Monday, May 4, 2020

Mount Kineo

Moosehead Lake from Kineo
3.5 miles loop, 800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate (some rock scrambling on the Indian Trail)
Access: Boat shuttle to trailhead ($12/person), Mount Kineo State Park entrance fee required ($5/person)

Vast Moosehead Lake is the largest body of freshwater in lake-dotted Maine and there's no better place to admire this great lake set in the wild Maine Woods than from Mount Kineo, a small but dramatic peak on an island in the heart of the lake. The fire lookout and the cliffs along the mountain's south face both provide jaw-dropping of the lake's blue waters and the forested mountain landscape around the northernmost stretch of the Appalachian Trail. This hike has some additional bells and whistles over your standard hike in the Appalachians, with rock scrambling en route to the summit and a boat ride across Moosehead Lake to reach the island trailhead. This may be the most popular hike at remote Moosehead Lake but it's popular for a reason, so don't miss these views if you're visiting interior Maine.

I hiked Mount Kineo during a late summer trip to Maine, sandwiching a day at Moosehead Lake between my days at Tumbledown Mountain and Katahdin. Arriving after Labor Day, I avoided the summer crowds, but I arrived a couple weeks too early for fall colors. To reach the trailhead, I had to take the Mount Kineo Golf Course Shuttle from Rockwood; the only public access to the island if you don't have a boat is to take the shuttle, which runs on the hour from Rockwood during summer and fall and is open to both golfers and hikers for a fee. Since Rockwood is pretty close to the middle of nowhere, it won't be useful for me to provide detailed directions; you'll need to take Maine 15 to get to Rockwood; whether you're coming from the north or the south, turn into the village on Village Rd (or follow the signs for the Rockwood Town Landing) and drive until you reach the Rockwood Town Landing, a dock right across from the post office. There's a large parking lot here. I caught the 9 AM shuttle- the earliest boat on the day of my visit- to head across the lake to the Mount Kineo Golf Course.

Mount Kineo from the Rockwood ferry
The boat dropped me off at the dock for the golf course. Before starting the hike, I headed over to the club house at the golf course, which had restrooms, hiking info, and sold food to hikers.

Returning to the boat dock, I took the broad Carriage Trail that headed in a clockwise direction along the shoreline. The trail immediately left the manicured greens of the golf course for the quiet, rocky, forested shore. I soon came to a small pay booth at the entrance to the Mount Kineo State Park. Views were initially just okay, but improved dramatically after I reached the base of Kineo's rocky cliffs in a third of a mile of hiking. As the trail followed the base of these massive rhyolite walls, I had pretty views out onto the lake, which stretched to the bases of Baker and Big Moose Mountains on the horizon.

Moosehead Lake
At a half mile, the trail rounded the western edge of the mountain's steep south face and came to a junction: while the lakeshore trail continued ahead, the Indian Trail broke off to the right to follow the ridge towards the fire lookout. I took this right fork to begin the Indian Trail, which was the most spectacular stretch of this hike.

The Indian Trail began climbing immediately, crossing a number of areas of angled exposed rock that required some scrambling on all fours. However, the payoff was as immediate as the scramble: with the trail sticking close to the cliffs of the south face, I soon had views out over the azure waters of Moosehead Lake to the forested islands dotting its surface.

Moosehead Lake
The Indian Trail was only a half mile long but encompassed most of the hike's uphill, challenge, and views. The trail oscillated between the edge of the woods and the edge of the cliffs, providing frequent and improving views of the surroundings. Each higher viewpoint provided a deeper realization of Moosehead Lake's immense size: in New England, only Lake Champlain is larger.

Moosehead Lake with Big Moose Mountain
Some viewpoints looked out to Mount Kineo's immense cliffs in addition to overlooking the lake and distant peaks. These massive blocks of rhyolite were once used by Native Americans for arrowheads that were distributed as far away as Penobscot Bay (near modern-day Portland).

In mid-September, the foliage below had just the slightest tinges of yellow, suggesting that the colors of fall were not far off.

Kineo cliffs above Moosehead Lake
Moosehead Lake was dotted with islands: the two largest were Sugar Island and Deer Island, both visible to the south. The higher viewpoints provided an excellent vantage point over the nearby golf course as well. Established in 1893, the Mount Kineo Golf Course is the second oldest in New England; and while golf isn't really my thing, I appreciated that the golf course maintains a shuttle to the island to allow hikers to access Mount Kineo.

Kineo Golf Course and Moosehead Lake
The views finally ended when the Indian Trail joined up with the Bridle Trail, the other main trail ascending Kineo's slopes. I took a right at the junction to continue northeast along the ridge. The hiking was mostly flat as I followed the top of the ridge through the woods for the next half mile until I arrived at the base of the fire lookout.

The summit is entirely forested, but climbing the fire lookout tower brought me above the trees. The tower is quite tall and the metal staircase leading up was a bit rickety, making it a bit of harrowing ascent; once at the top, I enjoyed the wraparound views from the lookout deck. As the lookout is a bit farther removed from the water compared to the cliffs on the Indian Trails, the lake views were not as dramatic, but the breadth of views made up for it. The summit provided the first views to the north of the rest of Moosehead Lake, as well as of the Maine Woods to the east. Big and Little Spencer Mountains were the most prominent peaks to the east and blocked views of more faraway Katahdin, while the ridge of Little Kineo also rose above the surrounding forest. Farm Island was a forested, flat island just to the north. The low mountains to the north lay near the Canadian border; I was close enough to the border that I had picked up Quebec radio stations on my drive to Rockwood that morning.

Little Kineo and the Spencers
Farm Island
The view to the south encompassed much of what I had seen on the Indian Trail: Deer Island, Sugar Island, Big Moose Mountain, and Baker Mountain. Baker Mountain lies just north of the Appalachian Trail, which runs through the Hundred Mile Wilderness- the trail's most remote stretch- between here and Katahdin. Part of this wild area was preserved as the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in 2016 after Roxanne Quimby, who helped found Burt's Bees, bought up larget tracts of land here and donated it to the federal government. However, the monument's designation was controversial locally due to the perception that it would severely restrict land use; in fact, local opposition probably helped sink Quimby's initial plan to have a national park established here.

Moosehead Lake
To the west, I spotted an inlet on the lake that marked the hamlet of Rockwood, where I had parked. Brassua Lake lay just beyond Rockwood.

Rockwood and Brassua Lake
On my descent, I chose to take the Bridle Trail; this route was substantially less scenic than the Indian Trail but was fairly direct. The steep trail dropped me back to the lakeside in about a half mile, where I met up with the Carriage Trail again; here, I turned left and followed the Carriage Trail back to the docks, passing the junction with the Indian Trail along the way.

As I waited to board the next shuttle back to Rockwood, I ran into a couple from Portland whom I had chatted with atop the fire lookout and they invited me aboard their boat to tour the lake for a bit. I took them up on their kind offer and they took me on a quick ride around the island to see the eastern side of Mount Kineo. Unseen by most visitors, this is perhaps the mountain's most dramatic facade: the sheer seven hundred plunge from the summit to the lake seemed more like a scene from the Norweigan fjords.

Kineo's East Face
The Portland couple had a summer house in Rockwood; they commented on how the lake, once a more remote getaway, had been steadily gaining popularity in recent years as hikes like Kineo had made their way into Instagram posts. Nevertheless, the interior of Maine was still quiet compared to its tourist-overrun coast and remained the most remarkable and intact wilderness on the East Coast.

After spending some time boating around the bay on the backside of Kineo, my newfound friends returned me to Rockwood; I continued on to Big Moose Mountain for more Moosehead Lake explorations before driving onward to Millinocket that evening to prepare for my Katahdin hike the next day.

This is a beautiful and fun hike- the rock scramble and boat ride spice up an already scenic hike with stunning lake views. This is the hike to do at Moosehead Lake and anyone who lives nearby or who plans to visit Maine should not miss this watery gem in the Maine Woods.

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