Skiers hauling their sleds of winter gear head north toward Matagamon Gate on the machine packed trail at the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Carey Kish photo

Grand Pitch Lean-to is a welcome sight anytime, but perhaps never more so than in winter when the last mile in has been littered with blowdowns.

So it was on a recent ski trip, forcing me and my small but hardy group to crash and thrash through, around, over and under several dozen downed trees, a challenging exercise indeed when hauling 50-pound sleds full of gear.

Grand Pitch Lean-to is a beautiful spot worthy of the effort. Situated in the northern reaches of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, it’s located in a clearing along the Old Telos Tote Road a couple hundred feet from the roaring East Branch of the Penobscot River. And for two glorious nights in frosty cold late January, the shelter served as a comfy camp in the wilds.

From the trailhead at Matagamon Gate, just south of Grand Lake Road and the northern entrance of Baxter State Park, it’s a 7-mile trek into Grand Pitch, the first 6 miles on packed trails. The last 1.11 miles – the exact mileage is posted where the trail leaves Little Messer Pond Road – aren’t maintained for winter travel but are passable with some determination.

Grand Pitch Lean-to on the IAT 7 miles in from the Matagamon Gate makes a great camp for hardy trekkers. Carey Kish photo

In a normal winter, Haskell Hut at the 5-mile mark would be open for overnight stays, as would Big Spring Brook Hut further south on Little Messer Pond Road. But with COVID-19, both facilities are temporarily closed and will likely remain so through the winter. That leaves tenting at several primitive sites and camping at Grand Pitch Lean-to as the only current options.

“Except for the huts being closed, this winter looks much like any other,” said Tim Hudson, the monument’s superintendent. “We’ll be regularly packing 25-30 miles of trails and setting a Nordic track around the North (Matagamon) Gate area. Fat tire bikes, snowshoers and cross-country skiers are all welcome.”

Last winter, this adventurer enjoyed two wonderful nights in the wood-stove warmth of Haskell Hut, and had plans to repeat that trip this winter while adding a couple additional evenings at Big Spring Brook Hut. But alas, the open-air Grand Pitch Lean-to would have to do, and with some extra preparation and gear, it sure did, and our party had a great time in the grand backcountry of the monument.

Established in August 2016, Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument celebrates its fifth anniversary this year. Steeped in controversy right up to its founding and for some time afterward, the 87,500-acre monument has become increasingly popular and seems now as if it has been part of the landscape east of Baxter State Park for, well, a whole lot longer than that.

“Visitation is up a lot,” said Hudson, noting that some 30,000 people came last summer for a drive around and to camp, hike, bike and fish, with new signs on I-95 for the first time helping to direct more visitors to the monument. Improvements have included work on the Katahdin Loop Road to make it a better experience for passenger vehicles, installing fish culverts, more interior signage, campsite upgrades and establishing visitor contact stations in Patten and Millinocket.

“It’s been slow and steady,” Hudson said. “But finally, we have some staff to help out.”

This winter consider a visit to KWWNM for some day or overnight recreational fun. The northern part of the monument features views of Horse, Billfish and Bald mountains, plus the high summits of Traveler Mountain, as well as the East Branch of the Penobscot River, highlighted by the curious Haskell Rock, a striking 20-foot conglomerate pillar in the river’s middle.

Winter access to KWWNM is through the Matagamon Gate, just Grand Lake Road and not far from the northern entrance to Baxter State Park. Carey Kish photo

If you’re not up for winter camping, no worries, as there are a handful of nice places to stay on the road to the monument from the interstate exit at Sherman Mills.

Come summer, there are 32 miles of the International Appalachian Trail to explore, including four backcountry lean-tos, and miles of other trails and old tote roads. And in a place where’s there’s way more moose than people, you’ll enjoy plenty of solitude.

Anytime you visit, do your homework and arrive fully prepared for your intended activities, as KWWNM is remote, primitive and there’s no cell service, attributes that add to the allure and serve to make the experience that much more special. For complete information, check out the monument’s official website at nps.gov/kaww and Friends of Katahdin Woods & Waters at friendsofkww.org

Carey Kish of Mt. Desert Island is the author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast and author/editor of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide. Follow Carey’s adventures on Facebook @CareyKish

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