Difficulty: Easy to strenuous, depending on which trails you ski and how far you go. Altogether, the trails total over 15 miles. The Long Logan Loop, which is located near the visitor center, is hilly and more challenging, while the trails leading to the warming huts are easier, with just a few small hills. Parallel tracks for classic skiing are groomed into the trails in most places, which can make skiing much easier for beginners.
How to get there: Take Interstate 95 to Exit 244 for Medway. At the end of the exit ramp, head northwest on Route 157 toward Millinocket. (If coming from the south, it will be a left off the exit ramp; if coming from the north, it will be a right.) Drive past the Irving station (on your right) and take the next right onto Route 11. Drive 11.9 miles, then turn left at the Penobscot River Trails entrance. Follow signs 0.5 mile to the parking lot. A short trail to the visitor center is at the far end of the parking area. Be sure to stop by the visitor center to register before hitting the trails.
Information: The Penobscot River Trails is a network of more than 15 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails that explore forestland along the banks of the East Branch of the Penobscot River near Grindstone in Soldiertown Township. The network also features a 4.5-mile snowshoe trail, a visitor center with indoor restrooms and two spacious warming huts.
The trails are only open to the public on weekends and holidays. During weekdays, the location is used by the Maine Outdoor Education Program, free outdoor programming for students in grades 4 through 12.
The program, the trail network and the 5,000-plus-acre preserve its located on is funded by a charitable foundation established by New York philanthropist Gilbert Butler, who lives in Maine part-time and has long been an advocate for wilderness conservation and outdoor education for children and teens.
All visitors must register at the visitor center, which is just a short walk from the parking lot. Use of the trails is free, however, if you’d like to borrow ski equipment or snowshoes, they ask for a cash donation of your choosing to the Maine Outdoor Education Program.
The trails start right at the Visitor Center. At the first intersection, you can turn left to explore the 1.15-mile Long Logan Loop or right to check out the Silver Maple Trail, which leads to all other trails in the network, as well as the warming huts. Every intersection in the network is marked by a large wooden sign with trail names and often distances, which are always in kilometers. For the purpose of uniformity within my column, I’ll be converting these distances to miles.
The Silver Maple Trail travels north along the East Branch of the Penobscot River. Along the way, the trail will split several times as short side trails dive into the forest toward the river only to loop back to the main trail in a short distance.
About 2 miles from the visitor center, the Silver Maple Trail ends at an intersection where you can turn left onto the Riverside Trail or right onto the Tote Trail. The two trails are connected by four connector or “Link” trails and they connect at the far end of the network, at the kayak launch near Long Meadow Warming Hut.
The Riverside Trail, as its name implies, travels along the edge of the river through a mixed forest that changes in composition several times. A little less than a mile down the Riverside Trail is Link 1, a trail that acts as a 0.37-mile bridge between the Tote and Riverside trails.
Continuing on the Riverside Trail, the intersection for Link 2 and Pines and Ridges Warming Hut is about 3.7 miles from the visitor center. The hut — which is really a large building with giant windows and high ceilings with exposed beams — sits on a small hill from which you can see Katahdin peeking over the trees. Outside the building are ski racks and a small deck, and inside is a wood stove that is lit each morning, several round wooden tables with chairs, and benches lining the walls. Outside the hut is a vault toilet that’s open year round.
Back on the Riverside Trail, traveling north along the Each Branch, you’ll reach Link 3 about 5.8 miles from the visitor’s center; Link 4 is at 7.15 miles; the “Trail’s End” at “Kayak Launch 2” is at 8.7 miles; and the Long Meadow Warming Hut at 9.13 miles. This second warming hut offers an even nicer view of Katahdin, Maine’s tallest mountain.
On the Tote Road, these distances are slightly shorter because it is a straighter route than the windy Riverside Trail. From the visitor center to Long Meadow Warming Hut on the Tote Road is just 6.84 miles.
During the winter, these trails are only open to cross-country skiing. Other types of recreation, such as fat tire biking, are not permitted. The Tote Road is open to both classic and skate skiing, only classic skiing is permitted on the Riverside Trail, Silver Maple Trail and Long Logan Loop.
An additional trail — running from the visitor center to Pines and Ridges Warming Hut — is open to snowshoers. This trail is about 4.5 miles long and has yet to be marked on the trail map posted at the facility and provided to visitors.
In the summer, the trails — which are surfaced with crushed rock, much like the carriage roads of Acadia National Park — are used for hiking and biking. The facility also features a public hand-carry boat launch.
Dogs and other pets are not permitted on the property. Picnicking is allowed, but visitors are asked to carry out all food, drink and other waste. Camping, fires and cooking is not permitted. For more information, call 207-746-5807, find Penobscot River Trails on Facebook or visit penobscotrivertrails.org.
Personal note: The snow banks rose higher as we drove north on Interstate 95. Miles and miles of tall evergreens bordered the road on both sides, reminding me that the northern half of Maine is mainly forestland, home to more black bears than people. Steering off the Medway exit, we headed even deeper into the woods, into the unorganized townships of Grindstone and Soldiertown. And the snow banks just kept getting bigger.
I’d heard about the opening of the Penobscot River Trails just a couple days before, and I was eager to check them out. Groomed cross-country ski trails are always a treat, and having them run alongside one of the most significant and scenic rivers in Maine was a big bonus.
Following signs to our destination, my husband and I parked in the spacious parking lot with several other vehicles and promptly realized that we’d forgotten our ski boots. Fortunately, we were able to exchange a donation for rental boots at the visitor center, where we also received guidance from Danielle, a Maine Outdoor Education Program staff member who was manning the center that day. On a trail map brochure, she traced the trails she suggested we take. She also jotted down our names, where we were from and emergency contact information for our own safety.
Though we’ve been cross-country skiing for a few years now, we don’t go very frequently, so I’d still consider us beginners. For me, small hills are fun, while sizeable hills are intimidating. With that in mind, Danielle suggested we ski out on the Silver Maple Trail, then check out the Riverside Trail. It was already past noon, so we’d only have time to reach Pines and Ridges Hut before turning around and returning on the Tote Road.
Freshly groomed that morning, the trails were in excellent condition, with a smooth surface and distinct tracks that we could follow. As we followed the trails through the forest, we often traveled near the banks of the East Branch, which was covered in a uniform layer of ice and snow. We also traveled past wetland areas, where gnawed-down trees told us that beavers were hard at work. In one spot, we could even see where the industrious animals had moved through the snow, creating wide trails with their bulky bodies.
As planned, we turned around at Pines and Ridges Hut, which we found to be warm even though the wood stove had been lit early that morning. Sitting at a round wooden table, we nibbled on a couple granola bars and drank some water, wishing we’d brought something a little more exciting for a snack. Through the big windows of the hut we could see the snowy ridge of Katahdin peeking above the trees.
That sunny day — Saturday, Feb. 23 — had been their busiest day since opening at the beginning of February, we were later told. About 35 skiers had registered at the welcome center, visiting from as far away as Whitefield (a 2 hour and 30 minute drive). While on the trails, we passed by three pairs of skiers, a couple with what appeared to be their young daughter, and a solo skier. As word gets out, I can only imagine the trails will become even more popular, attracting people from all over to visit the region. I certainly plan to return. I’d like to make it all the way out to Long Meadow Warming Hut some day — if not on skis, than on my bike.