8 big adventures in the Maine backwoods

Stretching across stony peaks and rolling whitewater, Maine goes big in the state’s vast, forested interior. With thousands of moose and not many people, the landscape dares visitors to tackle oversized adventures, from skiing backcountry trails to reeling in bass on the Penobscot River. Committing to the challenge pays off, with pristine campsites, mountaintop sunsets, and some of America’s most spectacular stargazing. Here are our picks for epic, backwoods experiences in Maine.

No matter what kind of outdoor adventure you're looking for, you can find it in the Maine backwoods © Jerry Monkman / Aurora Photos / Getty Images

Ski (or bike) from hut to hut

Evergreen forest shades the map between the Mahoosuc Range and Moosehead Lake, parting only for mirrored lakes and snow-fed streams. Maine Huts & Trails’ four backcountry huts offer cozy shelter in the midst of the rugged country, which is woven together with 80 miles of trails. Strap on Nordic skis or snowshoes for a winter visit, and you’ll arrive to home-cooked meals, hot cocoa, and a convivial sleepaway camp vibe in the huts’ common rooms. In the summer, make it a hut-to-hut mountain bike trip that shuttles between single track and double track.

Angle for brook trout in America’s newest national monument

The East Branch of the Penobscot River frames Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument – 87,500 acres of trees, trails, and little else (not even a paved road, yet.) Those rustic conditions don’t seem to bother the brook trout, which spend their days gulping bugs from the surface of the clear water. To experience some of Maine’s best fishing, plan to canoe the East Branch, where you’ll have awe-inspiring views of the Appalachian Mountains as you paddle through blueberry tangles, moose habitat, and pristine swimming holes.

Hiking can cover all kinds of terrain, like this creek in Baxter State Park © Jen Rose Smith / Lonely Planet

Hike the 100-mile wilderness

When northbound hikers on the Appalachian Trail reach the 100-mile wilderness in western Maine, they’re on the final stretch of the 2,190-mile footpath. But this section is known as one of the trail’s wildest places, and it’s a serious test for even the fittest, most experienced walkers. It’s not the 18,000 feet of elevation gain, endless stream crossings, or even the storm-swept summits that turn the 100-mile wilderness into a make-or-break adventure. The real challenge is the sheer remoteness — the trail doesn’t cross a single road in 99.4 miles of backwoods. Follow the Appalachian Trail northbound from Monson for 6-10 days to get face-to-face with wild nature, served straight up.

Paddle the Allagash Wilderness Waterway

A charm bracelet of lakes and ponds dangles along the 92-mile Allagash Wilderness Waterway, where paddlers can take on the canoe adventure of a lifetime. Class I and Class II rapids form a rippling obstacle course on the northward flowing Allagash River, while long stretches of flat water invite afternoons of basking. Bring a fishing pole to angle for trout, and camp in riverside sites along the way; one is named for writer Henry David Thoreau, who explored the region in 1857.

 

Grab your camera for a moose safari

With lofty antlers growing to six feet across, moose can strike a serious pose – and Maine has more of the massive creatures than any place in the lower 48. For the best chance at spotting moose, plan a moose safari between mid-May and July, or head to the woods during the autumn breeding season. You can explore by car, on foot, or even by canoe or kayak since moose thrive along lakes and waterways. Just keep your distance: Moose only look like they’re slow-moving.

Ride the churning whitewater rapids

Granite cliffs plane upward from the West Branch of the Penobscot River, squeezing the powerful waterway into a roiling chute. While multi-day rafting trips are possible, some of the river’s biggest thrills are packed into a day-trippable 15-mile section starting at McKay hydroelectric power station. From there, you’ll white-knuckle it past Ripogenus Gorge, then hit a wall of whitewater called The Cribworks. (Known as New England’s toughest rapid, this Class-V beast subjects paddlers to tight curves, raft-eating holes, and a lurching 10-foot drop.) Link up with a local outfitter for a wild ride on this natural roller coaster.

The Knife Edge descent from Mount Katahdin's summit is only for the bravest © Jen Rose Smith / Lonely Planet

Touch the sacred summit of Mount Katahdin

Watch a summer squall batter Mount Katahdin’s rocky peak, and you’ll understand why the Penobscot tribes named the mountain as home to the stormy spirit Pamola. Maine’s highest mountain marks the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, and it’s one of New England’s most dramatic hikes. You’ll have huge views across the surrounding treetops as you climb the Helon Taylor trail to the top; the most daring hikers can continue down the vertigo-inducing Knife Edge, a thin spine of boulders with exposure on both sides. 

Stargaze the darkest skies in the east

Look at a nighttime satellite image of the United States, and you’ll see Maine’s backwoods as an inky blot behind constellations of East Coast city lights. Those dark skies put on a natural show after dark: Astrotourism can be easy as dragging a lawn chair out for a night of stargazing, or you can bring a telescope to the undeveloped Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Down on the rocky coast, Acadia National Park celebrates a yearly night sky festival that includes a long night of star watching from the summit of Cadillac Mountain

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