Baxter State Park will close to camping and automobile traffic until further notice in response to the coronavirus outbreak, park Director Eben Sypitkowski wrote in a letter posted Tuesday on the Baxter website.

The park has a target date of July 1 to reopen, but that date is not certain, Sypitkowski cautioned, and will be reassessed as new data on the spread of the virus in Maine and nearby states becomes available.

“We are trying to be proactive about communicating with our visitors,” Sypitkowski said Wednesday. “The important thing to remember is, we are a destination park and so we really draw on a wider population than a state park or a local park. We’re wary of that.”

Roughly half of the 60,000 to 70,000 people who visit Baxter annually are from out of state, he said.

Sypitkowski said the park, located 30 minutes west of Millinocket, will be closed to all activities other than walk-in hiking below treeline to comply with recommendations by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Maine CDC, the Piscataquis County Emergency Management Agency, the park’s medical director, and the Maine Department of Public Safety.

All trails on Mount Katahdin and Traveler Mountain are closed at the trailheads, and all travel above treeline is prohibited. The Togue Pond and Matagamon gates are closed to automobile access. Camping reservations will be canceled and campers with reservations will be contacted and receive refunds.

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy on March 24 asked hikers to stay off the 2,200-mile trail that ends in Baxter Park atop 5,267-foot Katahdin, Maine’s tallest peak.

Baxter State Park Director Eben Sypitkowski – like many of Maine’s land managers – is encouraging people looking for outdoor recreation opportunities to do so closer to home during the coronavirus outbreak. Kevin Bennett photo

“We are really concerned about putting our staff – without personal protective equipment – and emergency medical responders in the backcountry,” Sypitkowski said. “It’s understandably not the top thing on medical professionals’ lists to sort out emergency medical protocol for a wilderness backcountry situation.”

Baxter State Park has a staff of 60, a total of 225 miles of trails and 10 primitive campgrounds.

The park asks those who visit for day hikes to follow CDC guidelines, including staying at least 6 feet away from others.

Sypitkowski is encouraging people looking for outdoor recreation opportunities to do so closer to home. Penobscot County, where the southern entrance to Baxter State Park is located, had 36 coronavirus cases reported as of Wednesday.

“We understand outdoor access is very important and healing. But doing so close to home is really important right now,” he said. “We see it as being a responsible community member – to not invite people to come from far and wide and recreate here right now.”

Despite its name, Baxter State Park is not part of the state park system. It was gift to Maine residents from Gov. Percival Baxter, who held office from 1921-25. Starting in 1930, Baxter purchased and protected the land around Katahdin – amassing 201,000 acres for the wilderness park he gave the state in 1931 along with an endowment of nearly $7 million. His one guiding principle was that the park be kept “forever wild” and managed for wildlife first.

Aaron Megquier, the executive director of the Friends of Baxter State Park, called the park’s decision a “really reasonable approach” given information about the pandemic.

“I feel like the park, like all of us, is making the best decision given the information available, which is imperfect,” Megquier said. “They are clearly putting the safety of visitors, the staff and the community first.”

Megquier pointed out that 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of Gov. Baxter’s first climb up Katahdin, which happened just after the influenza pandemic of 1918-19.

“So that climb and the whole genesis for the park idea happened during that pandemic – which was previously the most severe in recent history,” she said. “What a beautiful idea to have come to fruition in the midst of such a horrible time.”

For information about the park’s COVID-19 policies, go to baxterstatepark.org or call 723-5140.

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