Difficulty: Moderate. The two-mile trail travels gradually uphill to Horserace Ponds, crossing several small brooks and traveling along an old, rocky stream bed for a span. While there are several small bridges along the trail, you may get your feet wet. Consider wearing waterproof footwear, and watch out for ice in the winter.
How to get there: The trailhead to Horserace Brook Trail is off an unmarked dirt road located about 5 miles north of Abol Bridge on the Golden Road. To get there, travel on I-95 to Exit 244. Off Exit 244, travel west on Route 157-Route 11 through Medway, East Millinocket and downtown Millinocket. At the three-way intersection after the second traffic light in downtown Millinocket, bear right. At the next “Y” intersection, bear left, staying on the main road (Route 157 ends in Millinocket, and the road to the park has many names, including Baxter State Park Road, Lake Road and Millinocket Lake Road). Drive about 8.4 miles, then veer left onto a short connector road that leads to the Golden Road. At the Golden Road, turn right and continue northwest. The Golden Road is a bit rough in some places. Watch out for potholes and give logging trucks plenty of room. Drive about 10 miles on the Golden Road and you will reach Abol Bridge, a one-way bridge that spans the West Branch of the Penobscot River. After crossing the bridge, reset your mileage and drive another 5 miles on the Golden Road. At the top of a hill, turn left onto an unmarked dirt road. Drive a few hundred yards to the end of the road, where there is a parking area at the trailhead of Horserace Brook Trail.
Information: The Horserace Book Trail is a 2-mile footpath marked with yellow paint that leads to Horserace Ponds. The trail and the pond lie in the 46,271-acre Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area (DLWA), a preserve owned and maintained by The Nature Conservancy since 2002.
Northwest of Millinocket, DLWA lies just south of Baxter State Park and contains the highest concentration of pristine, remote ponds in New England, as well as thousands of acres of mature forests. Debsconeag means “carrying place,” named by the native people for portage sites where they carried their birch bark canoes around rapids and waterfalls.
The Horserace Brook Trail begins on a sturdy footbridge that crosses Horserace Brook and heads west, traveling along a small stream.
At 0.5 mile, is a trail juncture. Veer right to remain on the yellow-blazed Horserace Brook Trail, which leads to Horserace Ponds in 1.5 miles. (If you instead veer left, you’ll be hiking the Blue Trail, which is marked with blue paint and leads to Clifford Pond in 1.1 miles, Woodman Pond in 1.8 miles and Rainbow Lake in 2.3 miles.)
Horserace Brook Trail continues to meander along Horserace Brook, which flows from Horserace Pond to the Nesowadnehunk Deadwater on the West Branch of the Penobscot River. The trail climbs gradually through a forest of mixed hardwoods and softwoods. The scenery is continually changing. One of the most notable stretches of the trail is where it travels through an impressive stand of old-growth hemlock. And as you near the pond, you’ll notice a number of large boulders strewn throughout the forest — some boulders larger than a pickup truck. (Unfortunately, a few visitors took it upon themselves to deface one of the largest boulders with graffiti.)
Horserace Ponds, surrounded by conifers and granite cliffs, cover an area of approximately 50 acres, according to a 1975 survey provided on the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife website. The name is plural because the body of water is actually two ponds (one much larger than the other) connected by a “shallow, rocky thoroughfare.” According to the survey, the hills surrounding the pond are forested with spruce, fir, white pine, paper birch and aspen.
The trail leads to three backcountry campsites on the eastern banks of Horserace Ponds, where visitors can stay with no reservations or fees. Camping at any one site is limited to a two week maximum stay, and campfires are allowed by permit only in existing fire rings at designated locations; and campers can use only dead and down wood.
The Nature Conservancy also asks campers to use the latrines installed at the campsites, and carry water for washing at least 200 feet away from streams or lakes and use small amounts of biodegradable soap.
Visitors are asked to not disturb or collect flora or fauna, and to “pack in, pack out,” removing all trash and leaving campsites looking better than when you arrived.
ATVs and domestic animals are not permitted on the preserve. Mountain bikes are not permitted on hiking trails. Hunting and fishing are allowed, according to state laws and regulations.
The Nature Conservancy manages DLWA as an ecological reserve, an area protected for conservation and wilderness study. Nearly half the forests in the preserve show no signs of past logging, and trees as old as 300 years have been found in remote areas on the property.
“Ideally, reserves are large enough to withstand storms, diseases and other natural disturbances and to provide secure habitat for wide-ranging species like moose, fisher, bobcat and pine marten. Ecological reserves are important to scientists studying how nature responds to challenges such as climate change, forest pests and disease, and airborne pollution,” according to The Nature Conservancy website, www.nature.org, where DLWA visitors can download a trail map and read up on visitor rules. For specific questions, call The Nature Conservancy in Brunswick at 729-5181.
Personal note: Moss, boulders and old forests — that’s what I picture when I think of the Debsconeag Lakes Wilderness Area. I first visited the giant preserve in May 2012, when I hiked to the Debsconeag Ice Caves for my birthday with my boyfriend Derek and friend Kim. Then in January 2013, Derek and I strapped on snowshoes and broke trail through about two feet of powdery snow to hike to DLWA’s Little Hurd Pond on the Appalachian Trail.
The hike to Horserace Pond on Dec. 7 was our third trip into the preserve. We had the trail to ourselves that day, which was also the case during the two other hikes I’ve enjoyed there. A thin layer of snow covered much of the forest floor, and the brooks and streams were icing up. As my memory of the hike fades, I’m sure the one thing I’ll retain about the trail will be the giant boulders that emerged from the forest as we neared the pond. These impressive landmarks, some angular and other rounded and covered in moss, surrounded the campsites, offering shelter and — at least for me — adding to the mysterious beauty of the pristine pond.