Difficulty: Easy. The narrow, 0.5-mile trail travels along the top of an esker on sandy soil that makes walking easy. Expect gradual slopes.
How to get there: From a bend in Route 11 at the center of Stacyville (a town that is just north of Millinocket and Medway), turn left onto the gravel Swift Brook Road. Set your odometer to zero. In about 1 mile, you’ll cross a bridge over Swift Brook. At 5.2 mile, veer left to stay on Swift Brook Road. At about the 7 mile mark, you’ll cross over the East Branch of the Penobscot River on a long, one-lane bridge high above the water. At 9.8 mile, you’ll pass by Sandbank Stream Campsite, and at 10.1 miles, you’ll come to a sign for Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument by a wetland area. Right before the sign, at the bend in the road, turn into a small parking area on your left. The trail starts right at the parking area.
Information: Traveling up and along the top of a sandy esker in Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, a 0.5-mile footpath is the first numbered stop on the Loop Road Interpretive Map, a resource recently published by the nonprofit Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. The trail is unnamed at the time I’m writing this column, so I have decided to refer to it as the Esker Trail. (Let’s see if the name sticks.)
Starting near the south entrance of the national monument, at a small parking area off the Katahdin Loop Road, the trail climbs gradually up the esker, which is a sand and gravel ridge formed by a meltwater stream running beneath a retreating glacier thousands of years ago. Prominent eskers occur throughout the monument.
Soon after the trailhead, you’ll reach a trail intersection. Continue straight ahead to hike down a short side trail to the banks of Sandbank Stream, at a small wetland area formed by a beaver dam. There the trail bends right and travels along the grassy shore to end at a wooden bench. This location is a great spot for birding. Look for a variety of species, including the kingfisher, red-shouldered hawk, great blue heron, swamp sparrow and common yellowthroat warbler, according to the interpretive drive brochure, which provides a wealth of information about the birds that live throughout monument. Moose and beaver are also often seen from this spot.
Backtracking to the trail intersection, turn north to hike to the top of the esker through a forest of spruce, balsam fir and white pine. The well-worn path is lined with low-bush blueberries, ferns and in some spots, beds of lichen and moss. Woodland flowers that are native to the landscape, including bunchberries, lady’s-slippers and trilliums, grow along the trail as well.
When it comes to birds, keep an eye out for the Eastern wood peewee, magnolia warbler, white-throated sparrow and the rare black-backed woodpecker, according to the interpretive drive brochure. Garter snakes — which are harmless to humans — can also be found on the esker.
Following the ridge of the esker, the trail leads to a log bench at highpoint where you can look out over the forest. To the west, Katahdin rises above the treetops. From this vantage point, you can see the upper half of the mountain, which tops off at about a mile above sea level, and if you know Katahdin well, you can distinctly identify the mountain’s summit, Baxter Peak (to the left) and the lesser Pamola Peak (to the right), connected by the narrow mile-long ridge called Knife Edge. Also, just before Pamola Peak, you can see where Knife Edge dips at The Chimney.
From the outlook, the trail continues along the esker, heading gradually downhill to end at the Katahdin Loop Road, less than 0.5 mile north of the trailhead. You can walk back along the gravel road or backtrack on the trail for a hike that is about 1 mile long. This trail is great for families with small children. It’s also just a nice jaunt for someone driving on the Katahdin Loop Road if they want to stretch their legs or look for wildlife.
Dogs are permitted in the monument if on leash and under control at all times. Pick up after your pets and yourself, leaving nature as you find it. Hunting is not permitted in this section of the monument, and camping is only permitted at designated campsites.
For more information, visit nps.gov/kaww or friendsofkatahdinwoodsandwaters.org.
Personal note: Lined with fragrant evergreens, tall ferns and bushes filled with ripe blueberries, the Esker Trail (as I call it) was a beautiful walk that was just long enough to get my heart pumping and just short enough to classify as a “jaunt.” Traveling over smooth terrain and including a view of the mighty Katahdin, it’s the perfect walk for kids. It was also a great hike for my co-worker, BDN Outdoors editor John Holyoke, who is pretty much a big kid. I think he and anyone who has met him would agree.
So on the morning Aug. 10, John hardly grumbled at all as we walked the Esker Trail down to the stream, then up over the esker. It was technically his first “1-minute hike” experience, and he was a natural hiking companion, pausing each time I sat on the sandy soil to photograph a tree mushroom or trillium berry, and quickly stepping aside each time a garter snake slithered in front of us on the trail, offering me plenty of room to capture a good photograph of the harmless reptile.
At the outlook, John and I stood by the bench to photograph Katahdin — just its top half, blue and distant, rising over a seemingly endless and unbroken sea of trees. We then descended the esker and walked back to the trailhead on the Katahdin Loop Road.
Perhaps we should have ended our day’s hiking excursions there, but later that day, we hiked three miles in to Orin Falls — a top destination in the national monument — then three miles out. That involved a greater degree of grumbling from John, and a few dozen bug bites that had me whining and itching for days. But when all was said and done, I think John got a better understanding about why I like adventuring on foot so much, despite the discomforts. In fact, I caught him looking at hiking packs — those capable of carrying fly fishing gear — on the internet at work last week.