for his hike.  

After getting to Katahdin Stream we decided to take a break, but the black flies and mosquitos were out in full force, so we kept moving on to the Blueberry Ledges Trail.  We had no idea what to expect on this trail, as we’d not ever really seen pictures.  Much of the trail was flooded for the first two miles and had been washed out quite a bit from all the rain last week, but we kept on until coming to the ledges, which were all granite rock with alpine plants.  The ledges go downhill to meet Katahdin Stream, which was running swift and high.  (Pictured above).  From here, we had a short 1.4-mile walk back to the AT near Abol Bridge and it couldn’t have been more pleasant, an old roadbed where we followed moose prints nearly the entire way down.  At the bottom of the trail we had another wonderful view of Katahdin and much of the snow melted in the direct sunlight and 70+ degree temperatures of the afternoon.  

It felt great to be hiking again back into Maine.  I can’t wait to get back into the 100 Mile Wilderness next time!