Maine with kids: Baxter State Park backcountry itinerary for families

Baxter State Park is Maine’s largest expanse of untamed public wilderness. With almost 210,000 acres to explore, where do you start? Our Baxter State Park backcountry itinerary for families includes days in the frontcountry enjoying Baxter’s car camping options, several days in Baxter’s backcountry, then a rest day to play and explore before departure.

Baxter’s scope and size is on a national park scale, but unlike national parks, almost every lake, pond, waterfall and stream in the park is accessible only by trail. In very few places in Baxter can you drive up to see anything, and even then, you must drive miles upon miles on dirt roads. In other words, you earn you sightseeing! Baxter limits the number of visitors to the park daily, which means you won’t be rubbing elbows with crowds of tourists. It also means you have to be organized about your trip and get the required permits you need early. Here’s how!

The best way to experience Baxter State Park is by camping, though day permits are available as well (if you opt for that, stay in nearby Millinocket). Here’s our suggested itinerary, after doing most things right and a few things wrong during our five days in Baxter.

Day 1: Frontcountry camp at Roaring Brook Campground

In case you’re not sure, when I say ‘frontcountry camp’, I mean ‘car camp’, or camping via car access. Roaring Brook Campground is about eight miles into the park after you check in at the ranger station at the Togue Pond entrance, past Millinocket via dirt road. The campground, like all in Baxter, is remote and basic, with nicely-kept pit toilets, a place to purchase firewood (bring cash), and a staffed ranger station, but no other amenities, such as showers or potable water.

You can pick between tent sites and lean-to sites, and I recommend the latter, because they’re on the brook. You get a basic wooden shelter with a platform for each site, plus a picnic table and fire pit. We loved the shelters (lean-tos) throughout Baxter, as they provided just enough protection from the afternoon rainstorms and gave us a place to roll out our sleeping bags off the dirt. They’re not enclosed, however, and you won’t be safe from mosquitos there, so you can opt to set up a tent inside the shelter (but not outside of it). Roaring Brook is cold and clear, and we loved swimming in it.


Tip: You MUST enter Baxter State Park before 8:30 pm, so time your arrival accordingly. Also, the entirety of Baxter is ‘carry out’ for all your trash, so bring trash bags and plan on storing your trash in your car at night. You must also stow away all your food at night.

Day 2: Hike Mount Katahdin

If summiting Mount Katahdin is on your to-do list in the park, do it early in your trip, while you’re still fresh. It’s 5.5 miles (pretty much straight up) from the Roaring Brook Campground, and it took our family (seasoned hikers) 12 hours to complete. The trail is extremely strenuous, and the final mile of the summit hike is along a ‘knife edge’ with some scary-looking drops. If you go: bring tons of water, and a means to filter more on the trail (you’ll need it). Also bring headlamps in case you’re caught hiking after dark. We took the following route: Roaring Brook to the Helon Taylor Trail, to the Knife Edge, to the Saddle Trail, to the Chimney Pond to Roaring Brook trail. It was 11 miles that took us forever to complete.

Note: Kids under age six are NOT ALLOWED above the treeline at Katahdin, though on our visit, we did not see a ranger monitoring this. I’m told there usually are. We took a seven-year-old, my niece, who rocked it, but she’s unusual in her awesomeness.

If you don’t want to tackel Katahdin, I recommend the Chimney Pond trail from Roaring Brook (3.3 fairly strenuous miles) to enjoy a picnic lunch at Chimney Pond, which has fantastic views of Katahdin right at the base of the mountain.

Day 3: Recover from Katahdin

This is where we made a mistake in our itinerary. We didn’t give ourselves a rest day after summiting Katahdin. Stay one more night in Roaring Brook and plan on sticking around camp. Enjoy the swimming and maybe go .2 mile to Sandy Pond, to try to spot the moose who like to hang out there at twilight. No nothing more!

Day 4: Head into the backcountry

If you’re prepared for backpacking in Baxter, depart Roaring Brook today, hitting the Russell/Sandy Stream trail. The destination: either Russell Pond Campground with lean-tos (7.2 miles away), or, if you don’t want to go quite so far, reserve at Wassataquoik Stream, which offers several more lean-tos with great swimming (5 miles away). If you’re ambitious, you could aim for Wassataquoik Lake, 9 miles distant, which doesn’t have a campground but does have several more lean-tos. Russell Lake has a staffed ranger office and lean-tos, a bear line, and pit toilets, and we settled in at two of them, adding a tent site for our group of 10.

Note: Baxter State Park is VERY strict about group size and where you can camp. This is a good thing, as it eliminates big groups in campsites they don’t fit into. If you reserve a lean-to made for four, you can ONLY have four people sleep there. Ditto for six-person lean-tos and tent sites.

At Russell Pond, you can use the provided canoes at the dock for a small fee (I believe it was $1/hour, on the honor system) and you can swim, though we don’t recommend it (there are many leeches here). It is, however, a good place to spot moose. The Wassataquoik Stream lean-tos are better for swimming, and theWassataquoik Lake lean-tos offer a bigger lake (better for swimming) and more canoes.

Alternatively, you could backcountry camp at Chimney Pond instead of Russell Pond (see description above). It’s a shorter distance, though a rockier trail.

Day 5: Day hike from Russell Pond

We enjoyed hanging around camp and day hiking from Russell Pond to Wassataquoik Lake (2 miles) on this day. We played board games and cards in our lean-tos, picked blueberries in the wild patches nearby, and tried to spot moose.

Day 6: Hike back to the frontcountry

Return to Roaring Brook today, and spend the late afternoon cooling off in the brook. Pack up and depart Baxter the next morning, checking out additional parts of Baxter if time allows. We recommend Blueberry Ridges or Ledge Falls if so, and if not, hit a last swim spot just outside the park boundary at Togue Pond. You can grab a nice sandwich and some souvenirs from the North Woods Trading Post just outside the park toward Millinocket, and if you want a bigger meal, we recommend the friendly and affordable Sawmill Bar and Grill.

How to reserve your campsites:

Baxter State Park is popular, and as mentioned, entry is limited. To ensure you get your campsite, reserve far in advance. Baxter uses four month rolling reservations, so you’ll want to reserve exactly four months before you desired time. You can reserve online or by phone.

More tips:

  • If you’re day hiking Katahdin (staying in Millinocket), you’ll want to reserve your parking space (these are limited as well!). Here’s how. Parking reservations are only held for you until 7 am, then are given away on a first-come, first-served basis. Yes, you really need to start that early. If you’re camping in the park, you don’t need a parking reservation.
  • You’ll need to treat ALL your water in the park. Bring a good filter. We like the Sawyer Squeeze to bring on day hikes and the Platypus GravityWorks for in camp.
  • You cannot bring firewood into the park. You must purchase it in camp.
  • No pets are allowed, even in car camping campgrounds. Plan accordingly.
  • Check in at every ranger station as you hike. Bring a phone and treat it as an emergency device (you won’t get service in the park anyway).
  • Pack out all your trash…make it easier on yourself by reducing packaging on your food before you arrive. Store all food and trash in your car at night in the frontcountry, and on bear lines in the backcountry (use your sleeping bag stuff sacks to store food and hang it from the line provided).
  • Backcountry campgrounds DO include pit toilets with toilet paper. They were all in good condition during our visit.
  • Enjoy the Maine wilderness!