More than 10,000 years ago, glaciers scoured north-central Maine, carving out a dramatic landscape of steep mountains, deep valleys, and vast lakes. Thanks to the radical forces of nature, The Maine Highlands is home to some of the state’s most iconic and beautiful features. This is where you’ll find the state’s highest peak, largest lake, longest river, and miles of pristine wilderness.
While the terrain is rugged, it’s easily accessible thanks to an extensive collection of state parks, monuments, and wilderness areas. Whether you love hiking, canoeing, fishing, or biking—or pretty much any other outdoor sport—you can easily pursue your passion in The Maine Highlands. To help you map out your next adventure in the area, here’s a rundown of eight of the best places to explore the outdoors in The Maine Highlands.
1. Baxter State Park
Of all the parks in Maine, Baxter State Park may be the most iconic. The park includes nearly two dozen mountains, including Mount Katahdin, which rises to an elevation of 5,267 feet. Surrounding the mountain are vast tracts of undisturbed forest teeming with moose, deer, and other wildlife. In the park, you can also explore roughly 25,000 acres of lakes, ponds, and wetlands.
The park exists mainly because of the efforts of Percival Proctor Baxter. He was born in Maine in 1876 and spent much of his childhood taking trips with his father into The Maine Highlands region. After being elected governor in 1921, Baxter sought to protect the land that surrounded Mount Katahdin. When he failed to convince the Maine legislature to preserve the area, he used his own money to buy 6,000 acres around Katahdin. He presented the land as a gift to the people of Maine. Baxter continued to buy land for the park until his death.
Baxter State Park now covers more than 205,000 acres. Many waterfalls within the park are easy to access, including Katahdin Stream Falls, which is a short 1.2-mile hike (one-way) from the Katahdin Stream Campground. Canoe and Kayak rentals are also available for $1 an hour or $8 for a whole day. And no trip to Baxter State Park would be complete without climbing Mount Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak, and the start/finish of the Appalachian Trail.
2. Mount Kineo State Park
With striking cliffs rising 700 feet above the waters of Moosehead Lake, Mount Kineo has attracted visitors for hundreds of years. Native Americans from much of the New England region, and possibly farther south, used to travel here to gather rhyolite rock to make tools, hatchets, and arrowheads. In the 1850s, Henry David Thoreau visited Mount Kineo and noted that the Maine woods were more vast and intense than he had expected.
These days, Mount Kineo State Park is a popular and memorable destination for visitors to the region. Since Mount Kineo sits on a peninsula, the only way to reach it is by boat. In Rockwood, about 15 miles north of Greenville, you can catch a ferry. When you reach the mountain, you can hike about six miles of trails. The 0.9-mile (one way) Indian Trail is the most direct route to the summit and offers some of the best scenery, but it’s also very steep. From the summit, you’ll have excellent views of Moosehead Lake and the surrounding region. You can also canoe or kayak to the peninsula. In the winter, once the lake has frozen over, you can snowmobile there.
If you like to hit the links, be sure to play a round on the park’s beautiful nine-hole golf course. The massive cliffs of Mount Kineo provide a striking backdrop, especially on the fourth hole. A par 3 that’s 138 yards, this hole requires you to play over the water to reach the green tucked against the base of the mountain.
3. Peaks-Kenny State Park
Located in the Central Maine Highlands, 839-acre Peaks-Kenny State Park along Sebec Lake is a peaceful, beautiful setting to enjoy the Maine wilderness. Pitch your tent in one of the 56 campsites set among boulders and towering trees, and then make your way to the sandy beach to relax, swim, and stroll a shoreline that stretches more than a mile. An excellent destination for families, the park has a playground adjoining the beach, and canoe rentals are available, so it’s a snap to put together a fun paddling excursion on Sebec Lake. If you like to fish, bring your gear and cast a line for salmon and togue.
Also, pack your hiking shoes and day pack to explore the park’s 10 miles of hiking trails that wind through old-growth forest. If you really have the hiking bug, there are even more trails at Borestone Mountain, a 1,600-acre nature sanctuary located about 40 minutes (drive time) west of Peaks-Kenny. One of the most popular trails is an easy, 0.8-mile (one way) path that leads to the summit of Borestone Mountain where you’ll have 360-degree views of mountains, lakes, and ponds stretching to the horizon.
4. Lily Bay State Park
Hugging the shores of Moosehead Lake, Lily Bay State Park offers visitors access to Maine’s largest lake and the opportunity to hike, paddle, fish, with a backdrop of shimmering water and rugged mountains as your backdrop. Covering 925 acres, Lily Bay State Park has two campgrounds with 90 campsites that accommodate everything from RVs to tents, and there are several sites along the waterfront.
Bring your canoe or kayak to explore miles of quiet shoreline and keep your eyes peeled for moose. If you like to fish, cast a line in the deep cold water to reel in trout, salmon, lake trout (togue), and smallmouth bass.
When you’re ready to stretch your legs, follow the two-mile shoreline path that skirts Moosehead Lake and leads to Dunn Point. There you can relax at the picnic tables in the shade of tall pines and enjoy a beautiful view of the water. Travelers visiting in winter will find that areas trails are groomed for skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling.
5. Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument
Covering 87,000 acres, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument borders Baxter State Park and offers a true wilderness experience in The Maine Highlands. The monument was established in 2016, so it’s still relatively young and few maps are available. However, the National Park Service offers a good road map and a recreation map. Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters provides a link with other useful maps, one of which is an interpretive map of the Katahdin Loop Road in the southern portion of the monument. Be sure to have printed maps as there is little to no cell phone service.
For your first trip to the monument, take a drive on the 17-mile Katahdin Loop Road. You ‘ll encounter pull-offs with great views, great opportunity to see the southern portion of the monument and includes pull-offs with scenic views, including one at milepost 6 where you get an impressive 180-degree view from Millinocket Lake to Mount Katahdin. Along the road, you’ll also come across several trailheads where you can pull off and do day hikes.
When it’s time to pitch tents, head to Sandbank Stream, the only drive-in designated campsite. Located just before the start of the Park Loop, it features tent platforms and an outhouse.
Similar to Baxter State Park, the monument is the product of a vision years in the making. Roxanne Quimby, the co-founder of Burt’s Bees, started a foundation, the Elliotsville Plantation, which began purchasing land in the area in 2001. In 2016, the property was donated to the federal government, and President Obama declared the area a national monument.
6. 100-Mile Wilderness
Stretching from Monson, Maine, to the Abol Bridge just south of Baxter State Park, the 100-Mile Wilderness is considered to be the wildest and most challenging section of the Appalachian Trail. There are a lot of factors that contribute to that reputation, but the primary ones are the lack of resupply points along the way and the rugged nature of the trails.
A typical traverse will generally take 5-10 days and include multiple stream crossings, encounters with wildlife such as moose and black bears, plus plenty of bugs, heat, humidity, and rough ground with rocks and roots. This is a stretch of wilderness that will challenge even the most seasoned backpackers. If you’re interested in planning your own hike, you can get more detailed info from the Appalachian Trail Visitor Center in Monson and Whiteblaze.net.
7. Ki Jo-Mary Multiple Use Forest
Located in the heart of The Maine Highlands, the Ki Jo-Mary Multiple Use Forest has 175,000 acres of privately owned commercial forest. It’s a working forest, which means recreational facilities are minimal and any log trucks or work vehicles have the right of way on all the roads.
Located within Ki Jo-Mary are many beautiful trails, including paths that lead to waterfalls. The forest also includes the 100-Mile Wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail. To explore one of the most popular areas of the forest, make the 8-mile hike to Gulf Hagas. Along the way, you’ll encounter beautiful water features such as Screw Auger Falls and Buttermilk Falls, plus impressive views of a gorge commonly referred to as the Grand Canyon of Maine.
8. Bangor City Forest & Orono Bog Boardwalk
The Bangor City Forest is a 680-acre wildlife preserve that includes almost 10 miles of trails that are available for use year-round. Conveniently located right in Bangor, the trails are for non-motorized use only, including hiking, biking, and skiing.
One of the unique features bordering the Bangor City Forest is the Orono Bog Walk. This one-mile loop trail traverses a boardwalk through the 616-acre Orono Bog, which is the remnant of a lake that was left behind as glaciers receded and sea-levels rose. As the ocean retreated, it left behind a lake that eventually dried up, becoming the Orono Bog, which is partially comprised of a thick layer of peat. The wetland’s diverse plant life supports more than 100 species of birds, including eagles, hawks, and osprey.
Written by Erik Johnson for Matcha in partnership with The Maine Highlands.
Featured image provided by The Maine Highlands/Cindy Giovagnoli