The Unexpected Journey to Katahdin Woods & Waters
9 feet. A height many do not need to contend with in regards to vehicles. Taller than most, but certainly not an outrageous. Yet on this particular trip, we discovered that we were just not destined to bask in Baxter State Park’s bounty this fall.
For the last few years we vowed to get to Katahdin during peak foliage, yet the trips never transpired. Too far. Too cold. Too late. Not enough time. The kids are too young. The excuses were endless but the desire never dropped. This year was different though. With a 1978 Mercedes fire truck (Orange Crush) as a recent addition to our quiver we now had a shield from northern Maine’s cold and raw October weather for our young family of four. Coupled with this - we now had the time to pull it off as we are building out Orange Crush as our home for a much grander adventure before the year is out.
Our first stop was north of the most northern neck of 95 - Aroostock County State Park. Showing up late in the night we didn’t have the chance to take in the surroundings until the next morning. Awakening to a cold, wet blanket of low clouds, we opted to stick to the inside and enjoy our new home. The 2-burner stove quickly heated our space along with our porridge and we were soon ready to explore the park. We were likely the last visitors to take out a canoe before the season closed, but the quaint lake and mountain views made it worth it.
When the kids were ready for an afternoon nap we set off for our primary destination - the end of the Appalachian Trail and Maine’s tallest mountain, Katahdin. The drive through the county and down into Penobscott County was stunning. Rolling potato fields, lumber yards, rows of trees ablaze - Orange Crush chugging along blending into all of it. Eventually we migrated along the Katahdin Woods and Waters Scenic Byway towards Matagamon Gate, the northern entrance to Baxter.
Reading the signposts along the way - we knew we were in trouble. Maximum vehicle size 9 ft tall x 22 ft long x 7 ft wide. We were on the limit at all instances - but it’s Maine, we’re locals, and we are driving a fire truck - not a tourist RV - surely they’ll let it slide. But oh no. We were promptly measured at the gate and were advised to turn around, no exceptions. Aye!? The hours spent not only driving, but preparing - the screaming kids, the diapers, the meals organized - no flexibility at all? Nope. The rules are the rules whether you like it or not.
While this may have crushed some families who took time off to make the epic journey to this destination, we used it as an opportunity to tour an area we had only heard whispers of in the past years: Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
Fortunately for us just a few miles back from the Matagamon Gate, we entered Katahdin Woods and Waters on Messer Road and followed the genesis of the Eastern branch of the Penobscott River down the western flank into the north eastern outer ranges of Katahdin. With the pavement behind us and no people in sight, we were free to drive Orange Crush down any logging road we wished or stop for any detour or potty break along the way. This is how we like to travel and our first taste of the Katahdin Woods and Waters felt just right.
Eventually we turned back and committed to the only road that seemed to go all the way through; Bowlin Camp Road, though it remained unclear by our blurry maps. With logging road intersections every other mile, it was certainly unclear if we were on the right road, but eventually we arrived at Bowlin Camps and met the manager who informed us we arrived at the end of the road. Upon pressing him for a bit more beta and flexing our Maine plates, he opened up and shared that there was a rarely trodden 4x4 track that connected but we probably wouldn’t make it.
Now when the kids are asleep, its already late afternoon and the choices are a couple hour detour driving the main road back to another entrance or test our mettle on this 4x4 track, the answer was simple. Grinding our way up the dirt track in our rarely used 1st gear, we crested the first hill, pushing through as the road narrowed and ruts deepened. The elevation gain was our only friend in navigating the wilderness. Deeper and deeper, guessing if the beaten bridges would hold up to our 10,000 lbs and whether we took the right turn at the last t-junction. Fortunately for us, luck was on our side and we found a narrow turn off and formal campsite above the river to bed down for the evening.
Still unsure of our exact location or what road we were on, we kept following our noses the next morning and fortunately the sun lit up the space unfolding in front of us. Another day’s journey along golden arched roadways bordering the steely blue Penobscott led us to our obscure destination, the Katahdin Loop Rd. Winding our way up into the orange blushed mountain, we popped out within what seemed like a stone’s throw to our annual objective the last year’s, Katahdin. Looking out we traced out the popular hiking routes from Chimney Pond and down the southern and eastern flanks of the mighty tower. We pledged promises to climb it one day as a family and maybe even pinky swore over the Appalachian Trail though I am not sure if it counts with a three year old.
And while we never did make it to Baxter, the unexpected journey through Katahdin Woods and Waters seemed more appropriate for our style of exploration and our oversized vehicle. If you choose to visit this beautiful destination we’d like to share some advice:
Do have an updated map (Maine Map and Katahdin Woods and Waters Map)
Do make someone aware of your plans as cell service is basically non existent
Do bring rescue equipment in case your vehicle gets stuck
Do consider your 4x4 capacity if you choose the untrodden logging roads
Do practice Leave No Trace ethics
Do bring rations for however much time you plan to be out there
And do pack a sense of adventure as this is Maine’s wilderness at it’s finest.