Into the Wild: Best places to camp in Katahdin Woods and Waters NM

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I’ve been spending a lot of time recently in Maine’s newest national park unit, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. It’s a gorgeous place, and one that — at this early moment in its life as a park — walks a pleasant line between accessibility and wildness. It’s easy to get to and to get around in, but not crowded. It’s the ideal northern Maine experience, maybe best enjoyed from a tent.

Nick LundThere are currently 18 campsites, four three-sided lean-tos and two huts in the Monument, each available for reservation via the federal recreation.gov website. But with each campsite offering a slightly different adventure and experience, how do you choose? Let me help.

Best Site for Wildlife-watchers: Sandbank Stream

The Sandbank Stream campground is positioned right at the beginning of the park’s Loop Road, and near some of the most productive wildlife habitat in the park. The nearby Esker and Deasey Ponds trails offer quick walks through boreal birding habitat, and sought-after species like Boreal Chickadee, Canada Jay, Spruce Grouse, and Black-backed Woodpecker have all been seen from or near the campground. I’ve seen Red Fox on the road in, and Moose could be anywhere.

Best Site for History Buffs: Lunksoos Camps

A lot of incredible history has occurred within what is now the Monument, stories that park service staff are working hard to share with visitors. It starts with the Wabanaki use of the woods, of course, and continues to include Maine’s early lumbering history, area hunting camps, and visits from Henry David Thoreau and a young Theodore Roosevelt. But it’s the Lunksoos Camps that are the site of the most interesting historical footnote for many Mainers: it’s the spot where a 12-year-old Donn Fendler finally made human contact after the two-week journey chronicled in his 1978 book “Lost on a Mountain in Maine.”

Haskell Rock Pitch
Sunrise near Haskell Rock Pitch. (Portland Phoenix/Nick Lund)

Best Site for Photographers: Haskell Campsite

While the views of Katahdin are the main draw from the Loop Road and a few other vista in the Monument, it’s the East Branch of the Penobscot River that’s actually the most beautiful resource. An easy walking trail leading from the Monument’s north gate takes visitors past some of the East Branch’s most photogenic features, including the Haskell Deadwater and the Haskell Rock Pitch. A night at the Haskell Campsite puts you next to these spots during the prime light at dusk and dawn.

Best Site for Stargazers: Lunksoos Lean-to

The night skies in Katahdin Woods and Waters are absolutely spectacular. I was in the park with some photographers the other week and we ventured out to try some star shots. “I wonder if we’ll see the Milky Way,” they said. When we got out of the car it felt like we were in the Milky Way. It’s no wonder the park was recognized as New England’s first International Dark-Sky Sanctuary in 2020. The stars can be seen from anywhere on a clear night, but the isolated Lunksoos Lean-to might be the darkest spot of all.

Best Site for Winter Warriors: Big Spring Brook Hut

I visited the park in January 2021, the coldest weekend of the winter, and expected it to be empty. But pulling up to the north gate I was amazed to see a nearly-full parking lot filled with cross-country skiers and snowshoers. A few of these hardy souls were skiing out trailing sleds full of winter camping gear, after spending a few nights in either the Haskell Hut or the Big Spring Brook Hut. I simply cannot imagine enjoying sleeping outside in subzero temperatures, but these folks were laughing and hooting and hollering and having a grand old time. Book the winter huts and try for yourself.

Nick Lund of Cumberland is outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon. He has written about nature for the National Audubon Society, Down East, National Parks Magazine, The Washington Post, and others. He can be found online at TheBirdist.com and on Twitter @TheBirdist.

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