Difficulty: Moderate. The 6.2-mile hike has a long “warm up” section, where you follow a trail around Kidney Pond and through a mossy forest to Sentinel Mountain. The trail then becomes steep as it climbs the mountain to form a loop near the top. Expect the trail to be very rocky and uneven but well-maintained and marked. Watch your footing, especially on narrow bog bridges and exposed tree roots, which can be slippery in wet weather.
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 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. Park in the day use parking area, which will be to your right and is marked with signs. Start your hike on Kidney Pond Trail, which begins right at the day use parking area.
Information: Topping off at 1,842 feet above sea level, Sentinel Mountain is one of the shortest named peaks in Baxter State Park, but from several overlooks near its top, it offers spectacular views of the region, including a front-and-center view of nearby Katahdin, the tallest mountain in Maine. Starting at Kidney Pond Campground, the hike up Sentinel Mountain and back measures 6.2 miles and travels over rugged terrain, with plenty of rocks and tree roots to keep you on your toes.
The hike begins on the Kidney Pond Trailhead, where you should sign the trail register so park rangers know the details of your trip just in case you become lost or injured and need assistance. That being said, all hikes in Baxter State Park are fairly remote, and help may take some time to reach you. Always pack enough water, food and provisions to spend a night in the woods (even if it’s not a particularly comfortable night).
Running to the west of Kidney Pond, the trail kisses the shore in a few locations and includes narrow bog bridges and rocky areas. During this part of the hike, listen and look for loons, which are known to nest on the pond.
At 0.3 mile, you’ll pass a trail leading to Celia and Jackson ponds. And at 0.5 mile, you’ll come to a second intersection where you’ll turn right onto Sentinel Mountain Trail to hike toward Beaver Brook and Sentinel Mountain Loop (which is the 0.6-mile loop atop the mountain).
Striking west, away from Kidney Pond, the Sentinel Mountain Trail winds through a mossy, whimsical stretch of forestland to the base of Sentinel Mountain, which is right on the southwest border of Baxter State Park. Perhaps that accounts for its name, as the landmark appears to stand off on its own, guarding the park like “a sentinel.”
The first half of the trail travels over gentle hills as you travel to the foot of the mountain. The trail also travels along the edge of a wetland and through lovely beds of moss on narrow bog bridges. This is a great place to look for a variety of plants, mosses, lichens and mushrooms.
A little less than a mile from Kidney Pond, the trail crosses Beaver Brook on a series of small boulders scattered throughout the brook. This is a bit tricky due to the size and angle of the rocks. Use caution while crossing the water, and if you have to get your feet wet, that’s OK. The brook isn’t deep.
From the brook, the trail starts to climb, very gradually at first, then the slope becomes steeper and rockier. Though hand-over-foot climbing is not required, you may find yourself grabbing onto tree trunks for purchase in a few areas.
At 2.3 mile from Kidney Pond, the trail splits into the 0.6-mile Sentinel Mountain Loop, which forms a circle around the top of the mountain, traveling over exposed bedrock and through beds of alpine plants (including lowbush blueberries) to visit several outlooks. If you hike this loop counterclockwise, you’ll soon reach a view looking northeast to Katahdin. There is no summit sign.
Covering more than 200,000 acres of mountainous forestland dotted with pristine ponds, Baxter State Park is home to about 215 miles of hiking trails and 337 campsites. The park was pieced together between 1921 and 1924 by former Maine governor Percival P. Baxter, who donated the property to the state of Maine so that it could be protected as “forever wild” and open to the public for low-impact recreation such as hiking, paddling, fishing and camping.
There are several visitor regulations you should know before visiting Baxter. 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: I stumbled out of my tent at 5 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 12, and zombie-walked to the pavilion of our group campsite in Nesowadnehunk Field. Baxter Barista John — a camper in our group who has adopted the task of brewing coffee in the morning for everyone to enjoy — handed me a warmed coffee mug and steered me to the coffee dispenser, already full of caffeine-filled goodness. Bagels waited on the nearby picnic table.
We would have been rising with the sun, I’m sure, but the thick cloud cover blocked it from view. It wasn’t the ideal weather for hiking, but we were determined. One group of hikers from our campground planned to climb Katahdin on Abol Trail, while another planned to hike the less challenging Sentinel Mountain. I was a part of the second group, and we totaled five hikers in all.
None of us had ever hiked Sentinel Mountain before. That was part of its appeal. I had been told by fellow hikers that the mountain offers spectacular views, but the clouds refused to lift that morning. We hiked the 0.6-mile loop around Sentinel’s summit in a cloud. It was a disappointment to not be able to see beyond a few hundred feet, but we didn’t let it dampen our spirits. The trail, in and of itself, was beautiful and offered a great workout. The views would have just been a bonus.
Highlights of our hike included a wide variety of interesting mushrooms growing alongside the trail; lush and undisturbed beds of bright green moss carpeting the forest floor; a pile smashed blueberries that we knew to be black bear scat; clean, cold water forming tiny waterfalls and clear pools beside the trail; wood frogs; granite boulders; and tall trees that sheltered us from the rain.