We’ll be exploring the best of the best long hikes (100-200 mile hikes suitable for “1-2 week backpacking vacations”) in every state as part of an effort to build an archive of the best classic hikes in the USA. If you’d like to contribute to this series, please submit your proposal to us via our Author’s Page.
Location: Appalachian Trail, northern Maine
Distance: 99.4 miles one-way
Total Elevation Gain/Loss: 18,000 feet/18,500 feet
Trip Length: 5–10 days
Recommended Maps: Appalachian Trail Guide to Maine, Maps 1–3 (Appalachian Trail Conservancy), AMC Maine Mountains Trail Map,Map 2: 100-Mile Wilderness (AMC Books)
Highlight: The most remote section of the Appalachian Trail.
The 100-Mile Wilderness encompasses the longest section of the Appalachian Trail (AT) that does not cross a paved road. This rugged legendary stretch of trail offers a challenging adventure deep in the Maine Woods. It is an endless parade of ever-changing scenery—rivers, streams, bogs, lakes, mountains, and more—and one of New England’s most challenging hikes.
HIKE OVERVIEW – Trip 34: 100 Mile Wilderness
Follow the AT from the town of Monson to Abol Bridge on the edge of Baxter State Park, a one-way 99.4-mile trip.
The hike travels through a lush, low-elevation hardwood forest and crosses numerous streams and rivers that cut through wild terrain. The trail then ascends the Barren-Chairback Range, traversing the mountain spine for 15 miles before crossing the West Branch of the Pleasant River and reaching the slate gorge of Gulf Hagas. From here, the journey climbs White Cap Mountain’s 3,654-foot alpine summit, the highest point on the hike.
After steeply descending White Cap, the AT treks toward Crawford Pond, the hike’s midpoint. The route follows Cooper Brook along an easy-cruising section of trail past idyllic Cooper Brook Falls and enters the land of large lakes and more level walking. Tour the shores of substantial Jo-Mary and Pemadumcook lakes and walk alongside Nahmakanta Stream to emerge at Nahmakanta Lake. After a steep climb over Nesuntabunt Mountain, the final leg of the hike travels beside the rushing Rainbow Stream and the long length of Rainbow Lake. A final rise over the Rainbow Ledges leads to the hike’s end at the southwest edge of Baxter State Park.
Many people underestimate the rigors of this hike. The rugged trail is laced with roots and rocks, and occasionally boggy. There are no resupply points. The longer your trip, the more food you’ll need to carry-and the slower you’ll hike. Achieving the right balance of speed, pack weight, and enjoyment time is a challenge. AT thru-hikers often complete the 100-Mile Wilderness in only five days, an average of 20 miles per day. But keep in mind that thru-hikers are in top physical condition by this point in their journey, and inspired by their approaching endpoint atop Katahdin. Moving this quickly also allows little time for relaxing at the many beautiful locations on the way.
A seven- or eight-day itinerary sets a more relaxing, but still steady, pace covering an average of 12 to 14 miles per day. A trip of nine to ten days is a more leisurely journey, with plenty of time for fishing, swimming, and viewsavoring, but you’ll have to pack a lot of food. No matter how long you take, the trip requires a high degree of fitness. Dogs are allowed.
Shelters and Tentsites
Thirteen shelters and three designated tenting sites line the route. Many other campsites are scattered throughout the hike as well. Campfires are permitted in fire rings at designated sites only.
Leeman Brook Lean-to (3.0/1,100/45° 21.094’ N, 69° 29.920’ W) perches on the slopes above rocky Leeman Brook and is surrounded by cedars and campsites.
Wilson Valley Lean-to (10.4/1,030/45° 23.928’ N, 69° 27.5513’ W) sits near a small brook. Two large hemlocks guard the eight-person shelter. Ample tentsites are available uphill.
Long Pond Stream Lean-to (15.1/940/45° 25.270’ N, 69° 24.620’ W) is washed by the sounds of its namesake, boiling over rocks several hundred feet below. The adjacent water source can be thin at times; the next closest source is Long Pond Stream, 0.3 mile south on the AT. Several campsites are located uphill behind the shelter.
Cloud Pond Lean-to (19.7/2,440/45° 25.084’ N, 69° 21.235’ W) receives heavy use and is 0.4-mile off the AT. Cloud Pond is the highest body of water in the 100-Mile Wilderness and an excellent swimming hole. A thin spring is nearby, or you can collect water directly from the pond.
Chairback Gap Lean-to (26.0/1,980/45° 27.190’ N, 69° 15.745’ W) rests on the east (northern) end of the Barren–Chairback Range. The small shelter perches between Columbus and Chairback mountains; nice tentsites are nearby among spruces and rocky outcrops. Water can be a problem here later in the season; a small spring in the saddle can get pretty thin and green during dry conditions.
Northern view of the 100 mile wilderness.
Southern view of the 100 mile wilderness.
Carl A. Newhall Lean-to (35.9/1,900/45° 40.737’ N, 69° 0.263’ W) sits on the flanks of Gulf Hagas Mountain, just above gurgling Gulf Hagas Brook. The small, basic shelter is popular because of the shortage of campsites to the south. (Camping is prohibited along the 2.0 miles of the AT north of the West Branch of the Pleasant River that lead to this lean-to.) A large, open clearing on the opposite side of the brook has room for multiple tents.
Sidney Tappan Campsite (37.7/2,450/45° 40.737’ N, 69° 0.263’ W) rests in the saddle between Gulf Hagas Mountain and West Peak. Several open, grassy tentsites provide a quieter respite from the shelter crowds. A good spring is a short distance down the slopes.
Logan Brook Lean-to (43.1/2,400/45° 40.737’ N, 69° 0.263’ W) nestles in a grove of paper birch on the eastern flanks of White Cap Mountain. Its namesake rushes adjacent to the shelter, its water splashing crystal clear. There are four or five established tentsites around the basic shelter, plus one more about 100 yards down the trail.
East Branch Lean-to (46.7/1,340/45° 40.737’ N, 69° 0.263’ W) features a new shelter and a basic picnic table and benches. The East Branch River flows audibly nearby and provides water. Spot Big Boardman Mountain from the riverbanks. Cedars, spruces, red maples, and a few white pines surround the camp. A few tentsites scatter among the trees.
Cooper Brook Falls Lean-to (54.8/980/45° 38.426’ N, 69° 5.248’ W), one of the more idyllic on the hike, sits at the bottom of its namesake waterfall and offers views of foaming sheets falling into a deep swimming hole. The rushing sound of water is omnipresent, boulders dot the area, numerous tentsites are tucked among them, and a diverse forest surrounds the site. The site’s Full Moon privy boasts a luxurious padded seat.
Antlers Campsite (62.7/500/45° 40.737’ N, 69° 0.263’ W) rests on a small peninsula on Lower Jo-Mary Lake. The large camping area spreads out in a red pine grove. A few boulders protrude from the water. Lake breezes cool the site and help keep bugs at bay. Rock-lined paths lead to plentiful sites lake access points. Views from the peninsula look northwest toward the open slabs of Potaywadjo Ridge.
Potaywadjo Spring Lean-to (66.2/600/45° 42.398’ N, 69° 0.442’ W) tucks in the woods near its namesake spring, a large pool of crystal-clear water. Find extensive tenting areas near a log cabin–style shelter beneath hemlock and beech trees.
Nahmakanta Stream Campsite (70.5/600/45° 44.094’ N, 69° 03.290’ W) features an open tenting area under hemlocks, 50 to 75 yards from Nahmakanta Stream. The waters riffle pleasantly past numerous boulders, and there is easy access to the shore. Numerous sites dot the area, some well established. Fires are limited to the one central fire ring. Droves of mosquitoes frequent the area during the summer.
Wadleigh Stream Lean-to (76.3/690/45° 44.814’ N, 69° 08.670’ W) is a small shelter next to the trail, shaded by large sugar maples and adjacent to Wadleigh Stream. An old yellow birch stands sentinel on the opposite bank. Tenting areas are limited, though there is a small one near the brook, past the shelter on the right. A sandy beach on Nahmakanta Lake is a half-mile walk away.
Rainbow Stream Lean-to (84.4/980/45° 47.947’ N, 69° 10.229’ W) sits 20 feet from the riffling brook and features an uneven corduroy wood floor that can make for an uncomfortable night’s sleep. Several tentsites rest in needlecovered clearings uphill—the best is above the stream, right behind the shelter on a big rock. A small totem pole next to the shelter keeps you company.
Rainbow Spring Campsite (88.2/1,070/45° 49.371’ N, 69° 08.162’ W) is located on the southern shore of massive Rainbow Lake, near its namesake spring. It offers several established sites in young hardwood forest. The refreshingly cool spring emerges right by the lake. Swimming opportunities in the lake are excellent.
Hurd Brook Lean-to (95.9/700/45° 49.109’ N, 69° 01.106’ W) is shaded by hemlocks and is within earshot of Hurd Brook, which flows through a rocky garden of roots and stones. The brook emerges from a big, marshy pond just upstream—be diligent about treating or filtering its water. The shelter features another uneven corduroy floor. Campsites are strewn about the area.
Lodges and Hostels
AMC’s Little Lyford Lodge and Cabins (1,210/45° 31.019’ N, 69° 21.422’ W) are located beyond the head of Gulf Hagas on River Trail, accessed from the AT at mile 31.7 via Rim Trail (3.0 miles, one-way) or Pleasant River Tote Road (2.2 miles, one-way). The sporting camp features cabins and a bunkroom for overnight lodging, as well as hot showers and some basic supplies for purchase. Meals are included with an overnight stay. Little Lyford is not equipped to accommodate last-minute walk-in guests; reservations are required (603-466-2727, outdoors.org/lodging). White House Landing is located a mile off the AT on the shores of Pemadumcook Lake. A muddy access road crosses the AT near mile 68 and leads to a boat landing and water shuttle to the camps; an airhorn and a signal flag at the landing allow you to alert the lodge to your presence. Cabins and a bunkroom are available for overnight lodging and supplies are available for sale. Hot food can also be purchased; their burgers are legendary in thru-hiker lore (207-745-5116, whitehouselanding.com, [email protected]). Nahmakanta Lake Wilderness Camps are located at the north end of Nahmakanta Lake; this is the most accessible sporting camp along the trail. Reach it via a short road walk that diverges from the AT at mile 83. Built in 1872, the camp’s cabins and lodge are the only structures on the 4-mile-long lake and cater more toward affluent overnight visitors than thru-hikers. It is often booked solid during the summer; reservations are recommended (207-731-8888, nahmakanta.com).
TO REACH THE TRAILHEADS
To Reach the Ending/Northern Trailhead.
Follow ME 11 west of Millinocket to the ME 11/157 junction by the First Congregational Church. Turn right and proceed 8.7 miles to a confusing intersection by the Big Moose Inn and a pool. Bear left here onto the Golden Road, and follow it 10.1 miles to the Abol Store (45° 50.125’ N, 68° 58.340’ W), located just before Abol Bridge. You can leave your car here, though there is a small per-day charge-touch base with store staff when you arrive.
To Reach the Starting/Southern Trailhead.
From Pleasant Street in Monson, follow ME 15 north for 3.5 miles. The trailhead parking area (45° 19.880’ N, 69° 32.132’ W) is located on the right, by a significant curve in the road. A large AT parking sign indicates its location.
Shuttle Services. Shaw’s Lodging in Monson offers a shuttle service throughout the 100-Mile Wilderness, though it can be pricey for small groups (207-997-3597, shawslodging.com).
Several major unpaved roads intersect the AT in the 100-Mile Wilderness and can provide alternate access points. Most of these roads lie within the KI Jo-Mary Multiple Use Forest, which charges a daily access fee to use the privately maintained road network. The KI Road crosses the AT at mile 29.9 and connects the towns of Greenville and Brownville. The West Branch Ponds Road intersects at mile 44.7 and approaches from the West Branch Ponds area to the northwest (a very confusing area to navigate). The Kokadjo-B Pond Road crosses at mile 51.6 and the Jo-Mary Road at mile 58.5; both are accessed from the Jo-Mary checkpoint on ME 11, located 15 miles south of Millinocket. The Jo-Mary Road also connects with access roads to Nahmakanta Lake, which cross the AT at miles 73.7, 79.4, and 83.1. You’ll need a good map to navigate this network of confusing roads. Consult DeLorme’s Maine Atlas & Gazetteer or the Southern Piscataquis Regional Recreation Map and Guide County Recreational Map (AMC Books).
The adventure begins from the edge of the parking area (0.0/1,220). Raspberry bushes grow to the left of the trailhead, identified by the white undersides of their leaves. The pointy leaves of red maples flutter overhead on both sides of the trail. The needles of aromatic balsam firs join the forest mosaic. To the right of the trailhead, spot the scaly bark of young black cherry trees in the understory.
Heading out, the AT immediately meets the trail to Goodell Falls, which leads in 0.3 mile to a pretty 10-foot cascade. Bear left on the AT, cross some wet sections, and meet the first bog bridging of the hike. Spot Spectacle Pond to the left through the trees, and cross the pond’s flowing outlet on a bridge. Northern cedar trees line the lakeshore, though you can spot a larch tree across the inlet about 100 yards away; recognize it by its tall stature and droopy foliage.
The trail follows a root-laced track underlain by black shale. The dinner plate-sized leaves of hobblebush and five-needled clusters of white pine needles appear, joined by small blueberry bushes underfoot. As the trail slowly rises, the woods transition toward spruce-fir forest. The fluttering leaves of big-tooth aspens mix in with balsam firs and red spruces. The path intersects Old Stage Road (0.7/1,270), a woods road on the route stage coaches followed to Greenville in the nineteenth century.
Continuing, Bell Pond peeks through trees to the left. Several spur trails approach the water, but none provide good shore access. The AT curves right past the pond and crests a small rise. It then descends toward Lily Pond and passes some nice sugar maples. A spur goes down to the overgrown lakeshore (1.9/1,130).
Past the pond, the trail slowly rises through lush sugar maple forest. Diseased beeches afflicted with the nectria fungus join the forest-look for the canker-like sores on their otherwise smooth trunks. The route crests then heads downhill, providing the journey’s first long-distance view of the upcoming Barren-Chairback Range. Notice the exposed rock faces of the Barren Ledges and Slide. To their right is Borestone Mountain, easily identified by its bald summit.
The path descends steeply and drops into the mini-gorge of Leeman Brook (3.0/1,080). The stream incises through solid slate here, leaving 20-foot-high cliffs and calving rock-bergs. Hemlocks shade the tumbling watercourse. Boulders fill the streambed-one large slab creates a grotto where you could sit under the showering water. The Leeman Brook Lean-to perches just above the brook.
Traveling onward through rocky terrain, the AT next reaches the shores of North Pond. The trail parallels the lake and offers good views, including glimpses of a tempting island nearby. Skirt the pond’s small south arm, cross the outflow stream (3.8/1,030), and make a gradual ascent. The route crosses a woods road and passes restricted views northwest toward the rolling mountains. Begin an undulating descent to an open view of small Mud Pond, which is slowly filling in to become a bog.
The AT climbs past several mature spruces and crests atop Bear Pond Ledge. Banking left, the trail descends steeply through an older forest punctuated by large sugar maples, yellow birches, and hemlocks. At the bottom, the trail crosses trickling James Brook (6.3/990) which is lined by the lacy foliage of hemlock trees.
The dull roar of Little Wilson Falls becomes audible. Climb briefly, cross a woods road, and descend to this rushing landmark (6.6/880). The falls hiss down a staircase of fractured stone. Walls of cracked slate enclose the narrow ravine, precariously balanced like a deck of cards on its side. Above the falls, interrupted ferns line shallow placid pools.
Past the falls, the trail runs along the gorge’s edge and passes a giant fin of slate protruding into space, plus nice hemlocks, white pines, and cedars. After rock-hopping Little Wilson Stream at a tranquil confluence (6.8/800), ascend a beech-covered hillside and reach a small, shallow pond. The trail crosses the outflow on puncheon and curves around the pond to a dirt road.
The AT turns left, follows the road for about 100 yards, then turns right and returns to single-track. Climb to open ledges with views southwest, and emerge atop an open and rocky prow. Borestone Mountain highlights the terrain to the southeast. A few red pines inhabit the thin soil here; recognize them by their needles in clusters of two.
The trail drops through spruce-fir forest, makes a slow U-turn, traverses steadily, and descends through a moss-carpeted forest and into the valley of Big Wilson Stream. Hardwoods reappear, the flowing stream becomes audible, and you encounter a wide woods road near the water’s edge (8.9/620).
Turn left and follow the road as it parallels the river-like stream and reaches its confluence with Thompson Creek. This spot offers easy access to the creek. Moisture-loving white ashes and hemlocks line the riparian corridor. The AT rock-hops Thompson Creek and continues on the easy-walking road. Big Wilson Stream weaves in and out of sight; the route turns right to cross it by an obvious sign (9.7/620). The stream is wide here and usually deep enough to require a ford.
Once on the other side, the trail immediately climbs, passes some nice white pines, and then crosses active railroad tracks. Beyond the tracks, the trail levels toward a small brook. Turn uphill to follow it to the junction for the Wilson Valley Lean-to (10.4/1,030) on the right.
Shortly past the shelter, the trail crosses the brook and parallels it before curving right to begin a long, level section. Cross another woods road, and make a gradual climb through hardwood forest, cresting atop an open outcrop (11.2/1,280) with tantalizing views of the fast-approaching Barren Mountains.
The view from Barren Slide looks out over Lake Onawa. (Photo courtesy of Hugh Coxe)
On the steep descent, Barren Slide, Barren Ledges, and substantial Lake Onawa appear intermittently through the foliage. The trail switchbacks twice, winds over talus, then crosses the base of a large rock slide. After hopping over a few small streams, the trail bends right and descends into the Bodfish Intervale.
Pass a grassy road just before Wilber Brook (13.5/630). The AT rock-hops the creek and reaches Vaughn Stream by a pretty 20-foot waterfall. A nice, waist-deep pool lies at the base of the falls, shaded by big-tooth aspens and cedars. Continuing, the muddy trail runs level and reaches a wide dirt road. Turn right, proceed 20 yards on the road, and then turn left to remain on the AT. From here, the route descends to rocky Long Pond Stream (14.3/630). Rock-hop the river-like stream with care – be careful at high water. Resume your journey on the opposite bank by a large big-tooth aspen, but fill your water bottle before continuing – this is the last good source until Cloud Pond Lean-to 5.0 miles ahead. The trail climbs a rock staircase and winds above the rushing stream. The AT eventually turns steeply uphill and climbs to the spur for Long Pond Stream Lean-to (15.1/940).
Past the shelter, the trail ascends the Barren-Chairback Range. The route is gradual at first, crossing an overgrown woods road and slowly traversing upward. Then the trail abruptly steepens and becomes rockier as it climbs through spruce-fir forest. Traipse through a grassy clearing flush with pin cherries and restricted views west, and then take a direct line up a rocky draw. The route bears left and the gradient eases. The trail crests onto the ridge but continues a slow rise to the spur for Barren Slide on the right (16.3/1,980).
The spur trail descends 60 feet into a jumble of giant rocks. Carefully scramble to the edge, and look down the tumble of talus stretching far down the mountainside. Lake Onawa is visible below. Borestone Mountain rises lumpily to the south. To the west and southwest, the broad valley of Bodfish Intervale is apparent; you will follow the ridge bordering the Intervale to the west.
Return to the trail, and continue a few hundred yards to the spur for Barren Ledges. The ledges offer large, flat areas better suited for lounging and view-savoring, and the vistas peer a bit farther west than from Barren Slide. Lake Sebec is visible in the distance beyond Lake Onawa to the southeast. Peaks dot the west horizon, including a prominent twin pyramid peak-the Bigelow Range (Trip 32), some 50 miles away. To the east, the rounded summit of 2,660-foot Barren Mountain is visible for the first time, crowned by the remains of an old fire tower. If you sit quietly, you may hear the call of loons wafting up 1,500 feet from the lake below.
Back on the AT, continue on the mellow path along the north side of the ridge. The trail slowly rises, cuts right, and steeply ascends the summit of Barren Mountain. This section is nicely maintained, and features a quality rock staircase. After climbing a final rocky gully, reach the summit of Barren Mountain (18.2/2,660/45° 24.944’ N, 69° 22.232’ W) and its all-encompassing views north. The rusting framework of the old tower still stands, but the rest is now just debris scattered on the ground. If you are feeling adventurous, clamber up the ladder to enjoy sweeping views north.
To the northwest is the long, prominent ridge of the White Cap Range – on your continuing route – topped by the bald summit of White Cap itself. Linear Long Pond is below to the north. Beyond its west arm is the low rise of Indian Mountain, in turn shadowed by Baker Mountain. Elephant Mountain is to the north-northwest, beyond the end of Long Pond. In the distance to the northwest, spot portions of Moosehead Lake and the distinctive profile of Mount Kineo.
Most of the immediate area to the north, including all of Long Pond and Indian Mountain, are part of the Katahdin Iron Works property, a 37,000-acre parcel purchased by AMC in December 2003 as part of its Maine Woods Initiative, a long-term effort to create a protected corridor of land from Moosehead Lake to Baxter State Park.
Continuing past the tower, gradually descend to the spur for Cloud Pond Lean-to (19.3/2,490), located 0.4 mile off the main route. To visit the shelter, bear right and follow the narrow and rough spur trail down toward the pond’s edge. Shortly before the shelter, the trail passes a large tenting area on a small point near the shore. Spruce-fir forest surrounds the site; several nice specimens complement the bouldery landscape.
Back on the AT, continue along an almost perfectly level section of trail for the next half-mile. The trail then abruptly descends steeply, aided by a nice rock staircase. A small sag with a thin trickle provides a limited water source. The path continues down through mature spruce-fir forest. A few sugar maples and gnarled yellow birches join the forest mix shortly before the route bottoms out and crosses a more substantial brook (20.5/1,920).
After a short easy stretch, the trail reaches one of its ecological highlights: Fourth Mountain Bog in the saddle below Fourth Mountain. This wetland complex harbors many unusual plants, including two carnivorous species: pitcher plant and sundew. As the sign indicates, please stay on the bog bridging in this section. The spongy ground is easily damaged by boots.
As you proceed past abundant cedars, look for the meat-eating flora, including sundews’ tiny red-haired globes. These sticky appendages trap flies, where they are slowly absorbed for their nitrogen-essential for survival in a nitrogen-poor soil environment. Pitcher plants grow in clusters and in season sport a wild and distinctive flower. The plant’s “pitchers” are roughly 3 inches high, lined on the inside with downward-pointing hairs, and emit a smell similar to rotting flesh. Flies attracted to the odor crawl inside and are led inexorably downward. Eventually they tumble into a small pool of water at the bottom, where they drown and are absorbed by the plant.
After the bog, the AT returns to dry spruce-fir forest. Fourth Mountain’s broad hump is visible ahead, and the trail ascends it directly. After cresting atop the summit plateau, pass a restricted view north to Baker Mountain to reach the signed summit (21.3/2,378/45° 25.948’ N, 69° 19.163’ W). Good views extend east to Columbus Mountain-on your continuing route-with Saddleback Mountain beyond. The full spine of the White Cap Range is visible to the northeast. The watershed of the West Branch of the Pleasant River watershed is visible north; Baker, Indian, and Elephant mountains are all visible.
The trail plummets down the opposite side. The gradient eases somewhat, but the descent is steady until the beech-filled saddle between Fourth and Third mountains.
Passing several gullies-some with the occasional trickle of water-the trail climbs again, reaching open slabs with views west to Fourth Mountain. Watch the rocks for parallel scratches, or striations, evidence of the ice sheet that once ground over these mountains. Top out on slabs offering views south toward Caribou Bog and the nearby east ridge of Mount Benson.
The trail drops along the northern flanks of Third Mountain, slowly curving to the right. After a gentle ascent, the route abruptly climbs very steeply to the summit of Third Mountain (23.6/2,060/45° 26.647’ N, 69° 17.826’ W). Views from open summit slabs stretch north, but continue briefly along the uneven summit plateau to another open pinnacle. This one looks west to Long Pond and along the spine of the Barren Range; the fire tower atop Barren Mountain is visible past Fourth Mountain. The best views are still to come at Monument Cliff, a flat ledge a short distance farther. Views of the White Cap Range and nearby Columbus Mountain sweep 180 degrees north across the landscape.
Continuing, the trail steadily traverses then drops to the outflow from West Chairback Pond and the posted junction for the lake (24.3/1,760). To visit the shore, turn right and follow the spur 0.1 mile to a heavily used area near the water. Spruces, firs, and white pines border the quiet lake. The fishing must be good here; local residents have hauled numerous small boats here and chained them to trees. Tenting areas are limited and close to each other. More than two groups would make the area feel crowded.
Back on the AT, cross the pond’s rocky outflow stream, slowly ascend through dense forest, and then climb steeply up the slopes of Columbus Mountain. The gradient eases, and you pass a posted viewpoint and a small spring by the trail. Fill up here if you are staying at Chairback Gap Lean-to, which often has a dry or stagnant water source. From here, a gradual ascent leads to the posted summit (25.6/2,342).
The level trail passes two restricted views north, and then drops steeply to the Chairback Gap Lean-to (26.0/1,980). Continuing past the shelter, immediately reach the saddle below Chairback Mountain and come to a trail sign indicating your progress. The trail turns right to avoid a boggy morass, following a small stream for about 40 yards and stepping over it by a spring to steadily ascend the open ledges atop Chairback Mountain (26.5/2,180).
The summit provides another exceptional 180-degree view north. East Chairback Lake is visible below to the northwest. Katahdin Iron Works Road traces northwest across the landscape toward Greenville. Look up the watershed of the West Branch of the Pleasant River to the cleft of Gulf Hagas – your next destination. Spot Baker Mountain and its identifying slide on the northwest horizon. Due north is the round summit of White Cap. Big Spruce Mountain is closer, almost directly in line with White Cap, and Little Spruce Mountain rises to its right.
Views expand east as you descend from the summit, and Silver Lake can now be seen below Saddleback Mountain. The route drops over loose talus and heads diagonally to the left-watch for blazes-departing the talus before the bottom of the slide. After a steep drop, the trail mellows and undulates through several rocky clearings that offer views behind you of Chairback Mountain’s steep cliffs.
The trail reenters taller spruce-fir forest and winds downward. The woods transition back to hardwoods. Sugar maples and beeches appear; steadily descend, ramble along a long undulating section, and reach the junction for East Chairback Pond (28.7/1,690).
To visit the pond, turn left onto the spur trail and proceed for 0.2 mile and descend 170 feet. With a rockier and more open shore, fewer boats, and pleasant tentsites, the pond is nicer than its eastern cousin. Spot Chairback Mountain’s ledges from shore, as well as Columbus and Third mountains.
Back on the AT, drop quickly and gradually descend through mature spruce-fir woods. The forest slowly transitions to hardwoods, and large bigtooth aspens begin to predominate, easily identified by their platy bark and fluttering leaves. The abundance of big-tooth aspens-a fast-growing species that thrives in disturbed areas-indicates that a large-scale disturbance, most likely a clear-cut, took place on this hillside sometime in the past 100 years or so. Near the bottom, large white pines appear alongside hemlock trees shortly before wide KI Road (29.9/780).
The AT crosses the road and becomes a wide-track as it briefly parallels Henderson Brook. The stream joins the West Branch of the Pleasant River by a substantial camping area. The trail turns downriver, crowded by hazel and blackberry bushes, and reaches a major thoroughfare. A right turn leads to the Gulf Hagas parking area (30.4/650).
At this point, ford the wide, shallow river. It’s an ankle- to shin-deep crossing in normal conditions, though heavy rains may make it more difficult or even dangerous. Red oaks shade the opposite bank. Note that there is no camping for the next 2.0 miles along the AT, because of the area’s heavy visitation.
Past the crossing, the wide trail parallels the river and reaches KI Trail, which enters from the right. The AT next enters the Hermitage, a rare grove of old-growth white pines. Pass the first specimen-a large pine 3 feet in diameter – and look left into the stand of old-growth forest. Perfectly straight white pines dominate, with a younger understory of paper birches and striped and red maples.
The AT slowly ascends, curves right, and leaves the stand behind. The route runs parallel to the river, and water murmurs below. Chairback Range peeks through the trees. The trail becomes rockier as it turns uphill and continues to curve right, passing a restricted view into the deepening gorge below and crossing a flowing brook. The slow rise leads to Gulf Hagas Trail (31.7/930) on the left.
In Gulf Hagas, the West Branch of the Pleasant River tumbles over multiple waterfalls as it races through a narrow slate gorge. The scenery is striking and well worth the side trip. To see it all, follow Gulf Hagas Trail to Rim Trail, a rugged path that winds along the edge of the gorge for 3.0 miles. Return via easy-cruising Pleasant Valley Tote Road for a 5.2-mile round-trip. Alternatively, follow Rim Trail 0.9 mile to a short connector, and return along the Tote Road for a 1.5-mile round-trip that provides a good sample of the experience.
To reach AMC’s Little Lyford Lodge and Cabins, located 2.2 miles past the end of Gulf Hagas, proceed to the farthest intersection of Rim Trail and Pleasant River Tote Road, where a single-track path, signed for Little Lyford, continues past the Gulf. About halfway to Little Lyford, you will encounter a dirt road. Turn left onto the road, cross the bridge, and take an immediate right to resume the single-track route to the camps.
Past Gulf Hagas Trail junction, the AT immediately narrows to single-track and becomes more overgrown. The trail steadily rises, and then levels out in a maturing second-growth spruce-fir forest. Descend briefly, then traverse near audible Gulf Hagas Brook to Gulf Hagas Cutoff Trail on the left (32.4/1,060). This point marks the end of the no-camping zone.
The root-laced trail steadily climbs, running parallel to the invisible brook 30 feet below. The stream becomes intermittently visible as the route crosses several small tributaries and continues through diverse hardwoods. The path rises steadily through spruce-fir forest, and the gradient increases. The trail curves right, away from the brook, and levels out, offering glimpses east of lower Gulf Hagas Mountain. After a rough, level stretch, the trail bends back toward the creek, mellows, and passes a tenting area on the right, just before Gulf Hagas Brook. Rock-hop the clear water to the short spur to the Carl A. Newhall Lean-to (35.9/1,890).
Past the shelter, the trail rambles past a swampy beaver pond on the right; the rounded summit of West Peak-on your continuing route-is visible beyond. The gradient increases as the trail passes through spruce-fir forest and encounters an enriched site at the base of a cliff, where sugar maples proliferate and some nice, yellow birches grow in a mature canopy. The trail now steepens markedly, making half a dozen switchbacks as it climbs, traverses left, and becomes a grassy track lined with hay-scented ferns, blackberry canes, and hobblebushes. The route levels, curves right, and offers a few glimpses of White Cap Mountain ahead before the signed and viewless summit of Gulf Hagas Mountain (36.8/2,683/45° 32.427’ N, 69° 19.216’ W).
The trail undulates along the summit ridge, passing a large amount of bracken ferns and thick hobblebushes. As it descends, brief views to the north-northwest look toward Mount Baker. The trail winds along the north side of the ridge and drops steeply toward the saddle. After a momentary rise, descend through a dense, green tunnel to the Sidney Tappan Campsite (37.7/2,450). A nice flowing spring is available 200 yards down a posted blue-blazed trail.
Past the site, the path enters a young spruce corridor and widens on a steady, traversing rise. The trail switchbacks right and markedly steepens, ascending some nice rock stairs. Views behind peek west on the sustained climb, which ascends through dense spruce-fir woods. The gradient eases at 3,000 feet and makes a more gradual rise to the signed summit of West Peak among dense firs (38.4/3,181/45° 32.721’ N, 69° 17.747’ W).
The AT descends steeply through more thick forest. As the trail approaches the gap below Hay Mountain (which peeks out intermittently ahead), it curves right, levels, and then makes a slower descent into the muddy saddle. Dense forest continues as the rocky trail climbs. Dead snags are abundant, likely caused by fir waves. Cresting at 3,000 feet, the trail mellows briefly, and then steadily ascends to the broad summit plateau of Hay Mountain. The trail undulates along, entering a skeletal forest of snags just before the posted summit in dense woods (40.0/3,244).
The rocky trail descends once again. Watch for glimpses of White Cap Mountain ahead and Big Spruce and Chairback mountains to the south. The route levels out in a final saddle and encounters White Brook Trail on the right (40.6/2,960), a challenging backdoor access route to White Cap Mountain. The desperately thirsty can find water 0.6 mile down this side trail, though a much better source awaits 2.0 miles ahead, shortly before Logan Brook Lean-to.
Pass a small trailside tentsite just past the junction, and climb toward White Cap. The trail briefly eases near the summit ridge, then steadily ascends and curves slightly to the right. The route runs level for 0.2 mile to White Brook Trail Spur on the right (41.4/3,480), joining White Brook Trail a short distance down the mountain.
The trail rises slowly, enters a smaller forest with loose rocks and talus underfoot, and emerges atop the summit (41.7/3,644/45° 33.288’ N, 69° 14.757’ W). A broad field of talus composes the summit and offers expansive views south. (The rocky terrain makes pitching a tent here a lumpy proposition.) The rounded summit of Big Spruce Mountain is visible nearby, due south. Greenwood Pond sits in the bowl between Big Spruce and Little Spruce mountains. To the west are Hay Mountain and West Peak. Along the horizon, trace your previous route along the Barren-Chairback Range. Head to the north side of the summit for more views. Third West Branch Pond shimmers down below, and Big Boardman Mountain-near your continuing route-is apparent to the northeast. On a clear day, Katahdin is visible on the horizon 29 miles away.
Thick, diminutive firs crown the summit. Spot some alpine plant species, including cranberry, crowberry, and Labrador tea. Continuing north, the AT hops over talus and krummholz and descends the mountain’s east ridge. Catch views east of large B Pond before the trail reenters the trees and descends via long sections of excellent rock steps. Just before dropping below 3,000 feet, you’ll find the first water source since Sidney Tappan Campsite.
The trail levels out briefly on its continued descent, offering glimpses left into the deep drainage of Logan Brook, before a ledge opens views over the sheer drainage; water rushes down below, and White Cap rises above. To the northeast, your route heads across the East Branch River and toward Big Boardman Mountain. The trail banks left, leaves the ridge, and steadily sidehills. Enter an almost pure stand of paper birches just before the brook, and encounter the Logan Brook Lean-to (43.1/2,400).
Past the shelter, the trail cruises nicely and steadily. The nearby creek remains audible but inaccessible. The extensive paper birch stands continue, slowly joined by other hardwoods, including all the maples: red, striped, mountain, and sugar (at around 2,000 feet). The trail crosses a small tributary, curves right, then runs level for some time. Eventually, it drops steeply, curves left, and side-hills downward. Beeches appear and some mature sugar maples punctuate the forest. Just before West Branch Ponds Road, a major dirt thoroughfare (44.7/1,590), pass a small covered spring on the left. Cross the road and continue descending past granite boulders in an increasingly buggy area. The trail crosses a trickle and levels out in a hemlock-spruce forest loaded with pink lady’s slippers. Cedars appear intermittently as the surroundings fill with nice spruce trees and occasional white pines. A long, level walk weaves through the dense lumpy woods and eventually slowly descends, abruptly enters dense foliage, and crosses a section of puncheon over ale-colored water. Alders and irises line the banks. The route winds across another flowing brook and reaches the spur for the East Branch Lean-to on the left (46.7/1,340). Boulders protrude from the ground all around, a living rock garden.
Past the shelter, the trail parallels the hidden East River then rock-hops across it. The route travels through a wet area then climbs the slopes of Big Boardman Mountain. Slowly gain elevation, crossing an old woods road in rocky spruce-fir woods. The gradient increases, switchbacks left, and ascends a remarkable tree talus field; tree roots seemingly hold the rocks in place. Switchback right, make a steady uphill traverse, and eventually curve left.
The trail continues to rise, bends right, and levels as it enters hardwood forest highlighted by nice sugar maples and yellow birches. The route undulates through an area of selective harvesting – only spruces remain – and drops back into hardwood forest and reaches Mountain View Pond (48.6/1,600). The AT crosses the pond outflow by an old beaver dam then parallels the placid, but inaccessible, shoreline. Just before the route turns away from the lake, an unposted spur on the left leads to a number of tentsites and chained-up canoes. A sign indicates that no campfires are permitted here.
The route follows the flowing pond outlet along a boggy creek bed and encounters a spring, located a short distance off the trail. Sweet, cold, and refreshing water pours out of the rocks here, an easy fill-up. Cruise on an overgrown woods road past young hardwoods and abundant diseased beeches. The trail eventually bears right off the old roadbed, drops briefly to cross a boggy area, and makes a quick rocky climb to a level section in dense spruce-fir forest. The route slowly rises, turns right to begin a more direct ascent, switchbacks left to gradually climb, then turns right again, straight up the slopes.
Catch a few tantalizing glimpses through the trees, and reach an open view west-southwest toward the White Cap Range and nearby Big Boardman Mountain. On White Cap, identify your route down and through the Logan Brook watershed. Past this vista, the trail curves to the top of Little Boardman (50.2/2,010). The trail runs level past red maples, sugar maples, and the occasional red oak before entering a rocky area full of blueberry bushes.
The descending route tours a magnificent sugar maple grove, full of mature, twisting trees, standing snags, and only a handful of beeches and yellow birches-one of the best groves of the hike. Beeches and yellow birches slowly increase and eventually the gradient eases. Crawford Pond becomes visible ahead through the trees. Pass some impressive spruces and a few final sugar maples, and then emerge on Kokadjo-B Pond Road (51.6/1,260).
The AT crosses the road and a small wash gully, which leads to a small nearby beach (no camping allowed). The trail then rises and traverses the slopes past spruces and cedars, staying roughly 50 feet above the water, with little to no access. Drop to cross a small feeder brook, and encounter a posted sign for Sand Beach (52.0/1,240). A spur trail quickly leads to another small (no-camping) beach.
The AT merges with an old woods road for some easy walking, then leaves the road and parallels the lake, just visible through the trees. The trail rambles closer to the water, passes a few access spots, then crosses the lake outflow (Cooper Brook) over the remains of an old dam (52.5/1,220). Look for evidence of old beaver activity.
On the far side of the brook, the trail turns right and follows an old roadbed through a young forest of paper birches, firs, spruces, red maples, and beeches. This marks the start of the longest easy stretch in the entire 100-Mile Wilderness. Slowly descend parallel to nearby Cooper Brook, audible but seldom seen. The route travels over intermittent puncheon, crosses a few small streams, and passes a few nice white pines and hemlocks. Sugar maples and ashes slowly join the forest mosaic. The roadbed makes minor but pronounced drops. After crossing the largest tributary thus far, the trail widens and descends to Cooper Brook Falls Lean-to on the right (54.8/980).
Past the shelter, Cooper Brook once again disappears from sight as the AT remains on the old road and crosses a more substantial tributary. The delightfully easy walk rolls past lush and diverse hardwoods, slowly descends, and crosses another brook. Bugs increase, as does the diversity of trees-ashes and hickories appear in increasing numbers. The route slowly turns away from Cooper Brook, passes through stately hemlock groves, and enters increasingly soggy terrain; slippery puncheon increases. Cross another stream; Church Pond becomes faintly visible through the trees ahead. After a few brief rises, Cooper Brook reappears on the right, and the trail runs right alongside it, passing several good campsites in hemlock forest. Emerge on Jo-Mary Road (58.5/690).
The AT crosses the road and briefly parallels Cooper Brook in young woods, punctuated by the appearance of big-tooth aspens. The trail bends away from the brook, returns to dense spruce-fir forest, and reaches a signed, blue-blazed trail on the right leading to nearby Cooper Pond (59.3/660). The five-minute side trip passes a nice campsite en route to the lake’s outflow, where there are good views south of nearby Jo-Mary Mountain.
The AT continues through spruce-fir forest and past occasional red pines, identified by their flaky scaly bark and distinctive branch structure. Cooper Brook reappears on the right, now a calm and wide waterway. The trail returns to single-track for the first time in many miles. Roots crisscross the path as it winds near placid Cooper Brook. After turning away briefly, the route returns to the brook, crosses a snowmobile corridor, and follows a wider trail across a smaller woods road. Enter a noticeably drier upland area populated by young conifers. Cross a small brook, a larger one on a puncheon bridge-the outflow from nearby Mud Pond (61.4/500)-and another small one via well-placed rocks. Now the route tours above the shore of Mud Pond; Jo-Mary Mountain is visible to the south.
Red pine forest is carpeted with needles and filled with abundant huckleberry bushes. The single-track trail passes through the hike’s driest section before slowly curving to reenter a more lush environment. The woods transition back to mossy softwoods. Lower Jo-Mary Lake appears north through the trees, and the route is lined with evidence of an old communications line that was once strung through the trees.
The trail winds just inland from the lake, passing some nice white pines near the shore, and leads to the signed junction for Antlers Campsite (62.7/500). Turn left, away from the lake, to continue north on the AT. The single-track trail heads away from the lake through young forest then bends back toward the shore and crosses a small stream. The trail touches a tiny sandy beach at the far end of the lake, which offers a long view across the water. Continuing, cross another small stream, return inland to lush hardwood forest, and reach the posted junction for Potaywadjo Ridge on the left (64.2/540).
Side trip to Potaywadjo Ridge: This detour is one of the hike’s best, though it requires gaining 650 feet of elevation in less than a mile. From the junction, the blue-blazed trail steeply climbs to open slabs that offer views down the entire length of Lower Jo- Mary Lake. Mud and Cooper ponds are also visible; spot the White Cap Range in the distance. Nearby is the low hulking mass of Jo-Mary Mountain; Cooper Brook flows below it. But the best parts of this side trip are the prolific blueberries that cover the open ledges. They get lots of sunlight, ripen in mid- to late July, and produce more fruit than you’ll have time to enjoy!
Back on the AT, follow a rocky path past enormous boulders, and reach a posted spur for Sand Beach (64.4/500), which looks across the lake toward the hump of Jo-Mary Mountain. The AT turns away from the lake, climbs, and quickly crosses a small stream. The route slowly rises and curves left through a young forest of birches, beeches, and big-tooth aspens. The trail steepens and parallels a rivulet, passing more giant rocks as it climbs.
The route levels, and then gradually descends, passing extensive patches of Indian cucumber near the top. (Identify them by their two-tiered whorls of leaves and tiny flowers dangling beneath the upper whorl.) After a steady descent, the trail abruptly levels off among more abundant conifers and reaches the spur trail to Potaywadjo Spring Lean-to (66.2/600). Not far past the lean-to is its namesake spring – an impressive pool – cross a stream beneath abundant hemlocks.
The trail next crosses a dirt road, enters a hemlock-cedar forest, and reaches Twitchell Brook, crossing it on a puncheon bridge. Pemadumcook Lake appears ahead through the trees. A posted sign announces a view of Katahdin. The mountain is just visible from the lakeshore; scramble over nearby driftwood and rocks for better views.
Beyond this point, the AT follows extensive bog bridging over another stream and travels along an easy-walking path through dark forest. The trail becomes boggy near a swampy wetland on the left. The level trail runs over several long stretches of puncheon, crosses a muddy, seldom-used road, and then enters the land of super bog.
The next section is extremely wet and washed out, requiring careful travel to avoid soaking your boots. The delicate bog-hopping act leads to a super muddy road. (Head right here and hike about a mile to the landing for White House Lodge.) Navigate the muck and follow the AT north. A stream appears on the right. Rock-hop across Tumbledown Dick Stream, a moderately tricky crossing.
Nahmakanta Stream appears on the right, the trail quickly crosses another small tributary, and the path follows the broad, shallow, and quietly riffling stream. The route winds directly atop its steep-cut banks, a pleasant, level walk past many flat areas with good camping potential, though accessing the stream can be a challenge in many spots. A young forest of hemlocks, beeches, spruces, and firs surrounds the trail, which eventually leads to Nahmakanta Stream Campsite on the left (70.5/600).
Past the campsite, the trail passes another established tentsite then turns inland a short distance from the stream. Roots and mud increase, and both the trail and river become increasingly rocky. After more than a mile of steady, level progress, the stream widens into a broad, placid pool, and the slopes become perceptibly steeper. The trail crosses several small brooks and heads inland on an intensely root-laced path. Cross the largest tributary yet, rise briefly, begin a rising traverse along sheer slopes above the broad river visible below, and reach Woodrat Spring.
Head down a rock staircase and meet a dirt road and bridge (73.5/700). The AT crosses the road and returns along the river, passing a giant, knobby white pine. Pass a series of campsites by a small carry-in boat launch on the edge of Nahmakanta Lake (73.7/650). The trail turns left, quickly heads right off the area’s wide main path, and cruises level past softwoods. The lake is nearby, just to the right through the trees.
The trail touches the shore at one point and offers views north of approaching Nesuntabunt Mountain-along your continuing route-on the left side of the lake. The route then crosses a small brook, runs directly along the rocky shore, and encounters a small, sandy beach. A short distance later, turn inland, climb briefly, then drop back to the lakeshore and rock-hop over Prentiss Brook. The trail now undulates near the shore through a young forest of cedars and yellow and paper birches.
The going is generally mellow; eventually the trail returns to the water by a small beach. Alder and small hickory trees line the lakeshore. The trail turns inland again, climbs around a small point, and rises nearly 200 feet. Drop quickly past some large granite boulders, then switchback left to descend among rock boulder chaos. Once near the lake again, the path cruises easily and reaches the water by a posted white-sand beach. A campsite and its thin water source are located just inland from here.
The trail heads inland again through lush deciduous flatlands, and crosses a seasonal stream emerging from the Wadleigh Valley. Several large sugar maples line the route as the trail continues inland; snags and downed trees indicate the age and maturity of this stand. The path passes Wadleigh Stream Lean-to on the left, located adjacent to the trail (76.3/690).
Past the shelter, the route climbs through hemlock forest on a soft and needle-covered path. The trail rises atop a steep outcrop with restricted views of the lake and swings right to easily traverse the slopes. Century-old white pines and fern-topped boulders accompany the traverse, which curves over a rise and descends. Abundant huckleberries line the trail as it passes good lake views, turns back inland, and visits a car-sized boulder balanced atop two others. The route briefly rises and descends past more large boulders as the forest transitions to a deciduous mix of sugar maples and beeches.
The trail crosses a flowing brook, rises slowly, and then markedly steepens. Cross a trickling brook, and climb up a broad fissure in the bedrock alongside the trickling flow. The trail crosses the stream, banks left, and briefly levels. Curve right to ascend another broad cleft of large rocks. The route crosses the creek again, passes more cliffs, and continues its ascent through the rock fortress.
After a brief flat section, the trail climbs rock stairs; some have recently slid and may require some careful footwork. The route curves left at one point, then rises through a young sugar maple grove via another broad cleft in the mountainside. More rock steps lead to a saddle, where the trail curves right and continues its rise to finally crest in a stand of spruces (78.2/1,560).
From here, a short side trail leads 250 feet to an exceptional view from a small outcrop. The entire massif of Katahdin reveals itself. All of Nahmakanta Lake unfurls below; Nahmakanta Lake Wilderness Camps are visible at the lake’s northern edge. The Rainbow Stream watershed – your continuing route – flows into the north end of the lake; your previous route past Pemadumcook Lake is visible south.
The trail drops steeply from the summit, traverses by more rock fortresses, descends more rock stairs, and curves left. The route levels, passes over a rock ledge with another view of Katahdin, and then resumes a slow drop to a dirt road (79.4/1,000). Cross the road and follow the AT as it slowly rises and falls through younger hardwood forest. Crescent Pond appears through the trees. The trail wraps over to the far side of the pond, where smooth granite ledges slide into a perfect swimming opportunity (80.6/1,030). Good southern exposure here means lots of sun for drying out. Locals have tied up a few boats here.
The route winds around the shore, passes a nice, boat-free spot near the middle of the shoreline, and then heads through spruce-fir forest. Curving right, descend toward Pollywog Stream-the outflow from Crescent Pond-and enter old-growth forest amid a chaotic garden of rock and deadfall. Take time to admire the massive white pines that punctuate the woods. Far below in a deep ravine, listen to Pollywog Stream rush downward.
Pass a posted spur to nearby Pollywog Gorge viewpoint, which overlooks the sheer slopes of the ravine. The trail briefly rises, traverses through dense woods, and heads slowly down. The gradient steepens, and footing is tricky at times, but eventually it bottoms out.
The route parallels wide Pollywog Stream, which riffles in a shallow streambed.bThe rough and rocky trail passes through a diverse forest then emerges on Nahmakanta Road (83.1/680). Turn left, cross the bridge, and curve slightly left on the road, past the NLC (Nahmakanta Lake Wilderness Camps) sign on the right. Fifty yards later, the AT bears to the right off the road and enters a young forest. Cross a suspect stream, and enter young forest (a few massive white pines still lurk by the trail).
Before long, rushing Rainbow Stream becomes audible. The trail reaches the racing stream and parallels it. The water rushes over solid rock-sheeting, sliding, and sluicing. As the trail ascends, it follows a small tributary to the left for a few hundred yards, and then crosses it to return to the main stream.
The trail continues alongside Rainbow Stream’s rapids and drops. Water chokes itself in raging chutes. Eventually the rapids end, and the trail levels out. Turn away from the stream, crossing Murphy Brook before returning to the now-placid brook a half-mile later. A level and easygoing stretch leads to Rainbow Stream Lean-to (84.4/980).
To continue, cross Rainbow Stream here. This may require either fording the shin- to knee-deep brook or delicately balancing across on thin logs, depending on conditions. Once on the other side, the trail parallels the stream and quickly reaches the first of the Rainbow Deadwaters. The trail runs just inland, passing through softwood forest before meeting the stream flow on the far side of the pond. The occasionally muddy trail runs close to the water on its way to the second Rainbow Deadwater. The path now becomes all roots and mini bogs, which makes it hard to develop a hiking rhythm.
The trail remains close to the second Rainbow Deadwater then turns inland near its far end. Rise briefly through increasing hardwoods to the unposted junction for Rainbow Dam (86.4/1,100). This easy five-minute detour leads to a small dam and two nice campsites at the end of massive Rainbow Lake, though only a small arm of the lake is visible from here. Katahdin looms ahead, looking closer than ever. Signs indicate that campfires are allowed here by permit only.
Back on the AT, descend momentarily to cross a tributary and begin a long level stretch through hardwood forest. The path is generally easygoing, though there are regular patches of mud and bogginess, and the bugs can be bad. Rainbow Lake is occasionally visible through the trees on the left on the way to Rainbow Spring Campsite (88.2/1,070) on the right. The spring is down by the lake’s edge. Its cool waters bubble into a small, clear pool then immediately pour into the lake. Loons call from the lake, which is shallow for some distance from shore.
From here, the trail winds inland, climbs slowly, then winds back toward the water, crossing a few small brooks as it goes. Catch glimpses of the lake to the left through a young forest of ashes, red maples, sugar maples, and other hardwoods. You may hear the sound of boat motors and other human activity along this section, emanating from a nearby sporting camp. After hiking among softwoods for the first time in a while, pass posted Rainbow Mountain Trail on the right (90.2/1,120). The side trail leads 0.75 mile to the top of Rainbow Mountain and great views of Katahdin, the surrounding lake, and rumpled terrain – a worthwhile excursion.
The AT returns to the lake’s edge and passes several nice spruce trees and good access points. Steeper slopes run upward to your right, populated by fern-topped granite boulders. The root-laced and rocky trail makes for slower going, though the forest is pleasantly mature; enjoy some nice sugar maples. The route rises among boulders and spruce-fir forest, passing a handful of 3-foot-plus diameter white pines before winding down to a shallow cove and a pair of nice campsites at the far end of the lake (91.6/1,050).
The AT crosses a small inflow stream and encounters the posted spur to Big Beaver Pond on the right (91.7/1,060). The side trail leads 0.7 mile to a big beaver pond, which is as exciting as it sounds.
Continuing, the AT passes through a mature forest of white pines, spruces, and paper birches. Leave this older stand, and enter thicker and younger woods with more red maples and beeches. The trail descends to cross a boggy area on rotting puncheon and steadily rises, entering young softwood forest. The ground underfoot becomes increasingly rocky, ascending toward Rainbow Ledges. Before long, the trail climbs a solid ribbon of bedrock. The forest diminishes on the sparse soil. Blueberries and lichens become common. Views southwest begin to peek out; see Jo-Mary Mountain and the White Cap Range in the distance. The trail crests at 1,500 feet and runs level along the ridge top, a pleasant stretch on solid rock. Huckleberry bushes become as prolific as blueberries.
The trail reaches a striking view of Katahdin, here only 9.0 miles away, before dropping back into a mossy and root-chocked spruce-fir forest. The path undulates through the dense woods, slowly rises, and then descends into the Hurd Brook watershed. The route drops quickly at first, aided by rock stairs, then tapers off and descends more gradually. As it approaches the bottom, the needle-covered trail eases and winds among woods that become increasingly lush. The trail steeply descends to the valley floor and Hurd Brook in a maze of roots, rocks, yellow birches, and cedars. Hurd Brook Lean-to sits on the other side (95.9/700).
Past the shelter, the AT continues its rocky, root-hopping journey through softwood forest, passing a spring 0.3 miles beyond the shelter by some stone steps. The route slowly rises, drops, and passes over more roots and rocks in a hemlock forest. Mossy boulder humps are everywhere. The trail slowly rises through young beeches and descends along a very rocky section. Beeches, paper birches, and sugar maples eventually appear in green profusion as the trail begins its final descent.
The rocky drop leads through a mixed forest then eases a bit before an extended section of puncheon-the longest of the entire hike. The final section of trail cruises through thick spruce-fir forest to emerge onto paved Golden Road. Turn right to follow the road, cross Abol Bridge, and reach this long journey’s end by the Abol Store (99.4/660).
The Maine Appalachian Trail Club maintains the AT through the 100-Mile Wilderness and is your best source of information for current trail conditions. P.O. Box 283, Augusta, ME 04332, matc.org, [email protected] For more information on AMC’s Maine Woods Initiative and additional recreation opportunities in the 100-Mile Wilderness region, visit outdoors.org/mwi.
At the southern end of the hike, the tiny town of Monson hosts a pair of longstanding, famous-among-thru-hikers destinations: Spring Creek Bar-B-Q, which dishes up some seriously hearty, protein-packed trail power, and Shaw’s Lodging, which provides a range of amenities and services for thru-hikers. At the northern end of the hike, eat up, fuel up, and gear up as needed in Millinocket. Once you leave town, you’re on your own when it comes to supplies.
Matt Heid is a former senior editor of AMC Outdoors and currently writes the magazine’s Equipped column and blog. He is also the author, contributor, and researcher of several books on hiking. Heid has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, Alaska, and other wilderness destinations. He leads trips and teaches classes in outdoor photography, natural history, and navigation.
This story is excerpted from the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Best Backpacking in New England, and has been published with the permission of the Appalachian Mountain Club. Purchase this book online now!