Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument protects 87,500 acres of craggy mountain peaks, deep green forests, and free-flowing rivers and streams in Maine’s North Woods immediately east of Baxter State Park. Established in 2016, KAWW is a welcome addition to the growing mosaic of public and private conservation lands that range southwest across the 100-Mile Wilderness to sprawling Moosehead Lake and west to the Canadian border.

KAWW is open year-round for a range of recreational activities, from hiking, backpacking, canoeing, and kayaking to mountain biking, fishing, wildlife watching, and horseback riding. To get a true sense of this remote and rugged terrain, however, plan to visit in winter with your cross-country skis, snowshoes, sleds, and cold weather gear for a wild and wonderful experience in the awesome dark sky backcountry bordered by the East Branch of the Penobscot River.

Haskell Hit is a 6-mile trek from the Matagamon Gate. | Credit: Carey Kish

What to Expect at Katahdin Woods and Waters

Access to KAWW in winter is from the north only at Grand Lake Road just west of the big river and 24 miles west of Patten. Messer Pond Road then leads 0.7 miles south to Matagamon Gate and trailhead parking, a kiosk, and a vault toilet. From there, the International Appalachian Trail heads south through the monument to connect with several campsites, Haskell Hut and Grand Pitch Lean-to. Big Spring Brook Hut can be reached via a side route off the IAT.

The campsites and the lean-to are, as you might expect, primitive, with only a firepit, privy, and water source. The two huts, though, are rather luxurious by comparison. Each features bunks (but no mattresses or bedding) for eight persons, a wood stove and wood supply, propane lights, a kitchen area with a propane stove, sink, kitchenware, utensils, table and chairs, and a nearby water source. It’s good living in the middle of nowhere, that’s for sure.

KAWW staff pack down 25-30 miles of trails far into the northern reaches of the monument, depending on snow conditions. From Matagamon Gate, a Nordic track is set along Messer Pond Road, Oxbow Road, and Old River Road, which makes for a sweet loop of a little under 4 miles. Other than that, you’re on your own to explore at will hither and yon amid the sublime scenery and splendid solitude.

Denise Anderson skis the untracked Keyhole Road. The high summits of Traveler Mountain in BSP are in the background. | Credit: Carey Kish

Sample Itinerary

For a great introduction to KAWW in wintertime, here’s an adventurous itinerary that’ll get you a good look at many of the highlights of the monument.

Day 1: From Matagamon Gate, ski south on Messer Pond Road to Haskell Gate, then continue east to Haskell Hut (6 miles), making a side trip to Stair Falls en route. After getting settled into the cabin, wander along Haskell Deadwater on the Penobscot River, and be sure to check out the curious Haskell Rock, a 20-foot conglomerate pillar in the river’s middle.

Day 2: Pack up your gear and ski south on the IAT. Where the IAT branches east toward Grand Pitch Lean-to, bear right and continue southwest on Little Messer Pond Road. At 5 miles from Haskell Hut, a 0.3-mile side trail leads into Big Spring Brook Hut. Unpack and set up, and then strike out for the Lookout Trail, which leads a mile up to grand views of Katahdin.

Day 3: Ski east on Keyhole Road, then turn north on the IAT to reach the cool suspension bridge over the East Branch and fine views up and down the roaring river. Continue on the IAT, then veer off on the K Comp Rd. If you’re feeling extra ambitious, partway along, detour onto the ungroomed Old Telos Road to visit Grand Pitch Lean-to and Falls. Ahead on K Comp Road, soon after Little Messer Pond, close the loop and head for Haskell Hut to tuck in for a final night in warm and woodsy comfort. 10 miles.

Day 4: Depart Haskell Hut and ski north back to your vehicle at Matagamon Gate. 6 miles. By now you’ve most definitely earned a hot and hearty meal at Debbie’s Deli & Pizza and perhaps a cold craft beer at Katahdin Brew Works (check days and hours), both in downtown Patten, before heading for home.

KAWW is remote and primitive, cell service is unreliable, and help is likely to be a long way off, all attributes that bolster the allure and serve to make the experience that much more special. Any time you visit, but most certainly in winter, do your homework and arrive fully prepared for your intended activities.

For more information on hut reservations (mandatory), camping, winter trail conditions, trail maps, safety precautions, and more, visit www.nps.gov/kaww. Friends of Katahdin Woods & Waters is another excellent source of info.

Haskell Hut accommodated eight in cozy style. | Credit: Carey Kish