Percival Baxter understood what Henry David Thoreau meant when he said, “In wildness lies the preservation of the world.” Back in 1931, the former Maine governor donated the original land to create the natural masterpiece that is Baxter State Park. Intending this landscape to be “for those who love nature and are willing to walk and make an effort to get close to nature,” Governor Baxter mandated that his park remain “forever wild.” Man’s imprint here is minimal, making Baxter State Park an unrivaled place to take in autumn’s abundance.
In leaf-peeper season, Maine shines. Days are warm, nights are cool, and crowds are few. To this bounty, add Mother Nature’s fall flashdance, the show-stopping reds, oranges and yellows painting the mountainsides, preening for show amidst evergreens, and shimmering their reflections in rivers, streams and ponds. Sometimes, like frosting on a cake, she even fringes higher mountain summits with a sparkle of early snow
Baxter’s unrivaled park-scape celebrates it all: It’s home to rare alpine flowers, unique glacial formations, backcountry ponds and cascades. Indeed, what Acadia National Park is to the coast, Baxter State Park is to inland Maine. Mainers know Baxter as New England’s grandest state park, a 210,000-acre chunk of wilderness peppered with 46 peaks and ridges and laced with 215 miles of hiking trails waiting to be explored.
Overlording this treasure is Katahdin, a Native American word for “greatest mountain.” The state’s highest mountain as well as the terminus of the Appalachian Trail, this massif rises 5,268 feet to Baxter Peak and also comprises several lower peaks. In autumn, Appalachian Trail through-hikers, who started trekking northward from Springer Mountain, Ga., in the spring, are finishing the last of the estimated 5 million steps of their 2,185-mile journey.
On a clear day, it’s possible to discern Katahdin’s distinctive bulk from as far west as Sugarloaf Mountain, near the New Hampshire/Quebec border, and as far south as the Penobscot Narrows Bridge Observatory, near the coast. But the most sigh-producing views, especially when foliage teases the shorelines below, are free from man-made intrusions. And that’s just what Percival Baxter envisioned when he created this wilderness park and a trust to ensure its independent operation.
For today’s visitors, “forever wild” means few creature comforts. There is no electricity, no running water, no Wi-Fi, no food, no gas. Facilities are primitive, roads are unpaved, and services are minimal. Park rules also limit the size of vehicles and ban motorized trail bikes and motorcycles. It’s truly a place to unplug from civilization and reconnect with nature. Look closely all around. Maybe a bull moose will raise his head out of the water with vegetation dripping from his antlers, or a doe with fawns will pad through the trees, or perhaps even a black bear will rustle though the woods.
Maine’s inland playground provides plentiful ways to experience autumn. Baxter’s biggest draw—hiking—lets visitors immerse in a Technicolor woodland, gaze down on the color from above tree line, or picnic by a waterfall. The park’s waterways offer more recreational opportunities. The Penobscot River is favored by whitewater rafters for its Class V rapids and cherished by anglers, who cast lines in the eddy pockets. It’s easy to get afloat on more placid waters at the park’s five pond-side campgrounds, which rent canoes by the hour, $1, or the day, $8. Hikers will find other canoes stashed at most trail-accessible backcountry ponds and lakes.
Park accommodations include roadside tenting campgrounds, lean-tos and bunkhouses; two backcountry campgrounds; two sets of rustic cabins; and a traditional sporting camp on Katahdin Lake accessed only via foot or floatplane. Linger overnight, and Baxter State Park shares its sunrise charms and sunset secrets, revealing how sunlight’s dance on autumn leaves turns red to crimson, yellow to a glowing gold, and providing the opportunity for a séance with the stars, before drifting to sleep serenaded by nature’s choral lullaby.
Numerous other accommodations, near both the more frequented south and more remote north entrances, include traditional sporting camps, campgrounds and cottages that cater to park visitors within a short drive. Nearly all boast lakeside cabins and sites and stellar Katahdin views. Backcountry destinations like New England Outdoor Center on Millinocket Lake, Mt. Chase Lodge on Upper Shin Pond, 5 Lake Lodge on South Twin Lake, or Matagamon Wilderness Camps, among others, fit seamlessly into the Baxter State Park experience.
The beauty and peacefulness of the Maine northwoods does not end at Baxter State Park. The Katahdin Woods & Waters Scenic Byway beckons for more than 80 miles from the park northward. It leads past the headwaters of the Penobscot, where the legends of Maine’s lumbermen were forged during epic log drives, past a landscape that, once seen, will not be soon forgotten. The influence and inspiration of Governor Baxter’s gift, the wildness of Baxter State Park, is felt all along the Byway. It truly is well worth the drive.
For more info: Baxter State Park Authority, 207-723-5140, baxterstateparkauthority.com.