Difficulty: Moderate. Starting from the Great Pond Mountain Trailhead, the hike to the top of the mountain and back down is about 2.5 miles and includes gradual climbing over bare bedrock, stone staircases, uneven terrain, exposed tree roots and a few soggy sections of trail. The trail is well built, marked and maintained, but it can be easy to veer off trail near the top of the mountain, where the trail forms a loop, especially during the wintertime, when snow covers the painted blazes that mark the trail on the bedrock.
How to get there: From Route 1-Route 3 (Acadia Highway) in east Orland, turn onto Hatchery Road, which is a little more than a mile west of the intersection of Route 1-Route 3 and Route 15. Drive 1.4 miles and you’ll pass by the Craig Brook National Fish Hatchery on your left, then the road takes a bend to the right and becomes Nature Trails Road (also known as Don Fish Road). Drive 0.5 mile and you’ll be at the Dead River Gate. Park here in the winter when the rest of the road is not plowed. However, if the road is open, continue past Dead River Gate for just over 0.5 mile and you’ll reach the Great Pond Mountain Trailhead and parking area.
Information: Topping off at 1,020 feet above sea level, Great Pond Mountain is the tallest and most prominent mountain in the 4,300-acre Great Pond Mountain Wildlands in Orland. With open ledges near its summit that offer great views of the region, this mountain features the most popular hike in the Wildlands, which is home to a vast network of hiking and multi-use trails.
From the Great Pond Mountain Trailhead, the Stuart Gross Trail leads gradually up the mountain, first traveling up through a mixed forest composed mostly of hardwoods. This first section of the trail includes a scenic wooden bridge, stone steps and interesting boulders. The trail is marked with blue painted blazes.
Approximately 0.3 mile into the hike, the trail reaches an intersection with Hay Ledges Path and Connector Trail (which leads to the Dead River Trail). Turn right to stay on the Stuart Gross Path and continue up the mountain, reaching the top in 0.9 mile. This section of the trail includes thick stands of evergreen trees, clearings filled with colorful lichen and a lot of exposed bedrock.
The trail ends in a loop that can be confusing as it ducks into the woods and takes several sharp turns. Be sure to follow the blue blazes and in some cases, flagging tape. The actual summit of the mountain was not marked with a sign as of May 2017, and at that location, any views you might get are blocked by evergreen trees. However, the loop leads to a side trail along open ledges that offer great views of the area.
Great Pond Mountain Wildlands was acquired in 2005 by the nonprofit Great Pond Mountain Conservation Trust, an organization that began with a group of local residents who thought it was important to conserve this vast swath of undeveloped area in Orland for future generations to enjoy. The nonprofit was founded in 1993, but it wasn’t until 2007 that the Wildlands Campaign was officially completed, raising a grand total of $2.86 million for the purchase of the Wildlands and to create a stewardship fund. Since then, the trust has expanded its mission, conserving other parcels of land in the area. The land trust currently owns two small properties in Bucksport and holds conservation easements on significant properties in Orland and Dedham.
The Wildlands is broken up into two large parcels: the 875-acre Dead River Parcel and the 3,420-acre Hothole Valley Parcel. Both are managed for wildlife habitat and low-impact recreation, such as hiking, cross-country skiing, horseback riding, hunting (by registration), fishing, mountain biking, paddling and snowmobiling.
The Dead River Section includes the western side of Great Pond Mountain and two miles along the banks of the Dead River. There are three miles of gravel road and hiking trails on this section, which is reached by Hatchery Road. The Stuart Gross Path is located on this parcel, and in recent years, Maine Conservation Corps crews worked to improve this popular trail with features such as rock staircases.
The Hothole Valley Parcel is to the west and includes the valley that lies between the peaks of Great Pond Mountain, Oak Hill, Flag Hill, Flying Moose Mountain, Hothole Mountain, Condon Hill, Mead Mountain and Hedgehog Hill. The valley is bisected by Hothole Brook, which winds through swamps and beaver meadows to feed into Hothole Pond. Fourteen miles of gravel roads are on the property, as well as hiking trails that lead to the top of Flag Hill, Flying Moose Mountain, Mead Mountain and Oak Hill.
In 2006, Alison C. Dibble (Stewards LLC) partnered with ecologist Catherine Rees to conduct a six-month natural resource inventory of the Wildlands. A report of the inventory states that 79 species of birds were found, as well as 14 vegetation communities recognized the the Maine Natural Areas Program. They recorded 400 species of vascular plants, including two listed rare plants. The report also notes bald eagle, woodcock, whip-poor-will, legacy trees, vernal pools and beaver flowages.
Access to the Wildlands is free. To learn about public use, ways to donate and to download a map, visit greatpondtrust.org. For information, call the GPMCT office at 207-469-7190 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Personal note: A thick blanket of fog clung to the dripping forest of Orland on May 7, as we drove through a stand of towering pines in the Dead River Parcel of the Great Pond Mountain Wildlands. It had been raining for days, and the forecast finally called for afternoon sun.
I was headed to Great Pond Mountain Trailhead, and I was a bit nervous. A writer and photographer working for a local magazine would be joining me, and their goal was to collect enough photos and information to create a story about me — well, mainly the hiking blog I produce for the BDN, as well as my first book “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine,” which was just released by Down East Books.
I’m not sure how much I should say about the magazine and their assignment, but I would be remiss not to mention their presence in their hike, although I made sure not to include them in my photographs or video of the trail. All I’ll say is that it was a bit unusual to be on the other side of the reporter-source relationship. I’m used to interviewing people, not the other way around.
The hike started like any other. As usual, I stood by the trailhead kiosk, clutching my dog’s leash while my husband, Derek, held the camera on me and I announced our destination on film. We then headed up the Stuart Gross Path, and the magazine crew followed us, all the way up the mountain.
The last time I hiked Great Pond Mountain, it was in the midst of winter four years ago, and I had clambered up its snowy slopes in snowshoes. At the time, my dog, Oreo, wasn’t even a part of our family! So on May 4, it felt like an entirely new hike to me. Water poured down the mountain over the exposed granite near the top, and leaves were unfurling in the forest. Turkey vultures wheeled through the air near the cliffs on the mountain’s south side, and as we walked the loop trail at the top, the clouds shifted to reveal the sun.
I’d suggest this hike to anyone looking for an easier mountain hike. There are no steep sections, bouldering or hand-over-foot climbing. The most difficult aspect of this hike is navigating the top. Just keep in mind that the trail loops around to explore the top of the mountain. Look for the blue blazes and you’ll be fine.