I drove three hours one way last February to go cross-country skiing. After I had happily skied the day away, I drove three hours home.
While we live in a state where many great adventures are at least a few hours’ drive away, even I have to admit that’s quite a cruise just to cross-country ski, especially when greater Portland has a host of glorious trails right here.
But that three-hour drive up Interstate 95 led to a parking lot in Grindstone. Beyond that lay 16 miles of groomed trails along the East Branch of the Penobscot River, two welcoming warming huts with views of Mount Katahdin, and the meandering tracks of moose in the snow (who no doubt enjoyed the scenery here as much as I did).
Penobscot River Trails is worth the drive.
Spotting a moose isn’t guaranteed, but the pretty river trail and the Katahdin views are always a sure thing at PRT.
Nestled along the East Branch of the Penobscot River and not far from Exit 244 of I-95, Penobscot River Trails has 25 kilometers of groomed terrain, including trails for classic and skate. Snowshoers and fat bikers are welcome, too.
This incredible parcel of pathways was created by philanthropist Gilbert Butler and opened to the public in 2019. In warmer months, walkers, joggers, and mountain bikers are welcome to roam the trails and have lunch in the huts. In the winter, the trails are groomed to perfection for cross-country skiing. Even neater: use of the trails is by donation, and there are cross-country skis and snowshoes available to rent on weekends, also by donation.
The PRT visitors center is staffed on Saturdays and Sundays from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Inside you’ll find rental gear, bathrooms, and can snag a trail map.
For those on classic skis or snowshoes, there are beginner-friendly trails that weave along the river and through the trees. Skate skiers can speed along on the wide Tote Road, which has some great river views, too. While relatively flat, it has some long inclines that gave this novice skate skier a good what for.
A stop at one or both of the warming huts – either for a lunch break, a warm-up, or simply to appreciate the views – is a must. They’re hardly “huts” by most standards; both are spacious and stunning, featuring walls of windows that look out to Katahdin. The Pines and Ridges warming hut is 6K from the visitors center and the closest to the visitors center. The Long Meadows hut is 11K from the visitors center via the Tote Road or 14K via the Riverside Trail – and the view of Katahdin from there is even better.
Both huts also have vault toilets close by.
During my solo ski – I’ve been learning to skate ski these last few winters and saw PRT as a fine opportunity to practice at my own pace – I encountered several skiers and snowshoers on the trails. Some were there for the first time, marveling at the amazing trails carved into the woods of Grindstone. Some were also trying cross-country skiing for the first time, making use of the rentals from the visitors center. One local, who said he loves to use the trails all year, even turned around to ski with me for a short while and offer a few encouraging words and pointers as I slogged up a hill.
I’d say Penobscot River Trails is definitely a welcoming place. And while I didn’t see any actual moose, I did see plenty of evidence of at least one, maybe with its progeny in tow, that had traipsed along the trail for a while before ducking back into the woods.
Perhaps I’ll spot some massive Maine wildlife when I return to PRT this winter. It’s a three-hour drive I’ll gladly do again.
Freelance writer Shannon Bryan lives in South Portland and is the founder of fitmaine.com, where she writes about the coolest ways to be active and get outdoors in Maine.