Maine Winter Hiking
By Robert Martin
As the days grow shorter and temperatures drop below freezing, our thoughts turn to the holiday season and the start of the new year. Popular activities, such as snowmobiling, ice fishing, and skiing seem to be on everybody’s mind. The ground has begun to freeze, allowing early winter snows to remain and babbling brooks to be muted by thickening sheets of ice. It’s a time when the crisp air has blown the last leaves of fall from the trees. We don’t commonly view this time as a good time to hike in the Maine woods, but that’s changing.
With the inventions of lighter, warmer base layer clothing and chemical reaction hand and foot heaters, more people are not only staying out in the chilly temperatures longer and longer, but they are also beginning to look for new ways to enjoy the Maine woods. In the past decade, snowshoeing and winter hiking have grown into an emerging sector of the Maine winter sports industry. Ski resorts are now offering ski and snowshoe packages. Outdoor-based programs put on by Maine State Parks and Land Preserves, such as the Roberts Farm Preserve, have grown in popularity with people wanting to get out and move during the winter. State parks, like Rangeley and Sebago Lakes State Park, traditionally shuttered for the winter, are now opening and offering winter programs for their trail systems, like free snowshoe and cross country ski rentals.
Backwoods hiking has also grown in popularity. Hikers enjoy the less crowded trails and absence of foliage, which affords them deeper views into the forest. This is a time when wildlife can be spotted more easily, perhaps a mink near a frozen brook or a snowshoe hare hoping through the underbrush. Roughed grouse, owls, and even turkeys can now be observed from a distance. Unique land features, Maine’s famous rock walls and old foundations, become easily identifiable. Areas once thought of as only summer locations, like Grafton Notch, Angel Falls, and Bigalow Mountain, are now seeing winter visitors.
Early winter hikes needn’t be all day experiences. One of my favorite hikes is a quick jaunt off from the East B Hill Road between Andover and Upton to a series of mountainous waterfalls and gorges, known as The Cataracts. It takes only a half hour or so to walk the entire trek, and the ice sculptured waterfalls in seasonal stasis make the trip well worthwhile. Another favorite, Piazza Rock, along the Appalachian Trail in Rangeley, takes about an hour to reach. A peaceful trail winds through majestic hardwoods and cozy softwood stands along the route to the hanging monolith. Go early, just after freeze up, as this notch is prone to deep snow by mid-winter.
For day long hikes, check out the Roberts Farm Preserve in Oxford Hills. There is an entire network of meandering trails through rolling hills, fields, and serene forests for hiking, snowshoeing, and cross country skiing. Maine Huts and Trails offer kitchen use and heated rooms at any one of their three secluded lodges after a daylong route through some of Maine’s most pristine woods. While in the area, be sure to visit the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center in Carrabassett Valley for a variety of outdoor adventures set in a beautiful backdrop of wintery Maine woods.
The key to enjoying these wintery hikes is being prepared. Dress in layers, with a base layer designed to wick away the moisture of perspiration to keep it from cooling on your skin. Wear fleece as lightweight warmth and an outer shell to deflect wind and precipitation. Plan your hike and hike your plan. Tell someone where you are headed and when you expect to return. Have a basic knowledge of map and compass navigation. Remember the usual recommendations: waterproof matches, a first aid kit, and a light source. Along with high energy snacks, consider a small Thermos of heated beverage or stew. We buy dozens of packages of chemical reaction hand, foot, and body warmers at cheap off season prices for use all winter long.
For more information, visit the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, Maine Huts and Trails, Sugarloaf Outdoor Center, and Maine Appalachian Trail Club.