It’s definitely the boat ride across Moosehead Lake that makes a visit to Mount Kineo State Park so alluring, bouncing through the chop toward a handsome wall of rock that grows bigger by the minute.
It could also be Kineo’s striking cliffs, which rise up 700 dramatic feet and form a rhyolite wedge on the lake’s surface, like a waterskiing ramp for giants.
And then there’s that fire tower at the top, offering 360-degree views of Moosehead Lake as well as other neighborhood summits like Little Kineo, Big and Little Spencer Mountains, and Big Moose.
Frankly, it’s all of these things.
Stationed on the edge of Moosehead Lake across from Rockwood, Mount Kineo’s charm comes from its not-so-easy accessibility and its unique shape and composition.
You need a boat to get there in the warmer months. Mount Kineo Golf Club shuttles golfers and hikers by boat between the Rockwood town landing and Kineo every hour or so during their open season. The trip takes about 10 minutes and costs $14 per person, cash only. Kids under 5 and dogs are free. No need to purchase tickets in advance; you’ll pay the captain when you board.
In the winter, when Moosehead is covered in ice, Kineo-goers can snowmobile or snowshoe across the lake.
The last time I visited Kineo, it happened to be the final weekend of shuttle service (this year the shuttle runs until Oct. 10). It also happened to be raining, but my friend Melanie and I weren’t deterred. We wanted to take in the fall colors from Kineo’s cliffs, whatever the weather.
The shuttle ride over gives hikers a chance to appreciate Kineo’s memorable shape from a distance. That tree-covered wedge is the work of a passing glacier moving over a once-active volcano. It’s what remains of the cooled, hardened magma inside. As the ice sheet moved over the region, from northwest to southeast, it eroded that volcanic rock into a gradual slope that rises up and then abruptly ends in a sheer cliff. Kineo is believed to contain one of the largest formations of rhyolite in the world, a material that was once used by indigenous peoples to craft arrowheads, hatchets, chisels, and other tools.
The Mount Kineo Golf Course has a clubhouse with a small menu of foodstuffs, and bathrooms, which the staff were kind enough to let us use. But do note that the golf course is on private property and isn’t part of Mount Kineo State Park, so don’t go aimlessly wandering around over there.
There’s a smidge more than six miles of trail here and a few options for reaching the summit and the fire tower (which aren’t in the same spot). The Indian Trail (0.5 miles) is the steeper and more challenging route up, and also offers the best views. The Bridle Trail (0.8 miles) is easier and follows the original fire warden trail before eventually meeting up with the Indian Trail. The Carriage Trail (2.2 miles) is easygoing and follows the shoreline along the west side of the peninsula all the way to Hardscrabble Point. From there you can continue on to the North Trail (1.9 miles), which follows the shoreline on the eastern side of the peninsula before climbing up more steeply to the fire tower.
To get to any of the trails, you’ll begin on the Carriage Trail, steps away from where you’ll depart the shuttle. This wide and well-packed path follows the shoreline, so hikers are treated to lake views to the left and steep rock face to the right. It’s a scenic delight.
Once you’ve made your way up via your trail of choice, absolutely visit the fire tower.
There’s been a fire lookout on Mount Kineo since 1910 (it was first a wooden house, then a steel tower). The tower was regularly staffed until 1962; in 1993 it was restored and converted to an observation tower by the Maine Conservation Corps. It boasts incredible 360-degree views.
With an elevation gain of around 900 feet, this hike will certainly get your heart rate up. Add in the shuttle across Moosehead Lake on an early fall day when the trees are beginning to pop with color and this cool day trip feels like a bigger adventure.
Shannon Bryan is a writer and outdoor enthusiast who lives in South Portland. Find her at shannonkbryan.com.