NFCT: Maine - The Maine Highlands Area
The Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT) connects northern New York, Vermont, Québec, New Hampshire, and Maine, following age-old Native American travel routes across the Northern Forest Region.
Maine's 347 miles of the NFCT route traverses some of the most scenic, remote, and rugged landscapes the state has to offer. Multiple beautiful and unique kayak and canoe destinations offer paddling experiences for enthusiasts at all levels of experience and with a variety of interests. The Trail crosses lakes big and small, winds down quiet streams, and charges down brawling whitewater rivers. At times challenging, at times serene, the 6 mapped sections (NFCT sections 8-13) pass through diverse settings - historic towns and villages, and working forest and farm landscapes.
Paddling the entire Maine route is a big adventure and truly an expedition. This is the third in a series of four articles excerpted from the NFCT Official Guidebook of vacation destinations in Maine, with the intent of breaking this big adventure down into accessible trips. Each offers a great way to experience the state's natural wonders, spectacular beauty, and storied outdoors by kayak or canoe.
The Maine Highlands - (Bangor / *Katahdin* / Moosehead Lake) is a region of superlatives. Here you will find the most plentiful moose and deer in Maine; more parkland than anywhere else in the state, including 200,000-acre Baxter State Park; Moosehead Lake, the largest in the Northeast; and mile-high Mt. Katahdin, the tallest peak in Maine. Truly a paradise for those who enjoy the outdoors, The Maine Highlands is also home to some of the best fishing in the east. Before heading to this region, sample the culture, restaurants and accommodations in the gateway community of Bangor.
Three distinct paddling adventures can be found within this 81-mile section of the NFCT characterized by dramatic features and a rich history. Thoreau traveled this section of the NFCT, writing of his trip in the posthumously published "The Maine Woods".
- Moosehead Lake, at 74,890 acres and 35 miles long, boasts the striking Mt. Kineo and is one of the largest naturally occurring freshwater lakes in the United States. Eighty islands make the lake seem less daunting to explore in a touring kayak than an expedition canoe, and act as shelter when sudden winds turn the water choppy.
- Appealing to recreational canoeists and kayakers, the West Branch of the Penobscot is slow moving, scenic, and absent of portages. This 3-4 day trip offers undeveloped shorelines, superlative campsites, moose viewing and a visit to historic Chesuncook Village - accessible only by boat or float plane.
- The next adventure is by far the most ambitious by continuing from Chesuncook Lake to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway
- Moosehead Lake (2-4 Days)
Moosehead Lake is easily accessible at Greenville and offers an infinite supply of coves, bays, and islands worth exploring on the southern section. This area provides great fishing, swimming, hiking, and wildlife watching.
Allow 2 or more days for the 18+ mile trip- give extra time for the possibility of being windbound. Moosehead's massive size requires an additional 2 days to paddle to the north end. The eastern side is largely undeveloped and a joy to explore. Moosehead lends itself to fishing, swimming, hiking and wildlife viewing.
Paddlers can expect to mingle with sea planes, motorboats, and the passenger steamer Katahdin - a toast to the steamer era that thrived on the lake from the mid-1800s until the mid-1900s. Head north, hugging the eastern shore of Moosehead to stay out of the wind and have easy access to the more than a dozen tent sites along the shore. Lily Bay is a popular detour for moose and bird viewing. Be careful to not disturb nesting loons are here during early summer. As you continue up the lake you'll be surprised by a quiet sparsely populated shore. Past Sugar Island you'll face an open expanse of water that stretches west 12 miles to far off Spencer Bay.
You'll find an upwelling of cabins en route to the Rockwood Landing, but you'll hardly notice the change as Mount Kineo will command your attention. Born from volcanic rock, unmistakable Mount Kineo is the defining feature of Moosehead Lake as it plummets over 700 feet to the boulder shore. Peregrine falcons are frequently spotted along Kineo's sheer face and from the summit's fire tower you can see west along the NFCT to Flagstaff Lake and the Bigelow Range or north to Northeast Carry with Mt. Katahdin to the northeast. To find the trailhead, aim for the rock slide across from the Rockwood Landing and take out onto the perimeter road. The trailhead is a short walk north of the rock slide.
Camp in the meadow at Hardscrabble Point where there is easy access to hiking. It is a lovely cedar spotted promontory with the distant north shore a watery horizon. Swim from the idyllic pebble beach and watch the sunset from beside a crackling fire.
To continue an additional 17.5+ miles on to the north end of the lake with Seboomook Point campsite as your destination paddle up either shore and leave the bulk of the lake to your side. Perched atop ledge with a southerly view the campsite is a great place to watch a storm unwind.
One can head to the Northwest Carry choosing the west shore. Socatean Stream, Moosehead's primary brook trout spawning tributary, and good moose habitat makes for interesting exploring. Williams Brook is another scenic side venture.
Use the east shore to the Northeast Carry as an alternate route. Follow a string of mountains that rise in succession from the cobble shore. You'll pass an occasional old farm but the shore here is pleasantly wild. The craggy face of Eagle Mountain overlooks Big Duck Cove which offers several campsites in the shadow of the mountain.
- West Branch of the Penobscot (3-4 Days)
One can drive or be shuttled to the Penobscot Farm Boat Launch to begin paddling what locals call the West Branch at the historic site of Penobscot Farm, a once-bustling logging camp. This section of the river is a gentle paddle past grass covered and pine tree-lined banks. Look for large sunken pulp logs when the gravel bottom is in view.
Cedar, tamarisk and spruce line the shore and birch lean toward the water. Bald eagles glide overhead as bird song fills your ears. Consider taking a side trip up Lobster Stream to Lobster Lake for an overnight. The outline of Lobster Mountain will lure you up this gentle stream. Expect to see moose and beaver. The narrow entrance into this tucked away gem reveals a sand and ledge shore overshadowed by distant Mount Katahdin.
Rejoin the West Branch and continue along its unfettered course. If you're quiet you may pass a perched bald eagle. Kingfishers dart about. You'll have to navigate a few gravel bars near the halfway point. At Big Island take the right channel and ride a series of riffles.
Lower down you'll glide over pools with sloping ledge and pass high, eroded banks. Islands begin to dot the channel, as it widens and grows marshy. You'll be startled by the pale ridgeline of Mount Katahdin when it pops onto the horizon. Landlocked salmon fishing is good along this stretch of river. Each fall salmon and trout migrate up the West Branch to spawn.
Tall spruce-fir mix with birch as the bigness of Chesuncook Lake and the rounded outline of Gero Island come into sight. Chesuncook Lake, is the third-largest in Maine at more than 26,000 acres. It's not clear if Henry David Thoreau purchased homemade root beer and fudge when he paddled to Chesuncook Village in the 1850s, but you can stock up on the goodies at the simply named The Store. There's a public landing on the lake for visitors and the dozen people who live in the village year-round.
Three thousand-acre Gero Island occupies the northern end of the lake. This Maine Public Reserved Land has four tent sites along its western shore and is a favorite place for paddlers to spend a night. The trip can be completed by either paddling to Umbazookus Bridge or down the length of the lake to Chesuncook Dam.
- Continuing to the Allagash Wilderness Waterway (3-4 Days)
Beyond Chesuncook Lake to the north lies the Allagash Wilderness Waterway (AWW). The AWW stands alone as the most recognized paddle route in Maine, and is the only state-administered Wild and Scenic River in the federal system. Generations of paddlers have made a trip on the AWW a summer tradition. If moose were in hiding on southern portions of the NFCT, it's a good bet that your luck will change on the waterway. Moose, bald eagles, loons, deer and the occasional black bear (in and out of the water) are common sights along the entire length of the AWW.
From the North Maine Woods Campsite on Umbazooksus Stream it is 6+ miles to Chamberlain Lake via Umbazooksus Lake and Mud Pond with a difficult 1.8 mile carry across the Penobscot/Allagash divide.
A fun side trip in this region is to Allagash Lake via Caucomgomoc Stream from Chesuncook Lake. There's plenty to do at Allagash Lake, from diving into the water off ledge points to hiking the half mile trail up Allagash Mountain, fishing for wild brook and lake trout or exploring the Ice Caves on the northwest shore.
The Northern Forest Canoe Trail website has numerous trip planning tools to help you create the trip that best fits your interests, timeframe, budget, and paddling skills. Visit Plan A Trip, our Map Tool, and our Itineraries and Packages, selecting information on Sections 8 and 9 cover the Maine Lakes and Mountains Region. And, of course, every good paddling trip needs a good guidebook and good maps, all of which you will find at the NFCT Web Store. You are always welcome to call our office for more personal trip advice or to purchase maps over the phone:
Addition resources and attractions in the region include:
- The Maine Highlands
- Moosehead Lake Region Chamber of Commerce
- Maine Office of Tourism
- Moosehead Marine Museum:
Take a leisurely cruise on a National Historic Landmark, the steamboat Katahdin to enjoy the natural beauty and history of Moosehead Lake. The Museum also has an extensive collection of steamboat memorabilia and early photographs of the Moosehead area. The Marine Museum is dedicated to preserving the glorious days of steamboating and the heritage of the Moosehead Lake Region.
- Historic Pittston Farm
National Historic Register logging outpost at the edge of Seboomook Lake, now renovated as a wind and solar powered lodge, outfitter, campground, museum, and working farm.
- Chesuncook Village:
Headquarters for former logging operations and home to the last retail store you'll pass before Allagash Village about 90 water miles north.