Difficulty: Very strenuous, but not as challenging as a hike up Katahdin. The hike is 7.4 miles total and includes scrambling over boulders and struggling up steep, rocky sections of trail. Also, prepare to get a foot or two wet when crossing Katahdin Stream.
How to get there: Travel on I-95 to Exit 244. Turn west on Route 157 and travel through Medway, East Millinocket and Millinocket. Bear right at the three-way intersection after the second traffic light in downtown Millinocket. Bear left at the next “Y” intersection, staying on the main road. Drive approximately 14 miles to Togue Pond Gatehouse, the south entrance of Baxter State Park.
After checking in at the gatehouse, veer left and drive about 7 miles to Katahdin Stream Campground where there is limited day parking as well as overnight parking for those who’ve reserved lean-tos and tent sites. To hike The Owl, start on the Hunt Trail, a section of the Appalachian Trail. The trial should be marked with white blazes.
Information: The Owl is a mountain that rises approximately 3,700 feet above sea level in Baxter State Park, not far from the park’s famous Katahdin.
There is no summit sign atop The Owl, and sources disagree on its elevation. For example, summitpost.org says the mountain is 3,736 feet above sea level, while AMC’s “Maine Mountain Guide,” 10th edition, says it’s just 3,434 feet.
The book “New England Hiking: The Complete Guide to More Than 400 of the Best Hikes in New England,” published in 2010, states that The Owl rises 3,736 feet above sea level and is “one of the most arduous hikes in Baxter State Park and one of its best-kept secrets.”
I would disagree about it being the most difficult hike in the park. It’s certainly challenging, but I rank several Baxter mountains to be more challenging.
To hike The Owl, start at Katahdin Stream Campground on the Hunt Trail (also known as the Appalachian Trail). The trail, marked with white blazes, rises very gradually. It’s a great warm-up before tackling more difficult terrain.
At 1.1 miles, you’ll reach a trail junction at Katahdin Stream Falls. Here, you’ll veer left, leaving the Hunt Trail for The Owl Trail, which is marked with blue blazes. It’s important to note that this is the last opportunity to use an outhouse. There’s an outhouse just beyond the trail junction on the Hunt Trail, past the wide wooden bridge that spans Katahdin Stream by Katahdin Stream Falls.
The Owl Trail is 2.6 miles and leads to the mountain’s summit. Not far past the trail junction, it crosses Katahdin Stream. There is no bridge, so you’ll need to hop from rock to rock or simply wade through the shallow stream. To cross without getting wet, you may need hiking poles or a walking stick to help balance on the rocks.
The Owl Trail becomes increasingly steep and rocky, with a few level sections, which are great for catching your breath and stretching your legs. The trail travels through a mostly evergreen forest, which opens up to provide views only a couple times before the open summit, which provides a 360-degree view of the mountainous region, including a stunning view of Katahdin to the east.
To learn about Baxter State Park rules, visit the Baxter State Park Authority website at www.baxterstateparkauthority.com. In general, follow Leave No Trace principles and while planning your visit, keep in mind that dogs are not permitted in the park. For information, call 723-5140.
Personal note: My first hike of The Owl was with The Summit Project, a nonprofit organization with the mission to create a living memorial to Maine’s fallen heroes. I joined The Summit Project on May 24, 2014, to document their first major group hike. My frequent hiking buddy Derek joined me as camera support, but only after I promised to pay his way and provide an abundance of delicious snacks.
We stayed at Twin Pine Camps just outside Baxter State Park, where most of the other Summit Project hikers and volunteers were staying. I packed for the most primitive conditions and was pleasantly surprised to find that the cabins not only had electricity, but a flush toilet, shower, full kitchen and ceiling fans! On the night before our hike, I fell asleep (on a mattress!) to the call of loons on Millinocket Lake and woke up refreshed and ready to go.
The Owl Trail was beautiful and well-maintained, and I would suggest it to anyone planning to hike Katahdin. The terrain is similar but it isn’t as difficult, in my opinion.
Highlights of the hike, for me, was traveling beside Katahdin Stream; walking through the mossy evergreen forest; and arriving at the outlook before the summit of The Owl, where you can see Katahdin as well as the cliffs on the steepest side of The Owl.
On the mountaintop, The Summit Project hikers removed tribute stones from their packs. Each stone represented a Maine service member who died in the line of duty since Sept. 11, 2001. They laid the stones on the bedrock and said a few words of remembrance before carrying the stones back down the mountain. Baxter State Park prohibits any items being left in the park by visitors. This includes stones and other memorial objects. The carry-in, carry-out policy is in honor to the park donor Percival Baxter’s wish that the park remain “forever wild.”
On the summit of The Owl, while I did my best to film the event with the unattached air of a journalist, I couldn’t help but be deeply moved. I won’t soon forget my time up there. To learn more about The Summit Project and see a video that focuses more on their mission that day, click here.
More photos from the trip: