Barnard Mountain – Trail Review

Maine’s Katahdin Woods &  Waters National Monument is one of the most recent additions to the National Park System. President Obama designated the monument by executive order on August 24, 2016. But the story begins long before that. As early as 2001, Burt’s Bees’ cofounder, Roxanne Quimby, began purchasing logging land with the intention of creating a national park. Despite years of planning leading up to the 2016 designation, the monument still faces backlash today.

I won’t dive into the complex politics of the monument, which lies just east of Baxter State Park in north central Maine, but to give you a sense:

  • Many people in Sherman, the town nearest the monument entrance, still have “National Park NO!” signs in their front yards
  • The logging company that manages timberland adjacent to the monument, Prentiss & Carlisle, mark their roads and bridges with large yellow signs :”This bridge owner says ‘National Park NO!’
  • More recently, Maine’s governor attempted to block the installation of road signs directing visitors to the new area managed by the National Park Service until a few weeks ago
Mount Katahdin
The monument provides a few great views of Mount Katahdin.

Yet, in Sherman alone, rental and, guide services are springing up, the gas station is expanding, people are coming and spending money in places that have been experiencing steady economic and demographic losses in recent decades. Maybe the monument isn’t such a bad thing?

More on this another time. Now, to the Barnard Mountain Trail Review!

Barnard Mountain Leaves
Maples changing color along the Barnard Mountain Trail

Barnard Mountain Trail

Distance 3.3 miles (one-way) Entry Fee No entry fee
Hike Type Moderate climb Dog Friendly? Yes
Special Challenges None Features View, lean-to, brook crossing
From Sherman, Maine, follow Route 11 south (a slight left at a near 4-way) for 5 miles. As Route 11/Grindstone Rd. takes a sharp left, continue straight onto the gravel Swift Brook Rd. This is where you'll want a detailed road map to continue into the monument, which is another 17 miles on logging roads with many offshoots and a 15 mph speed limit. (During my visit, the dirt roads were in good condition.) If you cross the gorgeous East Branch of the Penobscot River on the Whetstone Bridge, you know you're getting close. Basic map: Katahdin Woods and Waters Recreation
Starting at the parking lot off Mile 11.8 of the Katahdin Woods & Waters Loop Road, the trail follows a former logging road now converted to International Appalachian Trail. The trail is wide and dips down to a bridge and lean-to at Katahdin Brook, and back up a hill. After 2.5 miles, the Barnard Mountain Trail spurs off the logging road and continues another 0.8 miles uphill to the summit. The climbs are moderate and steady, but not especially steep.
Barnard Mt Summit Sign
Signage marks the way from the International Appalachian Trail to the summit of Barnard Mountain.

Ratings

Includes: Scenic Scale, for pure beauty; Wilderness Factor, channeling Stegner or Zahniser, government designated Wilderness Areas receive an automatic 10; Moose-O-Meter, how likely you are to find moose, or other wildlife; and some wildcards. All ratings from 1 to 10. A “perfect” score is 30.

logging road trail
The start of the International Appalachian Trail, a logging road converted to trail, features gentle slopes and wildflowers.

Scenic Scale

  • Near peak fall foliage: +2
  • Not many features of interest along the trail: -2
  • Prize-winning views of Mount Katahdin, Katahdin Lake, and points west from the summit: +5

Scenic Scale: 5

View from the Summit of Barnard Mt
Incredible views from the summit of Barnard Mountain and a picnic table make this the perfect lunch spot!

Wilderness Factor

Wilderness Factor: 8

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet
This ruby-crowned kinglet was one of many birds enjoying the shrubs along the logging road trail.

Moose-O-Meter

After three years, I finally saw a moose in Maine. The moose was not on the trail, but near the official entrance of Katahdin Woods and Waters, just past the Sandy Bank Stream camping area.

I was driving out of the monument after my hike, when suddenly a massive phantom appeared in the middle of the road only 100 feet in front of me. I stopped my car, lost my breath, and we stared at each other. Coming to my senses (as a photographer), I grabbed my camera and slowly opened my door ready to peek out. But before I could, the 7-foot tall bull moose vanished into the forest.

  • Moose potential in Maine’s north woods—high: +8
  • An interesting assemblage of migrating songbirds along the old logging road, including kinglets, warblers, and a scarlet tanager:+1

Moose-O-Meter: 9

Wildcards

Trail Boulder Bonus

An extra point for the trail crew that build the Barnard Mountain Trail! The trail goes between two giant granite erratics that look like a cracked egg: +1

Cracked Boulder trail Barnard
Hikers are encouraged to squeeze through a small gap between these two 12-foot tall (or more) slabs.

Final Score

24/30

This hike is a great introduction to Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument. However, next time I visit the protected area near Baxter, I’ll definitely go for more than a day and hike along Wassataquoik Stream or bring my canoe to see its full beauty!

Katahdin Woods and Waters is full of interesting beasts and incredible vistas, so it’s no surprise that it receives a high score from our judges. If you’re looking for a real north woods adventure, Barnard Mountain Trail should be near the top of your list.

Stay tuned for more trail reviews and pictures from your humble photographer. In the meantime, please sign up for the email list, connect on Facebook or Instagram, and discover more Maine wildlife and landscapes in my gallery.

Wetlands in Katahdin Woods and Waters
This wetland pond is near the entrance gate to the monument—when you visit, leave plenty of time to explore!

Any photo included in this blog post, or elsewhere on this site, is available for purchase. Find out more.

Tunk Mountain – Trail Review

During my last years of high school, after discovering the independence that a car can offer, I became comfortable hiking solo. I slowly sought out the unmarked state land, never ending US Forest Service roads, or off trail hideouts. Places to simply escape and explore. The thrill of discovering these new areas by myself was exhilarating.

Today, I felt like I was in high school again.

Follow the blue blazes!

At 4:30pm, I set off right from work. I took to the hills of the Blackwoods Road—a Maine Scenic Byway that stretches from Franklin to Cherryfield.

Blackwoods stretches into post-glacial terrain encompassed by the 14,000 acre Donnell Pond Unit of Maine Public Reserve Land—a treasure trove of hiking trails, fishing holes, and swimming and boating spots. Almost entirely undeveloped, Blackwoods Road winds between erratic boulders much larger than cars and old pines and oaks whose boughs drape over the pavement’s margins. At any point, you feel as if a moose could appear along the roadway or a bear might peak out from behind a boulder.

The Blackwoods Road is one of the most well-kept secrets in Maine. The Tunk Mountain Trail is one of Blackwood’s gems.

Tunk Mountain Trail

Access

From Ellsworth, take Coastal Route 1 east 4.7 miles (toward Hancock or Milbridge). Turn left onto Route 182 or Blackwoods Road after the gas station and continue 6 miles. In Franklin, stay on Blackwoods Road for another 8.4 miles and the trailhead parking lot is on the left, marked by a large blue sign.

Tunk Mountain and Hidden Ponds Trail Intersection
The Tunk Mountain and Hidden Ponds trail intersection.

Difficulty

From the parking lot to the Hidden Pond loop trail, elevation gain is minimal, but roots and rocky ground may slow down your hike. After reaching the Hidden Ponds and skirting around the shallow western side of Mud Pond (about 0.7 miles in), the trail takes on a steep and rocky turn upward. The remaining 1.1 miles is strenuous, but even if you can commit to 0.4 intense miles, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views.

Map: 1.8 miles, one-way, to the summit of Tunk Mountain.

Witch-Hazel and Roots Tunk Mountain Trail
Exposed roots and rocks in the trail make for a typical Maine hike. Witch-Hazel, here turning yellow, is abundant along the trail.

Ratings

Includes: Scenic Scale, for pure beauty; Wilderness Factor, channeling Stegner or Zahniser, government designated Wilderness Areas receive an automatic 10; Moose-O-Meter, how likely you are to find moose, or other wildlife; and some wildcards. All ratings from 1 to 10. A “perfect” score is 30.

Scenic Scale

  • A mountain (granted, this is Maine: Tunk Mountain is only 1,157 feet above sea level) with a panoramic view of pocket ponds, scraggly peaks, and even the islands of distant Frenchman Bay: +6
  • Beginning of fall foliage: +2

Scenic Scale: 8

View from Tunk Mountain lookout
The view southeast from a lookout on Tunk Mountain.

Wilderness Factor

  • Not a designated wilderness, but remote (miles from the nearest town): +3
  • Easy to find on a map or by accident: -1
  • A largely contiguous chunk of conserved land, managed as an ecological reserve, allowing all sorts of wildlife to roam free: +4
  • Some cell phone coverage: -2
  • A fraction of the people who visit Acadia National Park (I was the only hiker during my visit): +3

Wilderness Factor: 7

Mud Pond on the Tunk Mountain Trail
Mud Pond on the Tunk Mountain Trail.

Moose-O-Meter

I have yet to see a moose in Maine. When my dreams come true, we’ll have a 10. Until then, this is an estimate of moose potential and other wild creatures encountered.

  • Moose potential—shallow ponds and wet woods away from the coast—high: +5
  • Frogs at Mud Pond are a half-point each: +3
  • Few birds or other wildlife: -2

Moose-O-Meter: 6

Mud Pond hobblebush
Hobblebush turning bright red by Mud Pond.

Wildcards

Bug Bonus

In the spring, this trail is probably pretty buggy. Today, it was spectacularly bug-free: +1

Bubble Bum Bonus

Pit toilets are bad news: putrid scents wafting from the underground chamber, hoards of flies, obscene drawings on the walls, and if you’re lucky you can maybe get a few scraps of toilet paper. But that’s not the case here. The pit toilet in the Tunk Mountain parking lot was clean and a pleasant smell of bubble gum filled my nostrils: +1

Big Tree Bonus

Sentinel trees stretch taller here than most of coastal Maine: +1

These popples (or apsen, which are in the genus Populus) are just some of the big trees along the trail.

Hummus Wrap & A Pickle

A perfect after hike meal from Flexit Cafe in Ellsworth: +1

Final Score

25/30

This hike inspired a possible series reviewing local trails, so it’s no surprise that it receives a high score from our judges. If you’re in Downeast Maine, looking for a half-day inland hike, Tunk Mountain Trail should be near the top of your list.

Stay tuned for more trail reviews and pictures from your humble photographer. In the meantime, please sign up for the email list, connect on Facebook or Instagram, and discover more Maine wildlife and landscapes in my gallery.

Any photo included in this blog post, or elsewhere on this site, is available for purchase. Find out more.

Searching for a Swamp Monster

The sun was setting and my friend Kali and I walked into Acadia National Park in search of a swamp monster.

You think I’m joking? This creature—recently seen at our very location—features the three key swamp monster identifiers:

  1. a love for  wet, buggy, decomposing lowlands. It’s found in these wetlands almost always alone. Who knows why? That unexplained solidarity must be monstrous
  2. an impeccable ability to conceal itself at all times
  3. and an unusual cry that strikes fear into any living being

The thrill of the chase made our hearts beat quickly with nervous fear and expectation. Although we stopped frequently, scanning and listening, to try to catch a sign of the swamp monster, we were unsuccessful. That is, until we trod on the famous Hemlock Trail, a classic path fenced in by crooked white birch trees and surrounded by tiny flowing streams and watery meadows.

The thrill of the chase made our hearts beat quickly with nervous fear and expectation.

Suddenly, we stopped, craning our heads toward the right—but the sound was just a few deer, who hopped away swiftly, white tails waving like flags behind them. With hope of monster discovery vanishing, we finally resigned to failure in our search, until Kali stopped dead in her tracks—she heard it.

Glug-glup glug-glup glug-glup

Faint, but distinct and audibly near. We made for the edge of the path, peering through the gaps in the birch rows. Maybe the monster was telling us to keep away.

We waited for it to repeat the warning cry.

A search for the swamp monster
Kali searching for the swamp monster.

A minute passed. We squinted toward the thick shrubs of the boggy meadow. Did we imagine it?

Glug-glup glug-glup glug-glup

We found our monster!

Unfortunately, our footwear was unfit for either swamp searching or tree climbing (I tried both). And already late for appointments that night, with the darkness looming closer,  we went away with only the monster’s song to haunt our dreams.

However, the next morning I came back prepared.

Swamp sparrow
A denizen of wet and marshy areas, the aptly named swamp sparrow shares many qualities with the swamp monster.

The “monster” we heard the night previous was in fact an American Bittern. These herons do live alone in wetlands (the only bird in their family that doesn’t nest in large colonies), but their song isn’t exactly harrowing, nor is it an evil warning cry—it serves the same evolutionary purpose that all vernal displays serve —it’s all about mating.

Singing swamp sparrow
Swamp sparrows, like many animals, “sing” or use other vocalizations to attract mates and defend territories.

The next morning, as I slowly trudged into the soupy mud of Great Meadow in hip waders, the sounds of spring only grew louder as I moved further toward the swamp’s center.

The songs of sparrows and warblers flooded the air accompanied by the dulcet croaks of wood frogs. The emerging scarlet leaves of red maples and deep greens of alders accented the glowing leatherleaf bells and the watery blues and bright grassy greens of the wetland.

Leatherleaf flowers
A common bog plant, leatherleaf, shows off white bell flowers.

Despite wetlands’ bad reputation, as I gently moved deeper into the swamp monster’s lair, I again discovered why bogs and marshes hold so much charm.

Maligned for much of American history — settlers and politicians alike favored land that could “do something” like grow crops or support homes — wetlands were often exploited or simply overlooked.

Besides, people saw swamps as the place of monsters, disease, and other evil, devilish things. For a long time, swamps represented an untamed and savage place that needed to be improved and cultivated.

Aspen trees
The fresh new leaves of the aspen trees glowed in the morning sun.

After an hour wading through the thigh-deep water and carefully stepping over flattened cattails, I finally heard the bittern sing out again.

Glug-gulp glug-gulp glug-gulp glug-gulp

Great blue heron
Swamp monster, is that you?

I spent hours that morning stalking my bittern. Eventually, I came into an opening within view of Acadia National Park’s loop road. Some people stopped their cars, got out, and peered into the picturesque meadow.

A few took out binoculars and cameras and pointed them my direction. As those people watched from the roadway, did they look at me, or the bittern that I couldn’t see, or just the scenery? Did it matter? After that morning, I felt as much part of the swamp as the swamp monster.

Eventually, I came to Cromwell Brook, which bisects the meadow, and at this point I could go no further in the singing bittern’s direction. As I stood at the edge of the gently flowing stream for some time, disappointed at not coming closer, I again heard the bittern repeating its eerie gulping just from the other side of the brook.

After that morning, I felt as much part of the swamp as the swamp monster.

But I never got a glimpse of it that day. And maybe that’s okay.

This video of an American Bittern signing comes courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s site All About Birds.

Thanks for reading this field note! You may notice that the style of my website has changed. These changes showcase top photographs while giving adequate space to these field notes that tell the stories behind the photos.

For more bird photos (and maybe a few “swamp monsters” of their own), check out the wildlife section of my gallery.