A Park in the Rough

The beauty of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument is that it hasn’t been developed yet.

By Ryan Wichelns
Photos by Lauren Danilek

It was well after dark as my Jeep bumped restlessly down the logging roads of the Maine backwoods. Out ahead of me, my high beams struggled to penetrate the otherwise untainted black and my head hurt from the focus it took to spot the silhouettes of potholes, stones and tree branches projecting into my path. I had wanted to see a moose on this trip, but not right now. By the time my headlights found one of the beasts in the road around the next turn, it’d be too late.

A “National Park No!” sign nailed to a tree reassured me I was going the right way. Aside from some vague dotted lines on a printed map, it was the only clue I had that I was where I wanted to be. Soon another sign, affixed on a one-lane bridge of adult-sized Erector Set pieces, appeared. This one read, “The owner of this bridge supports the National Park!” Northern Maine politics.

Finally, we rolled up to an open gate. The sign here was smaller and a little less official looking, but it was the one I wanted. Stapled to the fencepost was a small plastic binder sleeve protecting a single sheet of printer paper. The brown arrowhead of the National Park Service was unmistakable. “Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.” Welcome to your newest national park.

A few minutes from the “entrance,” we pulled off the road into what, even in the dark, looked like a sand pit. On one end was a tiny wooden outhouse, on the other a small kiosk displaying maps still labeled “Eliotsville Plantation” – this land’s name when it was private, just a few weeks ago. My friend Lauren and I were the only ones here, so we parked away from the road and hopped out.

In the calm air, there wasn’t a single sound, and above us the stars rolled out between the treetops. Katahdin Woods and Waters was among the cadre of eleventh-hour designations then-President Obama made in 2015. We were here hardly a month after its classification to explore and dig up some beta on our newest public land for a handful of magazines and websites—myself to write and Lauren to supply the photos.

I had spent a big chunk of the prior summer road-tripping between a slew of National Parks and National Forests, so I thought I knew what to expect. We were up early the next morning to continue along the park’s Loop Road, a standard feature of any National Park worth its salt, typically slow-going and choked with RVs and Greyhound buses.

This loop road was not typical. Even compared to the logging roads we had traveled the day before, it was rough traveling. Occasionally a tree branch would fwang into my car’s antenna or smack a side mirror. Softball-sized stones littering the gravel meant constant dodging in the narrow path, and the cloud of dust tossed skyward from behind my car turned the view out my rearview mirror into a brown cloud. Fortunately, there weren’t any cars behind us to obscure. There weren’t any ahead of us either, and as we made our way around the loop, we expected less and less to see another person.

For breakfast we pulled down a side road to a clearing looking west toward Millinocket Lake and towering Mount Katahdin. We cooked eggs at a quiet picnic table with the best roadside views in the monument, scratching words in my notebook to define a land that had yet to be shared.

At one time, every soon-to-be National Park was just an unexplored piece of land. For all the guidebooks, magazine articles, maps, websites, and visitors’ centers recommending bucket list hikes or worthy views, there was somebody that had to first go out and find those spots. That was our job.
As we made our way here from upstate New York, Katahdin Woods and Waters was a question mark. The brand-new Park Service website had a rough map of trails and roads, but there were no “must-see” hotspots or sample itineraries, no guidebooks or websites, no park rangers or nifty brochures telling
us where to go. We were on our own, and it was our job to explore and start the process of identifying the hotspots and recommended sights that will fill those brochures for other visitors down the road.

One with potential, based solely on a look at the map, was the park’s highest point, Deasey Mountain. At less than 2,000 feet, the harsh northern latitude has turned the summit into an exposed rocky crag, adorned with a tiny, antique fire observation cabin. We followed the path as it twisted between logging roads in the process of being reclaimed, spongy-fresh trails buried in leaves and logs, thigh-deep river fords and puzzling, unmarked intersections. This trail seemed as though no one had put the pieces together yet.

As we arrived on top, the winds were ferrying clouds along the horizon, obscuring then briefly revealing pieces of Katahdin in the distance. There were no roads to be seen. The textured dark green forest lay like a bulletproof shield over the mountains and river valleys below us. Any second, I expected
to see another hiker come sauntering up the trail. It was a beautiful day, on a spectacular summit; there were sure to be others trying to get in on our personal viewpoint.

We spent the night on the summit – without having seen anyone else – staring into the blackness that comes from miles upon miles of woods stretching all the way to the horizon without being tainted by a single light. When the wind stood still, the silence was nearly profound enough to keep me awake, my mind preemptively recoiling from the expectation that something was bound to shatter the quiet. But from where we sat, there was hardly more than a pinprick’s worth of humanity detectable. The experience of getting here made it hard to want to spoil that idea.

I jotted more words into my notebook, but this time the details were a little hazier. We felt like the only people on earth. From the climb to the top, to the solitude of the summit, to the infinite loneliness of the night, adventure never felt so real. And wilderness never felt so wild. This was my secret spot.

At the end of the week, on our way back to New York, Lauren and I decided to make the cursory stop at Maine’s other major piece of federal land: Acadia National Park. Traffic moved slowly leading up to the gates, passing the countless motels, gift shops, restaurants and tour companies bearing the park’s name. We made the requisite stop at the gift shop, hung a pass from my rearview mirror, and drove their paved tour road, even suffering my car’s air conditioning all the way to the summit of the park’s highest peak.

It felt familiar; this was what a National Park is really like. But it definitely wasn’t anything like the prior few days. This was too easy. Years earlier, someone had gone ahead and planned it all out for us, paving roads up Cadillac Mountain, planting little “viewpoint” icons in the shape of binoculars onto the map. They gave us more information and structure than we needed and removed the adventure in the process.

Acadia is beautiful—but it could be more beautiful. Take away the blacktop, replace the visitor’s centers with out-of-date wooden kiosks, the pull-through campsites with find-your own pull-offs, unmark the trails and delete the tomes of beta continuously collecting online. Turn it into an adventure, a destination in need of exploring. Turn Acadia into Katahdin Woods and Waters.

The difference between the two parks made it tough to justify my task at Katahdin Woods and Waters. I was there to turn it into Acadia, to tell people like us to go there, tell them what to see and how to see it. One day, the roads might be paved and packed full of people craning their necks out their windows to snap photos of moose grazing nearby. The hike up Deasey will be easy to follow and a crowd will loiter on the summit. The fun of exploring – and the secrets that we found – will be gone.

Maybe it’s selfish. After all, it’s not like Katahdin is in my backyard, and I wouldn’t have even known about it had it not been added to that most prominent category of recreation areas. Plus, federal protection certainly has its perks. I would never argue its status should be taken back, and anyone that would is misguided, in my opinion.

But I like the park the way it is, as a rugged, difficult place to adventure. As a mystery meant to be explored and discovered by each visitor, rather than an itinerary meant to be followed. As a place to escape the gaggles of tourists at other Maine locations. As a quiet, dark place to be alone.

This place definitely deserves to be included in that rarefied class of lands, it deserves the protections that come with it, the local community deserves the economic boost of its assured popularity, and people deserve to visit, admire and experience it.

But it doesn’t necessarily need to be easy. There’s something beautiful in the secret.


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1 Comment

  • I too am worried that Haskel Rocks will become a swimming hole with a paved parking lot and lifeguards and that companies will bring large groups on “wilderness” rafting trips. Hopefully the NPS will do something to keep it wild. It’s a beautiful place and I would hate to see it overcrowded and overrun.

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