Difficulty: Easy to moderate. This hike is 4.6 miles, out and back, and includes an quietwater paddle on a small stream and pond that totals about 1 mile, out and back. The trails are traditional hiking trails, traveling over uneven forest floor that includes plenty of rocks, exposed tree roots and narrow bog bridges that makes footing tricky in some areas. There is a gradual change in elevation as you hike along Windy Pitch Pond Trail, with a couple small, steep hills.
How to get there: Travel on I-95 to Exit 244, then turn west on Route 157 and travel through Medway, East Millinocket and Millinocket. Drive straight through two traffic lights in downtown Millinocket, then bear right at a three-way intersection, then bear left at the next “Y” intersection, staying on the main road. (Along the way will be signs directing you to Baxter State Park.) Drive about 16 miles to the Togue Pond Gatehouse. (The blacktop road turns to gravel soon before the gatehouse.) After registering at the gatehouse, veer left at the Y intersection and drive 10.4 miles, then turn left onto the driveway to Kidney Pond Campground. Drive about 0.5 mile to the campground and park in the day use parking area, which will be to your right and is marked with signs.
Information: The Niagara Falls are among the many stunning natural landmarks in Baxter State Park, but tucked into the forest south of Kidney Pond, a small percentage of park visitors ever see these waterfalls, even though there are two established hiking trails that lead to them.
The two waterfalls, known as Little and Big Niagara — are located on the Nesowadnehunk Stream just south of Lily Pad Pond. To visit the falls, people can either start at Daicey Pond Campground and hike south on the Appalachian Trail for just over 1 mile, or they can start at Kidney Pond Campground and opt for a lesser-known route that includes a total of 4.6 miles of hiking and about a mile of paddling a park canoe on fairly quiet water.
For the purpose of this column, I’ll focus on this second, less-traveled option.
For this adventure, the first thing you’ll want to do is make sure to pack a lifejacket for every person in the group, as well as paddles for the canoe, unless you plan on borrowing paddles from Kidney Pond Campground. Then, when you register at the Baxter’s south gatehouse, ask if you can borrow the keys to unlock the canoes for Lily Pad Pond. The ranger at the gatehouse may have the keys, or the ranger at Kidney Pond Campground may have the keys. If the latter is the case, the gatehouse ranger can call ahead so they are ready to meet you at the campground. You’ll also want to specify whether you need to borrow paddles or not.
After parking at the day use parking area at Kidney Pond Campground, make sure you have your hiking gear, paddles, lifejackets and the keys for the canoes before signing the trailhead register at the nearby Kidney Pond Trail. The sign at the trailhead will tell you that the trail to Lily Pad Pond is in 0.9 mile. That is where you’re headed.
Walking along the west shore of Kidney Pond, you’ll pass several side trails, including a trail leading up Sentinel Mountain, another great hike. Just continue on Kidney Pond Trail, walking around the scenic pond to its south end, where you’ll veer right onto Lily Pond Trail.
Lily Pond Trail heads south, away from Kidney Pond, traveling through a quiet mixed forest, that includes dense stands of spruce trees and moss-covered boulders. In 0.4 mile, the trail exits the forest and becomes a series of narrow bog bridges that strike through tall grasses and shrubbery to reach the edge of Beaver Brook. On the muddy, grassy banks of the brook, the trail ends at a small boat launch where you’ll find park canoes locked to a wooden rack by chain and padlock. Use the park key to unlock the canoes and select which one you’ll use on the next leg of the adventure.
Once in the canoe, head downstream, and as you paddle, check out the different species of plants growing along the edge of the water, including carnivorous pitcher plants. Also keep an eye out for waterfowl and moose, which frequent this lazy waterway.
In less than a quarter mile, the brook bends to the right and enters Lily Pad Pond, which at 20 acres can become a bit rough if the wind picks up. Located in an extensive bog, Lily Pad Pond is surrounded by shrubs and plants associated with open spruce bogs, according to a survey of the pond conducted by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Game in the 70s. The survey states that the pond is home to brook trout and has a maximum depth of 15 feet.
Upon entering the pond, turn left and paddle close to shore. To your left (northeast) you’ll get an excellent view of Katahdin surrounded by lesser mountains. Keep your eyes peeled and you’ll also spy a weathered wooden sign with an arrow pointing east. Paddle to the southeast corner of the pond to a small outlet, where you’ll find Windy Pitch Pond Trail marked with blue blazes. Pull your canoe on shore and follow the trail into the forest. You’ll soon find a sign with mileages for the hike ahead.
Traveling gradually downhill through a mixed forest, the trail reaches a short side trail to Little Niagara Falls in 0.3 mile, and Big Niagara Falls in 0.2 miles. Trails lead to viewpoints above and below both of the falls on open rock ledges on the west banks of Nesowadnehunk Stream.
After the waterfalls, the trail continues 0.5 mile, winding through a particularly beautiful forest filled with moss and boulders to the edge of Windy Pitch Pond, which covers about 8 acres and is surrounded by dense shrubbery. Unfortunately, there is no where to sit comfortably and enjoy the quiet scene. At this point, you simply turn around and backtrack your steps (and paddle strokes) to Kidney Pond Campground.
Baxter State Park has several visitor regulations you should know before visiting. For example, dogs are not permitted in the park. Some parking areas may require advance registration. And while day use of the park for Maine residents is free, there is a small fee upon entry for non-residents.
For more information about the park, visit baxterstatepark.org or call the park reservation office, which is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., at 207-723-5140.
Personal note: Thousands of black flies appeared to be attacking the south gatehouse of Baxter State Park when I arrived around 10 a.m. on May 18, and asked for the keys for the Lily Pad Pond canoes. In the passenger seat of my Subaru my hiking companion for the day, Greg Westrich of Glenburn, author of the new guidebook “Hiking Maine’s Baxter State Park.” We’d planned the outing to talk about his book. I thought such an interview would be most appropriate in the woods of Baxter, plus it gave me an excuse to visit a park I love so much.
The day was oddly hot, with temperatures rising to the mid 80s, and that heat — paired with a warm breeze — kept most of the biting flies at day during our hike-paddle to Windy Pitch Pond.
As we walked over worn wooden bog bridges along the shore of Kidney Pond, a loon called across the water. And as we neared Beaver Brook, Westrich invited me to hike ahead of him and have my camera at the ready, just in case we came across a moose by the water. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, but we did enjoy a number a tiny blue butterflies fluttering over the water, and while paddling, we spooked two mergansers (ducks) swimming downstream of us.
For me, the highlight of the hike was Big Niagara Falls. With the water level high on Nesowadnehunk Stream, the waterfall was truly a sight to behold. Water rushed over the stream’s granite ledges, crashing and churning below. Mist tickled my face as I watched, mesmerized by the stream’s wildness. The experience was similar to staring at a fire, a captive audience to the movement and beauty of the flames, cinders and smoke.
Westrich hikes fast, often mapping multiple trails for his guidebooks in one day, but he was patient with my much slower pace as I paused to photograph the pink blossoms of a young tamarack tree and the roots of a birch tree wrapped around a boulder. In fact, by the waterfall, he called me over to a jumble of rocks near the water’s edge to show me a large spider — perhaps a fishing spider — sprawled out on the granite. I confessed to Westrich that I’m equally fascinated and afraid of spiders, explaining the goosebumps on my arms as I crept forward to photograph the arachnid, my macro lens just a few centimeters from its eight dark eyes.