Skiers approach Horse Head Mountain in Baxter State Park. Ron Chase photos

Perhaps the best-kept winter mountaineering secret in Baxter State Park is South Branch Pond. Most skiers, ice climbers and mountaineers focus on Chimney Pond with their sights set squarely on Mount Katahdin. Many peak baggers trek into the hut at Nesowadnehunk Field to access the four high mountains located in the northwestern sector of the park. Fewer winter enthusiasts are attracted to South Branch Pond.

Located in the northeastern part of the park, the South Branch Pond region is a unique experience. The two connected ponds, Upper and Lower South Branch Ponds, are bordered by mountains on the east and west and have the character of an inland fjord. The campground at the pond features a roomy cabin with a woodstove, gas lamps and eight bunks. That was our destination for a late-winter expedition.

A team of skiers stop for a break at the summer Baxter State Park Gate.

Last winter, I was part of a group of eight skiers and mountaineers who trekked to South Branch Pond on a multiday excursion. While a successful outing, heavy snow accumulations and stormy, windy weather prevented us from achieving two significant goals: completion of the famed Traveler Loop and a hike over South Branch and Black Cat Mountains. Those objectives were on our minds when eight of us obtained early March South Branch hut reservations last Nov. 1.

In the four-month interim, medical issues impacted the makeup of the group. Two members of the team had to bow out due to serious health issues, while another couldn’t leave ailing family members. In December, I was diagnosed with arthritis in my left knee and began cortisone treatments. Easily the senior citizen in the now six-person assemblage, it was unclear how much mountaineering I could do. Based on earlier winter experiences, skiing was a better option.

Obviously, no one can predict the weather when reservations are obtained four months in advance. History told us snowfall through the winter would result in hefty snow accumulations by early March. Not this year. The park, and much of Maine, received record low snow amounts and unusually heavy rainfall. Whether or not there would be adequate snow to ski into the pond was a concern. Calls to the area confirmed there was still acceptable but diminishing levels of snow on park roads. However, a warm, rainy weather forecast did not bode well for our six-day adventure.

Several of us stayed in a cabin at Matagamon Campground just outside of the park the night before the excursion began. In deference to my arthritic knee, most of us hired the campground to shuttle our gear by snowmobile on the park Perimeter Road as far as the beginning of South Branch Pond Road. Park rules prohibit snowmobiles on South Branch Pond Road, so our plan was to haul gear on sleds for the remaining 2.2 miles.


Six enthusiastic skiers met at the Matagamon Winter Trailhead on a warm, foggy morning. Light rain had fallen the night before leaving a soft ice and wet snow base for skiing. After the snowmobile and trailer departed with our sleds and gear, we began the 11-mile journey to South Branch Pond Road.

Pulling a heavy sled with gear is part of the challenge of entering Baxter State Park.

The skiing was surprisingly good and we completed the cruise in about 2.5 hours. While we were assembling our sleds for the haul to the pond, two Park Rangers arrived on snowmobiles. They were headed to South Branch to check ice safety and promised an update when they returned.

Some of us hauled heavy sleds wearing micro-spikes while others continued with skis. Much of the trek is uphill before leveling off and then descending to the pond. When the rangers stopped, they advised against skiing or snowshoeing on the pond as it was heavily puddled and thin in places. That eliminated the possibility of a coveted ski south on the winter Pogy Trail. Mountaineering would be our focus.

We completed the arduous sled pull in a little over an hour and settled into the bunkhouse. Cabin chores were next. Firewood was brought in from the woodshed and a fire started in the woodstove. Others retrieved water from an open section at the outlet of the pond. All water has to be purified.

During a delicious dinner, a game plan was established for the following day. We would be up early and attempt a climb of North Traveler Mountain, possibly continuing on the Traveler Loop.

My book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine,” narrates several winter mountaineering and ski expeditions.

Ron Chase resides in Topsham. His latest book, “Maine Al Fresco: The Fifty Finest Outdoor Adventures in Maine” is available at or in bookstores and through online retailers. His previous books are “The Great Mars Hill Bank Robbery” and “Mountains for Mortals — New England.” Visit his website at or he can be reached at

South Branch Pond has the character of an inland fjord.

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