When Larry Warren was running the show at Sugarloaf during the boom-to-bust period of the 1970s and 1980s, the seeds for a very different outdoor recreation business model were germinating in his fertile and imaginative mind.
As a firsthand witness to and active participant in the capital-intensive, weather-dependent and fiscally questionable expansion of not only Sugarloaf but ski areas in general, he had a vision of a very different kind of development that would capitalize on the same stunning virtues of the Maine mountains that make Alpine skiing attractive to so many, but would be a lower-density, less expensive way for people to get out and enjoy the woods.
When he left his position at Sugarloaf in 1986, he devoted his energies to creating what is now Maine’s premier network of interconnected huts along a wilderness corridor that parallels a portion of the Appalachian Trail in the western mountains, but avoids the high peaks that mark one of the AT’s most difficult sections between Georgia and Mount Katahdin.
Today, his Maine Huts and Trails is a year-round resource for non-motorized recreation in both summer and winter for a growing population of outdoor enthusiasts who are prepared to eschew the convenience — some say clamor — of intensely developed facilities and enjoy nature as many say it should be: quietly, casually and under one’s own power, whether on cross-country skis or snowshoes in the winter or hiking in the summer.
And all of this in a setting that many of us think is unparalleled in its natural beauty and grandeur.
If you’ve been on any section of the 50-mile trail, or stayed and eaten at any of the four “huts” — actually stunning eco-lodges strategically located at about 12-mile intervals — you are well aware of the unique experience that awaits visitors to this Maine asset.
Today’s trail system is not much more than a quarter of the organization’s plan (and Warren’s original dream) for a series of twelve huts along a 180-mile trail network through forest lands and along some of Maine’s most alluring river banks and lake shores. When completed, it’s expected that Maine Huts and Trails will be the longest hut-to-hut trail system in the United States.
Each of the huts offers spectacular wilderness vistas, while serving as a base for hiking, biking, boating, swimming, fishing, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing or just relaxing in the arms of nature. More than that, however, each hut features such unexpected amenities as home-cooked meals with local organic ingredients, comfortable beds, bathrooms with hot showers and even shuttles to transport your gear from hut to hut.
The timing of the development of the system couldn’t be more propitious, as more and more people are learning that a perfect way to exercise, and get out and enjoy some of the best that Maine has to offer, in both summer and winter, is on their own two feet, skis or snowshoes. At the same time they can satisfy their creature comfort desires as well.
The trail system also benefits from the growing desire on the part of many people, especially families, to find less expensive alternatives to the traditional resort vacation, closer to home.
Warren’s original vision, now being carried on under a new generation of leadership — ably led by the recently appointed executive director, Charlie Woodworth — was not only to create a successful, modest-scale and sustainable business model, but to provide a unique public service.
By allowing inexpensive public access to some of the state’s most attractive forest lands, the system is intended to demonstrate that environmentally sensitive economic development true to a conservation ethic can not only fill a need and succeed, but can provide the opportunity for environmental and experiential education.
People-powered outdoor recreation isn’t new to the mountains of western Maine, as I’m reminded every Columbus Day when I climb Bigelow Mountain, around the base of which winds a section of the Maine Huts and Trails system, and encounter the last AT through-hikers on their way to Katahdin before the first snows begin to make their last section too daunting.
Many of those hikers remark to me, having been on the trail from Georgia since May, that the Longfellow Mountains of Maine, Saddleback to Bigelow, constitute some of the best hiking and vistas of their entire trip.
That said, they’re also very happy that no more four thousand footers remain between Bigelow and Katahdin.
You don’t have to be an inveterate “peak-bagger” to enjoy the hike along the huts and trails system, as novices will find that there’s no section too daunting, while more aggressive hikers can take side trips up more challenging terrain.
John Christrie is an author and year-round Maine explorer. He and his son Josh write in Outdoors about places to enjoy the beauty that only Maine has to offer. He can be contacted at: