The new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument isn’t in Maine’s Midcoast, but it isn’t far. The park is an exciting and important addition to the state’s portfolio of preserved wildlife, and one that will contribute to the north woods economy as tourism develops in the area.

The southern part of the monument area, opened last August, is roughly a three-hour drive from Bath (and about 90 minutes from Mt. Katahdin proper), and is where the exploratory Loop Road is found. Depending on your patience for being in the car, and your ability to get out of the house at sunrise, it could be a day trip, but giving it at least one overnight visit is highly recommended.

Donated by former Burt’s Bees founder and philanthropist Roxanne Quimby, former President Obama named the area as a National Monument in 2016. Quimby preserved overlapping logging roads where feasible, and also set aside areas for hunting.

But other changes, such as prohibiting ATVs and limiting snowmobiling, have rankled some locals.

It must be noted, the 87,500 acre monument, which nudges up against Baxter State Park on its west side, is surrounded by plenty more wilderness. And signs seen in the Millinocket area, shouting “No National Park!” as well as inside the monument (where the monument utilizes private bridges or roads), seem somewhat incongruous and puzzling when one is visiting. With the death of the paper mill industry several years ago, a depressed economy settled in for a stay.

“It’s never been that acrimonious, really,” said Tim Hudson, superintendent of the monument. “And many of those who were against it from day one are now working to figure out how to benefit from it.”

Visitors are treated to some spectacular scenery, and largely untouched wilderness. With no snack bars or accommodations in the monument, nearby towns like Millinocket and Patten stand a very good chance of benefiting from ripe economic opportunity.

Hudson says that in this first full season of operation, they have counted some 4,000 vehicles to the Loop Road alone, with the previous season’s number being around 600.

“That’s just vehicles, not people, and that’s just on the Loop Road,” Hudson said.

There are other ways into the monument, including both roads and hiking trails (the Appalachian Trail runs through it), but the Loop Road is an easy way to visit, especially for those who are inexperienced (or retired) hikers or backpackers. The route contains numerous lookouts and picnic areas, and shorter hikes for stretching your legs during the drive. Pack water, a lunch, layers of clothing, camera and binoculars, and you’ll be set.

“We’ll be closing the Loop Road probably the first weekend of November,” Hudson said. “It will reopen in the spring, depending on conditions and weather. Definitely by Memorial Day. But the rest of the park is open year round.”

There is fishing in the East Branch of the Penobscot River, camping, and areas for mountain biking. In winter, you’ll find trails for cross-country skiing, hiking, and snow camping, with lean-tos and two rustic huts (available by reservation). Snowmobiling is allowed in a section east of the East Branch. The monument pages at the National Park Service website contain details and very good maps. (Be sure and note the areas where hunting is allowed.)

Taking the Loop Road

A note on the website recommends a car with a high carriage, which is an important tip (my husband and I did it in our Toyota Corolla, but a truck would have been nice). The road consists of more than 17 miles of fairly potted, gravelly road, where a speed of 15 MPH is recommended. Add on another five miles of gravelly road via the Swift Brook Road entrance, which leads you to the beginning of the loop.

If you have a math brain, you just figured out that it will take something like a 90-minute minimum just to drive the loop, but stops are essential, so plan your visit accordingly. (And remember it may be closed starting the first weekend of November. Call to find out.)

You’ll want to make sure you bring a printed map, detailing the area’s features and the best stops on the road. You can download it from the National Park Service site, or call Friends of the Katahdin Woods and Waters Monument to have a map mailed to you. In the summer months, you’ll find maps and useful info at the visitor centers in the towns of Millinocket and Patten.

Our hosts, at the charming Pine Grove Campground and Cottages in Medway, had just run out of maps, so we took a cursory look at one on their wall. Not the best idea, unless you have a photographic memory. Chances are fairly good you will find some at various businesses.

Signage is sparse. The loop is dotted with places to stop and enjoy stunning views of Mt. Katahdin and Lake Millinocket, and not knowing where they were, and which had trails attached, or picnic tables available, made a guessing game out of our stops.

But worse, when you arrive at the beginning of the Loop Road, it’s not clearly indicated that you should turn left. We turned right. Not a big deal, but there are perks to going the other direction.

(“Yeah, we need to do something about that,” Hudson said.)

Not knowing we were only a thousand feet or so from the perfect lookout/picnic spot (partially due to coming from the wrong direction), we chose a stop with a trailhead, and walked a half mile or so on a wide path until it petered out. We decided to sit and have lunch right there on the trail. Imagine our surprise when we drove away and stopped 15 seconds later to enjoy the view.

Note: We saw fresh bear and moose scat on this trail, and were told by others that seeing bear is not unusual. Again, be prepared!

Accommodations and Food

The economically depressed former mill towns of Millinocket and Patten will do well to open inns and restaurants for visitors, and both towns are already moving in that direction. In Millinocket, the new Turn the Page bookstore and wine bar is a great place to hang, and even chat with Appalachian Trail hikers.

As it is now, decent accommodations and good food are tricky to find; you’ll want to do some research. Really good food on the limited menu at Turn the Page would earn the wine bar heavier trade; breakfast at the highly recommended Appalachian Trail Café was very slow and only OK.

We cooked and enjoyed nighttime fires at our small, sweet cabin at Pine Grove, which sits on the banks of the Penobscot River.

The Big Moose Inn and Campgrounds were also recommended, but both are now closed for the season.

Visit for details and maps. You can call the Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters’ office in Portland to have a Loop Trail interpretive map sent to you, and to get more information at 518-9462.